[SPOILER ALERT: The following story contains spoilers about the Season 8 finale of Criminal Minds. Read at your own risk.]
So it was Luke Skywalker after all.
Criminal Minds' season-long unsub/stalker The Replicator was finally unmasked on Wednesday's two-hour finale as Mark Hamill's federal agent/biochemistry nut John Curtis. At the end of the first hour, Curtis breaks into Strauss' (Jayne Atkinson) hotel room, after which he forces the recovering alcoholic to drink before drugging her with "Doctor Death," the meth/ecstasy mix at the center of the case the BAU had just solved. He lets Strauss wander the New York streets, where the section chief dies on a bench in the arms of Hotch (Thomas Gibson) — not her BAU-member-with-benefits Rossi (Joe Mantegna).
Erica Messer: I wanted to leave that as our option creatively. My guess is he's gone. But I specifically didn't want to do that in case in Season 9 we say, "Well, you know..." [Laughs] I wanted to leave that up in the air until we decide in the writers' room next month. Even all the actors said, "We don't see his body." By keeping that open-ended, it will keep a beat in the season premiere where we can show photos from the scene or say he's dead. It'll be a nice starting point for us.Strauss is obviously gone.
Erica Messer: Yeah, I had a hard time with that. I've known Jayne for so long and I had to really separate knowing Jayne and the creative place we were with Strauss. It's hard for the team to have an enemy like The Replicator, and for him to not do any damage just didn't seem right. Strauss seemed like the one who had to go, which makes me sad, but it made sense, story-wise. She was our sacrificial lamb. She was introduced as an enemy of the team and by this year she was so on our side. I still remember how much I hated her in "In Name and Blood" when she insisted on tagging along in the field and was completely useless.
Messer: Right! And we didn't want to go down the road again of killing a loved one with Kevin (Nicholas Brendon) or Will (Josh Stewart), who almost died last year, after Maeve (Beth Riesgraf) died. Rossi and Strauss have been sleeping together, but it wasn't a real, serious relationship. But the personal connection between them was evident and of course her professional connection to the team. And she started out as an antagonist — she wanted Hotch out in Season 2 and, like you said, that Season 3 episode, she wouldn't leave them alone and couldn't handle being in the field. [The turning point was] with The Reaper and she started understanding the team more and being more sympathetic. And then Hotch and Morgan were there for her [when she went to AA], and then obviously her and Rossi. It felt like she had come full circle.
Messer: Yeah, we knew very early on and I just avoided having the conversation with Jayne until I had to. [Laughs] I didn't want her to know so that in her other episodes, she wouldn't be wondering, "Oh, is this going to be my last episode before I die?" I told her during at the end of shooting Episode 16. ... She was so great about it. She has a fondness for Strauss, obviously, but she said, "I know what you mean. Creatively, she's sort of run her course." Strauss is another member of the team and if you had to hurt a member of the team, it made sense that it's her. Jayne's on House of Cards now and she's so good on it. And she has other things that are keeping her on the East Coast.Did any of the regular cast think it could be them?
Messer: I think for a few minutes they did. Everyone kind of realized, "Oh, we're going head-to-head with this guy." And five of the seven were up for [contract] negotiation, so there was some concern for them. As soon as I told Jayne, I told them and I think they all breathed a little easier and that we weren't going to end on a cliff-hanger. ... CBS didn't want [a cliff-hanger], so instead, I looked at every act-out [to commercial] and made each of those a cliff-hanger. I felt like each act-out could have been the end of the episode. Strauss is dead at the end of the teaser, The Replicator is sitting at Rossi's desk at the end of Act I, Rossi's pointing a gun at Morgan at the end of Act II, the helicopter crashes at the end of Act III and then the funeral in Act IV. So it was like, "We'll make it an action-packed episode without a cliff-hanger!"Why didn't they want a cliff-hanger? Because someone was dying already?
Messer: They didn't really give a reason. They wanted a hopeful ending. We've done so many. Last year we didn't do one and they liked it. I think that was also them having faith in the fact that the show was going to be back and we wouldn't leave a team member in jeopardy, and in the negotiations risk everybody. What was the intended cliff-hanger? Everybody trapped in the room?
