Two NCIS agents, a senator, and a comedian walk into an Afghan cave
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Credit: Michael Yarish/CBS
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S15 E10
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Six sticks of gum, four protein bars, two flashlights, and one measly first aid kit.

That’s one sad 12 Days of Christmas roster that Torres and Jack are stuck with when they take shelter in an Afghanistan cave during NCIS’s final episode of 2017.

We open with Sen. John Phillips, a three-star general, on a good-will holiday tour in Afghanistan, trading not-so-good-natured heckles with obnoxious comedian Chet Goodman.

His security detail for the trip is Torres and Jack, who begged Gibbs to let her take his place. So she’s the one he calls with bad news that Phillips’ son Chandler fell 20 feet down his apartment building’s staircase and may not survive the head injury.
Phillips is desperate to get home in time to say goodbye, so he, Torres, and Jack join Chet in the lone Humvee headed to the closest airfield with an available flight. (Chet’s got an audition for the lead in a comedy pilot, so he’s in a hurry, too.)

Before they leave the base, Jack pauses at the base of a concrete guard tower with “Wingos” scratched into it. She tells Phillips that she was there 10 years ago with Army PSYOP but declines to offer more details. Torres is just excited to have his own Die Hard-style adventure in the desert, potential scorpions be damned.

In the U.S., Bishop finagles jurisdiction over Chandler’s fall, afraid Metro’s too quick to declare it an accident. This annoys Palmer, who has a whole Dickens-themed Christmas celebration planned, and McGee, who wants to spend the holiday with his “twin newborn cherubs.” (Bishop scoffs that they won’t even remember this Christmas because she is the worst.)

Anyway, Chandler was arrested for possession of illegal prescription drugs last year, around the time that his father sponsored an anti-drug bill and his mother/the senator’s wife died of cancer. Father and son haven’t spoken since.

While Chandler’s social media accounts show a lavish lifestyle of hotels and parties, his bank account is nil and his apartment’s crappy. It does, however, feature a casino-grade craps table and video camera setup. Chandler’s roommate, Seth Hendrix, says they’re professional gamblers who use the table and cameras for practice.

Abby determines that Chandler’s head injury came from him being pushed backward down the stairs, and furthermore, the dice on the apartment’s craps tables are skillfully weighted to produce lots of snake eyes. The work is so good that it indicates a chemical engineering background…like, say, roommate Seth, who graduated from MIT with a higher GPA than McGee.

Further thickening the plot is the Marine recruiter who visits Chandler in the hospital and tells Gibbs and Vance that Chandler enlisted the day before, wanting to turn over a new leaf. Then, Chandler surprises everyone by waking up. Unfortunately, Gibbs isn’t able to reach Jack on the phone.

And that’s because Phillips asked their driver to deviate from their planned route to get to the airport faster, but the detour is disrupted by an IED crater in the road. Everyone hops out of the Humvee to investigate, and when their driver gets back into the vehicle to radio it in, the Humvee explodes. Time-delayed IED, Jack explains, meant to hit the middle of a convoy.

Whoever planted the explosives will be on their way to investigate, so Torres and Jack lead Phillips and Chet into the nearby mountains, where they find a cave to hunker down in. Chet quips that it’s cleaner than some hotels he’s stayed in.

But Phillips drains the humor from the situation when he confesses that he and the driver didn’t clear their route deviation with the base, so the search party won’t know where to look for them.

Then Chet and Phillips resume sniping at each other. Phillips’ disapproval of his son reminds Chet of his own father’s rejection. Phillips tells Chet to man up, and Chet tells Phillips that there’s no way Chandler could’ve lived up to dear ol’ dad’s expectations. Then again, dear ol’ dad got a Marine killed just now. They trade blows, but the fight is interrupted when gunfire rips through the cave.

Jack and Torres kill the two Taliban scouts, and Phillips takes a stray bullet. As Jack patches him up, Chet grudgingly thanks the senator for pulling him away from the gunfire. Torres finds the dead scouts’ motorbike and, realizing the scouts will eventually be missed, Jack suggests a route for Torres based on her memory of the area from a decade ago. He sets off to fetch help with a “yippie ki-yay.” (Next page: Misty kept receipts)

Back in the U.S., roommate Seth has admitted to loading the dice, but not to attacking Chandler. And it’s news to him that Chandler had enlisted in the Marines. The team also learns that the two men were in cahoots with Seth’s girlfriend, Misty Boxlarter, a fellow MIT alum who claims she wasn’t at the apartment the night of Chandler’s fall.

