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Warning: spoilers ahead for the first episode of Criminal Minds Season 13. If you don't want the details on what happened, check out some of our non-spoilery articles.
Criminal Minds got off to a seriously intense start with the Season 13 premiere, as the plot picked up right where the Season 12 finale left off. The premiere revealed that one person did indeed die in the car crash orchestrated by Mr. Scratch: Agent Stephen Walker, who died due to whiplash. His death didn't come as too much of a surprise, given the fact that Criminal Minds let the actor go over hiatus. The real surprise came due to the huge death at the very end of the episode. Mr. Scratch finally and quite definitively died, and the episode addressed just what that means for the long-lost Hotch.
Hotch was written out of Criminal Minds in Season 12 due to actor Thomas Gibson's behind-the-scenes behavior. The initial excuse for Hotch's absence was that he was on special assignment, although it was later revealed that he really entered witness protection because the murderous Mr. Scratch was quite determinedly stalking his son Jack. Despite being hidden by the government, the reality was that Hotch and Jack would never be truly safe or free to return to their lives as long as Mr. Scratch was out there.
Well, Mr. Scratch is no longer out there, as we saw his head smashed open on the ground after he fell from a fatal height, and the team was temporarily overjoyed at the fact that Hotch was free to return. With the threat to Jack no longer in play, Hotch could theoretically return to the BAU and pick up where he left off, which would have been great for fans who have been missing him.
Unfortunately, even if Mr. Scratch's death means that Hotch and Jack are free to return, it doesn't mean that Thomas Gibson will be invited back to Criminal Minds. In the episode, Prentiss revealed why we shouldn't count on seeing Hotch back in the BAU, or perhaps on the show at all. She spoke to Hotch off-screen, and so she was able to tell the rest of the team why Hotch would not be returning to the job.
As it turns out, Hotch has grown to love being able to spend time with his son on a full-time basis. The two got to be close in a way that was never possible while Hotch was with the BAU, and Hotch isn't going to give up their closer relationship just to return to his old job. Hotch and Jack can wander freely without the specter of Mr. Scratch hanging over their heads; they just won't be doing it on Criminal Minds.
The news that Hotch isn't coming back to Criminal Minds is undoubtedly bad news for any fans who were hoping that the death of Mr. Scratch would mean the return of Thomas Gibson, but the events of the finale do at least mean that the show could be moving into an exciting new era. With Mr. Scratch gone and no more need to fret over Hotch and Jack's safety, there are new stories that can be tackled by the series moving forward. Hopefully it will be as exciting as the premiere.