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Criminal Minds - The Tall Man - Review: “Ghosts”



A belated happy Halloween, everyone!

Yes, the spooky holiday has come and gone, and what better way to celebrate than with a creepy episode directed by Matthew Gray Gubler? I use the term "creepy" loosely here, mind - there's other episodes of his that were scarier than this one in many ways. But there were still a few freakyy moments, and they were nicely mixed in alongside an emotional, poignant storyline that does a great job of delving further into JJ’s past, and an intriguing, unsettling case. The creepy elements, which can sometimes overpower the episodes Gubler directs, are much more restrained here, thus allowing the stories to really shine.

It’s not all perfect, of course. There’s a bit of retconning with JJ’s story going on that I’m not wild about, and a few too many unbelievable coincidences at times. But thankfully, those aspects don’t overpower the story, and we’re ultimately rewarded with one of the stronger episodes of this season so far.

The Case:

The show must have a thing about the woods this season, because this is the third case thus far to feature them. Three girls are wandering through a wooded area at night, with only flashlights to light their way, in the hopes of luring out a spooky creature known as “the Tall Man”. After a brief debate about whether to keep going, all three girls continue on with their Scooby-Doo hunt. But you know this show. There’s no way they’re getting off that easy.

Sure enough, the next morning, we flash to a couple who’s packing up their campsite. Eagle-eyed viewers may recognize this particular couple, as they appeared in the season nine episode “Blood Relations” (also directed by Gubler). They’d had the extreme misfortune of encountering that episode’s unsub after settling in for a cabin getaway, and looked to be goners.

But no! They’ve survived and moved on just fine since then, to the point where they apparently seem totally okay with going back into the woods! Woo! Anywho, their peaceful trip is interrupted when one of the girls comes running at them. She’s got blood on her, and is screaming that this mysterious Tall Man has abducted her friends. Looks like they’re in a real life horror movie after all. Cue the BAU!

“I swore I would get out of there and never go back.”

Before we get to that, though, we get a brief glimpse of a much happier morning scene. The Jareau-LaMontagne household is up and running, with JJ making breakfast for Henry and Michael (and oh, my god, they’ve gotten so big!), while she and Will get ready for the day. All is fine until JJ gets a notification about this case. She’s instantly rattled...because the case takes place in her old hometown in Pennsylvania. But she must do her job.

The hometown connection isn’t the only aspect of this case JJ has some familiarity with, either. She’s also familiar with the legend of the Tall Man. According to the story, he kidnaps his victims, cuts them, and forces them to reveal their deepest, darkest secrets. So now the team has to wonder how that story relates to the missing girls. Perhaps the one who escaped, Ally, can help.

No such luck, however, as Ally is currently in the hospital, and having frightening flashbacks regarding the Tall Man. We get our first glimpse of the infamous creature at this point, and he’s quite hideous. Grotesquely tall, long, scraggly hair...and only one eye. There’s a blank spot where the other eye is supposed to be. He also makes some sort of weird sucking noise, but that seems to be more a figment of Ally’s imagination than anything else. Still, it’s a freaky image.

There’s a few suspicious things regarding Ally, though. She wasn’t injured – the blood on her is that of her missing friends, Bethany and Chelsea. Furthermore, the team discovers some text exchanges between Bethany and Chelsea from the night they were wandering the woods, and the exchanges seem to indicate they were plotting something regarding Ally. Could there be trouble among the friends? The team decides to talk to the girls’ parents, and JJ offers to speak to Chelsea’s dad specifically. Turns out she knows him personally, as he dated her sister Rosalyn in high school. Well, ain’t that a coinkydink!

“You live in this world now.”

At first, the talk proves helpful. Chelsea’s dad confirms that she and Bethany did indeed want to talk to Ally, but for a good reason: they were worried about Ally’s mental state, and wanted to help her. He has a hard time focusing, though, as he’s thrown by JJ’s presence. He then starts talking to her about being at Roz’s funeral, commenting how strange it is to him that after all JJ went through, she decided to get into such a dark line of work. Still, he trusts JJ, and makes her promise that he won’t have to bury his daughter. As if things weren't heavy enough.

