Criminal Minds Without Thomas Gibson — Now What? We Ask BAU’s Beloved Garcia (AKA Kirsten Vangsness)

Kirsten Vangsness of Criminal Minds Credit: Cliff Lipson/CBS

Kirsten Vangsness has been playing the BAU’s techy Penelope Garcia for over 10 years now on Criminal Minds (Wednesdays on CBS), but no season has had as much uncertainty and change as this one. While things looked complicated for the BAU at the close of last season, which saw Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) leaving and a dozen of the worst criminals out free after a major jail break, no one anticipated the sudden departure of Thomas Gibson, who played Hotch.

“Obviously, that’s a loss to the show,” Vangsness said of Gibson. “I think when you watch the show, if you watch it religiously, like a lot of people do, you see us behave like a family. It’s got to be really hard to watch any family change and we’ve just had these back-to-back big changes. … What’s going to happen now? That’s the best part.” [Pictured below is Gibson in the Season 12 premiere episode, which will air on Wednesday, Sept. 28]

Photo: Eddy Chen/CBS

While Gibson is out, Paget Brewster (welcome back to BAU Emily Prentiss!!) and Adam Rodriguez (who plays lone wolf Luke Alvez) are in, and Aisha Taylor (Dr. Tara Lewis) is now a series regular. “We’re suddenly lady top-heavy, which is really, really cool. It’s good that a bunch of ladies get some airtime being powerful and large and in charge,” Vangsness says. “Aisha is just great. I think she clearly is Hermione Granger [Harry Potter fave], because she must have one of those little time turners because I don’t understand how she’s able to be in all of the places at the same time. It’s fantastic, and she’s just been such a needed addition to us. AJ [Jennifer Jareau] being there is fantastic. Doing all of her powerful lady stuff, she’s got a huge episode, Episode 2, I think, is AJ’s big episode.”

Adam Rodgriguez joins the cast of Criminal Minds for Season 12
Credit: John Arsenault/CBS

So where does the series pick up? “The season finale of last year [had] a bunch of bad guys, led by the nefarious Francis Fisher [who played the crazy unsub Antonia], escape out of various prisons. They’ve all been able to do it and now there’s over a dozen that are all over the country that we now have to snatch up. Hopefully it’s around the country! Who knows if they’ll escape overseas and then I guess that’s when they bring in Beyond Borders? I don’t know. Cody Elfman, who is Mr. Scratch, is the first one that we see that we haven’t seen. It’s really great, because it’s a great opportunity to get these fantastic actors back on the show that we all loved working with. Luke Alvez, which is who Adam Rodriguez plays [pictured], has come in, and he’s kind of like a lone wolf. He’s been working in another department of the FBI and he gets asked to be brought in to be part of our team to help with one case, but then he sort of sticks around. Much, much, much to Garcia’s chagrin. She does not enjoy him.”

Vangsness could get a chance to determine some of her costars and guest stars’ fate, as she’ll be back at the writers’ table this season. While many of her costars have taken their turns directing episodes, Vangsness has funneled her talents writing. “Last I heard, I am cowriting Episode 13. That’s how we’ve always done it, so why mess up a good thing? I cowrite with Erica Messer, the boss lady, our executive producer. It’s a real true cowriting. … I can’t even tell you how many times we’re just talking about just my cats or her children, and we’re braiding each other’s hair.”

Wait, what? Hair braiding? …

“I’m not making it up. I’m not kidding,” she laughs. “I can’t tell you how many times someone has come into the room to say something serious about work and we’re sitting on her couch and she’s petting my hair. I have a computer on my lap, it’s not like we go into it saying, ‘we’re just going to go sit in here and pet each other’s hair.’ Then, all of a sudden, somewhere in there we both are like, ‘oh look, episode got written,’ because in the middle of us talking about our feelings, the farthest thing away from the episode, all of a sudden we’re writing this episode.”

Well, it’s a formula that works, as from these relaxed conversations and hair petting has come some of the series’ most intense episodes. “The stuff I usually write is much more theatrical and much more stage oriented. Erica’s very good at reeling me in and I’m really good at pushing the boundaries of what we would usually do or say. I believe that Episode 13 — if that is the one which I do — I think that’s the one we will be cowriting. I can’t tell you anything except, the other ones I have cowritten are Gideon’s big episode, Morgan’s big episode, and this is another big episode of someone. It’s a big episode.”

Criminal Minds returns to CBS Wednesday, Sept. 28 at 9/8c