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'Criminal Minds' review: Working the AA steps by thrill-killing

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Criminal Minds took a well-worn plot — a couple on a killing spree — and turned it into a shrewd, intentionally appalling and well-acted story about alcoholism taken to murderous extremes. Adrianne Palicki, Friday Night Lights‘ Tyra and all-too-briefly a star on Fox’s canceled Lone Star, joined with Jonathan Tucker (The Black Donnelleys) to portray a couple “working the steps” in a perverse manner.

Wednesday night’s episode was shot with a melodramatic garishness that successfully conveyed the roiling inner lives of Palicki and Tucker’s Sydney and Ray, a couple driving around the Midwest in various states of drunken stupor and false elation, murdering people. (Think Natural Born Killers, but with a sense of moral consequence.) Although the phrase “Alcoholics Anonymous” wasn’t used, the FBI/BAU team talked about the “alcohol support group” that Ray attended. At a meeting, Ray confessed to drinking and said he was “working the steps” — AA’s 12-step program. (The episode’s title, “The Thirteenth Step,” was, in this episode, a reference to an informal rule that AA members should not become involved in romantic relationships in the early stages of sobriety.) Ray ended the meeting during his “share” by shooting up the room.

As is typical for Criminal Minds, the crimes — death by shotgun, pistol, bludgeoning with a crowbar, a baseball bat — were shown in grisly detail, but they served a purpose: This week, the work done by Palicki and Tucker was effectively harrowing, communicating the full terror of being in the grip of addiction and spiraling out of control. It was said that Ray was “working steps seven, eight, and nine”; Matthew Gray Gubler’s Reid observed that at various points, Ray and Sydney twisted the AA principles by “trying to force people to make amends to them” rather than the other way around.

The episode, written by producer Janine Sherman Barrios, was full of effectively eccentric and frightening touches, such as the candy wedding ring Sydney sucked on, and the use of the not-AA meeting as a stage for death.

In the night’s brief subplot, the criminally underused Paget Brewster’s Prentiss was contacted about a menace from her past, a story line that will presumably be followed up in the coming weeks.

Twitter: @kentucker