It looks like the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit is facing its biggest blow yet in the decade-plus that Criminal Minds has been on air. Just a month before the season 12 premiere of the series—a show which, up to this point, has thrived with a loyal, rabid fanbase—actor Thomas Gibson, who portrays the FBI team leader, Supervisory Special Agent Aaron Hotchner, was suspended, then fired shortly after, for physically assaulting one of the show’s writers, Virgil Williams.
Sure, big cast members have previous left the show during its 11-year run (Mandy Patinkin, Paget Brewster, and most recently, Shemar Moore, to name a few), and Criminal Minds has learned to adapt in their absence; likewise, actors from other television shows have been fired before. But Gibson’s case is a bit different. With someone like Charlie Sheen, his termination from Two and a Half Men came after a very public meltdown, so when it finally happened it didn’t come as a surprise to many. Grey’s Anatomy star Isaiah Washington’s story is a bit more similar to Gibson’s in that he was fired after an on-set altercation (during which he called co-star T.R. Knight an offensive gay slur) while he was still a seminal part of a TV show. However, Washington had at this point only been on the show for two years, and the series would continue for almost 10 more years (and counting), with a guest appearance return from Washington in 2014.
Thomas Gibson is, arguably, the most central part of Criminal Minds. He has been in more episodes of the show than any of his co-stars—an impressive 255—and while past members exiting the show have shifted the dynamic throughout the years (with Shemar Moore’s recent leave being one of the hardest thus far), a Criminal Minds without Gibson’s character feels like the entire team has been put off-balance. The very essence of his character, Aaron Hotchner, or more affectionately known as “Hotch,” represents the team’s moral compass, the stern but unwavering rock during the biggest of crises. What Gibson did in real life—assaulting a writer by kicking him in the shins—is abusive, petty, and completely irresponsible, all antithetical to the Hotch character we’ve grown to love and know for 11 years. Fans tend to get attached to their favorite TV characters and after having seen Gibson as Hotchner for that many years, it’s been a rude awakening to realize that Gibson really is not the morally upright leader he plays on TV. (Of course, you’d have to be a delusional idiot to actually believe that an actor is his character, but it’s still strange when you have to confront that unwelcome reality.)
But it comes down to two important questions: Did Thomas Gibson deserve to get fired? And will this hurt the show? Both are resounding yes’s for me. This isn’t Gibson’s first offense; in fact there’s quite a running list. There was that embarrassing catfishing incident a couple years ago in which he had been caught sending “sexy” videos to a stranger; in 2010, he had shoved Criminal Minds assistant director Ian Woolf after a disagreement, leading to Gibson attending anger management classes; there was a DUI; and it's no secret that his relationship with ex-co-star Shemar Moore was a tense one. The show runners (who have not responded for comment) have excused his poor behavior in the past, but the assault on Williams would be the final straw.
Tari Jordan, who runs one of the biggest Criminal Finds fansites, CriminalMindsFans.com, told me in an email, “[Fans] were aware of [his past mistakes]. In those cases, since not many details were forthcoming, most of us rallied to his side because hey, the guy's a human being and he's our Hotch. There's been considerable more information this time around, and there's no getting around what he did. In my opinion—and there are those that will argue with me—but his firing was justified.”
Last week Thomas Gibson issued a statement about his leave, sans apology, and now he’s pursuing possible legal action. “The fandom is pretty divided over this,” Jordan tells me. “There are some that are having trouble separating Thomas from the character of Hotch, and that's making tempers flare on his behalf. There are some that are blaming the victim, saying Virgil Williams instigated it.” She continues, “To me, it doesn't matter who's more popular here—one person was allegedly assaulted, the other was not. It's very telling to me that Thomas was suspended, an investigation took place, and he was ultimately let go, and not one disciplinary thing has come down on Virgil. The evidence, including eye-witnesses, must have been strong. It's all incredibly sad, especially for those of us that have been fans for a very long time.”
When she says the fandom is divided, she’s not lying. Adamant Gibson supporters have started a #NoHotchNoWatch hashtag, boycotting the show until CBS hires him back. Even worse, there’s been a toxic reaction of victim-blaming. Physical assault is inexcusable in a workplace and after multiple offenses, CBS made the hard but, what I believe is, the right decision in terminating Gibson’s employment. Amidst the petitions and protests, even some of the show’s biggest fans, like Tari Jordan, will agree. Now the only big question left is, how is Criminal Minds going to survive this blow? It might mark the beginning of the end of a beloved show, if Shemar Moore’s leave already wasn’t one, but others still have hope. There’s talk of Paget Brewster returning as the beloved Emily Prentiss full-time (she’s already scheduled for guest appearances in the new season), and even rumors that Shemar Moore might come back since his biggest (speculated) beef with the show was with Thomas Gibson. If you are a fan of Criminal Minds and have been with it throughout all the years, #NoHotchNoWatch is no show of loyalty. The best thing to do is to support the remaining cast and crew when the show returns for season 12 on Sept. 28. And, hard as it might, accept the fact that Thomas Gibson is no Aaron Hotchner IRL.