Back in the golden days when LOST was still on the air - ah, how long ago it seems now - there was one character who fascinated me more than any other, and that was Benjamin Linus, so masterfully portrayed by Michael Emerson. As the third season drew to a close, I longed to get a glimpse into this complex character's past. Little did I know how far back we would go, or that we would see more of Ben Linus's childhood than that of any other adult character on the show.

Sterling Beaumon burst onto the LOST scene with Harry Potter glasses and a downcast expression. In a mesmerizing performance, he boiled eight years of pain, neglect and longing into about 15 minutes of screen time, deepening my pre-existing sympathies for this inscrutable character - just before Emerson took over as the adult Ben and we got our first confirmation that the man was a murderer. But even in season five, when Beaumon returned as a 12-year-old so desperate for escape that he was willing to break an apparent Hostile out of prison, I never saw this young version of Ben as creepy - just compelling. A miserable young man left without a mother and seemingly having recently lost his best friend, he would need a few more years before the bitterness built up inside him would poison his soul to the point of homicide.

In Criminal Minds, Beaumon draws from the same well of emotions tormenting the young Benjamin, but he adds a psychopathic edge so pronounced that I would liken him to a pre-pubescent Tom Riddle, the orphaned wizard in the Harry Potter saga who would grow up to become the maleficent Lord Voldemort. The episode, entitled Safe Haven, takes its time in revealing him as the serial killer so urgently sought by the team of investigators; the first time we see him, the show uses misdirection to lead the audience into suspecting that he is the victim rather than the perpetrator. Of course, I watched this episode solely because of Beaumon, so I knew ahead of time what I was in for. That didn't make it any less disturbing.

As 13-year-old Jeremy, Beaumon emulates Emerson's gift for portraying subtle manipulation. On two occasions, we see him play the victim, coming across as vulnerable and unassuming. Jeremy preys upon the sympathies of others and seems truly grateful for their intervention. It's hard to wrap your mind around how someone could repay such kind treatment with such brutality. Beaumon is utterly chilling when Jeremy reveals his true intentions, becoming a squirmy, knife-wielding bundle of insatiable rage. Like Ben, Jeremy has spent a lifetime burdened with a parent's resentment for a death he unwittingly caused as an infant, but the toxic response has manifested itself far earlier and with a demented barbarism at which even Ben would balk.

The most riveting segment of this episode finds Jeremy in a car with Nancy, a compassionate woman portrayed by guest star Mare Winningham. Nancy, having taken pity upon Jeremy after hearing his sob story about being left by a bus at a truck stop, has shown him maternal affection from the moment they met, even after she realizes what kind of person she has welcomed into her home. Her calm, measured conversation with him is fascinating to watch, with Winningham's understated performance mingling with Beaumon's frenzied one, and it's edge-of-your-seat suspense wondering whether Nancy might actually manage to get through to this kid.

Among the main players, the one who interested me most was Derek Morgan, played by Shemar Moore. A man deeply invested in his work, he trails Jeremy while dealing with another neglected child, a tearful 9-year-old girl named Ellie (Isabella Murad) with whom he had worked before. The episode's title refers primarily to the Safe Haven law that allows parents to leave their children at hospitals, absolving their responsibility for them, which is the action that sparked the already unstable Jeremy's killing spree. However, in the context of this storyline, Ellie's safe haven is Morgan, and she pulls off an impressive maneuver in order to return to his side. Ellie and Jeremy respond to their parents' shortcomings in very different ways, but both powerfully demonstrate a child's craving for love and fear of abandonment.

Safe Haven is a deeply unsettling episode that inspires one to opposite actions. On the one hand, you look at children like Jeremy and Ellie and bemoan how their families and the system has failed them, and you want to reach out to them. It's a call to compassion, for strangers to help fill in the cracks in broken lives. Yet at the same time, the episode is nearly as effective as the bleak No Country For Old Men in terms of scaring you off of ever wanting to be a Good Samaritan. What if that person you stop to help along the side of the highway turns out to be a cold-blooded killer? Nancy's ability to keep from panicking while held in the car at knifepoint is remarkable; I can't help wondering if her words are merely an attempt to talk Jeremy down or if she genuinely feels that there is a good kid locked up in there. I suspect the latter, and maybe if someone like her had entered his life a little sooner, Jeremy would have turned out differently. Or maybe not. How does one deal with such a dangerous child? Can such pervasive hostility ever be tamed, or are kids like this hopeless cases?

It's a thorny topic, and Criminal Minds most definitely gets the conversation going. I wouldn't recommend this episode for anyone under 13 and would advise those who are squeamish to have a pillow at the ready. It's bloody and grotesque, and I'm glad I watched it the next morning because I suspect I would have had nightmares last night. One of these days, I hope to see Beaumon in a role without so many dark underpinnings. But boy, does he nail this one.