A.J. Cook is simply brilliant as JJ on Criminal Minds. That’s what you should take away from this week’s episode, “The Forever People,” which sees the BAU investigate frozen bodies found in Nevada while JJ is forced to deal with her PTSD as the one year anniversary of her abduction and torture approaches.
When I spoke to Cook about this episode, she called the scene with Tivon Askari “one of the most intense scenes” she had ever shot and said that this episode would not have worked if Faran Tahir hadn’t returned. Oh, she’s right. There’s someone going around freezing people, and it’s after a scene featuring those two sitting across from one another at a desk that I realize I’ve been holding my breath. That says something, about A.J. Cook, about Faran Tahir, about the writer of the episode (Breen Frazier) and about the show itself. JJ has come so far from who she was in the first few seasons of the series, and while she’s still the person who’s there to see families reunite, she’s also now the person who will burst into a house and put her life on the line to save someone. “The Forever People” does such a good job of showing all the sides of her character.
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Before getting into the case details and JJ dealing with her PTSD, I have to address a moment that, in some ways, is long overdue, as Kate calls Reid out when he says there are 1908 boats in Lake Mead, a number he estimated based on the population in the area. And she jokes that he just says things with authority and they all believe him. Morgan absolutely loves that she says that and holds out his hand for a fist bump, but when Rossi looks up the answer and declares that Reid’s right, the genius turns to Morgan for a fist bump. Morgan refuses, but Hotch fist bumps him instead.
A Cold Induction Ceremony
The BAU gets called in when a woman is found frozen, her body wrapped and weighed down, and JJ notices an electrical burn on her chest. When Kate asks how she caught that, JJ just says, “I’ve seen it before,” and my heart breaks.
While the BAU is on the way to Nevada, a guy is picked up in a van, hood over his head and wrists zip-tied, and asked a series of questions, including “are you prepared to advance to level 2?” before told it’s his “baptism” and wished luck before being shut into a freezer. (This guy doesn’t need luck. He needs a winter parka, gloves, a hat and earmuffs.)
JJ realizes that their victim joined a cult — withdrawing money every month, no protein in her diet to make her more susceptible to brainwashing — and this cult is speeding up the isolation and deprivation process used to break down followers physically and mentally by inducing hypothermia in a freezer and then resuscitating them. Regaining consciousness is like being born again.
After the cult’s leader, Colton, declares one member, Adam, not worthy, he ends up back in a freezer, but there’s no resuscitation in his future this time.
Who Takes Care of Those Who Want to Leave the Forever People?
They do manage to track down one former member, who suffered frostbite so severe he lost his fingers, but as his mother tells them, he’s “not right.” “The walls of civilization [are] crumbling around you,” he says. “The Forever People will survive… We’ll freeze ourselves… I can help you the way they helped me.”
Once Adam’s body turns up, Garcia’s able to track down the cult because he wrote out checks each month to the Global Warming Awareness Fund. However, when Rossi and Hotch sit down and question Colton, his reaction to the crime scene photos is enough for Hotch to know he didn’t kill Sarah and Adam. There’s a serial killer in the cult.
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That’s not all that’s going on. It turns out that Carl, the man who’s taken at the beginning of the episode, isn’t there because he’s a believer, as he reveals to JJ. He and the first victim had a kid together, and he’s there to get Bobby out. He hadn’t been ready to be a father, but when Sarah called him because they wouldn’t let her go and then she turned up dead, he knew he had to infiltrate the cult to get their son. JJ promises to get them both out, but Carl can’t sit back and wait and instead tries to get Bobby himself. He gets knocked out by the UnSub in the process.
The team figures out that the UnSub is the adult watching the children because the UnSub’s compulsion is watching them freeze, meaning they’re looking for someone with a fetish for the cold. The UnSub would have reacted to the photos of the frozen bodies, and when they brought in Colton and showed the followers the photos, no one did — but that person wasn’t there at the time. By the time JJ and Reid return and find the kids, the UnSub and Carl are gone, but once she has John’s address, JJ is on her way, even as Hotch tells her to wait for backup. By the time Morgan arrives, JJ has already shot John in the freezer, even though it’s a risk that could have killed them all if the gas had ignited. Carl’s alive, and he reunites with Bobby.
Is the Torture Over for JJ?
Throughout the episode, JJ has flashbacks to her torture and abduction, and it’s just as tough and heartbreaking to watch as it was back in “200.” She even sees herself on a table in the morgue. “Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine,” she tells Reid after he waits outside the bathroom for 24 minutes and 18 seconds to talk about what’s wrong, but he knows it’s PTSD. “What you’re going through is entirely textbook,” he tells her. “Stop being you,” she practically begs him, because he may want to help his friend who’s in pain, but she just wants a word, a term, a label, something other than “Tivon Askari” to explain what she has. Reid may have read the file, but what he doesn’t know about is her miscarriage. “I can’t let this go,” she admits. He doesn’t know how to help her like she needs, and so she stops crying, tells him it stays between them and leaves. It’s easily at least the second best scene of the episode, and it’s among A.J. Cook’s best work on the show.
I say it’s the second best scene of the episode because the best is the final one. Before leaving the office, Reid tells JJ that he couldn’t come up with a word for her, but he did call Emily (a Prentiss mention!) and had her pull extra background on Tivon. JJ and Reid’s friendship may be the best one in Criminal Minds. The file is waiting in her old office, and while she does hesitate, she opens that file. Tivon grew up an orphan. He was raped for the first time at age 10. By age 13, he had killed three people, and for him, violence became a sexual act. That’s when Tivon appears, sitting across from her in her old seat, continuing to give her his history.
Life became a simple equation for Tivon as an interrogation: “How long until you break?” “You broke me,” JJ tells him. “No, I bent you,” he argues. “I wanted to do so much worse.” Taking her baby from her “pleased [him] greatly.” It’s another form of torture, one from beyond the grave, and it’s absolutely chilling. “What do you want from me? I have nothing left. You’ve taken everything,” she says. “Oh, Jennifer, there is so much more I’m going to take,” Tivon promises.
“First, I’m going to take your sleep. Then your smile. I won’t let you feel safe anywhere, so I’ll take your job, and finally, I will transform you so that your husband and your son won’t recognize you anymore,” he explains. “You already are [letting me]. Think about the risk you took at that freezer. You had no idea that the gas would ignite or not. It was dumb luck that you got out of there alive. Either you will try that again and I will watch you kill yourself, or you will quit and I will watch you wither and fade. Either way, I win.” But JJ refuses to let that happen, and after she slams the file closed, the chair is empty. With one last “no,” she leaves her old office and the file on the desk. I have a feeling (or at least I hope) that this isn’t the last time JJ’s PTSD is addressed because it doesn’t feel like it’s over for JJ just yet.
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Criminal Minds season 10 airs Wednesdays at 9pm on CBS.
(Image courtesy of CBS)