Messer: Yeah, pretty much. The first episode [of Season 9] would've been catching The Replicator. It would've been more of a traditional finale-premiere two-parter for us. Episode 24 would've been the first part and then 901 would've been catching him. I'm actually glad now that we didn't do it that way. We got a nice hour, you got payoff for the whole story line this season, and you got to see the team solve it. ... I'm really big on our team versus unsubs stories. You'll notice when I write the premieres and the finales, it's usually heavy on our team doing the brainstorming, which they do every week, but it's usually briefer. When you see our team wall-to-wall in every episode doing what they do best, those are fun stories to tell.
Messer: I wanted to do that the whole time. It was a very conscious decision that she would be gone by the end of the teaser, so the audience would be like, "Oh, my God! Anything can happen." But I wanted her very presence in the case: her planting information in the report, believing that someone on the inside was reading it and her sobriety chip. This was an obstacle for her, but also a strength. For that to come into play was important. I pitched it and I got a lukewarm reaction to it. [Laughs] In my first draft, I wrote "TBD," thinking I'll try to come up with something else. I really thought it was me and I was being mushy about it, but afterwards, I pitched it again and the director Glenn Kershaw was like, "You gotta do it." I liked it in my head, so I'm glad you like it too!I'm guessing it's not a coincidence that Blake was the one who drove Strauss back to the hotel given their history.
Messer: Yeah. And they made up [over Amerithrax] a few episodes ago, so it was nice for us, even though it was mainly off-screen, to believe they were fine. ... That obviously led in well [to The Replicator] and their history. His plan was about their past than Blake's presence, but her presence in the BAU was his trigger. He had years and years of anger building up, wanted to join the BAU, but got rejected. Then she got in, so it was like, "Wait a minute." That backstory drove the whole story line.Did you consider having a final scene between Rossi and Strauss?
Messer: We considered it, but it felt like that's not what happens in real life. In real life, you get a phone call that somebody's gone and the last time you saw them is the only thing you can think about. What is your last moment with them? Did you tell them how you felt? I wanted it to be more reminiscent of that. I also didn't want it to be repetitive of his journey with his ex-wife from Season 7. ... And because he didn't say goodbye and was grieving, he was more easily manipulated into thinking Morgan was [The Replicator]. Of course he was drugged too. ... The idea was he's clearly not himself and not until Hotch points it out to him that he realizes something's wrong.
Messer: I know. They weren't traditional relationships. The sad thing is when you're married to your job like that, just in general, it's hard to have relationships. When we met real people in the BAU, half the people were divorced, the other half were either never married or married. It's hard.What's next in Season 9?
Messer: Everybody went on vacation with the idea of, "Let's just do detox and figure out later what next year is." I'm always a fan of telling us more about the heroes. I'll definitely be looking for those stories. I think we're going to have a really fun year and I look at these next two years at possibly doing bigger arcs. It's hard to repeat The Replicator. He was so massive and at the end of the day it was Luke Skywalker! [Laughs] I don't think we'll be going that route again.What's the plan to replace Strauss? Will Hotch be section chief again? Messer: Hotch will likely have filled in all summer, but Strauss' replacement is another fun item to start with in the writers' room in two weeks! The negotiations went down to the wire and there were so many rumors. Were you at any point worried the show wouldn't come back?
Messer: I was because it was down to the wire. It was really unnerving. You just can't go online for those couple weeks. It's stressful. You just don't have any power. If it were up to me, deals would've been signed before we went on hiatus. ... Our crew went on break for the first time in a really long time not knowing if there would be another season. All signs were pointing to, "Well, this happens sometimes. Sometimes an aging drama on CBS just goes away." There were a lot of people with real fears on our crew. It was really hard for all of us to wrap and not say "See you in a few weeks." As soon as I knew it was a green light, I texted everyone, "All good! It'll be official soon. Take that vacation." That's what happens — everyone needs a vacation so badly, but if you're uncertain of work, you work instead of taking the break. I was like, "Don't do that. Take a break. Everybody needs a break."When the cast re-signed, it kind of took the suspense out of the death. Or else you really would've pulled a fast one.
Messer: Right! That would've been a huge twist. "Everyone's coming back next season. Oh, wait. Just kidding!" [Laughs]What did you think of the Criminal Minds finale?(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by a joint venture between Lionsgate and CBS.)