Hotch is officially gone from the BAU.
While Thomas Gibson made his last appearance as Hotch on Criminal Minds in the second episode of this season, Hotch the character was technically still on the show but away on assignment -- until Wednesday's episode.
The show finally addressed the elephant in the room (or lack thereof), with Rossi (Joe Mantegna) informing the team that their fearless leader wasn't on assignment, but has actually been in Witness Protection with his son Jack after Mr. Scratch (Bodhi Elfman) started stalking Jack. Hotch, per Rossi, ultimately decided to resign from the BAU for Jack's safety and recommended Prentiss (Paget Brewster) to succeed him as unit chief.
This exit strategy was hardly surprising. After Gibson's firing in August following an altercation with a writer, the show had the unenviable task of writing out a fan-favorite character who'd been there from the beginning while fans revolted with #NoHotchNoWatch -- and it really only had one way to go given all those limitations.
A recast is a dumb, terrible idea; Hotch would never take a new job (remember: why would he ever want to leave the BAU?); and he wouldn't be fired because, well, you know. A Hotch death was also never in the cards -- not just to avoid angering fans, but that's, ironically, not in the show's DNA. It has never killed off a series regular character to write him or her out, and showrunner Erica Messer -- who wrote Wednesday's episode, which was directed by Matthew Gray Gubler -- has said she prefers not to kill people off in order to keep the door open for a return. She refused Shemar Moore's suggestion to off Morgan last season and finally killed Gideon (Mandy Patinkin) off-screen in Season 10, seven and a half years after Patinkin left, for story purposes and because everyone "realize[d] enough time has passed that we're not gonna have [Patinkin] again."
Hotch might return someday -- maybe after the BAU catches Mr. Scratch and the remaining fugitive unsubs by season's end -- and the option will at least be on the table for him to have a proper farewell.
The only appropriate departure was for Hotch to leave for his family. Jack is his world and after losing Haley because of his job seven years ago, he can't have another Reaper situation with Mr. Scratch. (Reminder: The Reaper found Haley and Jack despite them being in Witness Protection. So... good luck, guys!)
By sheer luck, the show fell into a seamless exit arc for Hotch that it doesn't feel out of the blue or forced. The Mr. Scratch stuff first started in Season 10, when he tortured Hotch by means that are still unknown, and reared its head again in the Season 11 finale in May, when he framed Hotch for conspiracy and engineered a prison break. Hotch was SWATed in front of Jack then, leading to a terse reunion and Hotch reevaluating everything now that Jack is older and more aware of the dangers of his father's job. You can almost hear the conspiracy theorists going, "They've been setting up his exit for two years!!!" They weren't -- and as we previously reported, the show had hoped to bring Ed Asner back as Hotch's father-in-law this season before all of this went down.
It's also a full-circle moment for Hotch, whom we first met building a crib and picking out baby names with Haley in the pilot. Hotch's commitment to the BAU led to the end of his marriage in Season 3 after he choose not to transfer to a friendly 9-to-5 job, and then eventually to Haley's murder. He's giving up the BAU not just for Jack, but for Haley too. I know for some fans nothing would satisfy them short of Gibson returning, but this was the best-case scenario. It's a completely believable exit and respectful of everything we know about the character.
As it's done before (see: JJ's exit after CBS fired A.J. Cook in Season 6), Criminal Minds spoke to the situation IRL -- and the abruptness of it all -- with some not-so-subtle references. "I'm trying to remember the last thing I said to [Hotch], but I can't remember. ... You don't know if that's going to be the last thing you say to them," Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) worries. "We've been through a lot of changes, but we always figure it out," Reid (Gubler) says.
"We stand beside one another -- through good, through bad -- because we're family," Rossi toasts at the end of the episode. "To Aaron and Jack, I don't know who's luckier, but it warms my heart that they'll be together every day and say. And to Emily, our friend and new unit chief, welcome home."
The message was clear, if heavy-handed at times: Hotch is gone, but definitely not forgotten. (I mean, I don't know how you could after 11 years.) The show and the BAU, however, must go on. We've had Hotch-less episodes before and we're now well into a post-Hotch world that's trucking along. Again, it was serendipitous that Brewster was already scheduled to return before sh-- hit the fan and then re-joined the show full time after Gibson's departure. It makes for a peaceful transition of power, and we don't have to deal with a poor newbie coming in as everyone's new boss whom many fans might automatically resent. Plus, Prentiss will be an awesome unit chief.
Who knows if we'll ever see Hotch again in corporeal form. It's very rare for fired stars to make a visit to their old stomping grounds, but you never know. For now, this was a fitting end to a very long and important chapter. One thing's for sure: No one will ever say "wheels up in 30" the same way again.
Criminal Minds airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on CBS.
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