By Mandi Bierly
Updated September 21, 2011 at 04:38 PM EDT
Scott Wolf, Mark Harmon, ...
Credit: Cliff Lipson/CBS

NCIS began its ninth season last night with a bang — three of them to be exact — as Tony’s top-secret mission to “handle” an NCIS traitor ended with him in a hospital trying to remember why blood types were found in the street where he’d been shot in the chest. (He was wearing a vest.) As he recounted his whereabouts from last May to the present to Dr. Rachel Cranston, Caitlin’s sister, we saw in flashbacks how his orders from SECNAV Jarvis played out. In case you got lost along the way, here’s a debriefing:

• Gibbs and the others knew Tony had a new assignment and it made them nervous. “Look out for yourself. Please,” Ziva told Tony, tapping him on the lips with a pencil and making Tiva fans momentarily happy. (Ziva is still with CIRay. What advice did she need to get from a female friend in Central America?) Duckie found the post-mortem incision in Levin’s arm and through morgue surveillance footage, figured out that E.J. had removed a microchip from him. That sent Gibbs into full-on protective mode (our favorite!) and straight to have a chat with the SECNAV. His timing, as Vance noted, was impeccable. Gibbs was there when Navy Captain Felix Wright arrived just in time to die in front of the SECNAV and show him his chip had already been cut out of his arm. “On the DL,” Vance told Gibbs to find a connection between Levin and Wright. McGee had the honors of delivering the exposition: Turns out they both had worked for the Office of Naval Intelligence, under Director of Special Operations Sean Latham. Stay with me now! He’s a civilian who leads a secret armada of spy vessels called the Watcher fleet. Watchers are loaded with billions in surveillance and are constantly monitoring terrorists and anti-military activity.

• Abby and McGee figured out the microchips are electronic door openers. Eventually, SECNAV and Latham had to loop Vance and Gibbs in. They were implanted in the arms of the ONI’s eight-man squad known as Phantom Eight, which tried to stop international acts of terrorism before they happened. The chip gave them access to more than doors — also to the worldwide Watcher database where they could download classified info. for which our enemies would pay top dollar. SECNAV told Gibbs to find the stolen chips. It was a matter of national security.

• Back to flashback: Tony had tracked down E.J. to find out what she was doing with the chip. She told him she’d made a promise to Levin that if anything ever happened to him, she’d get the chip into the right hands before it fell into the wrong ones. She doesn’t know what’s on it. She was just taking it to Wright, who Tony informed her was dead. Then, Tony and E.J. came under fire. They surfaced in Gibbs’ living room, and after they made him dinner and he reminisced about Franks, Tony and Gibbs suggested E.J. get in contact with the third man on her team, Cade.

E.J., Cade, and Tony all showed up in the same alley. Cade thought E.J. had sent him a text to be there, E.J. thought Tony had texted her, and Tony thought E.J. had texted him. Right when they figured out they’d been played, bullets started flying. Cade was hit in the heart, E.J. was struck just below the chest, and Tony took a bullet to the vest. Cade’s body was found along with his bloody badge. E.J. hasn’t been found. Was she wearing a vest, too? The photo Tony was given from SECNAV in last season’s finale was of Cade. They’d all been played. So we can officially hate the new “I own you” SECNAV? Not so fast.

• If Tony didn’t fire on Cade and E.J., who did? Turns out it was SCOTT WOLF! He guested as “FBI Agent” Casey Stratton, who’d shown up in the hospital twice trying to see Tony. The first time, he approached Gibbs in the hallway, and Gibbs put him back on the elevator. The second time, Stratton waltzed into Tony’s room and Rachel frightened him off. He’d wanted to finish the job. He’s not a real FBI agent. He works with Latham. After Gibbs returned the chip E.J. had, they’ve got two to sell to the highest bidders. They said it worked out for the best: SECNAV was none the wiser, meaning they played him, too. We still, however, reserve the right to hate him at a later date.

• No one expects Gibbs to let this go, but him finding Franks’ file on the Phantom Eight and seeing a photo that included Stratton and Latham means he definitely won’t. The only frustrating thing for me is judging from the promo for next week’s episode, we’re going to, in typical NCIS fashion, backburner this story so it can come to a head at a later date (preferably during a Sweeps period). Is this a juicy enough season-long arc for you? Are you dying to know where E.J. is, or are you just happy she’s gone? What do you think of Scott Wolf as a bad guy? And what do you think Gibbs will do to Stratton when he finally gets a hold of him? (Trying to walk past Gibbs with a cup of coffee — nice touch! — to kill Tony? Not good, friend.)

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