Criminal Minds is loving the “To Be Continued…” this season, and what better time to use it than in the penultimate episode of the season, “Devil’s Backbone.” In the team’s final case before the season finale, the profilers must rely on information from a notorious serial killer in prison whose group is likely the UnSub holding two boys captive for two years.
When clothing confirmed to belong to the boys is sent to Antonia Slade (guest star Frances Fisher) in prison, the BAU is brought in to find out what she knows. But to do so, they may have to make a deal with a devilish character — one that, given the events of the hour and that “To Be Continued…” may come back to haunt them.
What Does Antonia Want?
Two years ago, two boys went missing under different circumstances. Adam had been living with his mother when vanished on his way home from school. Initially, the police thought Adam’s father took him to Mexico due to the bitter divorce. The other boy, Jimmy, went missing from foster care three months later, but he had a history of running away. Until the clothing showed up, no one knew that the two cases could be related.
The clothes were sent to Antonia Slade, known as the Runaway Killer. A clinical social worker, she started a runaway hotline to lure in her victims and was captured 15 years ago by the BAU. Her longtime lover killed himself when the police arrived. Nine bodies were found wrapped in plastic in the dry wall in the basement. All were shot in the back of the head. She never explained why she did it. Is someone replicating one of her crimes? The kids would be the right age now. Or, could she be orchestrating all of it from behind bars?
Until now, Antonia has refused to see anyone, but she does have a rule: only one person at a time. So Hotch goes in first. He tells her that she holds all the cards and they need her help, but all she does is toss a piece of paper at him on which she’s written “All Work and No Play Makes Agent Hotchner a Dull Boy.” The note could be about her need to be in control; she did choose victims she could dominate and has been holding information. However, she had turned the page in her notebook when they came in, and they can get an imprint of what she was writing before.
Next in to see Antonia is J.J., but Antonia wants to know something about her first. (Note: Never tell a serial killer anything about yourself, not even where you grew up or if you’re an only child.) After a failed attempt on J.J.’s part to find out who sent the clothes, Antonia then turns to her experience with the BAU — how long she’s been there, if she’s treated the same and respected as much as Hotch. She tells J.J. that she’s smarter than he is and the only reason she’s not head of the BAU is because the world sees her first and foremost as a young, attractive woman. She should take charge, Antonia suggests, then offers to do something for her if J.J. does something for her: arrange a transfer to a prison back home in Kentucky. Not happening.
The Rules Have Changed
Antonia has been receiving about four to five letters a week from men, but she never writes back. The only letter she’s sent is to a magazine claiming libel because they claimed she admitted to killing the runaway teens. She’s a narcissist and wants to control how she’s perceived, but in that case, she should be writing back to her fans. So why isn’t she? Maybe she is, just not through official channels. It’s time to look into anyone who has contact with her.
The imprint on that page from Antonia reveals a letter to “my friend,” but the language is too stilted and formal to not be in code. In hopes of finding out the cipher, Reid goes to talk to her next. She picks up on his sadness, on his grief, and can tell that he’s lost someone. If he wants to know about the missing boys, he has to give her his friend’s name, and he tells her Derek Morgan. She guesses he suppresses his grief around his teammates because they’re not as affected and didn’t lose a protect like he did — but that’s nothing new for him, is it? She offers up the cipher key (“CH,” it looks like she writes) and that the boys are still alive (but not for long).
However, they can’t find anyone in the visitor log with the initials “CH,” making that a dead end. They do figure out that the UnSub is replicating one of her former crimes. She once picked up two boys at the same time, but one escaped. In his account, he described her as a loving mother at first, but that changed after a week. She got mad about small things and told them they were old enough to understand the rules. He escaped three weeks after she picked him up, but the boy with him was too scared to leave. He ended up being her last victim.
Garcia identifies a guard who has had more contact with her than anyone and volunteered to fill in for a sick guard in solitary. Orel, and Reid get him to admit that he’s been sending her letters for her. They’re harmless, Orel insists, and all to different men. Her latest letter was to a “John Smith.” He’s obviously not going to be easy to track down.
