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Throwback Thursday - Criminal Minds - Nelson’s Sparrow - An Ode to Gideon

Throwback Thursday is a weekly article in which we look back at our favorite TV episodes from the past.

Ah, Gideon - the original BAU crimebuster and somewhat controversial character. For many in the Criminal Minds fandom, he was NOT a favorite but for me, he is probably the most intriguing of all who passed through those vaulted halls in 15 years. He was a brilliant profiler, a passionate searcher for the truth, and a blazing cautionary tale for all who came after him. How could someone who had such insight into human psychology be so blind to the humanity around him sometimes? Gideon is just one in a long line of flawed crime show characters, but not in the same way or for the same reasons. When his character exited, I was still left wondering what made him tick. That’s why I was so excited to get this flashback episode over 7 years later. Not only did it give background on the makings of the BAU (something I wish they had explored more), but it filled in some of the gaps in a character I had long missed. Gideon may not have been my favorite character either, but he was high on my list and his abrupt exit only made me more curious to know more about him.

As the episode starts, the Piano of Plinky Pathos mourns absurdly loudly while Wooby Spencer drives to the middle of nowhere and gathers his thoughts…or his courage. As usual, he will be emotional center of the episode. The rest of the BAU is also at the cabin while Hotch confirms that Gideon has been murdered. They all look sad but Spencer is the saddest and he has to walk out. Opening Quote: “The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.” Harriet Beecher Stowe. This pretty much encapsulates Gideon’s life as well. So much left unsaid. So much untold. For Rossi, fresh off of Harrison’s death, it is all getting too much. Rossi: “Is this how it’s gonna go? All of my friends dying off? First Erin, then Harrison, and now Jason. Disease is one thing, but murder?” Hotch: “I hadn’t talked to him in years.” Rossi: “Me neither. How does that happen? Back in the day, I would have bet my life that we’d always be close…but maybe we never were. You know, it could be that after all these years, I just rewrote our history.”

Determined to find Gideon’s killer, the team jumps into the case. Expositing Gideon’s history, love for birds, recent travels, and death details, they work the crime like usual. Honestly, the case itself is pretty mundane and wouldn’t be of much interest if it weren’t for Gideon. The killer didn’t even have the guts to face Gideon until he was already wounded so bad that he couldn’t fight back. The episode does, though, offer some closure for the characters who knew Gideon best. Garcia and Jennifer reminisce over mint chip ice cream, Gideon’s favorite. Derek and Spencer strengthen their resolve over Gideon’s body. Derek: “Did you hear any of that? He didn’t suffer. (Spencer starts crying.) Listen to me. Listen to me. Sometimes you put up these walls and you block us out, and you can’t do that. Not right now. We need you, kid. Gideon needs you. I’m gonna step right out there and when you’re ready, let’s go get this SOB.” Not to be left out, Hotch reassures Steven, Gideon’s son, who has joined them at the cabin. Steven says that after leaving the BAU, Gideon reached out to him so they were no longer estranged, but they still had a lot of packed baggage. After mentioning Gideon’s bucket list, Steven confesses that he spent most of his life feeling like his dad never wanted him. Hotch is quick to point out that while Gideon had a hard time expressing his feelings, especially to apologize, he did think and speak about Steven a lot. Steven looks regretful but comforted to hear it.

Spencer, however, is anything but soothed. He looks mournfully at the chess board and quotes Gideon’s last letter to Garcia, Jennifer, and Kate. Rossi and Derek worry about him but they are soon busy puzzling why Gideon shot so far away from the killer. They realize that he was leaving them a clue - the bird painting. Unfortunately before they can figure out what it means, the unsub kidnaps a new woman. Time for some traditional research. Rossi invites Spencer on a trip down memory lane and they are soon headed back to DC. Rossi tries to comfort Spencer on the way to no avail. Spencer: “I’d just really like to play one more game of chess with him. I know I’m not being very rational and I know I haven’t seen him in a really long time, but I think about him all the time, and I knew he was always out there. Now it just feels empty.” Rossi: “Yeah, but time will pass and slowly you’ll forget how much it hurts. Then maybe you’ll find something else to fill that empty space.” Spencer: “I don’t want to find something else.” Ouch! I may have gotten tired of Wooby Spencer, the show’s emotional and physical punching bag, in the last few seasons (leave the poor kid alone, writers!) but this scene gets me every time. No one is rational in grief.

