The BAU has battled gruesome, villainous unsubs for over 300 episodes. As its Evolution is underway, EW ranks the 15 original seasons of Criminal Minds, from watchable to skippable.
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Since 2005, the agents of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) have been delving into the psyche of gruesome serial killers on the CBS procedural Criminal Minds, while in the process, finding love, losing loved ones, and exploring their own past traumas. Though the original series ended after a highly successful 15-season run, it didn't take long for the BAU to make its return. In late 2022, a new installment, Criminal Minds: Evolution, launched on Paramount+ and reunited members of the unit to take down a network of serial killers formed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To celebrate this next chapter, let's dive into Criminal Minds history as EW shares its ranking of the seasons from worst to best. (Plenty of spoilers ahead!)

CRIMINAL MINDS, (from left): Paget Brewster, Shemar Moore, 'Into The Woods', (Season 6, ep. 609
Credit: Everett Collection

15. Season 6 (2010-2011)

Criminal Minds did a lot of cast shuffling during its run, but those changes derailed season six's storytelling. It began with the abrupt exit of beloved character Jennifer "JJ" Jureau (A.J. Cook) who was forcefully sent to a new post at the Pentagon and was followed up later in the season by the exit of Emily Prentiss (Paget Brewster). The announced exits, particularly Cook's, angered fans, which made new hire Agent Ashley Seaver (Rachel Nichols, who had the daunting role of stepping in for them) a hard one to integrate into the fold. To add even more chaos, Cook returned to help the team save Prentiss for her exit and then returned to the team full time for the following season. 

Behind-the-scenes choices were turned into a plot point that ended up hurting the show. As JJ left the series, Criminal Minds spent a lot of time discussing how important she was to the team as its communications liaison and even had an episode where Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) tries to take on the role before deciding to split the responsibility with Aaron Hotchner (Thomas Gibson).

The show passed up the opportunity to celebrate JJ's talents during her maternity leave (a result of Cook's actual pregnancy) in season four, opting for a weak arc featuring Meta Golding as her temporary replacement and doing it after this highly criticized exit only inflamed an already angry fanbase. Prentiss' exit arc offers a fascinating look into her past that involved a classified case, international criminal Ian Doyle (Timothy V. Murphy), and ended with the agent faking her own death after fighting for her life when Doyle kidnapped her.

Even though it is the best part of the uneven season, the shuffling and extended arc meant Agent Seaver didn't have much room on the show. The newly-minted BAU team member starts the season as the daughter of a serial killer who was at the FBI academy that helped the team on a case. Even as a recurring player, she could've brought such an interesting perspective but that experience is only utilized in one episode before she joined the BAU. Instead, she becomes not-JJ and the Criminal Minds team churns out an installment known more for casting changes than anything else. 

Criminal Minds (2015) -- ALL CROPS -- "The Hunt" -- airdate: CRIMINAL MINDS, Wednesday, May 6 -- Pictured: Jennifer Love Hewitt as Kate Callahan
Credit: Richard Cartwright/CBS

14. Season 10 (2014-2015)

Criminal Minds is a show that works well when its team gels, which was not the case in season 10. Agent Kate Callahan (Jennifer Love Hewitt) makes for a solid new hire, but the loss of Alex Blake (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who left after two seasons, is still felt because the magic of the team was not at its strongest in this configuration. Kate is an undercover agent who isn't utilized much outside of a fairly powerful season-long arc about a sophisticated network of human traffickers that involves her niece Meg. In the end, the one arc could have been fulfilled by a recurring character as Hewitt's real-life pregnancy mirrored Kate's exit after one season. 

Still, there are a handful of standout moments and episodes during this uneven season. For instance, season 10 features the backdoor pilot of Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders that welcomes a new team working internationally and includes SSA Matthew Simmons (Daniel Henney), who later joined the flagship series, the introduction of recurring villain Mr. Scratch in the season's best episode, and a touching callback to Hotch's late wife when the veteran agent helps his father-in-law deal with her death.

"Rock Creek Park," an episode about the abduction of the wife of a congressman-on-the-rise, is another strong offering. In a callback to the show's early days, original character Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin) is killed by an unknown subject, or "unsub," off-screen, but it still doesn't hit the strong emotional notes fans would expect from the death of one of the show's OGs. Meanwhile, SSA David Rossi (Joe Mantegna) experiences a personal loss when his Marine sergeant Harrison Scott (in a tribute to the late actor Meshach Taylor, who died six months before the episode aired) died and the joyous discovery of an adult daughter. 

