Skip to main content

Why Criminal Minds' Finale Ended On That Shocking Cliffhanger, According To The Showrunner

morgan and prentiss criminal minds finale
(Image credit: Photo courtesy of CBS)

Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't yet watched Criminal Minds' wild season finale.

In Season 12, Criminal Minds has taken its story to places formerly untouched by its procedural narratives, giving Reid his own complication-filled serialized arc that other characters entered and exited while dealing with the perma-presence of big bad Mr. Scratch. And while the show has used a crossover or two in the past, audiences have never seen anything like the giant vehicular catastrophe that happened at the end of "Red Light," which put the majority of the main characters in dire straits. If you were as shocked as we were, here's showrunner Erica Messer's reasoning behind the finale's ending.

A car accident out of nowhere is often classic cliffhanger-y, but this felt like, this wasn't a bomb or anything like that; it was them talking about once we get to Scratch's hideout, he's going to have traps within traps within traps. We're expecting once they get out of the car at Scratch's hideout it's going to be bad news, but the fact that it was before they could even get there -- that that was where the trap was -- is frightening and unexpected. They were not prepared for it. We probably didn't decide on that completely until February and we shot it in March.

In terms of bucking predictions and subverting expectations, Erica Messer and her creative team knocked this one out of the park. Criminal Minds is a show about violent and dangerous people, but it's very rare for one of the leads to run into this kind of potentially fatal situation, and this was far more than just one of the leads. We might have even expected a more minor version of this cliffhanger to play out once the team actually reached Mr. Scratch's location, but before we could even consider what would happen, all hell broke loose. (More on everyone's fates here.)

The team was traveling in two SUVs which were taken down by a strip of spikes that popped off the ground, and that "accident" would have been bad enough, but then an 18-wheeler entered the picture and slammed into everyone. From the looks of things, Alvez, JJ and Walker were the ones most likely to live another unsub-stopping day. But things looked way more worse for the wear when it came to the vehicle that Rossi, Lewis and Prentiss were traveling in. Considering Paget Brewster and Aisha Tyler both became regulars in Season 12 -- in part because of the firing of Thomas Gibson -- it's unlikely they'll be going anywhere. But now that Erica Messer is embracing plot variations like this, no one is safe.

Below, Messer told TV Guide a bit more behind the general decision process to bring the cliffhanger into the episode.

We're usually ahead of the game in terms of breaking stories and stuff and we really had to be this year because of the arc for Dr. Reid. We always sort of knew the ending of the Reid of it all with Aubrey and that beautiful stuff with Gia Mantegna. But we kept saying, 'That's going to be tied up in a neat bow, but it feels like the season of unexpected twists for us,' and it felt like we earned the right to do a proper cliffhanger this year of all years. We started kicking it around and pitching it to the studio and network and they loved it, so we went with it.

You'd think that just bringing Shemar Moore back for an episode would have been the big news, but not even Derek Morgan can overshadow such a huge surprise. Sadly, fans won't be able to see what happened to Team BAU until Season 13 debuts, or maybe when the first trailers start coming out.

In the meantime, Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders' two-part season finale will air on Wednesday, May 17, at 9:00 p.m. Head to our summer TV schedule to see when all the other returning and premiering shows will pop up in the coming months.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.