Since CBS shocked Criminal Minds fans by firing Thomas Gibson after an on-set incident, most of the chatter has centered around how they would write off his character Aaron Hotchner. After all, the lead actor had appeared in more than 250 episodes, and given the exit occurred after he filmed the first few episodes of the season, there didn't seem to be time for a proper farewell. Well, tonight we finally got our answer, or at least the first part of our answer. His absence was explained with a brief throwaway line, saying he was "on special assignment".

In order to ease the jarring transition, Criminal Minds producers brought back beloved fan favorite Paget Brewster and her character Emily Prentiss. She's the one who tells everyone else she's around temporarily while Hotch, the team lead, is on special assignment, and apart from one other brief reference a few moments later, his departure simply isn't mentioned again.

Now, does that mean he'll just quietly disappear and never be spoken of again? Probably not. The implication of the line during tonight's episode was that he's on a temporary assignment and will return in the future. Had Thomas Gibson merely been suspended, that would make sense. Since his exit is apparently permanent, however, they are going to need to close that door and bring in a new director to actually lead the team. The show has already announced it will bring actor Damon Gupton in starting in episode 8, but there are a lot of rumors a second person will join him at some point, as well.

For most of its more than ten year run, Criminal Minds has coasted along without many negative headlines. Despite its subject matter and more casting shake-ups than average, the show has quietly put up solid ratings and secured lucrative syndication deals. About a month ago, however, Criminal Minds' positive momentum was abruptly halted when an incident occurred on the set. Stories vary on what exactly happened, but everyone seems to agree on the basic gist.

Lead actor Thomas Gibson got into a confrontation with a writer over whether or not his character was repeating himself. The argument escalated, and Gibson either kicked or somehow made contact with the writer. Words were exchanged, and filming was stopped. Because there were allegedly several incidents in the past, CBS made the decision to fire Thomas Gibson, startling fans and deeply polarizing those involved.

Criminal Minds airs on CBS on Wednesday evenings at 9 ET/ 8 CT. Only time will tell whether fans will stick with the show without Aaron Hotchner. Given the show has always been very much an ensemble vehicle, my guess is the majority will stick around. We should know for sure in the coming weeks.

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