Luke and Tara, meanwhile, decide to go try talking to Ally. She tells them about the trip to the woods, and mentions that Bethany and Chelsea said they wanted to talk to her about something. Before she could find out what they wanted, however, she fell unconscious, and that’s when the Tall Man took her and her friends to some hideout. While holding them captive, Ally claims he asked Chelsea, “Where is it?” but he never specified what the “it” was he wanted. Strangely, he didn’t ask Ally or Bethany that same question.

Ally then starts claiming Luke and Tara are the Tall Man’s minions, which puts an end to the interview. Tara learns that Ally is schizophrenic, but her parents haven’t let her take any medication for it, and also suffers from face blindness, hence the “minions” comment. Between those issues, and the troubles with her friends, might Ally know more about what happened to them than she’s letting on? All three of the girls’ phones were laced with fentanyl, which was used to knock them out. Did somebody at the party do it? Or did one of them lace the others’ phones, in connection with a partner?

We do know one thing for certain: if Ally did do something to her friends, it didn’t end in their deaths. When we first see Chelsea and Bethany, they’re alive and in one piece physically. But that’s the only good news regarding them. The bad news is that they’re still being held captive by the Tall Man, who comes back once again (this time with a mask) to ask, “Where is it?”

JJ manages to get a few more answers when she goes to her old high school and meets up with the counselor/English teacher, Ethan Howard. He’s worked there since JJ and her sister were in school, and helps her set up interviews with the kids for JJ. According to one of the kids, the girls were like sisters, but one of them was keeping a secret. Seems Bethany had a boyfriend that she didn’t tell the others about. Chelsea wanted to find out who her boyfriend was, but Bethany refused to share.

That story is confirmed when we next check in with Chelsea and Bethany. Chelsea admits that she knows what the Tall Man wants, and hid what he’s looking for somewhere. Bethany’s reaction to this news is surprising. She easily frees herself from the ropes tying her up...and stabs Chelsea! Whatever the Tall Man is doing, Bethany looks to be in on it somehow. Fortunately, the team arrives in time to get Chelsea out of there and to the hospital, but she slips into a coma shortly after arriving.

So just what is it the Tall Man wants? And how is Bethany involved? To find those answers, we need to go back in time. More specifically, all the way back to when Rosalyn was alive.

Haunting Memories:

“Sometimes I think that’s why I took this job. So I would always know what to do.”

We’ve seen the ways in which this case has struck a nerve for JJ thus far, but that was merely the tip of the iceberg. JJ’s not surprised to hear about Bethany’s secret boyfriend, and why? Because she remembers Roz having a secret boyfriend back in the day as well. This seemed to be a source of friction between Roz and her parents, which only added to the general tension in the family at the time, as JJ’s parents had been fighting then as well.

She also remembers Roz’s boyfriend giving her a necklace, and it turns out it’s the same one that Roz gave JJ shortly before committing suicide. This leads JJ to relive that painful morning when, at the tender age of eleven, she discovered her sister in the tub. She needs to keep busy with this case, she explains to Emily, because if she doesn’t, she’ll freeze up. Just as she did that tragic morning. Oh, JJ...

She may come to regret that decision, though. JJ soon learns that Bethany also got a necklace from her secret boyfriend – and her necklace is exactly like the one Roz received and gave JJ all those years ago. Yes, it seems Roz and Bethany were both targeted by the Tall Man, and he’s not a boyfriend, or a goofy ghost legend. He’s a sexual predator.

Needless to say, JJ is beyond furious and horrified at this discovery, threatening to kill the unsub herself if she sees him. Judging from the tone of her voice, I have no doubt she means it. Since Chelsea’s dad would have a connection to both Roz and Bethany, and Chelsea was the one who hid Bethany’s necklace, JJ immediately looks to him as a logical suspect. She even shows him Roz’s necklace to see what his reaction will be. No such luck, though. He insists he had nothing to do with any of this, and the necklace doesn’t register with him.