Criminal Minds has seasons with a stronger collection of cases and the team has had much better chemistry than this one offered. 

Criminal Minds (2018) Pictured: Matthew Gray Gubler (Dr. Spencer Reid)
Credit: Cliff Lipson/CBS

13. Season 14 (2018-2019)

What turned out to be Criminal Minds' penultimate season feels like it was preparing for the end by tapping into the show's history. Season 14 starts big with episode 300 where Garcia and Agent Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) have been kidnapped by a cult led by a serial killer. It turns out the case connected to one from season four where the BAU comes across Benjamin Cyrus' (Luke Perry) cult.

In another standout episode that taps into Criminal Minds' past, a child that Prentiss saved in season three but doesn't stay in touch with gets manipulated into committing a series of murders in a very personal episode centering the veteran team member. We also finally get some answers about JJ's sister who died as a child when the team gets sent to her hometown. 

Through Garcia's traumatic kidnapping, the show begins to more deeply explore the toll their work takes on the team. Given how bright and positive the team's technical analyst has always been, it's understandable that she would hit her threshold at some point. The introduction of formidable adversary The Chameleon after he nearly takes down Rossi has a similar effect as the agent begins to question whether he's getting too old for the job. 

However, a shocking confession from JJ about loving Reid is what really hurts the season. The story around the pair of old friends and longtime teammates is well-positioned to be a will-they-won't-they romance except for Criminal Minds' infantilization of Reid. He's everyone's little brother and they all take care of him, and that includes JJ, who chose Reid to be the godfather of her child. Reid's season 12 prison arc makes him him grow up, but we didn't see much change within the team's dynamic. JJ's declaration goes against the history of the long-running show, split fans, and is something Criminal Minds thankfully moves away from early in the following season. 

And while we love the romantic wedding of Rossi and Krystall Richards (Gail O'Grady), it is merely the happy ending of a very uneven season. 

CRIMINAL MINDS
Credit: Sonja Flemming/CBS

12. Season 13 (2017-2018

With the addition of Matt Simmons (Daniel Henney) to the BAU, a formidable enemy in Linda Barnes (Kim Rhodes), and a thrilling ending, season 13 had all the makings of a great installment. — but ultimately, it wasn't to be.

SSA Simmons fits in seamlessly as a BAU team member to make the final team configuration of the series. The loving family man spends time with his kids, bonds with his teammates, and has his trust in the team put to the test when his wife's law firm is held hostage. Whereas Simmons is an asset, Barnes is a deliciously hateful character who wants to reframe the FBI in her image. But when the cases concern horrific crimes, it makes all the FBI in-fighting seem very low stakes, and as a result, less compelling.

In a way, it's reminiscent of how Erin Strauss (Jayne Atkinson) got in Agent Hotch's way earlier in the series, but on a much larger scale and without Strauss' ultimate goal of saving lives. Add in that Criminal Minds only split up the BAU for one episode, making it an elongated arc without teeth.

Season 13 ends with a big episode featuring a complicated case about a disgraced FBI agent, one potential serial killer, and a surprising twist about a cult leader. Unfortunately, this huge case comes out of nowhere and is incredibly complicated, which makes the finale feel overstuffed. While there are some good to great narratives pieces, the season overall is certainly not one of Criminal Minds' strongest. 

CRIMINAL MINDS, (from left): AJ Cook, Esai Morales, 'To Bear Witness' (Season 9, ep. 904
Credit: Everett Collection

11. Season 9 (2013-2014)

The ninth season of Criminal Minds marks a big year for SSA Jureau. Quickly after Matteo Cruz (Esai Morales) takes over as BAU Section Chief after Erin Strauss was killed, we discover that he has a past with JJ that they both actively keep secret. It turns out their classified past together concerns the mission JJ was part of when she left the team (during Cook's season six absence when her contract was not renewed) and the focal point of the 200th episode of the show.

The grueling hour sees JJ and Matteo tortured by a terrorist they were hunting and a friend that betrayed them in order to get access to a database called "Integrity." The hour is the season's best and it reveals what JJ did during her time away, provides an opportunity for Cook to shine as an actress and features an appearance by Emily Prentiss.  

The problem with season nine, however, is that outside of JJ's mystery arc (and another great episode about Garcia's past as a hacker titled "The Black Queen"), there isn't much else to it. Erin Strauss a big part of the show but her successor Cruz doesn't do much of anything as Section Chief that doesn't involve JJ. In addition, the season's cases are far from Criminal Minds' most compelling. 

