'Criminal Minds' Boss on Saying Goodbye After 15 Seasons With a 'Bittersweet' Ending (Exclusive)

Showrunner Erica Messer talks to ET about wrapping up the series' 15-year run and if there's room to revisit these characters.

Warning: Do not proceed if you have not watched Wednesday's two-hour series finale of Criminal Minds. You are heading into major spoiler territory.

It's the end of an era for Criminal Minds.

After 15 seasons, 324 episodes and hundreds of unsubs, CBS' long-running crime drama signed off for good with a two-hour series finale on Wednesday night that ended with the closing of one chapter (RIP jet!) and the beginning of another. At first, it appeared that BAU boss David Rossi (Joe Mantegna) was finally ready to retire from fieldwork, but the planned retirement party turned into a farewell bash for Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness), who revealed in a heartfelt, emotional speech that she was leaving the team for another much less gory gig.

And so, the team said their final goodbyes to Garcia (after a celebratory dance-filled evening in Rossi's backyard), who closed out the series with one last walk around the BAU headquarters after everyone else went off on their next mission. But Garcia couldn't end her time at the BAU without leaving one last mark, writing a secret message on the Post-it that she slipped in between the cracks of her old desk for her successor to eventually find. 

"I knew that we would never please everyone with the final hour of the TV series that had been on 15 seasons because... we didn't want to write the ending. We didn't want it to end," showrunner and executive producer Erica Messer tells ET. "We wanted to leave it with, they're going to go fight another case and that will be that. We just won't go with them this time. That was the overwhelming majority saying, 'Can't the show just go on?' And part of it was also, if the show ever got picked up to keep going, which, who knows if that would ever happen, we can untie that bow really easily and keep telling stories."

Messer, who co-wrote the final hour alongside Vangsness, talks to ET about writing the emotional series finale, why it made sense for Garcia to be the one to leave the BAU and whether they tried to get former series regulars to come back one last time. 

ET: What was important for you to capture in the final hour of Criminal Minds?

Erica Messer: We didn't want it to feel over when the jet exploded, although it does feel like, "Whoa, that's a big ending." But in that "What happens next?" is the fake-out that Rossi is the one retiring when it's really Garcia moving on, that the team is going to stay together for now even though everybody has opportunities to do something different. There's a new jet that the audience will never get to see. We don't know what the case is. The good is going to still be fighting the bad in the world. We didn't want the team to completely disband and everybody leaving the BAU with a cardboard box of their stuff. That felt wrong to us. We wanted to believe that this team is together and they're still fighting the good fight. But having Garcia leave was that bittersweetness that we really wanted to play with.

Why did you feel like Garcia was the perfect character to go her own way?

When Kirsten and I were talking about it, I said, "Do you think Garcia would consider taking her special skill-set somewhere else?" She said, "Yeah, I think she would. I think it's time and I'm totally OK with that." And so with tender, loving care, we crafted that story so that it didn't dominate either hour really. It was sprinkled in the first hour and then by the second hour, they'd been through such a ride with Reid, The Chameleon, Crystal being held hostage, Rossi trading places and the jet exploding. There was so much happening that Garcia accepting the job offer was on the back burner.

Cliff Lipson/CBS

That's why opening that hour with, "OK, Rossi's actually going to retire. This is crazy," and by the time we're at the party, Rossi's saying, "So few of us can do what we do. I'm going to stick around and do it as long as I can." And that was Joe's dealing, I think partly because Joe is not done yet. Everyone is very protective of the characters they play and I think he truly felt that about Rossi as well. We tried to write the truth of what we're all feeling behind the scenes, what the actors are feeling in terms of protecting their characters and what we hope will also entertain and honor our fans who have been watching all these years.

Was there anything the actors suggested for how they wanted their characters' arcs to wrap up that didn't align with your original plan?

No. The bottom line was everyone wanted the team to stay together and we were able to pull that off. We weren't really able to explore the options that JJ was given, to go run her own field office or for Prentiss to possibly be considered to be the first female director. But those are all things that we laid in there that, who knows, if you revisited that team a year later, five years later, that might be the path that they took. We wanted to sprinkle that there's other opportunities because these people are superstars. The only person who left was Garcia and she's not far away. She's still in the same city. She just won't be working on the sixth floor with them anymore but she'll still be in their lives. And we've played with that over the years too, so we didn't feel like we needed to rehash that. The only thing that was fresh was the idea that Alvez wanted to take Garcia out to dinner.

Would you have liked to have had time to explore that a little further had there been more episodes? Why did you decide to drop that Easter egg?

Early, early days of the show, we made a deal that there wouldn't be inter-office romance. Not that they didn't all love one another and they didn't have one another's back, that was absolutely true. But if we had put two people together, then that might make other things awkward or we might turn more soapy. That wasn't the show we were doing. This year we broke those rules; we broke it in the season 14 finale with JJ's big reveal to Reid. With Alvez asking Garcia out... they had such a funny relationship. We had such a good time writing for them because she was determined not to like him because it would be the betraying [Derek] Morgan (Shemar Moore) somehow if she did, so she took such an opposite tactic with him. Instead of flirting, the way she did with Morgan, it was like, "I'm going to shut you down and be mean every once in a while to you." The fact that he took all that on the chin and still was like, "We've got something special here. Even if it's just friendship, I want to know, 'Would you want to explore that with me?'" It's not anything that we would have done if this was a season-ender because we didn't want to break that rule that we had established from the jump. It was definitely a series finale move because then you have to follow up: Are these two dating now or are they not dating? It wasn't what our show was ever about.

