Sarah Wayne Callies by Jeremy Cowart/Fox Sarah Wayne Callies by Jeremy Cowart/Fox

If you're still in denial about the horrific turn of events on tonight's Prison Break, well, stop reading, 'cause a stone-cold reality check is coming your way: That was definitely Sara Tancredi's decapitated head staring up at Lincoln from that box. No ifs, ands or red herrings about it. Michael's long-suffering soul mate is dead and she ain't comin' back.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. And now prepare yourself for another sobering piece of news. Yes, my friends, it gets worse. The sad truth is, it didn't have to end this way. It wasn't supposed to end this way.

As Prison Break executive producer Matt Olmstead explains in this exclusive interview, the violent nature of Sara's death was the culmination of long and fruitless negotiations between the show and new-mom Sarah Wayne Callies. It's enough to make your head spin. (Sorry. Poor taste.) Stick around after the Q&A for Callies' response. And then feel free to assign blame wherever you feel it's warranted.

Last January, after it was announced that Sarah was pregnant, your colleague, Paul Scheuring, assured fans that he had no intention of killing off her character. What changed?
Matt Olmstead:
What changed is that our initial pitch to the network was [rejected], so we had to go back to the drawing board. I remember we were sitting in the room thinking, "How do we unlock Season 3, motivation-wise?" Since we're not a procedural, we have to keep everyone moving forward. We have to evolve. And given what Michael's been through, how do you keep him going? And then it was tossed out, "What happens if Sara gets killed as an extension of what we already had planned for Season 3?" We knew that would work. But clearly it was a big conversation. And when we pitched the network, they wanted to know if there was any way we could avoid that, because everyone loved Sarah's work. But in order to make the season work, we really didn't have any other motivation for Michael. We determined that this was the right thing to do in order to really jolt the series.

Did you ever stop to consider that this might be a slap in the face to fans who had invested two years in the Michael-Sara relationship?
We took everything into consideration. Our initial idea was to have [Sarah/Sara appear in] the first 13 episodes, so she and Michael could have a proper goodbye. There were going to be some really emotional scenes where he tried to save her from dying, but she ultimately passed. So then we whittled it down to 11 episodes, then 10 episodes, then nine episodes, then four episodes. Then we suggested flying to her - she was pregnant [at the time] and living in a remote part of Canada - and bringing a camera crew to her house, but that wasn't accepted. We then whittled it down to just a phone conversation, and that was turned down, too. We were really looking forward to paying off that relationship. But [when] it became evident that that wasn't going to happen, we made lemonade out of a lemon.

So, as a result, you were forced to kill her off sooner than you had planned?
Much sooner. We used the story to our advantage in that she was being held hostage. [Sarah] was gracious enough to let us use her image, which really helped. I totally get it, personally. She was, at the time, pregnant and living in a remote part of Canada and nesting; [she] kind of looked at the options and didn't want to go forward. No hard feelings whatsoever. The show is an ensemble. The show moves forward. There are very few untouchable actors on the show.

Wasn't Sarah under contract? Didn't she have to return?
That's a business-affairs question.

[At this point, 20th Century spokesperson Chris Alexander interjects: "We had to either pick her up for the entire season of 22, according to her contract, or we had to make a new contract with her. We determined in May that we didn't plan to use her for the full 22, so we chose not to renew our existing contract with her. And so, to get her back for the 13 or 14 that we wanted, we had to make a new deal, and she declined."]

What was your understanding as to why she didn't want to come back? It seems strange that she refused to return in any capacity. Doesn't it seem strange to you?
It looked like a pretty good deal on the face of it. We definitely came up in money. Thirteen episodes would have allowed the character to have a proper exit. We were willing to push the start date back [to accommodate her maternity leave], which would have meant her coming in [around] Episode 10, but that wasn't accepted. So then we offered to come up [to Canada] before she gave birth and film at her house. Pretty good money and she wouldn't even have to leave her house. That wasn't accepted. So it was a little curious to me and to others why she was taking such a hard stance. [Maybe] she felt that she was made certain assurances about being part of the show this season. And in fairness to her, those assurances were given, because she was such a valuable member of the show. Also, she's up [in Canada]. She's comfortable. She's starting a family. Maybe she didn't want to have to fly down and have to do this stuff. Or maybe she felt like she wanted to be part of the show [full time], not just half the season. Perhaps she felt a little jilted. Our [original] plan was to definitely keep her for [all of] Season 3, but after a couple of times of getting it kicked back from the network, we had to come up with a new idea and that necessitated her character being killed.

Did you ever get an inkling that she wasn't happy working on the show?
No. I've worked in TV for 10 years. I've been around difficult actors. I've definitely been around malcontents. She was none of those. Great actress. Very smart. Good suggestions. And an asset to the show.

Sarah was recently quoted in a French magazine saying that she was "sad," "shocked" and felt "deceived" by the decision to kill off the character. Presuming this is what she actually said, does this surprise you?
Not really. She was invested in the character and wanted to be a part of the show. We felt the same way.

Let's discuss the way you killed her off. Some might view it as you guys exacting revenge on Sarah for not returning.
We really had no way of using her image other than the existing images that we had. Those Polaroids we used are old wardrobe shots from Season 1 and 2. She didn't give us any new photos. So [we had to devise a way to] kill her [and still] show a body. Obviously she wasn't going to fly down and be a DOA for us. We just wanted to go with the most dramatic way to do it, a way that you could do it and not need the actress. Also, what it does is it helps put teeth into the antagonist of the show, the Susan character. Because a lot of times with [villains], they're constantly wagging their finger, "You better do this, you better do that or this is going to happen" and it becomes hollow after a while. So, this absolutely dramatizes that when Susan issues a cautionary to Lincoln and that goes unheeded, this is the result.

So Sarah's refusal to return essentially limited how you could kill her?
Yeah, basically. Could you have seen a [body] double's feet being shoved into a meat grinder? Sure. Could you see a wide shot of a female body being dumped in an ocean? Probably. But dramatically, this allowed us to get the most out of what little we had to work with. We used her not coming back to our advantage. When the bomb finally drops for Michael - and he finds out that she has been killed - it's an unbelievable sequence between him and Lincoln. And it really lays a huge motivation on him.

Response from Sarah Wayne Callies
Although Callies declined multiple interview requests, last Friday the actress sent me the following statement via her spokesperson.

"As hard as we all tried, the Prison Break powers that be and I were unable to find a way to meet both the needs of the story and the needs of my family. We parted wishing each other well. I had a wonderful time working with the creative team and have a world of respect for all of them; they took great care of Dr. Sara. I'm also enormously grateful to the fans. They've been so gracious and supportive, and I hope they continue to enjoy the show."

So, there you have it. Michael and Sara's love story was cut short over a frakkin' contract dispute. Assuming you're already in the anger phase of your grieving process, let the blame game begin in the comments section below. Also, don't forget to check out this week's Ask Ausiello for scoop on the next chapter in this unbelievable tale: Michael's rebound relationship!

POLL: Will you stop watching Prison Break because of what they did to Sara? Vote here.