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Penelope Garcia's 10 Best Criminal Minds Moments Ranked By Technical Skill

When it comes to hacking unsubs and taking names, there's no better computer wiz than Penelope Garcia. Don't let her funky outfits and many cat mugs fool you: the Behavioral Analysis Unit's technical analyst is deadly with a keyboard. In her 300-plus episodes of "Criminal Minds," Garcia has only been bested a handful of times, and it's usually related to a blind spot regarding her loved ones or her habit of trusting too easily. And none of those character flaws, if you can call them that, directly speak to her skill level. Yet even when she's bested, Penelope almost always recovers and gets both the last laugh and the bad guy.  

Now, that's not to say that she doesn't also have actual character flaws. Penelope isn't one to relinquish control, and she's made choices for others more than once when she foresees a change in the air. While everyone loves her confidence and flirty banter, some cases don't have time for her cheeky monologues. The BAU doesn't seem to mind too much, though, because no one can do the job better, and anyone else would take double the time to do half of the work she does. 

For both fans and characters alike, Penelope Garcia is a bright light in the show's darkness, both physically and metaphorically. Her cheery wardrobe and sunny disposition contrast with the morbidity of endless serial killers and psychological trauma. Though Garcia has countless high points during "Criminal Minds," here are 10 of her best moments ranked in descending order by technical skill.

10. Saving the one that got away

There's nothing that Penelope Garcia won't do for Derek Morgan, even when he's living the life they should have had together with someone else. Despite Garcia's clear regret that she never pursued a romantic relationship with Morgan herself, she's his biggest cheerleader when it comes to his burgeoning family. Of course, given that Garcia is Morgan's closest confidante, she gets the call when Morgan's pregnant wife, Savannah, gets shot.

Not one to leave her loved ones at risk, Garcia has worked the case with Morgan and the rest of the team since his abduction to no avail. However, when Penelope looks back at the footage from the hospital, she sees the man who called to report the shooting. Garcia quickly realizes that the call didn't come from an orderly. Instead, it was the shooter himself ... before he did any shooting.

Though the unsub was clearly trying to bait Penelope, she doesn't let it throw her off her game. With the shooter's face on camera, it takes Garcia no time to ID him. The team spent countless hours trying to figure out Chazz Montolo's identity after Morgan's abduction. Yet Garcia manages to get the job done in a matter of minutes by using a mixture of deduction skills she picked up from the team and some tech magic. Sadly, it's not enough to keep Morgan in the BAU, as he decides to leave the team for good. As the episode title suggests, it's "A Beautiful Disaster."

9. Garcia becomes a low-key profiler

Penelope doesn't often step out from behind the screen when she's on a case, but certain unsubs call for the analyst's physical presence on top of her typically virtual one. Garcia displays not only her technical skill but her profiling aptitude during the episode "Risky Business." Here, a group of teens plays a deadly choking game orchestrated by a tech-savvy unsub who set up a website to kick off the game. Initially, Penelope convinces Hotch not to shut down the site by explaining that he'll just start a new one, and they'll lose him for good. Given the circumstances, Hotch actually listens to her, and if she hadn't pushed him to do so, the case would have been dead in the water.

Penelope is often frenzied when her loved ones are in jeopardy, and even when she's racing through a monologue hacking, her ability to empathize rivals even her team's. She may not deal with families and victims on a daily basis, but her victim support group proves that she has a profiler's most necessary trait: compassion.

Penelope can relate to just about anyone, and Hotch takes full advantage of that skill during the episode. Though she doesn't like tricking people, Garcia agrees to interrogate the main suspect, a goth kid who just so happens to be the killer's son. The analyst realizes that he doesn't have any actual technical skills nor the narcissism and bloodlust that comes with serial killer territory, helping the team discover that the real killer is his father. Her connection with the teenager and his willingness to trust her both save his life and help catch the unsub.

8. Garcia is just getting started

Garcia has had enough blood, guts, and serial killers to last a lifetime by the end of the original "Criminal Minds" run. After giving the BAU 15 years of her life, she's ready to hang up her badge and focus her skills on the nonprofit sector. Cookies and cats are where it's at. Yet you don't do what she did for a decade and a half without having some residual effects.

By the time "Criminal Minds: Evolution" begins, Penelope has developed a safe and secure social network for teens with some pretty heavy-duty measures to keep the creeps out. If the show's original run taught us anything, it's that homicidal tendencies aren't specific to a certain age. The show has seen more than its fair share of underaged killers. So, when an unsub uses Penelope's social networking site to bait his latest victim, the former BAU analyst steps in.

