Criminal Minds' Joe Mantegna Previews Season Finale Shake-Up: 'Sometimes Art Imitates Life'

This Wednesday at 9/8c, Criminal Minds presents an hour that, for a season finale, might be a little light on pyrotechnics, but nonetheless is high on drama. What’s in play? A possible “art imitating life” shake-up at the BAU, coupled with the (at one time seemingly unlikely) return of fan favorite A.J. Cook, as former team member “JJ” Jareau. TVLine welcomed the chance to speak with Joe Mantegna, aka FBI Special Agent David Rossi, about the major goings on both on and off screen at the hit CBS procedural.

TVLINE | The big question is: Can a season finale that is not about exploding SUVs or a team member being held at gunpoint be just as compelling?
[Laughs] I guess we’ll see! But yeah I think so, partly because when you have a series that’s six years old, it’s nice to be reflective. And the subject matter kind of mirrors reality in that six years is a normal series contract. The writers were clever enough to say, “Sometimes life imitates art, and sometimes art imitates life.”

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TVLINE | So the promos that have been running are no fake-out? The team will be changed when all is said and done?
I think it might be – and whether or not that’s a change for the good or the bad or a change back to the way things were or toward something new, that’s to be determined. As in life, there are no guarantees. As a kid, [the St. Louis Cardinals losing] Curt Flood made me realize there are no guarantees — in baseball or anything else.

TVLINE | What brings Hotch to say what he does in the promo, that team members will be invited to leave?
We’ve laid that groundwork in the past, that he has that almost antagonistic relationship with the director. Listen, if you ask any citizen what would they consider to be the most screwed up organization, they’re always go to say the government, as far as being muddled with red tape, being inefficient or whatever. But you just make the best of it, and it’s the same thing here. Sometimes things get shaken up, and who’s to say why? Maybe sometimes people shake things up just to get your attention.

TVLINE | What a time for J.J. to return to the fold. How does that play out?
It was a very emotional and traumatic parting when she left, so I’d like to think there’s going to be an equal kind of reception when she reappears. But as to how that resolves itself and where that goes, that’s what we figure out over the hiatus.

TVLINE | Having been in the business for some years, what does it say to you that fan outcry resulted in A.J. Cook being brought back?
Nothing’s infallible. Sometimes people who make important creative decisions will try something, but when the fans react a certain way, you’ve got to listen, swallow your pride and say, “OK.” You learn more from your mistakes than your successes. I’ve always felt the public ultimately dictates what they want. It’s like when [celebrities] who engage in a lot of bad behavior start saying, “I’m not your role model.” Well, you don’t have that choice. The public decides who their role models are.

TVLINE | Why do you think viewers care so much who is out solving these horrific crimes? I mean, Criminal Minds doesn’t give us huge dollops of character development.
While you say there’s not much character development, I still think there’s enough there to create a strong familiarity. What I like about this show is there’s a lot of equal time given, it’s a true ensemble. I learned that when I joined the cast. I remember reading the press when Mandy Patinkin left [after Season 2] — “How will the show survive without its main character?” — and as I caught up on all the episodes during negotiations, I’m thinking, “What, are they crazy?” This is not a one-man band. Each character is very well defined. I use the analogy of The Beatles. Millions of people love The Beatles and millions of people have their favorite Beatle, so on the one hand if you love the music, you love the band, and on the other hand you say, “But I really love George Harrison.” So while we don’t do massive character development, I always enjoy when we do.

TVLINE | Like the soccer coaching scene a few weeks back, with Rossi and Hotch.
Exactly. And I think we’ll do more and more of that, I always push for that. Especially on a show that’s run as long as ours had, this is what the fan base does want to see. They have an investment in these people, and they want to know what the “family” does during their off hours.

TVLINE | Do you think the show would be daring to go to the well too often by also bringing back Paget Brewster (as Prentiss)?
I don’t think we’d be going to the well too often, no. Anyone who saw how her ultimate “demise” happened saw that there was that window of opportunity [to bring Prentiss back]. As with [Jareau], she a tremendously strong and important character. There’s nothing wrong with shaking things up, maybe putting people on edge and even angering people if at the end of the day you can justify it. So I feel optimistic about that.

TVLINE | The biggest obstacle might be how to manage it on-screen, since Prentiss faked her death for a very important and continuing reason.
We had to do a lot to create that storyline, so I think we would just have to do as much work to resolve it – and I think you can. The reason it happened still exists, [Ian Doyle] is out there, so now we have to solve that problem.

TVLINE | Right, just take a few November sweeps episodes and nip it in the bud.
Exactly. I don’t think that’s a big problem. If indeed we go that way, it could be a very exciting and memorable [storyline]. People will look back on it and say, “That whole arc was very interesting.”