It's nighttime in Evanston, Wyoming. A bedroom in one house is filled with sports trophies and photos of a happy-looking, accomplished teenage boy. A bedroom in another house is filled with photographs of a happy-looking, accomplished teenage girl.
The boy is wearing headphones and playing with a TV gaming system. He takes off the headphones and puts down the game controller. The girl, who is sitting at her computer, turns and gets up from the desk. Both teenagers close their bedroom doors, the girl locking hers. The boy takes a tie from his closet; she takes the belt from her bathrobe. He knots one end of his tie to his closet doorknob; she knots hers to her closet's clothes rod. He kneels on the floor, loops the other end of his tie around his neck, and leans forward. She slumps against the door, knocking over the lamp and framed family portrait.
Later, the boy's mother brings her son some cookies. She sees a horrifying sight and screams, dropping the plate. The girl's parents break through her locked door and see a similarly horrifying sight in the closet. Both couples watch tearfully as the EMTs try to resuscitate their children. The sheriff on the scene makes a decision.
At BAU headquarters JJ quietly tells a caller, "OK. I'll see what I can do. Thanks." She hangs up the phone and sits silently for a moment, then takes out a necklace and puts it on. In Hotch's office, she hands him some files and tells him about a call and some case files she just received from Sheriff Samuel in Uinta County, Wyoming. Six nights ago two different teenagers were found hanging in their bedrooms. Trish Leake was dead at the scene. Ryan Krouse was revived, but died later in the hospital.
JJ knows the BAU doesn't handle suicide cases. However, on the Friday before Trish and Ryan died, two other teenage boys a few towns over were found hanging from their doors. Hotch comments four successful suicides in the same rural county in one week is way above the national average. The victims appear to be good kids who, for some reason, all decided to hang themselves at the same time on Friday night. Something's wrong; JJ can feel it.
The four suicides happened on the previous two Fridays. Today is Wednesday and the team's not on another case right now. Hotch tells JJ to generate an equivocal death investigation and to get everyone on the jet. Even if these deaths are suicides, "there's definitely something wrong here."
A computer screen displays a teenage boy is seen hanging from his closet door, then a message "Disk burn in progress", and finally, "Disk burn complete. Burn same disk again?" Someone removes the disk from a burner, puts it in a jewel case, and places the case on top of a stack of disks. The previous disk is labeled "Trish Leake. January 15, 2010." The top disk is labeled "Ryan Krouse. January 15, 2010."
"Life is a game. Play it. Life is too precious. Do not destroy it." Mother Teresa
On the jet Garcia tells Hotch that she's glad to be with them on this trip; she's just puzzled as to why. Hotch explains that part of an equivocal death investigation when suicide is a possibility, is to perform an indirect personality assessment. All of these victims were internet-generation kids. If they were suicidal, evidence of it is probably on their computers or in cyberspace. Garcia isn't enthusiastic about snooping through dead kids' computers. Rossi informs her, "This plane seldom makes pleasure trips."
Other than being decent students who attended the same county high school, the victims have little in common. Nothing in their backgrounds suggests they would do something like this. JJ notes in particular there are no prior attempts, no period of deep depression, no withdrawal from family members, no spontaneous proclamations of love. The team is puzzled by JJ's last comment. She explains in the days leading up to the event, a suicidal person will sometimes blurt out "I love you" to family as a sort of goodbye. The telling silence that follows is broken by Hotch saying, "We'll start with the latest two victims. If they were suicides, let's find out what drove them to it."
At the Uinta County Sheriff's Department, Sheriff Rhonda Samuel and JJ shake hands and exchange introductions. She tells the team that the county's residents are very shaken over the suicides and she's been holding off a persistent reporter. Morgan and Reid call on Mr. and Mrs. Krouse at their home, while Hotch, Prentiss and JJ visit the Leakes. Mrs. Leake says Trish had been very excited about graduating from high school the next year. Asked if Trish had a boyfriend, Mr. Leake discovers his wife knew their daughter had been dating someone. After Trish ran up a $100 texting bill the previous month, her father grounded her and took away her cell phone. Mrs. Leake didn't tell her husband about the boyfriend because he would have freaked out.