Rossi leads Spencer to the old Behavioral Science Unit (pre-BAU), where 3 astonishing things happen. 1. The FBI has the most amazing cleaning crew ever because the storage room looks spic and span. This isn’t The X-Files. 2. The FBI has never had a budget or space crisis because a 40 year old file is in the same file cabinet where they left it. 3. FLASHBACKS!!! The best part of the episode by far! As Current Rossi catches Spencer up on a cold case, it morphs into 1970’s Rossi doing some foreshadowing. Rossi: “You know, we’ve got enough material here for one hell of a book. Don’t you think?” Gideon: “Huh?” Rossi: “I said I’m gonna write a book someday. Use all of your hard work, take the credit for myself. Make a million bucks.” Ha! Love it! Young Gideon exposits about a possible case, where the unsub leaves dead birds in the hands of the girls he kills. Another girl, Tara, has gone missing from the area. They decide to check it out but it goes cold as soon as they get there. The past and the current collide as Tara’s body has recently been found, Rossi shares what he remembers, and the BAU brainstorms what it might mean. Meanwhile, the unsub dumps the new kidnapped lady onto a homemade bird’s nest, dislocates her hip, and tries to feed her spaghetti, bird-style. Yuck!

- Rossi and Gideon arrive in town and interview Tara’s mother. The town sheriff isn’t taking her concern seriously because Tara has run away from her abusive father before. Sadly, that means Gideon and Rossi can’t do anything about it because they need the local police’s cooperation to investigate. Tara’s mother isn’t giving up though and presses Tara’s picture in Gideon’s hand, explaining his proclivity for keeping victim’s pictures. Back in the present, the team tracks Gideon’s movements in Roanoke. Tara’s mom confirms that Gideon went to see her. He figured out it was Tara’s body by her tattoo; Hotch figures out that the unsub dumped her body in a fake bird’s nest in the woods. After leaving Tara’s mom’s house, Gideon stops by the local library to checkout some bird books and then stays all day at the local cafe to flush out the unsub. It must have worked so the current BAU meets at the cafe to trade theories and research, while we go to another flashback that explains why Gideon became fascinated with birds.

- Gideon: “It’s called twitching in England - birdwatching. I understand the appeal of it. It’s like hunting.” Rossi: “You hate hunting.” Gideon: “I hate it so much, but birdwatching - it’s kind of like what we do. Everyone’s got a name and a lineage, but it’s the behavior that really distinguishes them.” Gideon changes the focus to Rossi’s recent behavior, noting that he is calling his wife more and buying out the postcard racks. He correctly profiles that Rossi and Carolyn are expecting a child. Gideon: “It’s never been more important to catch a guy like this. Everyone is someone’s baby.” Gideon goes on to repeat this phrase several times in the episode. Rossi asks about Nelson’s sparrows, the birds the unsub is leaving behind, and Gideon says that they have no instinct to protect themself from danger. They surmise that all of the victims have low self-esteem. Rossi: “So they wouldn’t trust their gut enough to scream or run away when danger’s smack in front of them.” Gideon: “A person has to have enough self-worth to want to cause a scene, and this unknown subject, he wants to claim his kill.” Rossi, as he signs the cafe check: “Yeah, he makes it unique to him. The bird in the hand is like a signature.” Gideon: “A signature, yeah. I like that. We should call it that.” I like that, too. It’s a great vocabulary origin story.