“Of all the profilers I’ve worked with, you’ve grown the most.”

It’s clear that JJ’s in one hell of a tough headspace right now, so she goes to take a few moments to regroup. Rossi soon comes to check on her, and uses that opportunity to walk her back through her memories of Roz, to see if they trigger any helpful clues regarding the unsub. She remembers the constant fighting within her family, she remembers being aware that Roz was depressed, she remembers the two of them spending a lot of time together.

Then a breakthrough, as JJ recalls the day Roz gave her the necklace. Roz had mentioned the Tall Man to JJ, and told her the necklace would keep her safe from him. She knew this "boyfriend" was bad news, and did what she could to keep her little sister safe. JJ tries to think of any adults who gave off an uncomfortable vibe around her after Roz’s death, and that’s when it hits her. The unsub is Ethan, the high school counselor! He was at Roz’s funeral, and JJ remembered him looking at her oddly.

Ethan is brought into the station, and JJ decides to call his bluff, claiming they’d searched his home already and taken his computer. He buys it, and starts going on about how he “loved” Roz, that their relationship wasn’t the way it sounds (ick). The moment JJ shows him her necklace, however, he folds pretty fast, and mentions keeping all his victims’ “treasures” in a special place. Yeah, this guy’s a real sicko.

JJ knows where that special place is, too. It’s out at the high school, which is where she, Luke, and Matt also find Bethany. Ethan had attacked her when she went there to retrieve her necklace, in a desperate attempt to keep his crimes under wraps (yep, see? Sicko), and now she’s unconscious. JJ instantly goes into rescue mode, trying desperately to revive her, but it ain’t looking good.

“Rosalyn probably wasn’t your first victim. But Bethany, she will be your last.”

Sometime later, Ethan is being led away in handcuffs, courtesy of JJ, when he receives a visitor, and OH THANK GOD IT’S BETHANY SHE’S ALIVE. She’s pulled through all right, and she has one simple message for the creep: a deeply satisfying smack across the face. And with that, Ethan is led away. Meanwhile, in the hospital, Chelsea has awakened from her coma, and is greeted by Ally, who’s also recovering from her own ordeal.

The girls aren’t the only ones who get a heartwarming ending out of all of this. Upon returning home, JJ is greeted with the adorable sight of her boys curled up, sound asleep, next to Will on the couch. Will’s aware the case took quite a toll on her, and has a gift from the boys he thinks might make her smile. It’s a brand new necklace, with a locket that contains pictures of Henry and Michael. JJ’s deeply touched reaction to this incredibly sweet gift says it all, and with that, the family heads off to bed. Don’t mind me, I’ll just be over here with some Kleenex.

So. Where to even begin with this one? There was definitely an awful lot to like about it. I always enjoy exploring these characters’ pasts in depth, and this episode absolutely delivered in that regard. We’ve heard so much about JJ’s sister Roz, so it was really nice to finally get to see her, and get a better understanding of the young woman that JJ clearly loved and looked up to. The fact I already knew a few things about her just made it that much easier to connect with her here, and added to the sympathy I’ve felt for her all these years. The scenes with Roz and JJ were bittersweet and touching, and gave us a genuine sense of what was lost with Roz’s death.

I also loved how this look at JJ’s family gave us a much better understanding of JJ herself. Her parents’ fighting would explain why we’ve never heard about or seen JJ’s dad over the years, and why Roz felt so alone in her struggles. Roz’s secrecy about her boyfriend, and her parents being so wrapped up in their own issues, explains JJ’s history of struggling with secrets and letting people get close. And Roz being so protective of JJ perfectly illustrates where JJ got her own protective streak from. It was all very subtly done, and I like that even fourteen years in, I can still learn new things about these characters along the way.

