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The Real Reason Penelope Garcia Left Criminal Minds

As "Criminal Minds" winds down in its short, 10-episode final season, the characters tease several shake-ups of the Season 15 line-up. Emily (Paget Brewster) is in consideration to be the first woman director of the FBI, JJ (A.J. Cook) is thinking about taking a leadership position at the New Orleans Field Office, and Rossi (Joe Mantegna) is planning to retire. However, at the end of the finale, it's Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) who leaves the team.

The funky, colorful coder Garcia has been supporting the team from behind several computer monitors in her knick-knack-covered office since Season 1, Episode 1. She's something of a technology wizard, able to pull obscure information about people and places out of the ether — sorry, internet — to help with each week's case. Her skills have been invaluable to the FBI's Behavior Analysis Unit. Amongst the oft-changing cast, she's been in nearly every episode, save one. Still, not just her technical know-how makes her a beloved character, but also her capacity for love that never wavers.

The finale's writers — Vangsness and showrunner Erica Messer — play her exit off as a twist, first leading the audience to think the group gathers for Rossi's retirement party before revealing that it's actually a goodbye for Garcia. She's found a new job, but what could be a sad moment turns into a celebration of the teams' bonds. Thus, the final shot of "Criminal Minds" is Garcia leaving her empty office, tucking a mysterious post-it note in between the desks. Maybe it's an unexpected way to end the series, but her exit shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to keen viewers.

Garcia's exit represents the audience leaving the BAU

In the penultimate episode, "Face Off," Garcia says she's considering a new job opportunity in Silicon Valley. Everyone encourages her to take the position, but the Everett Lynch (Michael Mosley) case takes precedence before we learn of her decision. Then, in the finale, she surprises us all: A month later, Garcia reveals that she's taken a job with a nearby nonprofit. Since it's near Rossi's house, this isn't the job she mentioned earlier. We don't learn much about the new position, other than it has "a less conservative dress code" than the FBI — leaving the audience to wonder how the already colorfully dressed Garcia can expand upon her wardrobe.

Actor and finale co-writer Kirsten Vangsness told TV Insider that it was showrunner Erica Messer's idea to have Garcia leave the BAU at the end. Upon considering Garcia's role in the series, Vangsness thought it made sense. "She's the eyes of the audience, really. She's the empath. She's the one who usually says if something's gross or good or bad," the actor said. They wanted to show that the BAU team — "the good guys" — continue to do their jobs catching killers and helping people, so it's the audience leaving them to their work. "Since Garcia's the eyes of the audience, you pull her away," Vangsness said.

As for why Penelope Garcia, the character, decides to move on, that's a different story. At the party, Garcia says she had many other job offers, so it's clear that she decided that she wanted to leave the BAU during the month's time skip. Judging by her conversation with Spencer's mother (Jane Lynch) earlier in the episode, it seems that Spencer's (Matthew Gray Gubler) near-death experience and hospitalization is what pushed her over the edge.

Garcia needs a break from the gore and trauma of the BAU

Garcia's long been the BAU team member who's most sensitive to the grisly parts of the job, so any position that involves less gore is appealing to her. However, she's still anxious about leaving behind the people she loves and has come to see as a family. But in their line of work, there's always the possibility of losing them. While watching over Spencer in the hospital, Garcia reflects on how many traumatic experiences she and the team have experienced. She's disturbed by the number of times they've been in the hospital and says there's got to be something better.

"Those [violent injuries] don't come without a cost," Kirsten Vangsness said to TV Insider. After such an "emotionally draining" experience, the actor said Garcia realizes that she needs a break. She can't do this year after year. "She will figure out more streamlined ways to make the world and the universe a happier, more peaceful, more friendly place," Vangsness added. However, Garcia still wants to be around her found family, whose lives are constantly in danger, so she takes a job nearby to ensure they continue to spend time together.

This is probably not the last the BAU sees of Garcia. Vangsness told Parade.com that she hopes if "Criminal Minds" ever comes back, Garcia will return to work with them. In fact, she doesn't want her replacement to be too good at the job, so they'll have to ask her to come back (via TV Insider). It's hard to imagine how the BAU will get anything done without Penelope Garcia's magic, keyboard-tapping fingers, but hopefully, her replacement is up to the task. It is a matter of life or death, after all.