Then the duo show team NCIS how they worked the tables at the casinos. Chandler’s the one with the impeccable sleight of hand that let him move the loaded dice on and off the craps table. Misty placed the bets, and Seth kept an eye out for anybody who might be on to them. In fact, he noticed a security guard in Atlantic City following Chandler recently.

Misty’s description of the guard matches a man that McGee and Bishop saw hanging around Chandler’s apartment that day, and then they’re surprised when the man himself walks into the big orange room on Gibbs’ heels.

He’s Axel McKenzie III, and he has the most impressive mustache I’ve seen on television in ages. When he nabbed Chandler, Chandler admitted to the scam and begged McKenzie not to press charges. He offered Chandler a job helping the casino catch other cheaters, as long as Chandler gave back the $90,000 they won that night.

Yep, that means Chandler turned over his share and his partners’ shares, which provides all kinds of new motives. Before you know it, Seth’s blaming Misty, and Misty’s blaming Seth. Misty’s got the goods, though; she was taping herself practicing the dice sleight of hand when Seth burst in and confessed to pushing Chandler down the stairs in the heat of the moment. But once she heard him tell NCIS that she did it, she didn’t see any reason to protect him by hiding the tape anymore.

So the case is closed in time for Christmas, but of course, Phillips and Co. are still MIA in Afghanistan, which is unfortunate because Chandler’s fully awake with no long-term brain damage, and he wants to make amends with his father. Gibbs assures him that parents always love their children, no matter what.

Vance, too, is frustrated that the military search hasn’t turned up any sign of Phillips, and he upbraids Gibbs for letting Jack take his place on the security detail. Vance says he doesn’t want history repeating itself, but Gibbs declares, “She can handle it.” Okay, NCIS, this is how you get us interested in a new character.

So, back to Afghanistan. Jack sets individual bullets upright on rocks on the ground, then settles in as Phillips conducts his own therapy session while she listens. Is it possible he runs away to battle zones every Christmas not to support the troops but to avoid spending the holidays alone?

Sure, he says, answering his own question. After his wife died, he played the stoic Marine and pushed Chandler away. Chet’s words (and punch) made him see that their rift was his fault, too.

That…seems like a quick turnaround. Then again, bleeding out from a Taliban bullet in an Afghan cave after getting punched by a low-rent comedian when the U.S. military doesn’t know exactly where you are likely gives a person perspective, ya know?
Phillips isn’t the only one with a change of heart; the senator made Chet feel so guilty that he vows to call his own cold and distant father once he’s home. Then Phillips asks Jack if she was part of Wingos. She says the op was classified. “Not everyone made it. That must’ve been hard,” he tells her, and she replies that she coped the best she knew how.

Phillips eventually passes out from blood loss, and when the bullets fall from the rocks one by one, indicating approaching vehicles, Jack grabs the guns to watch the road through the scope. First there’s a cloud of dust, and then a Humvee with an American flag emerges, Torres in the front seat.

“Little Drummer Boy” plays as medical personnel swarm in to work on Phillips’ injury, Chet and Torres watch the retrieval of the driver’s body, and Jack digs up a box buried beneath the “Wingos” carving on the watchtower base. It has four names carved on the lid: Anshimi, Hale, King, and Sloane. She breathes deeply and opens it, but the camera pans away before we see what’s inside.

Four days later, Torres and Jack escort a wheelchair-bound Phillips to Gibbs’ house, where he’s surprised to see Chandler’s waiting. He stands, and when Chandler tries to apologize, his father cuts him off with an “I love you” and a hug.

Stray shots

  • We’ve gotten spoiled by Ducky flashback Christmas episodes the last two years, and I’ll admit I was disappointed not to have one this year, too. But this was a solid entry in the list of heartstrings-tugging NCIS episodes.
  • You likely recognized James Morrison right away, as Phillips is a riff on his no-nonsense 24 character Bill Buchanan. But if you couldn’t place Chet, maybe it’s because you’re used to hearing Jonathan Kite hamming it up with a Borscht-thick accent as Oleg on Two Broke Girls.
  • So we learn a bit more about Jack’s secret past, and it involves “Wingos.” Here’s hoping the payoff is worth the buildup, including Vance’s long-running concern. Also, what’s in the box???

Happy holidays and a lovely new year to the NCIS family! See you all in 2018!

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