Mandy Patinkin was the first original cast member to exit the series, amid creative differences. His Jason Gideon in turn left behind his badge and gun at the start of Season 3, to travel the world. Similarly, Alex Blake (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn during Season 8) parted ways with the BAU for personal reasons, after a case struck too close to home. Hotch, though, has never indicated that the job weighs too heavily on him — even after his ex-wife Haley was murdered by Foyet. Plus, even if he were to wave the white flag, wouldn’t he inform the team personally, on-screen?
HOTCH TAKES A BREAK
Kate Callahan (played by Jennifer Love Hewitt) and Derek Morgan (original cast member Shemar Moore) at the very least pressed “pause” on their FBI careers to focus on a new pregnancy and wife Savannah/newborn son Hank, respectively. Again, though Hotch could conceivably choose same, 1) would he do it right in the middle of the team’s hunt for a handful of escaped serial killers, and 2) without saying a proper goodbye?
HOTCH TAKES A NEW JOB
Just as Emily Prentiss and “JJ” Jareau left the BAU to work for Interpol and (temporarily) the Pentagon, respectively, Hotch could be courted for a sweet new gig. After all, the storyline that was to accommodate Gibson’s original suspension had him on “temporary duty” for the Director. Maybe that secret assignment blossoms into something bigger — though again, we’d see no fond farewell to Reid, Garcia et al?
Going darker… Hotch’s ex-wife, as well as BAU Section Chief Erin Strauss and former team leader Gideon, were all murdered by UnSubs (the latter off-screen, years after Patinkin’s exit). Maybe Hotch meets a similar, tragic fate, perhaps at the hand of nemesis Mr. Scratch, who is one of the escaped prisoners?
Thing is, showrunner Erica Messer, in explaining the decision to not kill off Derek when Moore left, told TVLine, "Because we killed Gideon last year, I feel like at a certain point these heroes who have been doing this for 11 years might be like, 'You know what? I don't wanna die next. I'm gonna hang it up.'” Having only recently had that thinking, would the special circumstances surrounding Gibson force her to reconsider a significant, and off-screen, death? (Even if it meant fully orphaning Hotch’s son Jack?) Killing off Hotch, especially if the series has firmly severed ties with Gibson (as the quick segue from “suspension” to “termination” might suggest), would seem the most likely option.
What if the fact that Mr. Scratch mysteriously drugged Hotch a season ago comes back into play? Even FBI brass have wondered if Hotch’s psyche was compromised by the drugging, nor was Mr. Scratch’s end game ever made clear. Since Bodhi Elfman is due to reprise his role as Peter Lewis this season, a quick rewrite could have him employ mind control to make Hotch vanish. The mass UnSub hunt could then carry the added weight of finding Hotch (or, you know, not). Though it needs some fleshing-out, that scenario seems to have legs, and at the very least postpones Hotch’s eventual death, putting some space between it and Gideon’s.
HOTCH… LOOKS DIFFERENT!
Lastly, though unlikely, Criminal Minds could rip a page from the daytime soap opera playbook and recast Hotch midstream — with, say, Billy Campbell. Though ostensibly “jarring” to Joe TV Viewer, it would avoid both altering the originally planned Season 12 storyline as well as the risk of aping a previous exit plan.