Powerful. Vulnerable. Mother. Wife. Friend and Colleague. Jennifer Jareau are all those things and more, and in the latest episode of Criminal Minds each facet of her make up as a person is explored. Played, for 12 years, by AJ Cook, this latest episode titled “Sick Day” focused of JJ and her response to a case. Not just any case, but a case involving children. The episode opens on the FBI plane, JJ sitting alone in the back fights tears from falling and is nursing an injured hand. She experiences a flashback to how she injured it. She burnt it. Snapping her out of the memory is Alvez (Adam Rodriguez) who asks if she needs anything. And even as he assures her that he’s there to talk to, at any point, she refuses. As the new guy he knows it’s hard for the rest of the team to trust him, but the effort he is making doesn’t go unnoticed with JJ thanking him for “what he did”. As he leaves her be, the tears really do start to fall.
JJ arrives home, to a running shower and Will inside holding their baby; it’s three in the morning, but their youngest has croup. JJ, evidently shaken from the case, takes her frustration out on Will and the situation. They argue, with JJ snapping at Will about wanting to just take care of her son. The dialogue here is telling; Will let’s JJ walk away, but is there afterwards to encourage his wife to talk about it. He reminds her that holding it in isn’t how we do it. Without words, and with their history, Will guesses that the case involved kids, and he’s right. AJ Cook, from the minute the episode started, was committed and heartbreaking. But when she admits to it being kids, the reality hits. Will and JJ personify what it means to be married, what it means to know the other person inside out. As we watch him get her coffee ready, laying the ingredients in a way so routined and getting her to sit down, it’s hard not to think how adorable they are. With all cuteness aside though, JJ begins to walk him and the audience through the case.
Back to the beginning of the case we hear that 2 kids that were previously abducted, a girl and a boy have been found burnt alive in an abandoned warehouse. The reason the BAU have been called, is because years before a same crime was committed. The team begins to theorize; the UnSub seemingly crosses racial lines and gender lines, the fire could signify some sort of compulsion but they won’t know more until they see the crime scene. Cutting between the case and JJ with Will, we learn that JJ was undoubtedly sure it was the same UnSub for both crimes and when they arrived at the crime scene this theory was proven. The same locks were used, as well as the same boy girl pattern. Rossi (Joe Mantegna) continues to theorize that the children could possibly be surrogates for the Unsubs own children, while Alvez and Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) make notes that pyromaniacs do like to watch. All in all, the type of set up they find, constitutes a level of psychological torture for these kids.
Hotch (Thomas Gibson) receives the medical report which indicates that Hannah Robinson was abducted first due to evidence of previous burn wounds. Unfortunately, there is no conclusive evidence to say whether she was sexually assaulted or not. Additionally, evidence shows that the boy was the flash point, meaning the girl was made to watch. Cut back to JJ, and she needs a break. Will however, insists that she get this out of her head, she can’t go to sleep with it in there. Even though he’s persistent, there is a caring and nurturing aspect to it. Back to the case, and JJ reveals they were stumped. The connections, the forensics, they even had a press conference in the hope to receive new leads but eventually she lost hope. The case went cold and then it didn’t. What follows is a sequence showing the UnSub, whose arms are burnt, approaching a young girl in the street. We never see his face, the direction and cinematography of this scene is enough to make the audiences heart race. As he attempts to connect with this young girl, she eventually walks away, stopping anymore conversation from happening. That is when he grabs her, in broad daylight, kicking and screaming. Francesca her name is, age 16. A quick cut back to present time shows JJ react to coughs over the monitor, and when Will goes to check on their son she yells. She just wants to go look after her son. AJ Cook plays every moment of post traumatic stress uniquely, yet all of them as soul-crushing as the other.
