Criminal Minds has always had a unique form of storytelling, and the team dynamic has been the most important aspect of the series since the beginning. Whether the storytelling is strong or not, the plot has always paled in comparison to the story of the characters that solve the mysteries. However, there’s one important question to be asked: Is the series stronger while focusing on the team as a unit, or on one character and their feelings?
The Criminal Minds team has always been so admirable, and the connection that bonds them is stronger than that of any other friendship/team. They’re constantly in danger of being hunted by serial killers that they put away, and no one can quite understand that unless they do the same thing with their lives.
On season 3 episode 9, “Penelope,” the team came together as Garcia’s life was threatened after she was shot point blank by a man that pretended to be interested in her. Her role with the FBI put her at risk, but her friends saved her like they always do for each other.
On season 6 episode 18, the team banded together as agent Prentiss’ life was in danger. Her Interpol nemesis found her and started his attack, and the team tasked themselves with protecting her in whatever way they could. Hotchner even faked her death to allow her to be safe; when the characters are put in these intensely stressful situations together, it’s easier to see how far they’re willing to go to keep those they love safe, or even just solve the case.
Likewise, in the season 2 premiere, Elle was shot by the Fisher King, and the team raced to save her and find her attacker. Gideon had already been proven to do whatever he needed to for each scenario, but in order to save his teammate, the stress heightened this trait, and he was willing to do almost anything to save agent Greenaway.
When the team comes together to save one of their own, or to solve the weekly cases, they’re each put through intense journeys together, but the most important part is that they never learn the same thing. Each case provides a new learning experience for each profiler; some cases hit them harder, some are easier, and some take such a toll they break part of themselves to finish the case.
When Criminal Minds focuses on one character and their connection to a case or a serial killer, or to how that case impacts their personal life, the story has to focus on one character/actor and not rely on the others to create a balance. That allows the character to shine, and also the actor, and the emotional rollercoaster they’re set on allows for growth and the opportunity to bond further with the team, or even just with their family.
For example, in season 12 episode 2, “Sick Day,” JJ comes home after a tough case and explains it all to her husband. The viewers see how this case took a personal toll on her, and how it affects her everyday life, both as a person and a mother. Also, in season 12 episode 7, “Mirror Image,” Tara’s family was in danger after a man showed up claiming to be her brother after Mr. Scratch (the serial killer after the team) messed with her mind and his personality disorder.
JJ was also the focus of season 6 episode 2, “JJ,” as she attempted to help a family find their daughter. Technically, this was her farewell episode after CBS decided to let go of her and Paget Brewster, but it showed a side to JJ that wasn’t seen before, a side that led to the person she came back as in season 7. Her main story was being transferred to the Pentagon, which she did not want to do, and this allowed JJ to finally stand up for herself and know what an asset she was to the team.
When Prentiss had to fight for her life in season 6 episode 18, it provided insight into something that had been building up since her arrival: the desperate need to let go of her past. She was willing to do whatever she had to do to free herself of her nemesis, and that meant letting all of her friends think she was dead.
So Which Works Better?
When Criminal Minds focuses on the individual character, it balances the team dynamic and allows lesser players the time to shine. The season 10 finale directly impacted Kate Callahan (Jennifer Love Hewitt) who was the leaving the series due to her pregnancy. The end of season 11 had two episodes exploring Derek Morgan and his plunge into parenthood as he left the BAU.
When the series focuses on one character, the story is always stronger. There are episodes, like the two in season 12, that the focus is on one character and it’s not about writing them off; these episodes are more emotional, but rather giving these characters room to breathe, to grow, and to learn from this experience on-screen.
The toll of hunting serial killers is vast, and it’s more interesting when the series doesn’t try to hide or ignore these emotions. When Hotch lost his wife, viewers saw him angrier and more upset than he’d ever been in the series before. When Elle Greenaway dealt with PTSD in the early episodes of season 2 and shot a man in cold blood, we saw how her time in the BAU had affected her. The series works well with the team uniting and coming together for each other, but these are individual people. They can’t always rely on their friends for support to get through the cases that hit them so deeply.
What do you think? Is the series stronger when the individual confronts their demons due to their BAU experience, or when the team relies on each other in the worst of times?
Let us know what you think in the comments, and be sure to catch Criminal Minds on Wednesday, January 4 at 9/8c on CBS!