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Why David Rossi's First Appearance In Criminal Minds Means More Than You Think

For the first two seasons of CBS's gritty crime procedural Criminal Minds, the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) was anchored by Senior Supervisory Special Agent Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin). The veteran profiler was as intense as he was gifted at sniffing out unknown subjects (unsubs). What he occasionally lacked in warm conversation and other social skills, he made up for in raw, case-closing talent.

When Gideon turned in his badge at the very beginning of season 3, the squad was left with a senior supervisory special agent-sized hole. That is until David Rossi (Joe Mantegna) was called out of retirement and brought back into the field. Rossi and Gideon never shared any screen time together, but the characters do have a decades-long history as friends and colleagues. But despite their fondness for one another, the two are actually quite different. While Gideon tended to be dark and moody, Rossi is warm and known to bust out wonderfully groan-worthy dad jokes.

Even though the two were ships passing in the night, Criminal Minds did include a symbolic Easter egg to commemorate the end of the Gideon era and the birth of the Rossi era. To many, Rossi's first appearance on the series may have looked like nothing more than a strong character introduction. But the imagery behind that scene was actually quite rooted in the series' lore.

Rossi's symbolic Criminal Minds entrance

One of Gideon's most defining personal characteristics is his love of birds. He is an avid bird-watcher and has a deep knowledge of all things avian, something that once even assisted him in solving a case. It was Gideon's expertise in mockingbirds that helped the BAU track down unsub Tobias Hankel (James Van Der Beek), one of the killers from the show that fans find sympathetic.

The writers seemingly played on Gideon's connection to birds when it came time to introduce his successor. Viewers first met Rossi in the season 3 episode "About Face." In the opening moments, the camera pans over a pristine wetland in Virginia, complete with a flock of ducks flying overhead. It then cut to Rossi crouched on the banks of the reservoir with a shotgun in hand. He shoots one of the birds, and his dog splashes into the water to go retrieve it.

The show doesn't explicitly tie this scene to Gideon, however, considering the former special agent's affinity for birds, it's hard to imagine that Rossi's duck hunting debut wasn't meant to be thematically related. The image of him shooting a bird out of the sky could be read as the official moment that marked the end of Gideon's run on the series. Although Gideon the character isn't dead (yet), he may as well be as far as the viewer is concerned, as he never makes another on-screen appearance (except in flashbacks).

And to make the moment even more resonant, bird imagery appeared again when Gideon actually did die on the show.

The bird-related clue that helped Rossi solve Gideon's murder

The season 10 episode "Nelson's Sparrow" saw the character of Gideon appear on the show once again. Unfortunately for him, it was only as the victim of a home invasion murder.

Gideon's body is found riddled with bullet holes in his remote cabin in the Virginia wilderness. Rossi notes that Gideon managed to fire a few shots at his murderer before dying. To the untrained eye, the sporadic bullet holes around the cabin might seem like the final frantic shots of a desperate man. However, one of the bullets passed right through a framed illustration of some birds.

The image brings Rossi back to a case he and Gideon worked on when they were young agents in the 1970s. The unsub was a serial killer whose calling card was leaving a dead bird in the hands of his victims. Gideon and Rossi weren't able to solve the case due to a lack of institutional support, and the killer ended up going off the grid.

However, when Rossi sees the shot bird illustration in Gideon's home, he takes it as a sign from his deceased friend that the killer they weren't able to bring to justice is still at large. That hunch turns out to be correct. In the end, the BAU squad finds that Gideon was indeed killed by Donnie Mallick (Arye Gross), who developed an obsession with birds (and kidnapping and murdering women) after living with an aunt who was a birdwatcher.

The illustrated bird with a bullet hole in it is also reminiscent of the moment that Rossi himself entered the show. It's exactly that kind of attention to detail that kept Criminal Minds fans hooked for 15 seasons and still has themĀ eager for even more.