When Criminal Minds executive producer Erica Messer asked Paget Brewster to return for the show's 200th episode, there was only one option for the actress.
"I said yes right away — no question," Brewster tells TVGuide.com. "Erica called me directly before talking to any agent or executive or anything. She just called me up and said, 'Hey, we want to have people come back for the 200th.' I said, 'Absolutely. Whatever you want. I'm game. I'd love to.' I was really flattered that they asked me. There was nothing to think about."
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Neither was there for Messer. "I knew I wanted Paget to come back for this," she says. "She was such a huge part of the show. I know the fans are very excited, and the 200th is about celebrating our fans and our family."
Brewster will make her much-anticipated return on Wednesday's milestone episode (9/8c, CBS) when Hotch (Thomas Gibson) calls Prentiss (Brewster) at her London-based Interpol office to help the BAU find JJ (A.J. Cook), who's now being tortured for intel after getting kidnapped in the closing seconds of the previous episode. The appearance is Brewster's first since leaving the show for a second time in 2012 — a year after she briefly departed when CBS reduced her episode count and let Cook go before rehiring both. "It was bittersweet coming back [this time]," Brewster says. "I do miss those guys and it was great to just see them again. We have the same jokes with the crew and ways of working. The moment I got there, it felt like I never left. And then part of me is like, 'Maybe I shouldn't have!'"
Many fans still feel that way — and more might after the 200th episode, which will feature Prentiss prominently. "I thought I'd be in two or three scenes and just hang out with everyone," Brewster quips. "I hope it's not overkill." Appearing in flashbacks and in the present, Prentiss sheds light on JJ's secret mission with Cruz (Esai Morales), who has also been kidnapped, while she was with the State Department. Though JJ has kept the details from the rest of the team, she divulged to Prentiss about what she was really doing at her then-new job when she helped Prentiss fake her death during the Ian Doyle saga.
"There's a really great [flashback] scene between Prentiss and JJ that shows what a great, strong relationship and friendship they have and how close they are — and that they kept each other's secrets," Brewster says. "It was very deliberate to mirror what had happened between Prentiss and JJ before when JJ came back to help [Prentiss with Doyle]. I really liked that and how it all came together and you find out what exactly happened to JJ back then and Prentiss' role in it."
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While both JJ's and Prentiss' backstories wove together, as Brewster describes, "wonderfully," no one foresaw their intersecting story line during the cast shakeup. Now three years removed from the ordeal, Brewster looks back at it as a blessing in disguise, as it provided the opportunity to flesh out both characters. "It was a painful shakeup," she says. "I learned a lot and I'm having an amazing time doing what I'm doing now [and] A.J. too. She was able to return and say, 'I've grown and I want JJ to grow. I want her to be a profiler.' And they found a way to do that. Everyone grew and adapted to that situation. Even when upsetting things happen, it's how you respond to them that define your character and help you grow and become stronger. Everything happens for a reason. I'm doing great now and they're doing great."
The show now, of course, stars Brewster's so-called replacement Jeanne Tripplehorn as Blake. The two share a brief scene together in Wednesday's episode, for which Brewster is "really grateful." Lest we forget, Brewster was once in Tripplehorn's shoes as the new kid on the TV screen when she replaced original cast member Lola Glaudini in Season 2.
"I was worried I wouldn't get to do anything with Blake," she says. "The scene is not just Prentiss and Blake; it's Paget and Jeanne. I know that sometimes when you shake up a cast, people take a long time to accept the new person. When I joined, a lot of people hated me, hated my character. I know that had happened to Jeanne a little bit. Paget and Jeanne like each other, so I really wanted there to be a scene with them to show that there's no, 'You took my spot.' One of the best things about Criminal Minds is that the women support women and it really is like a family. You don't always get that."
As with any family, Brewster is welcomed back "any time," according to Messer, but don't expect her next guest spot to happen in the immediate future. Brewster, who just shot the Comedy Central pilot Another Period with Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome — "it's basically the Kardashians meets Downton Abbey" — says she doesn't want to "disrupt" the series too often.
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"If they ask me to guest-star again, I would do it. I don't think I would join full-time again. As much as I love that show, it is really fun to do other stuff and to do comedy and live shows," she says. "I had a great time there. It's excited to be scared and trying new things, and I am doing that. I'd love to pop in here and there if it helps their story, but I also really respect that core cast who is there every day. It's their show."
Whenever she does return, there's one plot point that needs to be addressed: What happened to Prentiss' cat Sergio?
"I think Sergio is London. She left him there when she came back. He probably hasn't gotten his shots!" Brewster says with a laugh. "JJ must've sedated Sergio, gotten him his shots, put him on a plane after my life-saving surgery — maybe Hotch took Sergio for a little while — and then they sent him to Paris the first time. I should've had that written in. We have to explain Sergio the next time. The gaping hole!"
Watch an exclusive sneak peek of Brewster's return below. Criminal Minds airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on CBS.
(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS.)