CRIMINAL MINDS "Awakenings" (L-R): Paget Brewster as Emily Prentiss, Kirsten Vangsness as Penelope Garcia, and Joe Mantegna as David Rossi
Credit: CBS

10. Season 15 (2020)

The final season of Criminal Minds (before the announcement of its revival) is a shortened yet intentional one that celebrates the long-running series. There is a powerful episode that centers around a past case where newer BAU team members Luke Alvez (Adam Rodriguez) and Matt Simmons worked together before joining the unit and another titled "Saturday" featuring a day off for the team where Garcia tries to help a woman being stalked.

While this would be the original series' swan song, between Gibson's firing and Shemar Moore's commitment to fellow CBS drama SWAT, season 15 doesn't have that many returning stars - although Jane Lynch does appear as Reid's mother Dr. Diana Reid.

Criminal Minds wraps up its run with an arc about Rossi's adversary The Chameleon that focuses on the BAU's brilliant insights about the minds of humanity's worst, the element that made the show stand out at the start. The choice to wrap up the show with Garcia's sendoff is one that closes a huge chapter for the BAU while making it clear the team will continue to fight the worst of the worst. To have the heart of the team say goodbye is a powerful way to wrap things up as the agents each enter their own next chapters. 

CRIMINAL MINDS, Shemar Moore, 'Pariahville', (Season 11, ep. 1106, aired Nov. 4, 2015)
Credit: Everett Collection

9. Season 11 (2015-2016)

The "Dirty Dozen" storyline in season 11 puts Garcia in the spotlight, giving Criminal Minds one of its best villains, and sets up a fantastic exit arc for SSA Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) when the team comes up against a contractor killer who gives Morgan the clue of the hitman network that comprises "The Dirty Dozen." What the team believes to be 12 targets of some kind actually only concerns one person: Garcia.

Having the team's technical analyst being in danger turns what could have been a sprawling arc into a powerful personal story that involves Vangsness doing some of her best work. The network of assassins after Garcia include Cat Adams, a killer played brilliantly by Aubrey Plaza, who becomes one of Criminal Minds' crew's most notorious enemies. Her debut marks a standout episode where she faces off with Reid in a restaurant in an effort to save Garcia.

As mentioned, season 11 also wraps up Moore's time on the show as SSA Morgan. Chazz Montolo (Lance Henriksen), the father of the hitman who kicks off The Dirty Dozen arc, blames Morgan for his son's death, so he pursues him in several ways. First, he has a team of mercenaries kidnap and torture Derek in an episode that features Donald Glover as Derek's father in hallucinations in his altered state. Montolo then has a pregnant Savannah (Morgan's fiancé played by Rochelle Aytes) shot and after Morgan takes him down he opts for a life away from the FBI with his new family. 

Among the cavalcade of guest stars and new characters, Dr. Tara Lewis (Aisha Tyler) also joins the team and brings new energy to the BAU. While the brilliant forensic psychologist aims to use her experience working with serial killers in order to catch them, Tyler's character's sense of humor that allows her to disarm then ultimately bond with the team. 

The season 11 finale serves up great action as Hotch is arrested thanks to Mr. Scratch and the team heads to a prison to stop a massive planned jailbreak. In the end, 13 serial killers escape from prisons across the country, setting up a thrilling installment to follow. 

The cast of the new suspense thriller CRIMINAL MINDS includes (from left to right): Thomas Gibson, Matthew Gray Gubler, Ma
Credit: Nigel Parry/CBS

8. Season 1 (2005-2006)

This is, of course, the season that started it all. Criminal Minds began exploring the psyche of serial killers through the brilliant minds of the eccentric BAU team led by Jason Gideon and Aaron "Hotch" Hotchner.  And between Garcia's bright energy, Reid's brilliance, and Morgan's charisma, the initial team is packed full of characters that would captivate viewers.

Gideon is a somewhat off-putting and divisive member of the BAU, which creates a slew of interesting dynamics between the team and local law enforcement, and also allows the audience to get to know the agents. Reid sees Gideon as a mentor, Hotchner has to keep an eye on him, and Morgan is unsure about him.

There is also a very dynamic style in which the profiles are broken down by the team. Amber Heard's guest star stint as a TV starlet in danger, one based on the Beltway sniper attacks, and the hour that saw team member Elle Greenaway's (Lola Glaudini) train being taken hostage, are among the first season's standout episodes while the finale ends with a huge cliffhanger concerning Elle fighting for her life.

