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The Criminal Minds Episode Ending Fans Find Unjustifiable

There are some "Criminal Minds" episodes that just consistently break fans' hearts. Despite someone dying in practically every episode — the name of the game is catching serial killers, after all — some of them pack an emotional gut punch and are just special like that.

One of the most affecting episodes is Season 1's "Riding the Lightning," which is as heartbreaking as it is controversial. This episode breaks the procedural mold by presenting a pair of convicted killers. They're a married duo: Jacob (Michael Massee), the "sexual psychopath" and an obvious creep who killed 13+ teenaged girls, and Sarah Jean (Jeannetta Arnette), the quiet "Ice Queen" who confessed to killing their young son and is suspected to have aided in the other murders. The pair of them are set to be executed after 15 years in prison, but the Behavioral Analysis Unit comes in to find out if Jacob had any more victims they haven't found yet.

While that is certainly the case, the episode pivots to become more about Gideon's (Mandy Patinkin) belief that Sarah Jean is innocent and his efforts to save her life. It becomes clear that she didn't know about any of the murders or kill her son Riley but actually gave him in secret to a rich family she worked for. She confessed to his murder to keep him from learning the devastating news that his father was a serial killer, and probably also to keep his reputation clear of his father's crimes.

In the end, the BAU finds Riley, now a teenager, and has all they need to prove Sarah Jean's innocence, but Gideon chooses to not expose him as Sarah Jean's living son. Instead, he lets Sarah Jean get what she wants: Her own execution. It's an arresting episode that's elicited a range of reactions from fans.

Some fans despise the ending of Riding the Lightning

In a Reddit thread about unpopular "Criminal Minds" opinions, one fan said they disagreed with Gideon's choice at the end. User u/justjoinedfor1q wrote, "You can justify it any way you want, but that child would've been better off in the long run if his mother weren't wrongfully executed." Though Gideon was respecting Sarah Jean's decision, they argued that Riley should have had a choice in whether or not he knew his birth mother. In another thread, user u/essenceinsanity called the ending "illogical and morally repugnant," comparing it to assisted suicide. They argued that there's no assurance Riley won't find out his true parentage later, anyway, making Sarah Jean's sacrifice for naught.

However, many fans are in favor of the episode. User u/rbloren had a hard time with the ending at first but grew to appreciate it. They wrote, "Sarah Jean was a victim her entire life. As such, she likely felt like much of her life was out of her control. This instance then, the protection of her son from Jacob but also from the knowledge that his life is a lie bought at his biological mother's expense, is an example of a victim reclaiming control of their life in the wake of a traumatic event." Some fans side with Sarah Jean, believing it's best for her son that he isn't forced into the news and out of his adopted family, which would likely become a traumatic event of its own.

Other fans love the episode for how tragic and heartbreaking it is, lauding it as one of the highest points of Season 1 and a solid entry point to the series as a whole. User u/Deejaymil wrote, "Is this episode a win or a loss for the team? I don't even know. I think it's one that haunts Gideon though..."