Thomas Gibson, Joe Mantegna
If you found yourself rewinding to the beginning of last week's Criminal Minds episode after it finished, then you did exactly what the producers thought you'd do.
The episode closed with another ominous shot of the BAU's season-long unsub/stalker The Replicator going through photos of the team's closed cases. The final slide wasn't a photo, but a video of Blake (Jeanne Tripplehorn) teaching her linguistics class from the episode's opening, shot from the students' seats in the lecture hall.
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"Rick Dunkle wrote that episode ... and he pulled the director aside and said, 'We can't see that side of the classroom because people are going rewind and want to see who it is,'" showrunner and executive producer Erica Messer tells TVGuide.com. "So we didn't shoot from that angle and I think people did go back to try to figure out who it was."
Fans — and the BAU — will have more clues to go by on Wednesday's episode (9/8c, CBS), aka the 16th episode that Messer previously described as a pivotal turning point in The Replicator case, which will be the focus of the finale. In the episode, The Replicator, who's been duplicating kills of the team's closed cases, finally plays his hand and leaves a photo of Hotch (Thomas Gibson) on a dead body.
"The Replicator wants to be on their radar now. He's sending a message," Messer says. "We thought it was our team in general that he was targeting and now by calling out our leader, it's a new ballgame. But is he going to target each of them? Is someone next? That's what they're trying to figure out. In the roundtable, Hotch says, 'This is where his game changes. He used to be following us and now he wants us to follow him.' It seems only natural that that's your nemesis' next move."
The copycat case will bring the BAU to Philadelphia, where guest star Scott Grimes' character Donnie Bidwell becomes the top suspect. But they are more or less led a wild goose chase. Because when it comes to moves, The Replicator is always one step ahead. "He's elusive. We keep thinking we've got something to go on, but we ultimately don't," Gibson says. "He does something different for himself. We think it's significant for some reason, but it turns out it's not for the reason that we thought."
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Part of that chase, as seen in the promo, leads the BAU to a lair, which is adorned with photos of the team with the word "zugzwang" written on them. "Zugzwang" was the title of the episode in which Reid's (Matthew Gray Gubler) girlfriend Maeve (Beth Riesgraf) died, and the word refers to a chess move when one player is at a disadvantage after being forced to move a piece even though any move will give the other player an advantage. That lair, however, is just another red herring. "That's not his lair," Messer says. "'Zugzwang' is another clue for [the BAU] to figure out who he is. He tells us a lot with that word. But that's all in a place he's led them; it's not the place that the audience has seen all year. Only the audience has had the privileged point of view of his creepy lair and it'll remain that way for now."
The audience might also be the only lucky ones to get a glimpse of The Replicator's face. While Messer declines to say if his identity will be revealed on Wednesday's episode, she does share that the BAU will not come face-to-face with him until the final two episodes of the season. So does that mean that they will be chasing him for the next six episodes?
"They don't really have any other leads. They are basically told after this that he's dormant and that they have to get back to the other cases as usual," Messer says. "I don't think it's a spoiler to say that since we've already said it'll culminate in the finale. It's a cliff-hanger of sorts in that you know he's still out there, but we won't really touch on it again until [Episode] 23 ... which will have a Replicator cliff-hanger. This one just tees up the finale, which will be even bigger obviously. But now they know this guy is really taunting all of us."
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And will the whole Replicator arc wrap up in the finale? Don't count on it.
"I think we're in for another cliff-hanger," Gibson says. "Last year, we didn't really have one with Prentiss (Paget Brewster) Ieaving, but it's back on the menu. I'm afraid for all of us!"
Criminal Minds airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on CBS.