CRIMINAL MINDS, Adam Rodriguez in 'The Crimson King' (Season 12, Episode 1
Credit: Everett Collection

7. Season 12 (2016-2017)

While the sudden departure of Agent Hotchner (a result of an on-set issue that saw actor Thomas Gibson fired) caused major upheaval, season 12 of Criminal Minds takes a successful big swing and ends up having one of the series' most solid team rosters.

Paget Brewster is brought back as Agent Prentiss after a few seasons away to fill the void of team leader, Aisha Tyler became a series regular, and Adam Rodriguez joins as Agent  Alvez from the fugitive task force. The result is a BAU that meshes incredibly well (second only to the season three to six roster) and it also signifies Criminal Minds' most diverse up to that point. Alvez even accomplishes quite the feat by building a fresh dynamic with Garcia after Morgan's exit, which split up one of the show's most beloved duos. The show, however, doesn't try to replicate their bond, but instead creates a rivalry that makes for very fun viewing.

Aside from fans missing Hotch, the negative impact of his exit is reflected in the change to the Mr. Scratch (Peter Lewis) arc. The elevated threat against Hotchner's family is how the character is written out, but the storyline becomes less compelling because the two were tied so closely together. SSA Stephen Walker (Damon Gupton) is brought in by Prentiss specifically to take on Mr. Scratch and while he is a solid addition to the team, it doesn't have the same heft of Hotchner's time going up against him.

In this season, Criminal Minds also tries something new by giving Reid a serialized arc that lands him in prison and changes his character at his core. In an effort to save his mother, Reid secretly travels to Mexico for alternative remedies, which Cat Adams uses to frame him for murder. Watching Reid struggle to survive behind bars allows Gubler to do some of his best acting work and forces the team's resident little brother to evolve.

CRIMINAL MINDS, Jeanne Tripplehorn in 'The Silencer' (Season 8, Episode 1, aired September 26, 2012)
Credit: Everett Collection

6. Season 8 (2012-2013)

With a combination of professional drama, great personal storylines, and a solid collection of cases, season eight makes for a solid offering from Criminal Minds. Linguistics expert Alex Blake (Tripplehorn) joining the team gives Reid another genius to banter with in a different way than the rest of his crew, who often joked about all the facts he has in his brain.

Blake having a fraught past with Erin Strauss is an intriguing development for longtime fans who often saw the Section Chief as a thorn in the team's side in a season that ends with Strauss' death at the hands of the season's Big Bad, The Replicator. The serial killer is copying the methodology of unsubs the BAU has taken down in the past, and Criminal Minds can be very effective when it takes a meta turn. 

Season eight also delves into Reid's personal life after he begins a relationship with Meave (Beth Riesgraf), a woman he never saw and only communicated over pay phones for her safety. The arc shows a more vulnerable version of Reid as he falls in love but its tragic end of Meave's stalker killing her in a murder-suicide in front of Reid makes for devastating television.

CRIMINAL MINDS, (from left): Thomas Gibson, James Black, 'Catching Out', (Season 4, October 29, 2008
Credit: Everett Collection

5. Season 4 (2008-2009)

The introduction of Criminal Minds' most notorious adversary was just one of reasons season four is one of the series' best. The reveal that The Reaper is a past victim who was right in front of Hotch delivers not only a crushing blow to the veteran profiler who takes the case personally but also the show's best twist.

Cases where Reid and Prentiss infiltrate a cult, a deep dive into Reid's estranged father who may be responsible for a child's murder, when the team hunts Fibonacci sequence-obsessed narcissistic psychopath, and a striking performance by Jackson Rathbone as delusional serial killer are among the season's best narratives.

The cap to this strong season is its thrilling final chapter in a two-part episode where a former soldier puts his life on the line to find his missing sister and a shocking cliffhanger where The Reaper returns to shoot Hotchner.

CRIMINAL MINDS, (from left): Thomas Gibson, Shemar Moore, Joe Mantegna, 'Hit'
Credit: Everett Collection

4. Season 7 (2011-2012)

After a sixth season full of cast shake-ups, season seven actually begins with the team intact! With JJ and Prentiss back, Criminal Minds' best BAU line-up returns. Although Brewster leaves at the end of the season, it is earned this time after her ordeal with Doyle and returning from the dead, which is a happy exit for the beloved character.

SSA Morgan gets several great moments including pushing against Hotchner when he discovers Strauss is drinking on the job, a case where he connects with a survivor deeply, and when discovering the cousin he believed was dead is actually under the control of her abductor.

