This is the story of Donald Mallard. One of the stories, really. We’ve learned about his life in bits over the last dozen years, and tonight we discover what could be the biggest missing piece.
You see, following the divorce of Ducky’s parents, his father married a “ghastly, terrible woman,” and they had a son who’s Ducky’s junior by 20 years. His name was Nicholas, and thanks to indifferent parenting, Ducky cared for Nicholas like a son.
And then Nicholas died.
This sad chapter in Ducky’s life would’ve stayed in the past were it not for a phone call and a murder that set tonight’s NCIS episode in motion.
The team arrives in an alley to investigate a murdered Marine, only to find Ducky tied up in a nearby van. Our favorite medical examiner received a call earlier that day that caused him to drop his autopsy tools with a clatter and rush out, stopping only to glance at an old toy train sitting on a shelf in the morgue.
Once freed, he explains that he’d been lured to a coffee shop with news about his brother, but a man instead tried to kidnap him. The dead Marine foiled the attempt, saving Ducky’s life but losing his own in the process. Gibbs is shocked to hear Ducky has a brother, but Ducky explains that he died years ago.
The team quickly determines that the van was rented in an Uber-ish situation, and when DiNozzo and McGee arrive at the owner’s house, they learn he also rented his house to Rufus Simms, a post office manager. Simms isn’t the guy who tried to kidnap Ducky, but Simms’ accomplice matches the description. Then they discover Simms’ body hanging in the house. Abby determines that he drowned in the pool and his suicide was staged.
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Flashback time: First, we see a 28-year-old Ducky exchanging Christmas gifts with 8-year-old Nicholas, who’s thrilled to receive a Flight of the Mallard train set. Then Ducky gets an emergency call from the military hospital and, because he’s babysitting Nicholas, takes him along. He performs life-saving surgery on a field marshal. That same night, his father learns that Lorraine has served him with divorce papers and is threatening to leave the country with Nicholas if she doesn’t receive £10,000.
When Nicholas learns this, he’s crushed, but Ducky promises that if Nicholas disappears, Ducky will ransack every third-world flea pit until he finds him. In fact, Ducky tracked down Angus Clarke to get the barrister’s advice on the custody suit. (Remember the late Angus?) Ducky says he’ll resign his commission to raise Nicholas as his son if they can win custody.
“Nicholas is my life,” he tells Angus. “This quite simply is not a decision that requires one second of thought.”
NEXT: A letter from a dead man surfaces
Back in the present, the team finds a letter from Nicholas in Simms’ possessions. The letter, written to a childish hand and addressed to a flat from 40 years ago, tells “Donnie” that Nicholas misses him and wonders when he’ll see him again. And then, mystery! Abby determines that the ink is only three weeks old and the DNA on it is from Ducky’s brother.
Ducky is knocked sideways. “I spent the last half of my life believing that my brother was dead. And all that time he’s been out there somewhere.” Ducky mutters that even if they find him, they’ve still lost a lifetime together. Ugh, this is tragic. And both David McCallum and Adam Campbell (as young Ducky) kill it tonight.
Anyway, they track Simms recent activity to a pawn shop. The owner says Rufus came in the day before with a “King Arthur” stamp, one half of the Camelot Collection. Someone had tried to mail a letter with it, so it wasn’t worth much, but the sister “Merlin” stamp, undamaged, would be worth half a million dollars. And hey, they have video footage of Simms’ accomplice, whom facial recognition pegs as Viggo Trellis, a private investigator from Philadelphia.
Let’s digress to an unhappy marriage here for a second. Jake barges into the autopsy room, which seems kind of inappropriate, and asks if Bishop has a second. Um, no, dude; there’s a corpse on the table. But they retreat to the garage where an unseen McGee is processing the van. Jake tries to apologize and points out that her move to NCIS pushed them apart, but now he regrets putting national security before his marriage. Is… is that the attitude we want NSA employees to have? He says he’ll do whatever it takes to repair his marriage. But Bishop says no. Their marriage wasn’t working, and they both knew it. “It’s over, Jake,” she says, as McGee unashamedly eavesdrops.
(Speaking of eavesdropping, is it the acoustics of the skylight that lets Gibbs listen in on conversations so he can drop in “like a howler monkey in heat”? Or is it his innate Gibbs-ness? And why does DiNozzo sound like Batman when he’s whispering?)
Back to the case: The team realizes that Simms, the postal employee, found Nicholas’ letter in the dead-letter collection, and he hired Trellis to look for Nicholas, who might have the sister stamp. But when Trellis realized how much it was worth, he started killing and set out to track down Nicholas. One warrantless cell phone trace later, the team discovers Viggo’s taken a man who could be Nicholas back to the rental house. Ducky comes along as they race there.
Flashback! Ducky checks on the field marshal, who’s relieved to be alive. He’s also touched by the devotion Nicholas showed to Ducky, so when they found Nicholas’ forgotten stamp book, the marshal filled it with a few favorites from his personal collection. And then Angus turns up to say that there’s no way Ducky will get custody of Nicholas, but he offers to give him the £10,000 instead. Oh, but Ducky gets a call that Lorraine’s moving out right now, so he races to the flat, where he gives Nicholas the stamp book and offers Lorraine the money. But she doesn’t want it and drags a screaming Nicholas away from Ducky and into the cab. Two bobbies hold Ducky back as he struggles to reach Nicholas, who drops his Mallard train car in the process. This scene is gut-wrenching.
NEXT: Four wise people bring Ducky the best gift
In the present, Ducky can’t take it anymore and races into the house at the sound of gunshots. A bound man identifies himself as Nicholas Mallard, but Ducky takes a hard look and declares that this isn’t his brother. But…his name is Nicholas Mallard, he lives in the area, and he has an accent. Seriously, what are the odds? Anyway, Ducky slumps sadly into a chair.
One more flashback: Angus tells Ducky and his father that they discovered tickets to Albania for Lorraine and Nicholas. “Then I guess I’m going to Albania,” says Ducky, who earlier this episode declared his intention to stop traveling but now reiterates his promise to scour the entire planet for his missing brother. But on his hunt for Nicholas, one of Lorraine’s family members tells him that Nicholas and his mother died in a car accident in Prague.
Back in the present, Ducky tells Palmer that Abby could be wrong about his brother having written the letter recently (say that to her face!), and further, that hearing Nicholas was dead almost killed him. “And it never improved. I, to my great sadness, don’t know if I have the strength to start that journey again,” he says.
Then four wise people arrive in the morgue with gifts. DiNozzo hands Ducky a copy of those plane tickets to Albania. McGee hands him a name change application in 1974. Bishop hands him an application for U.S. residency from 1987. And Gibbs delivers the final gift: Nicholas is living in a nursing home outside of Philadelphia, diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, which explains the old address, the childish handwriting, the new ink, the foreign stamp.
Ducky arrives at the nursing home, where a nurse tells him that Nicolas is one of their favorite patients, sweet but with no memory of his past, and that he gave them a scare recently when he took a bus into the city and was found at a post office.
Ducky approaches a white-haired man sitting alone.
“I think you may have dropped this. I thought you might be looking for it,” he says, handing Nicholas the old Mallard toy train from the morgue, which Nicholas dropped in the street 50 years ago. He ruffles Nicholas’ hair, and Nicholas slowly reaches up to tweak Ducky’s nose the way he did as an 8-year-old. “You got my letter. You found me, Donnie,” he marvels.
“I told you I would,” Ducky replies, and Nicholas stands to hug him, face alight.
It’s a bittersweet ending for the two brothers and a guaranteed weepy finish to NCIS for the year. See you back here in 2016, everyone!