Again watching a TV show has moved me and made me think beyond what I see on the screen to screenwriting and fiction. Tonight’s Criminal Minds episode was grueling, overflowing with terror and unresolved romantic desperation. It was also emotionally gripping and obliquely very romantic.

I heard the distant death knell clanging for Doctor Spencer Reed’s mystery romantic interest practically from the moment she was introduced some time ago. Possibly because brilliant, socially emerging Reed would have to make a drastic change that would take a lot of groundwork for it to ring true in order to emerge the sudden romantic hero. It could be done, but could take a season or two. So, as far as I was concerned the woman at the other end of the phone booth line wore an invisible red shirt before she ever had screen time.

I was right and I was wrong. It turned out that Reed, in the very talented hands of his portrayer Matthew Gray Gubler, evolved in a relatively fast slow burn into a believable, if still a bit unlikely, romantic lead. He’s come a long, long way over the seasons, breaking out of his shell and becoming in a way the center of the family cobbled together by the BAU team.

In tonight’s episode Reed was every bit the romantic hero. He loved fiercely, loyally, and selflessly. By the end he was willing to die for the soulmate…the brainy dream to his dreamy brain…whose face he had never seen until the last moments of her life.

So, as her shirt turned red with blood, I thought about how valuable peripheral characters can be. They can serve as catalyst for the previously unimagined growth of a central character. They draw attention to themselves just long enough to set up a payoff that will play out long after the shots are fired and the anguish fades. They can inject an unexpected jolt of pure and beautiful romance right into the dark and bloody heart of a serial killer TV series. And they can remind us as writers, readers/watchers and people that every ugly (yes, I know Matthew Gray Gubler is very good looking…it’s Reed who’s a work in progress) duckling has a swan lurking in their depths.

Redshirt characters doomed to die serve their purpose, whether as a blip on the screen or a long curving sweep of life that makes the inevitable all the more poignant. How they’re written and acted make all the difference in how long they also linger as resonating memories.