'Criminal Minds' 200th episode: Paget Brewster, Joe Mantegna reunite to find A.J. Cook

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As  "Criminal Minds" hits episode No. 200, a lot of bizarre cases are in the CBS show's rearview mirror.

The milestone telecast Wednesday, Feb. 5, is more like "a little mini-movie," according to series regular A.J. Cook. She should know: Her character, FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit agent Jennifer "JJ" Jareau, is at its center. JJ's kidnapping prompts team leader David Rossi ( Joe Mantegna) and her other colleagues to probe the year she worked for the State Department - which coincided with the season Cook was off the show - and the investigation involves familiar faces.

One is former co-star Paget Brewster, back as BAU alum Emily Prentiss. Another, likely a surprise for fans, is Jayne Atkinson as now-deceased ex-Section Chief Erin Strauss ... but much of the tale is told through flashbacks. Esai Morales also returns in his recurring role as Strauss' successor, Mateo "Mat" Cruz, who knows JJ very well from her State Department stint.

"It's been an interesting season for all of our characters," Cook tells Zap2it of the show's ninth year. "We've had an opportunity to tell a bit of the background stories, and that happens to fall on the 200th episode for JJ. It will definitely open people's eyes to stuff she went through during that time away and will clear up a lot of loose ends."

Executive producer Erica Messer is glad the 200th episode makes good on Cook's "Criminal Minds" absence after her contract wasn't renewed for Season 6. "She was written out in the second episode," Messer recalls, "and didn't return until the very end of that season to say, 'I'm coming back.' That was a huge victory for all of us.

"When we had to write A.J. out, it was sort of a fast and furious situation. I happened to write that episode, and I didn't want it to be her choice [to leave, as JJ], because it wasn't her choice in real life. I also didn't want it to be insulting to the character, so with the help of the writing staff, I figured out how to give her a really interesting job promotion in a sort of secretive environment."

Enter the State Department, from which Messer says JJ came back to the BAU "a new person." Cook concurs, adding she's pleased No. 200 also brings back Josh Stewart as JJ's husband, Will, "especially with them bringing on Esai's character. People got so freaked out. They were like, 'She can't be cheating!' so it's really great to see her family again. Every time [Stewart] is there, I'm like, 'Can you just be here all the time?' He brings a whole other dynamic."

So does the young actor who plays JJ's son ... Cook's own son, Mekhai. "That's always fun," she notes. "I just sort of sit back and shake my head and think, 'Watch this kid go!' He's got a crazy imagination, as I did growing up, and he loves playing pretend."

Kirsten Vangsness, alias quirky tech expert Penelope Garcia, has been in all but one "Criminal Minds" episode (as frequent repeats on A&E Network and ION confirm). She's been in the franchise more than any other actor, though, since she and Garcia also factored into the short-lived 2011 spinoff "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior."

"I had only very tiny jobs before this," Vangsness reflects. "I was just a theater actress -- and I don't mean 'just' in a bad way -- but this is pretty much all I know. It's going to be really weird when I have another job, because the bar has been raised so high here. Every inception of the show has been different. Not bad, just different, and that's what's so great about it."
Photo/Video credit: CBS