Criminal Minds never ceases to pull out a heart-stopping penultimate episode, and this one was no different. Add to the high-octane nature, guest star Francis Fisher, and it’s a combination worthy of applause. The episode titled “Devil’s Backbone” opens with two police officers in the mail room of a prison; they are going through making sure no dangerous items are smuggled behind bars. But what they find, is much worse and much more mysterious. Bloodied clothes. Cut to Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) who is reminding the team of a case years back in which two young boys, similar age were abducted and never found. Adam Morrissey and Jimmy Bennett both vanished when they were 12 years old, and the clothes found during the mail room search belongs to them. What this does, is reopen a case with a whole new group of questions. As the team discuss information regarding the old case, Hotch (Thomas Gibson) brings focus to Antonia Slade (Francis Fisher), a female serial killer whose victims were consistently adolescent boys. Catch is, she is behind bars, and never said “why” she committed her crimes. Could she be orchestrating it from inside? This is the first question the team decides to get answers too.
The next scene we get our first scene with Antonia, she is conversing with a prison guard and identifies that she knows about the package. Does this mean she’s involved? As the team moves into the next phase of the investigation, Hotch and JJ (AJ Cook) make their way to the prison where they are met with some visitor restrictions, ironically set by Antonia herself. She has refused to see anyone for the entirety of her prison stay, and in this case will only see one person at a time; too many people make her feel claustrophobic. Hotch goes first, the fearless leader, and needless to say she does not respond very well to Hotch’s cold, authoritative approach. She stonewalls. This leaves the team questioning why Antonia would agree to talk to them, and yet remain silence. What kind of mind game is she playing?
Meanwhile, Rossi (Joe Mantegna) meets with the mother of one of the missing boys trying to calm her anxiety and keep her worst fears at bay. Elsewhere, it is JJ’s turn to attempt developing a rapport with Antonia; within the first few seconds she says more to JJ than she’s said to have spoken in the years she’s been imprisoned. As she re-bandages a wound on her foot (one we discover is from diabetes) she plays more mind games with JJ. She uncovers that letters are sent to her by zealous fans but that’s about it, most of the conversation is spent with questioning JJ about her life, and about her standing in the FBI as a woman. Highlighting an extreme feminist ideology coupled with extreme narcissism, the team try to move forward in the investigation.
She says she’ll help if they can transfer her to another prison, closer to her hometown but initially the team isn’t budging. However, when Hotch refers to the piece of paper Antonia threw at him earlier on, the team uncover a code hidden in her letter. And of course, this point of this investigation falls on Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler); with all his wizard genius, it is his turn to interrogate Antonia. He doesn’t get a word in edge ways as she begins to turn the tables of Reid; analysing his behaviour and how he is holding himself, she is pretty spot on when she posits that he has lost someone recently. A protector of sorts. And when Reid finally utters “Derek Morgan”, Antonia knows, creepily, that she can somewhat trust Reid. So much so she disgustingly regurgitates her food into his hand. Ugh.
Dr. Reid jumps into action, trying to break the code. Meanwhile, Lewis (Aisha Tyler) and Rossi break Antonia’s set rules and interrogate her together. They play her good, manipulative and oh so slick. It works. However, she encourages Rossi to leave as she’ll only talk to Lewis. Alone. Antonia once again asks for a story and Lewis delivers. I bought it, and I’m sure the majority of the audience did but Antonia didn’t. It was made up. Lewis becomes highly agitated and doesn’t really break the wall between her and this woman, luckily enough Reid has since broken the code. What he uncovers leads the team to believe that the boys are still alive, but not for long. The UnSub is planning to kill them at the time of the next full moon. As the team see no other way to break the case than without Antonia’s help, they agree to the transfer and travel to her hometown where she believes the murders will take place. Garcia has worked her technological magic and discovered the real identity of the Unsub – Claude Barlow was an early patient of Antonia’ and has since been a ghost. After profiling him to this point, Claude shows strong indicators of extreme transference; consistently fuelled by Antonia.
As Reid and Co. escort Antonia to where they believe Claude is holding the boys, a stand-off ensues between a determined Dr. Reid and disillusioned UnSub. With no success in talking him down and demanding to talk to Antonia in person, the team give him this one thing. As the two star-crossed criminals lock eyes, Claude professes it was all for her. Antonia continues to move closer, close enough to whisper a message into Claude’s ear (we don’t hear it, but do we have theories on what was said?). Theories or not, as Antonia steps away Claude puts the gun on himself and shoots. With the conclusion just as bloody as it started, Antonia is returned to her cell, just as the team had planned all along. However, Hotch pays her one last visit; the team have uncovered the “why” behind Antonia’ crimes. When she was 14, her boyfriend was killed by her father because he got her pregnant. It was used as a punishment, add to that, keeping her baby, and so began the arduous struggle with self-loathing. Asking her what happened to her baby, Hotch receives no answer. But is struck down with a subtle, quite vague threat; “There’s a storm coming. You’re about to be swept away…” What does this mean? With the promo for the finale quickly following the “to be continued” titled we see that the storyline started way back in the beginning – Hotch being drugged – comes to the forefront again. Oh, Criminal Minds, your brilliance in keeping us guessing never disappoints. Tune in next week for the finale people, you won’t want to miss it.