Criminal Minds pays tribute to the BAU’s early days — and to the show’s early days and one of the original profilers — in season 10 episode 12, “Nelson’s Sparrow,” as flashbacks show the unit when it wasn’t even the BAU yet. Back then, in 1978, Jason Gideon and David Rossi were just two of three agents in the BSU (the Behavioral Science Unit or “BS Unit” as others called it), and they were just building the foundation of their army.

Going into the episode, I expected a few callbacks, I expected to hear Rossi and Gideon using terms for the first time that are used by the team all the time in the present. What I didn’t expect is that this ends up being a very sad episode in quite a fitting way. It isn’t often that the word “heartbreaking” applies to this show, but in this case, it does.

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This episode is one that is going to stick with viewers, not because of any horrifying case facts, but because it signals the end of someone special to the team. Yes, the team is investigating a murder by a serial killer, but it’s not the same as other episodes. The murder that puts them on the case occurs off-screen, and Jason Gideon is the victim.

As tragic as Gideon’s death is, the episode ends up on a bit of a lighter note, with Rossi relaying a story to Hotch about a time he and Gideon were trapped in a blizzard and Gideon took a local dare to ride a sled down the “legendary” incline of Rattlesnake Hill. When Gideon had told Hotch that story, he had said Rossi took the dare. Gideon never did let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Welcome to the “BS Unit”

The flashbacks to 1978 feature a great performance from Ben Savage and Robert Dunne, such that I would be very happy if there are more flashbacks with those two in the future. They show Gideon and Rossi working a case and Rossi finding enough material for a book (the profits from which Gideon later jokes he could use to buy their “army” a plane). It’s a “serial crime,” as they have to get used to saying, and a woman is killed every three months like clockwork. Each victim is in her 20s, brunette, strangled and left in an open grave and with a dead bird in her hand.

In Roanoke, a woman approaches them about her missing daughter, but all the local sheriff has told her to do is make a flyer because no one believes she’s missing. She’s not pretty enough, and she ran away in high school a few times. She gives Gideon her photo so that she’s not the only one thinking about her daughter, and that photo stays in Gideon’s wallet, the first of many.

It’s while the two agents are going over the case file and Gideon’s comparing bird watching to what they do that they coin the term “signature.” Gideon figures out that the bird the “unknown subject” is leaving is the Nelson’s Sparrow. The bird is secretive in nature and doesn’t listen to its own instincts when in danger. Like the bird, the victims’ self-esteem is so low, they ignore their own instinct to fight or flight. The bird in the hand is unique to the killer, like his “signature.”

The final flashback shows Gideon upset that they have to leave because the trail has gone cold, that the three of them in the unit can’t do it all with so many killers out there. They need more help. They need an army. It’s as Rossi’s calling Gideon on how “edgy” he’s been lately that another term is coined, “profiler.” It turns out that just like Rossi’s about to become a father in 1978, so is Gideon — and he asks Rossi for his middle name. Yes, it’s Stephen.

Gideon’s White Whale

From the moment that Reid pulls up in his car and closes his eyes and a flash shows Hotch, Rossi, JJ and Kate over a dead body, I know that Gideon is dead. It may have been years since any of them spoke to him, and Rossi may be wondering if he rewrote history since they lost touch, but it’s still a great loss for them. It turns out that even Kate had a connection to Gideon, as she took one of his classes, only for him to only lecture twice. (He found the Footpath Killer and returned to the unit.)

Whoever killed Gideon shot him three times, first wounding his dominant hand from outside so he couldn’t hold his hand steady to shoot back and then standing over him to deliver the final blow, so that his face was the last one he saw. It’s the location of one of Gideon’s bullets that makes Rossi realize what happened, as he shot a bird painting. With that, he takes Reid to storage to look up the files from the case in 1978.

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That UnSub is at it again, and Gideon’s recent trip along the coast that included rushing back to Roanoke for a night is explained by a woman in her 50s found dead in a shallow grave, a “nest” Hotch and Kate realize upon visiting the disposal site. The woman is the missing girl from 1978, and she died of cancer, according to the ME, but her legs were also dislocated multiple times. The UnSub held her captive for 37 years, and now that she died, it sends him into a tailspin. He grabs another woman, luring her into his car with a wheelchair and a sad tale about his injured dog and a broken down car. He later makes her choose between her life and a bird’s; the bird ends up dead.

The UnSub’s comfort zone hasn’t changed since 1978, and the team soon realizes that Gideon lured the UnSub in, sitting in a local diner and standing out because he wasn’t a local. But how did the UnSub know that missing girl? What was so special about her that he held her captive all those years and didn’t kill in that time? After high school, Tara bagged groceries, and one of her co-workers names stands out to Garcia as the same last name from a local bird-watching group. One of the founding members of the bird group died in 1974, and her next of kin was her nephew, Donnie. He buys enough birdseed for Garcia to know to send them his address.

The BAU arrives on scene as Donnie’s dislocating his latest victim’s legs, and while Hotch and Kate find the woman in the basement, Rossi finds Donnie as he’s running out back. Donnie puts his gun down and tells him he can lock him up because he still wins. He got his girls and he killed Gideon. Rossi points out he’d be a legend in prison if he killed two feds and puts down his own gun. One gunshot later, and Donnie is dead.

How Do Reid and Rossi Deal With Gideon’s Death?

Reid wears his emotions for everyone to see in this episode, with Morgan knowing that he likely didn’t hear the ME say that Gideon didn’t suffer. Morgan knows that Reid puts up walls and blocks them out, but they need him for the case, Gideon needs him, so they can catch his killer. When Rossi has Reid go with him to storage, Reid admits he knows he’s not being rational and that he hasn’t seen Gideon in a long time, but he still thinks about him all the time. He knew he was always out there, and now, it just feels empty — and that’s not a hole he wants to fill with something else. I am very interested in seeing what this means for Reid moving forward.

“Is this how it’s going to go?” Rossi wonders early on in the episode. “All my friends dying off? First Erin, then Harrison and now Jason. Disease is one thing, but murder?” While Reid’s sorrow is quite apparent, Rossi seems to internalize his for his murdered friend, and it’s because of that that what he does when he comes face to face with the UnSub is the only way it could end. Rossi has to be the one to face the UnSub, and Rossi has to be the one to kill him. Even as he’s baiting Donnie to pick up the gun so he can shoot him, I want Donnie to pick up the gun so he can shoot him even though it’s wrong. When that gunshot rings out, it’s satisfying, for the women he killed, for Gideon, for the team, for Rossi.   

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Criminal Minds season 10 airs Wednesdays at 9pm on CBS.

(Image courtesy of CBS)

Meredith Jacobs

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV

If it’s on TV — especially if it’s a procedural or superhero show — chances are Meredith watches it. She has a love for all things fiction, starting from a young age with ER and The X-Files on the small screen and the Nancy Drew books. Arrow kicked off the Arrowverse and her true passion for all things heroes. She’s enjoyed getting into the minds of serial killers since Criminal Minds, so it should be no surprise that her latest obsession is Prodigal Son.