JJ, having composed herself, apologizes to Will for snapping at him. He’s as understanding as ever (we all need a significant other like Will) and urges JJ to continue walking him through what happened next. They delivered the profile. They believed the UnSub was a white male between the ages of 25-35. The profile, as usual, is cut with images of the UnSub, this week, flicking a lighter while driving a distressed Francesca in the back of a van. He’s a pyromaniac and will most probably come off as a nice guy, his line of work will put him anywhere near open flames. After they finish giving the profile, JJ and Alvez pay Francesca’s mother a visit; she’s single with her husband having died years earlier. It’s not a surprise that JJ finds this part the hardest, relating to the mother in more ways than one. We cut back to JJ and Will, where she admits her disbelief at how single mums cope on their own. She’d be lost without Will. Back to the case, and JJ approaches Francesca’s little brother Roberto (Berto), who initially doesn’t seem too receptive to JJ’s questions. But when she reveals her knowledge of comic book superheroes a wall between the two comes down. He doesn’t remember seeing anything weird, but does tell JJ that he lied about being sick. It’s obvious that he blames himself for his sister’ disappearance and it’s painstaking to watch, especially when the young boy cries.
Meanwhile, Reid has been putting his amazing brain to work and figured out that the UnSub won’t leave the city of Los Angeles. That he’s pretty much converging on the city. From there the team also figures out that the pattern he is following is older sister, younger brother, which unfortunately puts Berto in danger. Hotch, calls to inform JJ and Alvez to turn around to ensure the safety of Francesca’s younger brother. Sadly, they’re too late, arriving back at the house to find the mother unconscious and Berto missing. The team increase the level of their investigation uncovering a nearby fire that was set as a diversion. This realization tells the team he was obviously watching the house, a fact that doesn’t sit well with JJ. Given a short reprieve from the high stakes of the case, we visit Will and JJ again, this time he’s catching her up on everything that’s been happening at home. The news sparks more emotion in her, she states how much she misses, but Will counters and says how unhappy she would be if she wasn’t working. The fluidity within this relationship has strengthened throughout the seasons, but this episode alone gives the audience insight into what happens at home for JJ.
Needing new leads, the team call in reinforcements in the form of Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness). Hotch gets her to search for siblings, while cross-checking with arson arrests and jobs in fire related businesses. Turning up nothing, they extend the search to surrounding states. And voila, John David Bates, a local of a Nevada was arrested when he was younger for setting his family home on fire with his sister inside. From there, the parents relinquished custody of him and he was put into foster care. The team also discover, that John recently reached out to his sister just to have her reject him. They have their trigger. Meanwhile, Roberto and Francesca are in the back of van but before they are hauled out to a warehouse, Berto manages to turn on his cell phone sending a signal to Garcia. They have his location.
JJ and Alvez arrive at the location first, with the van empty and screams for help coming from inside, JJ doesn’t hesitate. Alvez, running into the burning warehouse after her, arrives to find Francesca and Berto, along with John’s sister chained to old bed frames being doused in fuel. Cut with images of JJ and Will, JJ understandably struggling to relive such horror. Will also a little annoyed but understanding when hearing JJ ran into a burning building. Note again, the type of relationship these two have. Cut back to the fire, and JJ urges Alvez to chase after John while she frees the kids and the sister from the chains. Alvez eventually subdues the UnSub, while JJ successfully frees Berto. Alvez returns to help JJ and remove the sister from the burning building, while JJ remains behind to free Francesca. During this struggle, a huge explosion occurs, throwing JJ to the ground leaving her disoriented. All she can hear is Francesca screaming her name over and over again, and as she goes back again to try and free the young girl, Alvez grabs her and stops her. He drags her, kicking and screaming from the burning building as the audience watches in terror as the roof collapses, killing Francesca.
Outside, Berto is receiving oxygen as JJ leaves her post to sit with the young boy. These scenes are cut with JJ and Will, the reality of the entire case hitting her all at once. She’s crying now, tears well and truly streaming down her face as the pain and trauma catches up to her. We watch as JJ informs the mother, and also as Hotch instructs her to take time off. But what’s most heartbreaking, and some of AJ Cook’s best work, is JJ’s visceral and soul-crushing response to this case. The guilt she feels about not saving Francesca, the disappointment in herself that she chose to save Berto over her. And the reason for that being he reminded her of her sons. She continues to deliver this monologue as raw as any JJ has done before, but this time with new meaning. Will, as understanding and as encouraging as ever reminds his wife that she’s a hero, that she made the best choice she could have made. It is episodes like this, tying together the case of the week with deeper character exploration, that really bring Criminal Minds to a new level. More so, with committed and moving performances such as this one by AJ Cook, Criminal Minds continues to lead the way when combining elements of crime-fighting, justice and drama.