A body in a barrel in the back of a twice-stolen van kicks off the action in this week’s episode, which showcases the rarely seen emotions of Leroy Jethro Gibbs.
Navy Cmdr. James Willis vanished a week ago after visiting his mother in hospice. Then a car thief hot-wired a van, got pulled over, and realized he had some gruesome cargo in the back. The van was originally stolen from the owner’s house 10 days ago, which roughly matches Willis’ disappearance, so who stole it first, and how did Willis end up stuffed in a barrel in the back?
His widow, Sarah, reports that he never made it home from the hospice the night he disappeared, and his mother died two days later. “Do you ever just feel like it’s all too much?” she asks Reeves, frustrated that nobody, not even the PI who came to her house looking for James, could help her. Reeves immediately wants to know about this PI.
Sarah offers up his card, and Gibbs arrives at the address to discover that his old friend Tobias Fornell is now a licensed private investigator with a garage office. “Ain’t life grand?” Fornell asks the man who testified about his wrongdoings in court, ended his FBI career, and then stopped answering his calls.
Next we see Gibbs bursting into Vance’s office to insist, “He is right behind me, and you’ve got to say no.” Then Fornell enters to explain that he was hired by a high-interest loan company to track down Willis a few days ago when he dropped off the map with a significant balance still due. Vance is pleased Fornell’s willing to share any information he’s already gathered and tells a displeased Gibbs to play nice.
“I’ll run the briefing from my office,” Fornell beams. But when said meeting happens, it’s only the Young Turks in attendance. They’re impressed when Fornell pushes aside his wall-of-crime corkboard to reveal a high-teach touchscreen behind it. Who knew Fornell would be a 21st century PI?
When the briefing ends, Fornell tells the team he’s over any hard feelings, and in fact, Gibbs did the right thing in testifying against him. So why is Gibbs avoiding him? The young’uns all vehemently decline his request that they look into this issue.
Sloane doesn’t have to do any investigating, though, when Gibbs enters her office and straight-up tells her that he can’t bear to look Fornell in the eye anymore. Remember, Fornell monkeyed around with evidence to make sure Gabriel Hicks was convicted of murder, Gibbs testified about Fornell’s actions, and Hicks was released. But it turns out that Hicks actually was guilty as hell, so Gibbs ruined Fornell’s FBI career when Fornell was right all along and he hasn’t yet told Fornell that last bit of information.
It’s complicated, in other words. And Gibbs wasn’t kidding around; when Fornell arrives in the big orange room for an update on the Willis case, Gibbs immediately exits.
Sloane’s still working the Hicks case by maintaining a friendship with his lawyer, Jessica Schaffer, although Gibbs suggests that Sloane’s not pushing her friend hard enough. But when the two women meet at the diner, Jessica accuses Sloane of using her for information that she can’t give because of lawyer/client privilege.
Sloane immediately apologizes and says Jessica’s her only friend who also watches reality TV. Hey, it’s important to surround yourself with people who share your questionable taste in entertainment! And also have access to the guilty man you helped set free!
In autopsy, Gibbs finds Palmer making small talk with Willis’ corpse about bees, because he read in Willis’ online bio that he dabbled in beekeeping. He also calls Gibbs “Jethro” in a way that sounds increasingly natural and Ducky-like. Palmer says Willis died from a bullet to the head, and his feet had been dissolved by lye in the barrel, although the amount in there was too small to eliminate the whole body.
Abby, meanwhile, matches the bullet to two unsolved murders for hire, indicating that Willis was killed by a hitman. The only possible reason NCIS can discover is Willis’ recent service as foreman of the jury that convicted Albert Hathaway, who ran Madoff-style Ponzi schemes.
When Bishop and Torres visit Hathaway in prison, he blames his assistant for his crimes (pig!) and claims not to recognize Willis due to a form of PTSD from the trial (jerk!). Torres isn’t amused, but Hathaway insists he doesn’t know any hitmen. Bishop tells him they’ll be reviewing all of his phone calls anyway, just in case something turns up.
Back at the lab, Abby’s found a crime scene cleaning company that uses both the high-end microfiber rags in Willis’ barrel and the special cleaning solution that was on them. When the agents arrive at Crime Scene Tru-Clean, the woman there says the night Willis disappeared, brothers Michael and Joey Barrett didn’t show up for work. Also, they stole a floor buffer, lye, and cleaning supplies, so she fired them.
She then directs the agents to the Barretts’ favorite restaurant, Slices & Fries, where people are lined up out the door for pizza and fried taters. In the stakeout car, Bishop wonders if the food really is that good, but Eeyore Gibbs declares, “A lot of times, people are idiots.”
He then asks Bishop how Fornell seemed, and suddenly Tobias butts into their conversation via the comms. He used his other NCIS contacts to inform him about the direction of the investigation, got himself a table outside the restaurant, and hopped on NCIS’ frequency, which he’s familiar with after 15 years. (Next page: The birds and the bees, but mostly the bees, crack the case)
When the Barretts arrive at the restaurant mid argument, Torres nabs one, and Fornell drops the other with his Taser, which Gibbs then smashes on the pavement. He’s at the height of his powers when he’s grumpy, no?
