After six months of dancing around each other, BAU team members JJ (A.J. Cook) and Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) were forced to confront their feelings once and for all during Criminal Minds' two-hour season premiere on Wednesday. Did JJ mean what she said in her finale bombshell when she revealed, seemingly out of the blue, that she's been secretly in love with her friend and colleague? Turns out, JJ didn't exactly mean it when she told Reid, "I've always loved you," at gunpoint.
The truth behind JJ's confession surfaced in a bittersweet conversation between the two friends at the hospital, hours after JJ nearly died following a gunshot wound to the abdomen suffered during a tense standoff. Even more devastating, JJ confessed that she was happy with her husband and kids, but that things could have potentially turned romantic had she and Reid met under different circumstances. That is the sound of hearts breaking.
"We have to acknowledge what was said. And if Reid got hurt because of that confession, even if it wasn't a true confession, we need to acknowledge that," executive producer Erica Messer told ET of undoing JJ's bombshell. "I was really wanting to be protective of her character, because she's got a life that she loves. She has a husband and children, and these are things that Reid doesn't have. And so, it doesn't seem fair that she would say, 'Maybe in another world, we could have been something,' when she has that world already."
"But Reid doesn't hold any ill will toward her, and loves her all the same," she added. "So it was [about] protecting the two of them, so that that relationship that we all love so much doesn't get ruined because of something that was said in a very heightened moment."
ET: How much discussion did you have in the writers' room about actually exploring a relationship between JJ and Reid? Was that ever a real possibility?
Erica Messer: No, we knew this would never be a will they-won't they story. We never wanted to explore that. It just didn't feel true to them.
Their conversation at the hospital was a difficult one for them to have. What did you want to convey in that moment?
To acknowledge the life is messy, love is messy. In another world, in another time, maybe they could have been... It would be false not to acknowledge that. At the same time, it's such a deep conversation for them to have. And I think, ultimately, just showing that their love for one another rises above all of that. And I think she's asking for forgiveness in that scene and he's saying there's no need for that. It shows that there is no real road map for love. It just is what it is, and it's messy and beautiful and heartbreaking. All of that.
How does Reid move on from this? What is his journey, knowing now that he has to let that aspect of JJ go in a way?
In a few episodes, you're going to see what everybody's doing on a Saturday. Reid has been having this recurring nightmare and he's actually in therapy, which has been mandated from the Bureau. In that, the therapist challenges him to go have a normal day. And he's like, "I don't even know what that looks like." And she's like, "Right, so you need to go find out what that looks like." Part of the discussion is about all the complications with JJ and where he gets to confirm again -- it's not that he's pining for her or wanting to break up her marriage; none of those things are on his radar -- but he needs to go find out what makes him happy.
What makes him happy, when he talks about happiness, it's always involving work. JJ said this and like, "Okay, who are you without these people around you? Who are you when you're walking in a park and you interact with a stranger?" That's his challenge for the episode. Within that, he meets somebody, who makes him happy and makes him smile. JJ recognizes that in him and says, "You need to chase that. That thing that's making you feel so happy right now, you need to explore that further. And it's her realizing, "I want that for him as much as he wants that for me."
Reid is also dealing with the fact that his mom's health is deteriorating and that after a certain amount of him, she is going to be a shell of who she is now. What hardships does Reid go through as he sees his mom go through this?
It's emotionally exhausting, but there's also such a hopefulness, especially in that second hour of the premiere. It's such a heartbreaking disease and she's been straddled with multiple issues and there's almost two ways to go with it. It's either, she dies, which we didn't want to do, or, she's going to continue to have his deteriorating brain disease that will eventually become really, really difficult to watch and live through. We thought, "Well, the truth is, there are these studies that are allowing people to have exactly what Stephanie wrote in that episode, which is, these moments of clarity and these moments of normalcy." They might last for months, they might last for days; it's fleeting. And then it could be a rapid decline after that or it could be a slow decline after that. We thought, "Well, that's a nice way to reintroduce that storyline, is that it isn't just downhill from here." There's going to be peaks and valleys, and it's a nod to those who are dealing with family members who are struggling with this disease -- that we hear you and we see you.
What was your approach for the final season?
It's probably different if you asked different individuals but part of what we decided on in the writers' room was to tell stories we hadn't had a chance to tell yet. Some of those took the shape of the episode, "Saturday" (airing Jan. 22), by Stephanie Birkitt and Breen Frazier, which is about what our team does on a day off. It's a fun jumping-off point to show our heroes in a different light. Everybody's always wondered, what does that look like? Do they ever truly turn it off? We're telling stories like that. We never did anything like, "This is a killer we wish we had always gotten to and never did." We didn't approach any of it in that way; it was more character-based. How do we want to see these heroes interacting and what have we not had a chance to do yet?
We felt that way in the writers' room. A lot of the actors felt that way. They wanted to be able to have closure on certain stories that we had set up years ago. It's a large task and very unusual, when you know it's the end, and there's only 10 hours to wrap it all up. Certainly by the [end], I just wanted it to feel as bittersweet as we did writing it.
You mentioned talking to the actors about closing out their arcs. What were some of their personal desires heading into the final season?
Everybody had a different perspective, but I'd say the common denominator was that everyone's so protective. Certainly, I'm protective of the show, and of the characters and the stories, but they come at it from a really protective place of the characters that they've been bringing to life all these years. We would talk about, "We're considering going this way with the character, what do you think of that?" and letting the actors have a little bit more say than maybe they would in a normal 22-episode season. But it came from a place of a wish list, but also, more of a protective stance, I think.
How would you describe these last 10 episodes of Criminal Minds?
It's about our family of heroes and the acknowledgement of how lucky we've been to be together for this long. And how, just because we won't see each other every day, it doesn't mean we're not always going to be family. I think part of that was what we actually had characters say, and also, how we all were feeling at the time. But ultimately, I think it's this bittersweet sensation; we're just thankful for what we had. And we're sad that we're not going to have it the same way anymore, but we wouldn't change a thing.