Episode Two of Season 12, "Sick Day", brought with it a personal touch that the series hasn't seen for a while and subsequently delivered what I believe to be the best episode in well over a season.
This week's story centers on JJ and her connection and involvement to a case involving young children. The team are made aware of two new victims, a boy and a girl, found burned to death in an abandoned building. This discovery correlates to a similar event in San Diego two years earlier, and it soon becomes clear that the same UnSub is behind both of them.
With the episode divided between JJ at work and at home with husband Will, you can't help but feel personally drawn into the story, urging JJ to open up about what's happened, just as Will all but forces her to do. Tearful and exhausted, she relents, and, slowly but surely, the horrific details of what she's experienced are revealed to everyone.
Coordinating with local police, the team believe the UnSub may go dormant again, but, sadly, they're soon proven wrong as sixteen year old Francesca Morales is grabbed off the street.
Visiting her family home, JJ and Alvez learn that Francesca normally walks to school with her younger brother Roberto -- who goes by 'Berto' -- only he had the day off, as he was 'sick'. He later admits to JJ, as she entices him into talking through chatting about comic books, that he was faking it. She tells him that she and her team won't stop until they bring his sister back.
Reid figures out that the UnSub won't leave Los Angeles, and further digging into individuals with fire-related jobs and arson-related arrests soon brings John David Bates onto Garcia's radar. As a youngster, he twice locked his sister in a house and burned it down (she survived both times), and now she's living in the city. His 'stressor' is identified when Garcia announces Bates tried to get back in touch with his sister two years ago after finding her email address and that he received a far from polite response, at which point he found and burned his first two victims.
Going on the information about Bates' sister, Hotch calls JJ and Alvez, who have just left the Morales house. Hotch tells them Berto may be a target, and the pair head back to the house. On the way, they spot the police car that had been present with them during their interviews speeding off in the other direction and, upon arriving at the property, find the mother unconscious and Berto gone.
The pair are then seen in the back of a van, being taken to an abandoned building, but, prior to arriving there, Berto manages to get a brief signal on his phone, which notifies Garcia of his and Francesca's location -- information she passes on to Alvez and JJ. As they pull up outside the building, it explodes, as a fire is ignited from inside, and, instinctively, JJ rushes in. Both siblings are bound and held down with chains, as is Bates' sister, who has also been taken. Bates, seeing JJ and Alvez enter the building, makes a run for it, and JJ tells Alvez to go after him while she sees to freeing the three individuals.
With the fire raging all around, JJ finds it near impossible to free anyone, shooting at Berto's chains until they finally loosen and he's able to escape. Alvez, having pinned down and cuffed Bates, returns with bolt cutters and frees Bates' sister, who can't walk as her brother has broken her ankles, so Alvez carries her out. As the fire grows, JJ finds herself knocked to the floor, dizzy -- presumably slightly concussed -- while Francesca screams for help. However, a trail of lighter fluid ignites near some chemical drums by where the teen is bound, and Alvez, returning to the building, pulls JJ away and out before the chemicals explode and Francesca is burned alive.
Believing she chose to save Roberto for the fact he reminded her of eldest son, Henry, JJ is tormented by the life she couldn't save -- that of his elder sister Francesca. The reality is, no one, no matter who you are or how hard you try, can save everyone, and this fact is one that resonates throughout the episode.
This episode also marked the final appearance of Thomas Gibson's Agent Hotchner, as he has been written out following his firing which resulted from his altercation with producer Virgil Williams. Sadly, it wasn't much of a farewell for him.
My final point to make is this -- while the majority of the episodes in this show revolve around the team, this one truly was JJ's. A.J. Cook delivered the performance of her career in a show of immense vulnerability, passion and heartache. Quite how the show will top such a strong episode this season remains to be seen -- if they manage it at all.