Gibbs puts the bickering brothers into the interrogation room together, assuming they’ll keep fighting and confess absolutely everything, which they immediately do. Fornell’s impressed: “It’s like I want to be mad at him, but I just can’t.”
The brothers say a hitman hired them to clean up after he killed Willis, but Crime Scene Tru-Clean fired them before they could steal enough lye to finish the job. Michael’s infuriated to hear that Joey didn’t dump Willis’ body as planned but instead held onto it as they waited for the call about the second “clean-up.”
This attracts everyone’s attention, and the brothers explain that the hitman told them to wait at their hotel to answer his call on the landline with the time and location of the second clean-up.
When Gibbs and Bishop arrive at their hotel room, they find Fornell already there, having just finished christening the bathroom. Bishop beats a hasty retreat, and the two old friends settle into an uneasy wait. Fornell suggests they play charades and starts with “sounds like brass mole,” then tells Gibbs that he expects him to avoid other people when the situation gets as fraught as theirs is, but “this is me. This is me.”
And the Gibbs floodgates open. He tells Fornell that he was right all along: Hicks was guilty and should’ve stayed locked up. Gibbs sank his career for nothing. Fornell is hurt that Gibbs didn’t inform him of this until now and immediately wants to jump into the Hicks investigation, if only to help erase the way his daughter looked at him after she learned what he’d done.
But Gibbs brushes him off and says he and Sloane are handling it, and in the end, both men realize they don’t know how to trust each other anymore, which is heartbreaking. Bishop returns with food in time to catch Fornell’s exit. Then the phone rings with the deets on the second clean-up, and the team scrambles.
The address belongs to Patrice Jansen, another Hathaway jury member who’s just returned from an overseas. Gibbs and Bishop arrive at her dark house and check it, room by room. Bishop hears a noise in the closet, but it’s that old horror movie jump-scare favorite: a cat! However, the distraction lets the lurking, masked hitman grab her, and Gibbs runs in and shoots him dead.
Most importantly, the kitty’s okay.
Patrice then arrives home to find two armed NCIS agents and one dead assassin in her house. When she learns that fellow jury member Willis is dead, she’s shocked and starts to fiddle with her necklace, a stylized honeybee.
And then Gibbs starts to put things together. The jury was sequestered for months, and even though Willis was married, maybe the two of them got close? Patrice confirms that they did, and she fell in love.
Voila, the dead hitman with no connection to Hathaway turns out to have a record of phone calls and a money transfer with Sarah Willis, who tells Gibbs in questioning that her husband spent their life savings on experimental treatments for his mother and then cheated on her. “I deserve his life insurance. He owed me that,” she says. WOW, that’s cold, lady.
The case concluded, Gibbs calls Fornell from his garage office, having picked the locks, and offers him the box of evidence that he and Sloane have gathered on Hicks. “So you ruin me, you punish me for ruining me, and now you’re asking me to do this with you?” Fornell asks. But of course, he wants in, and the bromance is back on! As they unpack the evidence, Gibbs opens his mouth to apologize, but Fornell cuts him off before Gibbs breaks rule No. 6. Instead, Fornell tacks a photo of Hicks to the center of his empty corkboard.
Sloane’s making some progress on Hicks, too. When Jessica busts her lurking around Hicks’ apartment with a high-powered camera, her friend accuses Sloane of running a long con on her to gather intel. Sloane reminds Jessica that Hicks was exonerated because he was a righty and the murder was committed by a lefty, but Sloane and Gibbs witnessed Jack’s ambidextrousness at the batting cages after his release.
Although Jessica threatens to go public about NCIS harassing an innocent civilian, she does some digging and asks Sloane to meet her again. She says privilege prevents her from sharing any of the information she learned, but she’s resigned as Hicks’ attorney and urges Sloane to keep digging.
Then Jessica gets into her car, and it explodes, knocking Sloane off her feet. Sloane was on the phone with Gibbs at the time, and he’s left shouting her name over and over while she’s unconscious and bleeding from the ears.
- Some cliffhanger, huh? Bad news: NCIS is taking a break during the Olympics, so we’ll have to wait until Feb. 27 to learn Jack’s fate. But oh, buddy, am I glad that they’re bringing back the Gabriel Hicks story line. Although the man himself didn’t make an appearance in this episode, I’m already anticipating his creepy menace in the future.
- Tonight, we learn the secret to McGee super-agent/super-dad routine: Caf-Pow. He’s on a giant hamster wheel, feeling guilty about leaving the twins when he’s at work and leaving work when he’s with the twins. Abby and Reeves tell him to cut the Caf-Pow, and he agrees…but come on, he’s totally lying, right? Are we heading toward Timmy McAddict story line?
- Fornell’s suggestion for charades with Gibbs? “Sounds like brass mole.” I’ll admit, it took me a beat, and then I laughed and laughed. Here’s hoping that’ll tide us over for the next three weeks!