In a successful break form format, episode "Profiling 101" has the team walking students through a prolific case that is personal for Rossi. It all ends with a two-part episode where a heist gets personal when Will is put in danger — and involves Cook throwing down with guest star Tricia Helfer — before the two get married in a wonderful ceremony at Rossi's house. 

CRIMINAL MINDS, (from left to right) Thomas Gibson, David Rossi (cowboy hat), Joe Mantegna, Matthew
Credit: Everett Collection

3. Season 3 (2007-2008)

This is season that put together the BAU unit beloved by Criminal Minds fans. While Gideon's exit was abrupt (actor Mandy Patinkin left due to the show's dark subject matter), he does hand off the reign to the BAU's other founding father SSA David Rossi. With this particular line-up, Criminal Minds enters an era of stability for the team as it grows into a family.

There are some solid growing pains, however, as Rossi's experience and time away as a crime author bumps up against how the BAU has evolved since he left the FBI. Seeing him go from clashing a bit with the new class to accepting their help with a case from the past he wants to solve is one way viewers watch them come together. 

As the team is struggling with Gideon's departure, there are plenty of solid personal arcs throughout the season, including Hotchner getting a divorce and Garcia being attacked an angel of death who enters her life as a potential love interest in a thrilling two-part episode. Along with the character development, there are several other highlights including the BAU facing a killer who uses people's fears against them and a standout hour featuring Jamie Kennedy as a cannibalistic serial killer in one of the show's most stomach-turning episodes.

It all culminates in a case in New York City involving an agent Hotchner has chemistry with, Morgan clashing with Hotch, and, yes, another cliffhanger that leaves the entire BAU's lives in the balance.

Criminal Minds Season 5
Credit: Everett Collection

2. Season 5 (2009-2010)

Criminal Minds' most devastating moment is at the center of one of its best seasons. It begins with Hotchner fighting for his life after The Reaper shoots him and threatens his family, which forces the BAU leader to put his wife and son in witness protection.

The impact of the attack leads to Morgan taking over as the head of the team after the FBI doubts Hotchner's ability to do his job. In the show's milestone 100th episode and what is perhaps Criminal Minds' most shocking moment, The Reaper, aka series villain George Foyet (C. Thomas Howell), kills Hotchner's ex-wife while the entire BAU team hears the shots over the phone. After the horrific ordeal, the seasoned agent has to come to terms with why he does this job and if it's worth it. The entire arc results in Thomas Gibson's best work during his 12-season run on the show. 

Aside from Foyet's attack on Hotch, Criminal Minds has a slew of great cases in season five. One takes Rossie back home and brings up memories of a woman he once loved while another features a killer who makes up her female victims as dolls from her own children. Series star Matthew Gray Gubler's directorial debut "Mosley Lane," meanwhile, denotes another strong hour of the season that features Evan Peters (Dahmer). 

The result of personal stories, The Reaper arc, and strong cases makes season five close to Criminal Minds' best. 

CRIMINAL MINDS, A.J. Cook, Mandy Patinkin, 'The Boogeyman
Credit: Everett Collection

1. Season 2 (2006-2007)

There was thankfully no sophomore slump when it came to Criminal Minds. The second season builds on the brilliance of the first with bold storylines, personal arcs for characters, and sets the stage for the future by introducing important figures within the world.

After being shot in the season one finale, Elle begins her tragic exit in early season two. The trauma of her shooting and the pressure of her job leads to the BAU agent shooting an unsub. Ultimately, when the shooting is investigated by Hotch, she chooses to leave the FBI, thus proving Criminal Minds would not shy away from what the toll this job takes on its agents.

Season two also marks the beginning of JJ's journey to becoming a profiler after a case involving high school students hits close to home and provides her the chance to shine. Reid spends the season dealing with the aftermath of being tortured by psychotic serial killer Tobias Hankel (James Van Der Beek) while a trip to Morgan's hometown after he's arrested allows the team to get to know him better, and the exciting showdown between Gideon and an unsub named Frank Breitkopf are the season's standouts.

Additionally, beloved character Agent Prentiss makes her debut under less than ideal circumstances as she's placed on the team with Hotch's knowledge, which sets her up for an uphill battle. His suspicions are correct when it's revealed that Strauss put her on the team and asks her to spy on the BAU. Simply put, season two raises the bar and expands the world of Criminal Minds to brilliant results, setting the stage for its lengthy, memorable run to come. 

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