Thomas Gibson

Thomas Gibson can only think of one way to sum up Season 6 of Criminal Minds.

"The sh-- hit the fan basically. And you can quote me on that!" he tells TVGuide.com. "But the great thing is now we feel more reenergized than ever. There's a whole fresh energy on set and we're all really excited for this year."

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And why not? After drawing fans' ire for dumping A.J. Cook and Paget Brewster last year — in addition to hiring Rachel Nichols — CBS rehired the two actresses in the spring and dropped Nichols, bringing the BAU's core seven back together. "As we should be," according to Gibson.

While JJ (Cook) was briefly reintroduced in the season finale, Prentiss (Brewster) will come back from the "dead" in Season 7 after Hotch (Gibson) and JJ faked her death to evade her IRA nemesis Ian Doyle (Timothy V. Murphy), whom Morgan (Shemar Moore) has now "made it his life journey" to pursue. "There is really only one way that she can come back as herself," Gibson says. "That's what has to happen in order for her to come back."

But Prentiss' resurrection doesn't call for total celebration. For a group that prides itself on being a family, there is a sense of betrayal felt by everyone else who was left in the dark about the covert op — which Hotch still feels was the right call. It will still take a while for the team to feel like one again.

"The cases are there, and they're professionals, but things are not back to normal," Gibson says. "We're not shortchanging the reintegration process of having her back and having A.J. back. ... If somebody in the family hasn't been forthcoming about something, it takes time to adjust to that and it changes things. Each of them has unique relationships with each other. We're trying to explore all those dynamics."

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But more importantly, the cover-up has a ripple effect that climbs all the way up the bureaucratic food chain and leads to a Senate committee hearing that puts everyone's jobs on the line. "There's definitely some official Washington sh-- that goes down," Gibson says. "It's interesting because we have to make this point that this team exists in the real world. It exists under the supervision of the Justice Department. When things like this happen, it's serious. Erica [Messer, the showrunner] didn't hold back on all the consequences they face. We have some stuff to answer to."

The team's future together was murky already in last season's finale, when Hotch was warned of budget cuts. That will explain Nichols' departure and leave room for a possible return.

"She got reassigned," Gibson says. "Hopefully she can come back. There's a really great story for the Ashley Seaver character, especially with her background, and we're hoping she'll be available to do it and it'll be the right timing for the show. ... It was all a mess last year, but Rachel's a pro. She's going to do fine — she is doing fine."

Hotch himself is not with the team when Season 7 opens, but rather is in Pakistan — a result of him agreeing to take on some of Strauss' duties last season while she takes a leave of absence to deal with personal issues. "Things get to point where he needs to come back quickly. We're still exploring him doing her job. ... [The extra workload] might give him an ulcer, but I don't think he feels it. He has a very diligent work ethic," Gibson says, adding that Hotch knows what Strauss' issues are, but will keep it on the down-low out of respect.

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More work, of course, leaves little time for a love life. But nearly two years removed from Haley's death, Gibson thinks it's time for Hotch to start dating again and hopes to see it happen soon.

"If you asked him, he would say, 'Sure, but when does it happen?' I would love it. It would be interesting to see it happen in spite of himself. And we'd have to find an organic way to introduce it since the show doesn't lend itself to that direction," he says. "We have an opportunity in Season 7 of a show where you want to delve into the characters. It's nice to go home with these characters a little more often, which I think we're aiming to do."

Romance aside, Gibson mostly wants to see the buttoned-up Hotch less serious this year. He names his wisecrack at Reid's Backstreet Boys-like haircut last season as one of his favorite moments. "That was totally unscripted. Matthew [Gray Gubler] came in with that haircut and we decided someone had to comment on it and it would be most interesting from Hotch," he says. "It was pretty great! I definitely think we need more of those moments from him.

"You know, last year was difficult for everyone [on and off screen]," Gibson continues, "but things are looking up this season and I think he can smile a bit more! It's a really nice place to be right now."

Criminal Minds premieres Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 9/8c on CBS.