It's not often that Rossi gets a profile wrong, but Garcia is convinced that the unsub is under 22 — and she's right. Her site Soar is unhackable, and she proves that Rossi is letting his grief cloud his judgment when he's adamant that the unsub is in his late 40s. Penelope also quickly IDs the killer after some chat room sleuthing. Garcia is further coaxed out of retirement when a tech wiz sends her code related to the serial killer network the BAU is hunting. As the pilot episode title suggests, she and the team are just getting started (but she's not happy about it).

7. Saving Hotch's son

When the 100th episode of a show is named after its own impressive feat, fans know it's going to be an intense episode. The Season 5 episode "100" is no exception. It's easily the most gut-wrenching installment of the series, as Hotch and the BAU have to race against the clock to save his wife and son from The Boston Reaper.

Yet before the team can nail down Goerge Foyet's alias, plan, or location, the team has to get crafty. When it comes to craftiness, there's no better person to call than Garcia — whether it's for fashion or hacking. The episode plays with its structure as Strauss interrogates the team about Hotch's behavior in the present and the team hunts down Foyet through flashbacks.

In the past, Garcia enlists the help of Kevin to cross-reference the prescription drugs that Foyet needs to survive within his two last-known cities. Though it's a seemingly impossible task, they work through the drug list to determine which one he can't get over-the-counter substitutions for. Tapezole is the key, and Garcia narrows the list down to 153 names. 

With time winding down, Reid helps decipher an anagram that nails the alias: Peter Rhea. Garcia swiftly recovers Foyet's hard drive and quickly discovers surveillance pictures of the U.S. Marshal assigned to Hotch's family. The section chief now knows that Foyet has his wife and son and races to get to his house in time. Though Hotch doesn't make it in time to save Hayley, without Garcia's swift and intense work, he might not have gotten to his house in time to save his son. However, it's the first significant death for the BAU.

6. Hit and running out the clock

A two-part finale always promises an epic conclusion for a TV season, and the Season 7 episodes "Hit" and "Run" don't disappoint on that front. The BAU is called into a deadly bank robbery with trigger-happy robbers who seem to enjoy the kill. The case is so intense that both Kevin and Garcia are called into play, and things get even dicier when J.J.'s boyfriend (and father of her son Henry) becomes a hostage.

Though J.J. and Will's relationship isn't oozing with chemistry, the episode showcases an animalistic desperation from J.J. when Will's life is threatened, making their relationship more believable than it's been since they met in Season 2. Though Garcia lends her hacking skills throughout the two-parter, her talents really come into play toward the end of "Run."

After one of the unsubs kidnaps Will, she takes them to his house to up the hostage count with Henry. When Prentiss instructs them to search for weapons going in and out of Libya to ID the ex-military unsub, Garcia discovers Matthew Downs' name and his history with a mass casualty train bombing.

Not only does her work ID the unsub, but given the killer couple's love for symbolism, the team realizes that Union Station is their target, and they need Will (an officer) to get inside. The discovery allows Prentiss to find Will strapped to a bomb and diffuse it with their unearthed knowledge of the unsubs and their history together. J.J. also safely recovers Henry from Downs' partner in crime.

5. Proud techie dweeb, over and out

Garcia rarely breaks a sweat (or complains) while hacking, but occasionally, the team asks her to find a needle in a stack of needles. It should come as no shock to "Criminal Minds" fans that 911 gets a lot of action; picking out a specific operator based on vague parameters of calls made to the line is no easy task. Though it provides a real challenge for Penelope, she manages to do it in the Season 7 episode aptly titled "From Childhood's Hour" — named after Edgar Allan Poe's poem "Alone."

The case revolves around an angel of death targeting what he deems to be negligent parents, specifically mothers who aren't caring for their kids. While he has no intention of hurting the kids he "saves" after killing their mothers, the serial killer quickly gets rid of the ones who show weakness. When Agent Prentiss and Rossi ask Penelope to narrow down her 911 operator search, she saucily informs them that there are 10 such calls every second of the day. However, she has better luck when the team gives her more specific parameters.

Sticking with her Lamborghini reference with Morgan earlier in the episode, Garcia scolds him for overheating her engines, but naturally, she finds a name that fits a profile. Not only does the team save the latest kidnapped mother, but all three abducted kids make it out alive — a rarity in this series. Though it was an arduous process, Garcia's work paid off.

4. Nabbing a spot on the CIA watch list

You have to be a special brand of hacker to get on the CIA's radar, let alone land a spot on their watch list. Late in Season 1, fans get their first taste of Garcia's bad-girl tendencies in a big way. The team helps the CIA with a top-secret abduction case in the episode "Secrets and Lies," but not everyone on the team is given full clearance.