The series finale featured a few key flashbacks with several familiar faces who have since left the show -- the first, which opened the episode, and the second, which took place in Rossi's backyard at what was supposed to be his retirement party. Was that your way of fulfilling the series' history without getting old cast members back? How hard did you try to get certain ex-series regulars back for the final episode?

The first choice was to have old cast members be at the party present day. That was the goal. That was the hope. And there's only so much we can do to make that happen. That didn't happen, and I thought, "Well, I want to acknowledge that, and the smiles and the tears that have happened in Rossi's backyard." So that's how we incorporated them. They weren't technically at the party, but they felt very present in this setting and in a celebration for this team, we're always there for that. We had to go with the Plan B.

What was the thought process behind welcoming back crucial characters from the past, like Strauss (Jayne Atkinson), George Foyet (C. Thomas Howell) and Maeve (Beth Riesgraf)? 

I wanted to be able to have fun with Reid's state of mind in this episode and it felt like there are so few opportunities where you can forget about the rules. It was like the Ghost of Christmas Past; there's a good one, there's a bad one and then there's a love of his life. Initially, we have the team from season one in a flashback for him and then we have our good ghost in Strauss who was killed by an unsub and then you've got The Reaper who was, I would argue, the defining unsub of the series because when we chose to take him in the direction that we did and have him kill Haley in episode 100, it really changed the show. We suddenly became the show that would go there. To create an archnemesis for Hotch (Thomas Gibson), but for the team, that paved the way for us to have another archnemesis, including The Chameleon. It felt important to have C. Thomas Howell come back and play The Reaper once more. And he's our bad ghost of the past. 

Then Maeve being the guiding light for Reid on this journey of the physical, like, "Am I fighting to stay here and if I am, what is my purpose? What am I staying for? Am I done here? Do I still have work to do?" She was a natural emotional choice for Reid. There's even a part of him in the scene where it's like, "Maybe I will just let go because if letting go means I get to be here with you, that's what I want." It's a beautiful little love story that we were able to remind everyone of. And maybe by the end of that episode, Reid has a little more peace about him that will stay with him for a while.

Cliff Lipson/CBS

Was there anything else that you had originally planned but couldn't make happen for the series finale?

Because we had a party in Rossi's backyard, my initial vision for it was similar to the season seven finale where it's JJ's wedding and we know Prentiss is leaving and everybody gets to have that dance with Prentiss. I pictured that kind of feeling with Garcia leaving, because at the point that they're on the dance floor dancing to [David Bowie's] "Heroes," everybody knew Garcia was leaving and it was a group hug of a dance, instead of handing her off. I had hoped that we would have been able to have former cast members all be a part of that in that celebration of a series that's been on this long. But like I said, that wasn't up to me. That was a wish that did not get granted.

What was the final day like on set? Was it as emotional as I can probably surmise?

The night that we were in Rossi's backyard, you have all these other things that are happening. We need to be wrapped by a certain time and we needed to turn the music down... Well, I know the cast did because they had to speak and react, but I don't know if people really heard what we were saying in those speeches, especially Garcia's speech. We were talking to the cast and crew. We were saying, "This time next week it won't be the same," which is exactly right. When we did the final playback for the show, a lot of people came and they were just in tears. They were like, "Oh my god, I can't believe I didn't hear that on the night." And I was like, "No, that's what the whole point was. We're saying this to you as the cast and crew, we're saying it to the fans, we're saying it to everybody who's been watching all this time. It's never going to feel the same again because where we're done."

That was a sad night but sadder when watching it than while shooting it, but super sad when they all got in the elevator and the doors closed on them. I mean, that was a series wrap for Joe, Paget [Brewster], Aisha [Tyler], Daniel [Henney], Adam [Rodriguez]. It was a series wrap for everyone but Matthew [Gray Gubler], Kirsten and A.J. [Cook]. But it was like, "Oh my god, this is a series wrap on most of the cast," and a ton of tears. But we would say, "They're happy tears." We got a real sense of what bittersweet feels like. I would argue that's what Kirsten and I really wanted. The whole time, we wanted people to feel what we were feeling, which was ultimately this very bittersweet emotion. And I think we got it. The night that Kirsten was shooting her last scene in the high-tech room, that was a real rushed night too because it was right after the elevator scene. Emotionally, we were all in that same place of realizing... It was hitting all of us that it was over and her turning out the lights... It's that empty [feeling] and the note to whoever might find it. We never wanted anyone to know what the note said and that was our own little thing.

Do you guys know what Garcia wrote on the Post-it?

Kirsten and I [do], but nobody else knows. And you can choose your own adventure with that. You can decide what it said, but we felt like even if we wrote it [out] and even if you saw it... We talked about what it was, but if she had written it down and somebody ever found it or saw it, it probably wouldn't mean as much as what you might hope for what it says. There's one last little mystery for Criminal Minds and it's what was on Garcia's note.

And that final elevator scene, when the doors closed, how difficult was it to film that final moment?

They definitely had to be stoic in that moment. It was that hard thing, like having to smile like it's just another normal day. I mean, Garcia's leaving so there can be sadness with that. But yeah, there was a heaviness to it and I think we all felt that, so I'm glad it came across onscreen.

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