Back in the current time, Garcia looks for birdwatching groups with little success. Garcia: “There is an old-timey bird watching group called the Flappers, median age of like 89. They started in the 60’s. Most of the members have gone extinct.” Bwah! Hotch has her check out local employment instead. Hotch: “Are there any employees at Joe’s Supermarket who started in the 70’s and are still there?” Garcia: “Well, that was nearly 40 years ago in a galaxy far, far away that wasn’t using my magic binary boxes.” Ha! Garcia gets all the best non-flashback lines in this episode. They narrow down the killer in typical fashion and it’s the BAU to the rescue. They save the kidnapped lady but the unsub slips out of the house. Rossi finds him and then things go sideways. The unsub puts down his gun and brags about being lauded in prison for killing a Fed. Rossi calmly agrees and then says that he would be a legend if he killed 2 Feds. Um, say what, Rossi? I don’t like where this is going. Rossi puts down his gun, just out of reach, in an obvious dare. The unsub takes the bait and Rossi shoots him dead. It will be ruled a justifiable shooting, but the team, especially Hotch, has their suspicions. This is still one of the most unsettling scenes in all of Criminal Minds to me and I’m still not sure what I think about it. It definitely colors how I look at Rossi and the power of the BAU. Just how grey an area is talking someone into getting themselves killed?

- While there may be closure in the present, Gideon and Rossi had no such closure in the past and it visibly gets to Gideon. Gideon demands that Rossi pull over while he fumes. Rossi: “We did the best we could, Jason.” Gideon: “That’s not good enough because he’s still out there. He’s gonna do terrible things and we won’t find him because there’s so many of them and there’s only 3 of us and we can’t do it all. We can’t! (pulls out picture of Tara) Look at this. We didn’t find her. This is someone’s baby. Do you get that?” Rossi: “Of course I get that and you’re right. We need more help.” Gideon: “We need an army.” Rossi: “Then let’s get back and build our army, but we aren’t gonna get it with you screaming to the gods.” Gideon: “Okay. You know, if this writing thing works out, you can buy us a plane.” Ha! Rossi was obviously the voice of reason back in the day, which throws even more grey on the current timeline. Flashback Rossi turns his profiler eye on Gideon, calling him out for his edgy behavior and surmising that Sarah and Gideon must be expecting, too. Gideon confirms it and asks what Rossi’s middle name is. It’s Stephen. Awww!

The grownup Stephen meets the BAU back at his father’s cabin, where Spencer gives him Gideon’s wedding rings that the unsub had stolen. Rossi approaches him and says, “He was brilliant at his job because of you. He wanted your world to be as great as he knew you would be.” Stephen: “Thank you. He always said you were his family. I get it.” The whole scene is made even more touching because of the flashback. In the end, Spencer takes one more look around the cabin, lingering on the chess set that provided much of the bonding time between Gideon and him, before walking out. Hotch, though, remembers the funnier side of Gideon. He starts laughing as he tells Rossi about the time they were snowed in at an airport and Gideon told them a story about one of their old cases. Rossi remembers it and explains that a kid challenged them to go down Rattlesnake Hill on a sled and Gideon couldn’t pass it up. He streaked down the hill, nearly crashing into a headstone at the bottom. They both laugh and then Hotch tells him that Gideon said it was Rossi who went down the hill. They laugh again as Rossi vehemently denies it. Hotch: “Yeah well, he never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Rossi: “Nope, he sure didn’t. Thanks for reminding me.” Thanks for reminding all of us about the enigma that was Gideon. Voice over: “When a good man is hurt, all who would be called good must suffer with him.” Euripides

My favorite Criminal Minds episode is 1.14, Riding the Lightning, in large part because it showed how passionate Gideon was about the truth setting the innocent free. It allowed me to see beyond Gideon the profiler to Gideon the man, the one who felt absolutely justified in his facts but in the end had even more compassion for others’ feelings. It opened up a whole new way of looking at him. This episode is the bookend to Riding the Lightning for me. It helped me to see the origins of Gideon’s passion for the victims along with the origins of the BAU as a whole. It may never explain the enigma that was Jason Gideon, but this peek into the beginning of his career helps give closure to the end of a character that never felt finished in his abrupt exit.

Episode Highlight
- Having Ben Savage play young Gideon. He’s grown from his Boy Meets World days to be the Gideon I didn’t know I wanted. Two thumbs up for his performance! I only wish they could have had more flashback episodes with him.

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