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The Most Heartbreaking Criminal Minds Episode From Season 1

Despite airing its finale in 2020, "Criminal Minds" is once again snagging headlines as rumors of a potential series revival grow more intense. Even though the CBS crime procedural ran for an incredible 15 seasons, fans are still demanding more. And who can blame them? Over the years, the series featured some of the most twisted criminals to ever appear on network television. Week after week, fans tuned in to see how the Behavioral Analysis Unit would take down the latest "unsub."

While some unsubs failed to make a lasting impression on viewers, many lingered in nightmares long after the episode's credits rolled. From face-stealing killers to marionette-obsessed murderers, there was no shortage of the creatively diabolical to haunt the audience. Surprisingly, amidst the many horrific criminals on the show, one unsub managed to earn viewers' empathy. This particular unsub appears in a Season 1 episode that has become notorious among fans of the series. In a Reddit thread about the episode, u/Deejaymil called it "one of the harder hitting ones," while another user described it as "absolutely gut-wrenching and brutal, but it's so beautifully done."

This is the most heartbreaking episode from Season 1 of "Criminal Minds."

The story of Sarah Jean Mason is tragic

Season 1, Episode 14, "Riding the Lightning," focuses on a pair of convicted murderers sitting on Death Row as their scheduled execution draws near. Jacob Dawes (Michael Massee) and his wife, Sarah Jean Mason (Jeannetta Arnette), were convicted in 1990 of the murders of 12 teenage girls, as well as the murder of their two-year-old son. After the discovery of a 13th body, and with only hours left before Dawes and Mason's executions are carried out, the BAU heads to Florida State Penitentiary to determine if there were other victims during the couple's five-year rampage.

At one point during the murder spree, the police were given a tip about Jacob, and conducted an interview with him, although he wasn't arrested. Their interest, however, spooked him, and he told Sarah Jean that they needed to go on the run. He also instructed his wife to kill their son, believing the two-year-old would only slow them down in their effort to elude law enforcement.

A short time later, the police returned with a search warrant and discovered the bodies beneath Jacob's workshop. Upon their arrest, Sarah Jean confessed to killing her son and dumping the body. Despite Jacob's claims to the contrary, she denied any involvement in the actual murder of the girls. After the trial — during which Sarah Jean earned the moniker "The Ice Queen" due to her dispassionate demeanor — the two are convicted and sentenced to death.

However, a shocking twist in the story casts Sarah Jean's demeanor in a whole new light.

Sarah Jean makes the ultimate sacrifice for her son

During his interview with Sarah Jean in prison, Senior Supervisory Special Agent Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin) begins to suspect the woman isn't telling the full truth. After a bit of digging, Gideon makes a shocking discovery: Sarah Jean's son is alive and well. Instead of killing the boy as Jacob had instructed, Sarah Jean brought him to a family she knew and asked them to raise the child as their own. By lying to Jacob, she kept the child safe from his murderous father. By maintaining her guilt during the trial and her imprisonment, she ensured the child would never know the truth of his heritage.

Gideon immediately tasks his team with locating Sarah Jean's son, now a teenager named Byron Sheffield (Ren Casey), believing he can get Sarah Jean's execution stayed. She, however, pleads with Gideon, begging him to let the matter be. Having come across a newspaper article about Bryon and his cello skills, Sarah Jean knows her son is safe and "free to be whatever he chooses to be," and she doesn't want to put him through the trauma of learning the truth about his actual parents. Gideon begrudgingly abides by her wishes. 

As she's marched to the execution chamber, Sarah Jean asks Gideon to be in the viewing room so that his will be the last face she sees. The unsettling episode then ends with another punch to the gut when the audience sees Gideon attending Byron's cello recital.

There've been many memorable unsubs on the show, but few have been able to elicit viewer sympathy quite like Sarah Jean Mason. Her sacrifice endeared her to many and helped make "Riding the Lightning" the most heartbreaking episode in the inaugural season of "Criminal Minds."