Garcia is sleuthing with J.J. when she discovers that she's on the CIA's "list." They won't give her any specific details, but she can imagine a few of the likely scenarios that branded her with this particular honor (digging into Princess Diana's death being the first of many). Of course, she does her part during the case to discover that the abduction was an inside job. However, her most impressive feat comes when she manages to work around the CIA's firewalls and boundaries at the end of the case.

Penelope apparently has a thing for the Royal family, because she manages to get Prince Harry's phone number before they shut off her access to their servers. Despite limited access, she somehow bests the high-powered organization with her hacking skills. The CIA would have likely recruited her if it weren't for Garcia's shady past and disregard for red tape. Honestly, though, it's probably for the best. She may be a hacking pro, but she's not the best secret keeper.

3. The Black Queen

Some fans may not buy Garcia's stint as the goth Black Queen, but there's no denying that her backstory in the self-titled episode is impressive. Not only does Garcia go head to head with her ex Shane Wyeth in "The Black Queen," but she takes him on in both the virtual and physical realm.

Naturally, Penelope's tech genius status comes into play constantly throughout the episode. Early on, Garcia reveals that she helped design the Trojan horse that deleted case files from the local station, which Morgan likens to taking a flu shot filled with cancer. She also realizes the culprit has to be her ex when she discovers her signature, "happy fun meow meow," in the code he left for her.

Knowing Shane's tech skills and narcissistic tendencies, Garcia convinces Hotch to play by her ex's rules. When Shane insists on dealing with her, she dons her Black Queen look, knocking out Shane's digital cafe servers and hacking the computers with a sugar skull. Obviously, "Bootylicious" plays during her epic entrance. Not only does she beat Shane in their virtual game after challenging him to find the killer, but she also saves his life by flaunting her win.

Fans may not buy Garcia's gloomy demeanor as the Black Queen, but the episode is worth it just for the hilarious sexual harassment seminar that confronts Garcia and Morgan's habit of pushing the boundaries of workplace innuendo. How has no one simply told them to get a room? Even Shane is sure they're a couple — with good reason.

2. Kevin's job becomes roadkill

As it turns out, one of Penelope's best hacking moments is also one of Garcia's worst decisions on "Criminal Minds." Her skills may be unparalleled, but with great power comes great responsibility. Penelope's empathy and compassion are two of her greatest strengths, but her fear of change and losing the people she loves occasionally leads to selfish choices. While Garcia's relationship with fellow tech analyst Kevin appears to be one of convenience rather than passion, she still holds on tight when she fears she may lose him. 

In the episode "Roadkill," Kevin makes it to the final round of interviews for a very secretive and likely very important new job. Unhappy with the prospect of his departure, Garcia takes matters into her own hands. Instead of conversing with him about not wanting him to move, she does some light hacking and discovers the job's secret location. Of course, you don't hack the NSA without consequences, and the position magically disappears. 

On the one hand, hacking the NSA is an impressive feat. Yet she screwed up a great opportunity for her boyfriend and the other candidates, all while killing what was likely a critical operation. The fact that Kevin easily forgives her without so much as an argument heavily indicates that their relationship isn't healthy or balanced. It's arguably the worst thing she's done in the show, but it's still a pretty incredible skill to kill an entire operation in one fell click. 

1. A hacker battle and an unsung hero

There's nothing quite like a self-titled episode to shed some light on a character. At the end of the Season 3 episode "Lucky," Garcia's shady date shoots her. Fans had to wait until "Penelope" aired to find out the analyst's fate. Morgan is particularly affected by Garcia's hospitalization, given that his obvious jealousy over her meeting the seemingly charming guy led to their first major blowout. Penelope calls him out for his proclivity toward model-esque women and his shock that someone would quickly notice her. As a result, he camps out at her apartment to protect her from her date coming back to finish the job, and they almost talk about their feelings.

Garcia is suspended from accessing FBI resources after discovering that she's been keeping the team's files locked and using the FBI database to sleuth through cases for her victim support group. Naturally, Morgan looks the other way when she uses his laptop. In their quest to discover the identity of her shooter, Garcia has a battle of hacking wills with fellow hacker Kevin when he tries to keep her out.

Of course, Garcia wins, causing his system to fail. She quickly realizes that her shooter is a dirty cop, and Morgan trusts her judgment enough to risk his job when Kevin tries to make contact. Kevin alerts her that the killer is at BAU headquarters, and after the assistance, Morgan manages to warn J.J. in time to take Battle out.