JJ tries to calm Mr. Leake, who now fears his disciplining of Trish may have led to her death. "If your daughter committed suicide, it wouldn't have been because of some punishment. It's so much more complicated than that." The word "if" is not lost on the couple, particularly Mrs. Leake. To cover the awkwardness, Hotch asks to see Trish's bedroom. Meanwhile, at the Krouses' home Ryan's parents quickly deduce if the FBI is investigating, their son's death may not have been a suicide. They don't believe it was.
Everything in Trish Leake's bedroom suggests she had everything to live for. Hotch and Prentiss take her laptop computer for Garcia to examine. At the Krouses' home, Ryan's father tells Morgan and Reid the school football coach had wanted Ryan to play quarterback the next year. Ryan didn't have his own computer; he used the household computer in the family room. Reid asks for the network IP address with which Garcia can examine the computer from offsite.
The team returns to the Sheriff's Department with Trish's laptop. While Garcia works on the computer, JJ apologizes to Hotch for using the word "if" with the Leakes, and assures him she has nothing invested in these deaths not being suicides. She's just trying to keep the coming Friday from being like the previous two. Garcia learns the night Trish died, the teenager had been on a "choking game" internet website. The game is known as the "good kids' high," in which high school kids get a buzz by choking themselves. They experience the lightheadedness and euphoria of drug use without the drugs. Ryan Krouse could have used the gaming system in his bedroom to access the internet. Reid gives Garcia the Krouses' computer IP address and she finds that Ryan had been on the website as well that night. Trish's and Ryan's deaths definitely weren't suicides.
Garcia finds and plays a text-to-voice icon on the website. A computerized voice says, " Come on. Try it. We all do. I dare you." Someone is orchestrating this game and daring kids to choke themselves. One by one, several teenagers are shown watching their computer screens as the voice continues. "Make sure you close the door. Tomorrow's the big night. We're all gonna play the game."
Exploring further on The Choking Game's site, Garcia discovers someone had set up a contest to pit the area high schools against each other. Chatter suggests the said someone is a teenager. The next contest is scheduled for tomorrow -- Friday -- and the school that logs the most high time wins. Each participant must perform the hanging alone, record it with a webcam, and upload it to the site for it to count. Hotch tells Garcia to shut the site down, but she advises against it. The site is their only way of tracking the unsub and if she cuts into it he'll know they're watching him. He can simply shut the site down and bring it up again later in a way that they can't find it again. There's also no way to know how many other servers on which the site is replicated anyway.
The team gives the profile to the sheriff's department. The unsub may be a teenager, a loner who doesn't participate in team sports or group activities. He's withdrawn and has very low self-esteem. His only form of pure interaction is online, engaging in activity which draws attention to himself while isolating himself from his peers. In real life, he considers himself a loser. In cyberspace he can pull strings and make himself feel powerful. At the same time, JJ addresses a group of parents and gives them a list of warning signs to look for in their teenagers. After the presentation, Sheriff Samuel asks if JJ thinks it helped. JJ replies, "Not as much as getting through to the kids will."
At Evans High School, Reid gives a scientific presentation about The Choking Game to a group of Ryan Krouse's classmates. Morgan catches one boy texting another, demands the text device and reads the message aloud. "What planet is this dude from? He doesn't want us to win the contest."
