Whereas CBS’ Criminal Minds has ended previous seasons by detonating SUVs, depositing killers in agents’ living rooms or treating us to blasts from the past, Season 7 wrapped up on a comparatively modulated note, as JJ tied the knot and Prentiss (played by exiting series vet Paget Brewster) prepared to say a proper goodbye.
“That was a choice made early on,” says showrunner Erica Messer. “I think by Christmastime , I said to the writers and producers, ‘Guys, we’re not doing a finale where we wonder who’s coming back. And I’m not killing Prentiss, so I’m not going to blow anything up and have that be the cliffhanger.’ Then it was just the challenge of writing a bittersweet finale where there was something to celebrate, and the flip side would be Paget leaving.”
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Of course, by not closing the season with an OMG moment, Messer set her team up to launch Season 8 on its own merits. As the action picks back up on Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 9/8c, three months have passed on screen. Morgan and Garcia, who worked the Ian Doyle case the previous summer, this time around got to enjoy some “time off” — and in fact both landed across the pond in London.
“Morgan took a temporary duty assignment with the Olympics, and Garcia tagged along, and they helped Emily settle into her flat,” Messer explains. That bit of backstory “is a way to keep Prentiss alive, because right off the bat they’re talking about her with the team. She’ll be mentioned as you would mention a friend who doesn’t work with you anymore. We’re playing that.”
The team itself looks slightly different, with Agent Alex Blake, a forensic linguistics expert, already embedded in the BAU. As played by new series regular Jeanne Tripplehorn (Big Love), Blake has been with the FBI since she was 24 years old, and worked her way up. That quality makes her somewhat distinct among her BAU brethren.
“Rossi probably comes close [to such a trajectory], but Hotch had a career before he was an agent, Morgan had a career… Reid was a boy genius, and JJ worked her way up in a completely different division,” Messer notes. Blake’s history also includes a tumultuous time with Section Chief Strauss “that sort of ended in a backstabbing incident,” Messer reveals, “so when these two are face to face, Alex can talk to Strauss like no one else can. There’s this, ‘I know where the hatchet’s buried’ thing.”
Understandably, Garcia, who was away when Blake got settled in, thoroughly vets her bestie’s replacement before embracing her. “It’s a little awkward, but by the end of the episode, Garcia says, “Can we start over?'” Messer previews. “And from then on, you know who these people are going to be together.” (Get more scoop on Alex Blake and her tie to Reid.)
A unified, formidable front is something the BAU will certainly need as Season 8 unspools, because as they will eventually surmise, a very big very bad has them in his crosshairs.
“At the end of the season premiere, the audience is going to realize that somebody is hunting the team” by replicating killing patterns they thought they had previously brought to an end. So though Hotch’s team opens the season by tracking and killing an unsub who’d been sewing victims’ mouths shut, that signature move will resurface in Episode 4.
“That’s when they’re like, ‘What’s going on?'” Messer says. “And a couple episodes later, he [mimics] something else that they’ve solved. So throughout the year, we realize he’s taunting us but also hunting us. And that will be the villain they come head-to-head with in the finale.”