They then decide they’ve had enough of her rules, and Rossi and Tara go to see Antonia together. When she refuses to talk, they do the ol’ “her partner was the real brains behind the operation and she was just his helper” shtick and it actually works. But she wants to talk to Tara alone. Again, she wants to know something about Tara, and so she tells her about the time she spent in Germany as a kid when she was bullied. But Antonina can tell she’s lying and that a version of her story only happened to someone close to her.
It’s important for her to feel dominant, they know, which means that the UnSub has to be submissive. He’s a loner, emotionally dependent on her and waits for her direction. Garcia, looking for a John Smith, is really going nowhere (she only narrowed down the 2780 in Virginia to 1900), but all they can do is add a few more parameters: single men who live alone and have a profession requiring attention to detail, like in health care, science and math.
Breaking Her Code
Fortunately, they get a break when Reid breaks the cipher. Antonia didn’t write “CH” but “C++,” a programming language, meaning the UnSub is most likely a programmer or someone who works with computers. After a bunch of talk that only Reid can understand, Rossi gets him to break it down into English. The message is in a single sentence, the fourth, according to the number underlined in the date: “When I think that proof alone will never beat faulty logic, I bleed twice.” The message is “ATONE FL MN,” meaning that the UnSub is going to kill the kids during the full moon, that night at 10:36pm, in less than five hours. They don’t know where he is, but because Antonia does, they have to give her what she wants: the prison transfer to Kentucky.
Once on the jet, Antonia offers up the information that the UnSub is replicating her previous crime, but they already know that. Reid realizes that she wants to witness the murders and that’s why she wants the transfer to Kentucky. So the UnSub is someone from her early life there? Garcia’s on it.
Meanwhile, the UnSub takes the boys from where he’s been keeping them — and Adam’s sick — and drives them to an unknown location, forcing them out of the van at gunpoint.
Garcia identifies the UnSub as Claude Barlow, an early patient of Antonia’s with a history of dangerous behavior from when she first started as a social worker in Kentucky. He saw her twice a week for three years, and when she moved to Virginia, he followed her and showed up at the center where she was working. The center took out a restraining order on him, and he disappeared until he tried to go see her under a different name after she was locked up. She refused. They’re looking at an extreme case of transference, and she encouraged that dependence.
Antonia says she can’t give them an address for Claude’s location, but she can take them there. However, she has one more request: remove the cuffs, so she can have a taste of freedom, or take her straight to the new prison. With Garcia coming up empty on an address for Claude or Antonia in Kentucky, they have no choice but to do what she wants.
As she directs them to Claude’s location, Garcia comes up with a possible address, the clinic where they first met that has been empty for years. It holds significance to him, so he could have taken the boys there. Antonia insists he didn’t, that he took them to a place where they used to take walks, and they continue to follow her directions. It’s a good thing they do, because they find Jimmy in a cabin and he tells them Claude took Adam.
Reid and Tara have Antonia lead them to where she used to take Claude, and that’s where they find him with Adam. It’s only when they allow Antonia to step forward to talk to him that he lets Adam go, but after she whispers to him and begins to walk away, Claude kills himself. And Antonia is brought back to prison. No, that transfer was never going to happen.
But Is It Over?
They know Antonia told Claude to send the clothes, but why now? Was it just because the boys were getting older and he couldn’t hold them much longer? “Of all the serial killer types, the ones I find the most dangerous are the hyper-intelligent ones that get off more on the mind games than the killing. They’re like vampires, ready to suck your soul dry and file your information away for a rainy day,” Tara says, and oh, I can’t help but think that this might be the most important bit to take away from this entire episode — especially after Hotch goes to see Antonina in the final scene.
He knows that she set the events of the past few days in motion for a reason, and like before, she wants him to prove that he’s more than a fancy title and a nice suit. So he tells her the real story: how she got pregnant at the age of 15. As a punishment, her father made her have the baby at home and then killed her boyfriend. At first, they profiled her as an extreme narcissist, but that’s just a cover. She’s actually full of self-loathing, he says, and every time she killed a runaway teen, she was killing herself or her boyfriend for lacking discipline. What happened to her baby? She can’t tell him that, but she does offer him a warning as a reward for being clever: “There’s a storm coming, Agent Hotchner. And you’re about to be swept away.”
To Be Continued…
Criminal Minds season 11 airs Wednesdays at 9pm on CBS.
(Image courtesy of CBS)