Reid seizes the moment and says, "Actually the more accurate statement would be 'He doesn't want us to participate in the contest at all.'" He stands next to the empty desk that had been Ryan's and, in graphic detail, tells the students how Ryan's wanting to win the contest had cost him his life. Ryan had choked himself in a way that had cut off all the oxygen to his brain, which, in turn, had caused his heart to slow down. His brain tried to preserve itself by shutting down all non-essential body functions. First Ryan's arms and then his legs gave out, which left him unable to loosen the tie around his neck. Eventually his heart stopped completely and within four minutes he was completely brain-dead. Ryan Krouse died scared and probably in a lot of pain, unable to stop what he thought he had control of. So the classmate's text is actually completely accurate. Reid doesn't want them to win the contest because he doesn't want them to play the game.
The silence that follows is broken by a Goth-looking boy who asks his classmates, "You all believe this crap?" Morgan replies, "You don't?" and invites him to come up front and tell what he thinks. The boy gets up from his desk, then suddenly bolts from the classroom. Morgan chases after the boy and eventually catches him in the hallway. Reid joins them and observes the boy is wearing a wide chain-link choker that conceals several ligature marks on his neck in different stages of healing.
Morgan and Reid take the boy to the hospital emergency department, to determine how much brain damage he's suffered from repeatedly choking himself. Just after Sheriff Samuel arrives, they hear a man tell a staffer he's Wilson Summers and that the school informed him his son had been injured. Samuel knows Summers professionally; he works for the fire department. Reid identifies himself as FBI, and asks how long Christopher has been choking himself. Will explains that Christopher's had a hard time since the death of Mrs. Summers a few years ago, wearing black ever since. The boy spends practically every waking moment on the computer.
While the hospital keeps Christopher for additional tests, Samuel tells Will she'll need to talk to his son at her office afterward. She also asks to borrow Christopher's laptop, accompanying Will to his home to get it. Samuel doesn't go near the desk, so she doesn't see the stack of disks there.
Later at the sheriff's department, Morgan and Reid try to get Christopher to open up as Hotch and Prentiss watch. It's late on Thursday night, and even without Christopher's participation the kids can still play the choking game. A background check on the Summers family reveals that Christopher and Will have moved three times since his mother's death, cutting off the boy's peer support. Christopher is unruffled when Morgan and Reid tell him that Garcia's going to go through his laptop. Garcia tries, without success, to break through the computer's heavy-duty firewalls and encryption. As she works, her own computer beeps indicating that someone just uploaded a new video to the game site. It's 12:01 am on Friday, and the kids are playing. Sooner or later something will go wrong.
Garcia says she can't get into Christopher's computer without some clue as to how he set up his security system. Morgan and Reid emerge from the interrogation room, and Morgan tells Hotch, "Hope you got a Plan B." After a moment's thought Hotch asks Garcia to talk to Christopher, saying the boy will probably relate to her better than anyone else. She's hesitant because she's never done an interview before, but Hotch says she'll be fine.
To get Christopher to open up, Garcia tells him about losing her parents when she was about his age. She had felt totally alone until she found the netizens' online community. That breaks the ice, and they talk briefly about the big hoop earring Christopher's wearing. Garcia then asks him about his "crazy impressive" computer security system, and gets vague answers to her very specific questions. The interview ends abruptly when Will Summers lawyers up for his son. Before leaving, Christopher touches palms and bumps fists with Garcia, and admits he misses his mom. Hotch assures Garcia she didn't mess up; if someone invokes, he invokes. Garcia looks at her palm and sees that Christopher gave her his earring
The background check also reveals that Mrs. Summers had been sick many times. Will had repeatedly brought her to the hospital emergency room, and she had been violently ill each time. After a couple of days in the intensive care unit she would recover miraculously, only for the cycle to repeat itself. Remembering Christopher's admission that he misses his mother, Garcia determines that the site's administrator password is Mrs. Summers' first name, Cynthia.
Garcia shuts down The Choking Game's main source, but players are still uploading videos through independent servers. Christopher's hospital emergency department evaluation reports that the marks on his neck are from both manual and ligature strangulation over time. His sternum also shows signs of layered bruising -- as in CPR. However, there's no record of resuscitations.