The bookend scenes with JJ and her family, along with the moments she shared with Emily and Rossi, were wonderful, welcome contrasts to those unhappy childhood memories, too. I especially loved Rossi using his expertise to help JJ through a tough time, and Will being so supportive of JJ shows why those two have lasted so long. We see even better now why JJ is so fiercely protective of and loyal to the family she does have, and why the team’s become such a family to her as well.

As for the case itself, I liked that it wasn’t completely predictable. Yes, I’m sure many suspected the counselor as the show went on, but even then, I still like that there were a couple other valid suspects to play around with early on and keep us wondering, if only briefly. And I especially like that the case didn’t flat out copy the real-life Slenderman story. This is an example of the show doing what it does best – taking real life stories for inspiration, yet putting their own fictional twist on it. It’s tough sometimes to watch cases that too closely mirror real life tragedies, so having that distance helps a bit.

I’m also glad that they didn’t go the Slenderman route, because I don’t know that the story with the girls would’ve worked as well had they gone that route. I liked the different angles they touched on with the girls – Ally’s mental struggles, Chelsea’s need to keep tabs on her friends, Bethany trying to keep a dark secret – and how all those issues wound up affecting them, both individually and as a group. Seeing them making it out of their ordeal as they did was such a relief.

And all of the above can be attributed to some great acting from everyone throughout. Much as I love the weird, creepy visuals and freaky moments that Gubler can bring to the episodes he directs, his best ones are those that highlight the emotional aspect of the story, and let the actors shine. That definitely proved to be the case here. I could see so much of JJ in the young girl playing her as a kid. AJ Cook captured JJ’s pain and loss. I loved the fighting spirit the three young women brought to Ally, Bethany, and Chelsea. And so on.

That said, I did like that we got a few glimpses of the usual Gubler creepiness. The Tall Man certainly lived up to his name and his spooky legend, and the scene in the woods at the start had a nice bit of tension to it.

Now for the aspects of the episode that didn’t quite work as well. The first one isn’t a major quibble, but I did feel that the connections JJ had to people and places related to the case were a little overdone. I get it’s a small town, and I could buy her personally knowing one person connected to the case, like, say, the counselor. But having Chelsea’s dad be an old boyfriend of Roz’s felt a bit of a stretch. I can accept JJ knowing the local legend of the Tall Man, but maybe they could’ve had the place the girls were held captive by him somewhere that JJ wasn’t familiar with. Perhaps her town, and the legend, changed a bit after she left. That could’ve made for an interesting angle to her return home, and added to the tension of the team trying to find the girls in time.

The other issue I have is a much bigger one, and it relates to JJ’s necklace. I really wish the show hadn’t sullied the history behind it as they did. I loved that JJ had an item that could remind her of her sister. The scene in “Risky Business”, where she tells Hotch the story about the necklace, is one of her best moments. You could see how much that gift meant to her.

So I think it kinda sucks that the show’s taken that special story and put this dark cloud around it. I wish they’d used some other item, or means, to connect Roz and Bethany, one that JJ didn’t know about. That would’ve been in keeping with Roz’s secrecy before her death, and it would’ve better explained why the unsub never targeted JJ. And it would’ve kept this one treasured memory of JJ’s past intact.

I also go back and forth on the issue of Roz being the victim of a sexual predator. On the one hand, I like how they handled Roz’s struggle with that, but on the other hand, it felt like they were trying to give Roz’s suicide a “reason”, so to speak, when up to now the reason(s) had always seemed more vague. At least JJ got some concrete answers, though, which, for her sake, is a good thing.

There’s also the issue of JJ working this case despite the fact that she’s way too personally involved, but that’s basically par for the course with this show at this point, so I’ll roll with it. The next episode, centered on Luke, looks to further prove that point. And of course, I can’t wait to discuss it with you all.

What did you think of the episode? Did you appreciate the glimpses into JJ’s childhood, and finally getting to see Roz? Did you predict the unsub? What are your thoughts regarding the use of JJ’s necklace as part of the case? How does this rank in terms of MGG’s creepier episodes? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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