'Criminal Minds' Boss Previews JJ & Reid, The Chameleon & How It Will End

CRIMINAL MINDS
Preview
Cliff Lipson/CBS

The holiday season is over, but TV has some new gifts you'll never want to return. Settle in for 12 months of fan-favorite stars (Fran Drescher, Edie Falco), inspiring physical feats (the Olympics), new streaming services, and another must-see season of Outlander.

Let's get this out of the way: When the long-running procedural signs off in February, do not expect a definitive end to the heroic, pulse-pounding, and often disturbing exploits of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit. For Criminal Minds showrunner Erica Messer, an open-ended series finale was the only way to go.

"There are still bad guys to catch, and I want to believe somewhere in this country these good guys we've been cheering on for 15 seasons are going to be out there fighting crime," says Messer, who cowrote the episode with Kirsten Vangsness, aka brainy technical analyst Penelope Garcia. "I didn't want to close the door on that."

In January 2019, as cast and crew were winding down on Season 14, CBS gave the thumbs-up for one last (shortened) round. So Messer and Co. dove right in without taking a break. "Instead of wrapping production, we knew we were going to keep going [through] the final 10," she explains.

Last February's finale ended with, if not a cliffhanger, a bit of a head-scratcher. Held captive by a psycho and forced into a play-or-die game of truth or dare, profiler Jennifer Jareau, better known as J.J. (A.J. Cook), dropped a bombshell on quirky genius Dr. Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler): She confessed she had always loved him. Things were left vague between the two even after their return to safety — remember that awkward chat at Supervisory Special Agent David Rossi's (Joe Mantegna) splashy remarriage to ex-wife Krystall (Gail O'Grady)?

(Cliff Lipson/CBS)

Messer says the writers, producers and actors were pretty evenly split on what J.J. meant, with half insisting she does have romantic feelings for Reid and half believing she only intended to throw their captor off-balance. The drama's return picks up six months later — and the strain is showing.

"They're not the same old comfortable J.J. and Reid. In the second hour of the premiere, they'll say, 'We need to get back on track,'" the exec producer notes, adding that the tricky situation still hangs over them. "How do you define this truth in the work world, the 'I love you like a brother but in another world it would have been more'?"

Plus, Rachael Leigh Cook comes in as a love interest for Reid. "We haven't had a healthy one for him in a long time," Messer observes.

8 'Criminal Minds' Episodes to Watch and Fall in Love With JJ & Will Again (PHOTOS)See Also

8 'Criminal Minds' Episodes to Watch and Fall in Love With JJ & Will Again (PHOTOS)

Their future could be bleak, but we can't forget about these amazing moments from their past.

In another unexpected move, Criminal Minds devotes an entire episode, called "Saturday," to the BAU off duty. And a rare season-long storyline also crops up in the home stretch, as Rossi faces a formidable adversary in the form of Everett Lynch (Michael Mosley), a charming con man, arsonist, and serial killer dubbed "The Chameleon." According to Messer, "He never had an identity — certainly not one he ever liked — and every time he looks in the mirror, he hates what he sees. So he changes his face, his personality, his backstories."

Rossi first encountered Lynch in Season 14, when the villain nearly killed him and then disappeared. "In movies and TV, the hero always wins, but in this particular instance, I come across a foe who seems to be a match for me," Mantegna says. "I start to doubt myself. Can I handle this guy? Is it time for me to hang it up?"

While Rossi wrestles with retirement, his other BAU team members also face tough decisions before the final credits roll. Messer worked hard to balance wrapping up the stories of longtime characters like unit chief Emily Prentiss (Paget Brewster) with giving satisfying endings to newer faces — forensic psychologist Tara Lewis (Aisha Tyler) and colleagues Luke Alvez (Adam Rodriguez) and Matt Simmons (Daniel Henney, previously part of the spinoff Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders). Will Prentiss take a bigger position in the FBI? Could J.J. move away with her husband and kids?

(CBS)

"By the end of our series," Messer hints, "I think the fans will be happy with those choices that were made."

13 'Criminal Minds' Cases That Got Personal for the Team (PHOTOS)See Also

13 'Criminal Minds' Cases That Got Personal for the Team (PHOTOS)

The members of the BAU and their loved ones have been targeted over the years.

Criminal Minds, Season 15 Premiere, Wednesday, January 8, 9/8c, CBS

For More 2020 Preview:

Love & War: Inside Outlander's 'Emotional' Fifth Season With the Cast

8 Reboots & Spinoffs Coming to TV

'Schitt's Creek,' 'The 100' & 7 More TV Shows Ending

'Hunters' Creator Says Series Is His 'Pursuit of Justice'