Criminal Minds showrunner Erica Messer had some big plans for Season 12, but everything changed on Aug. 12. Thomas Gibson, who was already serving a suspension, got fired following an altercation with writer/producer Virgil Williams, forcing the show to write out everyone’s favorite BAU Unit Chief Hotch. Fans were upset, Gibson accused the show of trying to “erase me,” and the show adapted by promoting Paget Brewster back to full time and adding a new cast member, Damon Gupton, on top of previously announced newbie Adam Rodriguez.
Messer had kept quiet on the whole ordeal since it happened, and while she couldn’t talk about specifics of Gibson’s dismissal, TVGuide.com caught up with her to discuss all the recent changes, how she decided to write out Hotch (who joined Witness Protection to protect himself and his son Jack from Mr. Scratch), how she readjusted his stories, if we’d ever see Hotch again, what she wants to say to fans, and more.
What has the last five months been like? Everything changed so quickly.
Erica Messer: You think you can prepare for anything and yet you get curveballs thrown your way. Season 12 has been that. But the cast, crew, writers and producers have all come together to keep the show on the track and keep everything moving ahead and keep telling entertaining stories for everybody. It’s been hard, but sometimes those immediate things end up being lessons that you can learn from.
How did you go about writing Hotch out? I thought you handled it really well. It was all in line with what we knew about him and his priorities.
Messer: I really had a hard time with that. This was a character I’ve known and loved for 12 seasons. I really wanted to be able to send him off in a way that felt believable for that character. I think for all of us who love Hotch, we would say he was an amazing team leader, but he was also an amazing father. He’s had so much tragedy since we’ve known him that he would not risk losing his life again or his son’s life for the job anymore. He’s the hero and he’s amazing, but at the same time, he would never let Jack be an orphan. That was how I came at it.
Without having a chance to see Thomas again to physically write out the character, I felt like something massive had to have happened while we claimed he was off doing temporary duty. That was because, being a protective leader, he didn’t want his work family to get dragged into this and for them to possibly get hurt. I felt like he left as a big a hero as he ever was for 12 was. He’s certainly a big hero to Jack and that’s really important, and showing the strength of being of a father and a single father at that. Thank you for saying that. It was sad for all of us for who know and love that character to have to say goodbye.
I was like, “You wouldn’t kill him off. He’s going to leave for Jack.” But did that come up in the discussion?
Messer: I mean, the dramatic storytelling component of writing a version of real life would be death because it happened so quickly. That happens in life all the time — I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced it but I certainly have — where a family member’s died in a car crash and you can’t really process that because it was an accident and you were just going to see that person, and what do you mean they’re going forever? There’s something so real in that that I can’t say it wasn’t talked about because of the reality of tragedies like that. It is what it is and allowed us to say goodbye to him, knowing he’s off being a dad to Jack, and that seemed to feel good for everybody.
Has there been any thought or discussion about him returning, even to just give Hotch a proper send-off. I don’t know if it’s even possible for him to return at this point.
Messer: There’s been no discussion about that.
Would you like to have him back eventually?
Messer: It’s hard to do those kinds of things. I think you saw that with Mandy [Patinkin] and we were never able to see him again. If the show goes on 10 more years, who the heck knows? But there’s nothing I can think about right now because it’s not in the immediate future.
Obviously a lot of fans are very upset and I’m sure you’re aware of the #NoHotchNoWatch movement. And I don’t know if you saw the quote from Thomas where he said you guys were trying to erase him from the show, which I don’t think you did, but that kind of inflamed things. What do you have to say about that?
Messer: I think that might’ve come before he knew how we wrote him out. Do you know the timing of it?
I think it was September, right before you premiered.
Messer: Right. And that was never our intent. Obviously all of us who love the series and the characters would never act like he never existed. I’ve heard about that movement and I understand their passion. I’m a fan of this show and other shows as well and I understand when a favorite character moves on why you would be upset about that. I think also when Shemar [Moore] left, it was on his own accord, and the fans rallied around him and kept watching. We have an amazing fan base and they’re very passionate.
When you and I talked in August, you mentioned all the things you had planned for Hotch, including possibly bringing Ed Asner back. How did you go about overhauling these stories?
Messer: Yeah. At that point, we had started production in July and the writers had been back for a month already. We always have our wish list of stories to revisit and characters we really loved and wanted to revisit again. That was certainly a very rich world we were able to create with Haley’s father. Ed Asner is a legend, so the idea of having him come back and continue that story was interesting for us. And we weren’t able to do that, but in the silver lining of things, we are telling an amazing story with Jane Lynch this year. As you know, we’ve been trying to get her for years and years and years, and she’s always been so slammed, and this year we’ve been able to reserve a few dates and get her in three episodes.
It’s three now? Last I heard was two.
Messer: Well, I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s like two and a half. She is such a joy. You’ll see her first episode on Feb. 1, kicking off the back nine for us, and really an amazing story for her and for Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler). You look at things like that and say, “Well, we’ve got this amazing story to tell with Jane Lynch that also deals with Alzheimer’s and mental illness, really. We were fortunate of all the years to be able to finally get Jane this season.
Can you assure that no one else is leaving this season? I don’t know if fans can handle it after the past year.
Messer: [Laughs] I know, it’s crazy! Well, we have some pretty interesting stories coming up. We’re doing a longer arc this year than we’ve ever done. It’s really our back nine of Season 12. I think it’s going to be surprising for everybody and incredibly rewarding for everybody who’s watched for as long as they have. T have a more serialized arc for our heroes to deal with is definitely going to be different for us and challenging and for viewers, you might not believe where we’re going.
Is this Mr. Scratch-related?
Messer: It is!
How important was it for you to have Paget back full time in the wake of this for stability and a familiar face?
Messer: Oh, it was amazing. We knew we’d be able to have her for a handful of episodes. Just the timing of everything was again unplanned and yet the timing was extraordinary. She appeared in Episode 3 and was just going to be there for maybe four episodes and then we were going to bring her back for three or four later in the year. As everything unfolded, it was imperative for me to have someone take over the unit chief job who had already been on the team and had been a fan favorite. The fact that Prentiss had been gone for four, five years and had certainly proved her worth at Interpol and had the opportunity to run a team and do all of that and always kept in touch with the BAU, it just felt like this would be an amazing opportunity if we could have Paget back and have Prentiss take over. For me, it was imperative that we were able to make that happen.
Was it your decision or the network or studio to add an eighth character? This is the largest team you’ve ever had. How did Damon’s casting come about?
Messer: Yeah, the network was interesting in us adding an additional character. We are all really fond of Damon and we’ll get to know a little more about Walker as the rest of Season 12 unfolds. It was nice that Walker came highly recommended by Prentiss and has a history with Rossi. There’s already a bit of a shorthand with those team members. That was important for us. We’re excited to learn more about the character as the season unfolds.
Even though there is a segment of fans who are upset, there are still a lot of fans who support you guys and have through all the cast turnover you’ve been through. What do you have to say to them?
Messer: I just would love to thank them for all of their support and their passion for the stories and the characters and the world that we’ve all been a part of for well over a decade now. We’re honored to tell these stories for those who’ve been watching the whole time and those who’ve just joined. That’s what we’re here to do – entertain and fall in love with these characters and the world. We wouldn’t be here without our fans.
Criminal Minds airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on CBS.
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[This interview has been edited down.]