Reid examines historical posts from the website, all made by the single administrator. There are two distinct writing styles, one teen and one adult. Christopher Summers was being manipulated by an adult, both of them using the same screen name. Cynthia Summers' death was a textbook case of Munchausen by proxy; she was being surreptitiously poisoned by her husband. Christopher has been choked and revived on multiple occasions by his father, who's an emergency medical technician with the fire department. Garcia realizes that the boy couldn't answer her technical questions because he didn't know his computer system. Will Summers has been posing as a teenager online and encouraging other kids to play The Choking Game. He works on Friday nights; therefore, he would be responding to the rescues.
Will's Munchausen syndrome has evolved. He's going to download the choking videos from somewhere; they're his trophies. Then he'll clean up his mess. Christopher is the only witness against him. Sheriff Samuel says she'll put out an APB on William's truck, which as they speak is speeding down a dark highway.
The team and the sheriff's department raid the Summers house, but no one's there. Rossi finds the video disks, which Will didn't have time to return for. He'll definitely try downloading the videos tonight. Hotch remembers that Christopher had seemed genuinely relieved when his father picked him up at the sheriff's department. The boy's been shielding his father, who's picked up and continued his killing in another town when the heat became too great in one place. Christopher knows his father's pattern, and the only way to end it is to end it himself. Hotch calls Garcia and asks if Christopher said or did anything during their interview that suggested he was giving up. She remembers his giving her his earring. Christopher may see suicide as the only victory over his sadistic partner, and a way to see his mother again. Garcia's already thought ahead and replaced The Choking Game website with a phishing site. When Will Summers logs on again to download his videos, he'll be redirected to their server and they can find him.
This has all been about Cynthia Summers. In response to Prentiss's question, Garcia locates the cemetery where Cynthia's buried. There's a chapel there, where Will could plug in his laptop. Meanwhile, Will and Christopher have arrived at the cemetery. In the chapel Will hangs up a rope and says to his son, "You know the drill. This won't take long. As the team arrives outside, Garcia reports to Hotch that Will has just logged onto their phishing site. He's trying to download the videos, but she's showing him only snow.
Will is choking his son, who says, "I don't want to die." The father replies, "I decide when you die." The team finds them before Will can finish Christopher off. Outside afterward, Samuel thanks JJ for the team's responding to the call from a small-town sheriff. While the truth won't bring the kids back, hopefully the parents will gain some comfort knowing that the deaths weren't intentional.
On the jet returning to Quantico, Prentiss works on assembling a star puzzle as Reid watches. She tells the story behind the puzzle's origin. A young prince wanted to win the heart of the fairest maiden in the land, so he climbed to the top of the tallest tower in his kingdom and caught a falling star for her. He was so excited he dropped it, and it smashed into pieces. So he frantically put it back together for her to prove his undying love to her. He succeeded and they lived happily ever after.
As Reid examines the puzzle pieces, he says the story doesn't make any sense. One can't catch a falling star; it would burn up in the atmosphere. Prentiss replies that the story isn't literal; it's just a fable. Reid counters that fables have morals. Prentiss says, "OK, it's just a romantic little story. The point is, it's basically impossible to do because you have to take all of those pieces and put them together exactly…." Prentiss trails off as Reid places the fully assembled puzzle on the table. "There's a lot to hate about you, Dr. Reid."
Hotch enters the galley, where JJ is pouring coffee. He thanks her for pushing the team to make the trip, which they wouldn't have done otherwise. She tells him the reason she pressed the case. Her necklace had belonged to her sister, who gave it to JJ when the she was 11 years old. Her sister had simply come into JJ's bedroom one afternoon and told her no matter what happened, she loved JJ. The necklace was her favorite, and she insisted that JJ take it. JJ had secretly been very happy at the time, because she'd always wanted something similar. "Losing someone is… never easy. But one day you'll remember her and it won't hurt. You'll be happy." Hotch thanks her for everything.
"Experience is a brutal teacher, but you learn. My God, do you learn. C.S. Lewis