A JAG officer's apparent suicide uncovers secrets in her past and her present
Dark Secrets
Credit: Eddy Chen/CBS
harmonc (2)
S15 E12
  • TV Show
  • CBS

Here’s a thing I never expected to type in an NCIS recap: Fifty Shades of Grey does not offer accurate insight into the psychology of the BDSM community. Unfortunately, following one of the show’s saddest cold opens in recent memory, NCIS wanders down that same kink-shaming path as it explores the apparent suicide of a JAG officer.

The episode opens with Melissa Newhall’s parents letting themselves into their daughter’s home to fill it with cake and balloons as a surprise for her 30th birthday. Instead, they find her body hanging from the kitchen ceiling.

NCIS didn’t discover a note, and Melissa’s grief-stricken parents insist that she was happy with her job helping people and serving her country, and that she was looking forward to her upcoming wedding. So could it have actually been murder?

The autopsy suggests this is a possibility when Palmer finds both old and fresh bruises on Melissa’s body and Diazepam in her system. So either she took it to relax herself before making that final decision, or her murderer drugged her into compliance.

Melissa’s phone offers up a clue when it reveals several calls to a burner phone; Bishop calls it, and a recording of a sexy-sounding woman named Rita invites her to leave a message.

Melissa’s CO Bud Roberts (hi, Bud!) is shocked by her apparent suicide and offers up the red herring of an angry defendant who’d recently been released from prison. But the defendant has an alibi, and this was an oddly brief appearance to bring Bud back for. We want more and better Bud in the future!

When Melissa’s fiancé David returns from a day trip to New York, he’s shocked to learn that Melissa’s body was covered in bruises. The agents are skeptical until he explains that they’d agreed to remain celibate until marriage.

This news surprises Abby and Palmer, who’ve just confirmed that Melissa had sex in the last 72 hours. And then this news surprises Melissa’s longtime best friend Kerry, who says that Melissa was never interested in having a boyfriend until David came along — so much so that Kerry wondered if Melissa might’ve been asexual.

Meanwhile, McGee’s cracked Melissa’s laptop and discovered five years of video diaries running up to three days before her death. He and Sloane get to work reviewing them and find that she’s overall upbeat and excited about the upcoming wedding. But when Bishop hears Melissa make one especially sleepy entry, something in her voice pings in Bishop’s brain, and she asks Abby to confirm her hunch: Melissa and Rita are the same person.

This prompts the team to track Rita’s still-active phone (ummm, shouldn’t they have been doing that already?) and it leads them to a skeevy hotel/boarding house where the proprietor’s shocked to learn that “Rita” was in the Navy. In her room, they find Melissa’s Diazepem prescription, along with skimpy clothes, sky-high heels, a scarf-draped lamp, and, oh yeah, a closet full of bondage gear.

The burner phone is full of phone numbers for men, listed by their first names only, and it also has the same video diary app that Melissa used on her laptop. The only difference is that these entries feature a well-pleasured “Rita” exulting in the pain she’s just been dealt.

Sloane reviews them, even matching entries that Melissa and “Rita” made on the same day, and says that while many people lead a double life, very few feel the need to keep them separate in such a dramatic way. Furthermore, Sloane says that this type of double life is almost always because of an acute traumatic event, and that Rita’s pleasure-in-pain MO is likely Melissa seeking punishment for something else. (Next page: The local paper brings bad news.)

Aaaaand here’s where I start to make unamused puppy face in NCIS’s general direction. Human sexuality is rich and varied, and there are many explanations for why we get our kicks in the myriad ways that we do. What Sloane proposes here is a black-and-white explanation that BDSM springs from trauma, and that the existence of BDSM in a mild-mannered woman’s life is cause to reexamine everything we know about her.

Fifty Shades of Grey was roundly criticized by both the psychological and BDSM communities for stating that Christian’s “singular tastes” derived from abuse and neglect, by depicting BDSM as, in the words of The Atlantic‘s Emma Green, “a pathology, not a path to pleasure.” By turning Melissa’s sexual desires into a shocking, shameful secret, NCIS is indulging in the same overgeneralization. At the very least, I wish the show had acknowledged the difference between healthy and unhealthy expressions of this type of kink.

Anyway. McGee and Torres track one of “Rita’s” partners to a dive bar, where the man offers a solid alibi and says that Rita liked rougher sex than he was comfortable with. Soooo a rough man in a rough bar declares that Rita/Melissa liked even rougher sex than he did. We get it, show. Unamused puppy. Moving on.

Sloane suggests that Melissa/Rita’s video diaries are a sign of her wanting to be heard, likely because of a childhood trigger. When Kerry claims no knowledge of what this past trauma might be, Sloane and Gibbs ask Melissa’s parents if she kept a diary in high school. When Sloane says that this might show that Melissa didn’t kill herself, Melissa’s mother frantically starts to search for it, desperate to prove that her daughter didn’t commit suicide.

While she’s inside, her father confesses to reading a few pages of Melissa’s high school diary to learn why she was suddenly drinking, stealing, and skipping school. But she busted him right away, and he never invaded her privacy again. Then by her senior year, she’d turned her life around.

Back at the Naval Yard, Abby blames Melissa for talking to her diary rather than to her friends or family (unamused puppy) while Palmer mentions the benefits of the Navy’s suicide prevention programs (approving cat).

Then McGee discovers something important in Melissa’s search history: A story in her hometown paper three days before her death reported the discovery of the body of a high school teacher who’d been missing for 14 years. Emmett Paull was suspected of sexually abusing his female students, and at the time, everyone assumed he’d run off.

Thankfully, fiancé David leads NCIS to Melissa’s well-hidden cache of important papers, including her high school diary, which ended with an entry promising that she and Kerry were going to teach the pervy Mr. Paull a lesson.

Sloane’s suggestion of youthful trauma leading to a sordid hidden life of kink is borne out when Kerry immediately confesses that she and Melissa lured Mr. Paull into the woods 14 years ago and tied him up to get him to confess his skeevy ways. Instead, he had a heart attack and died, so they buried him and kept it a secret.

When his body turned up a few days ago, Melissa was convinced that their crime would be discovered. The morning of her death, she told Kerry over the phone that her life was over and hung up. Kerry raced to Melissa’s house, but Melissa had already hung herself. She left a note incriminating the two of them in Mr. Paull’s death, so Kerry took it and ran from the house. In the end, Sloane assures Kerry that her crime had mitigating circumstances: The girls were only 15, and their predator teacher actually died of a heart attack.

The investigation concluded, Torres invites everyone for a drink. (Bishop immediately accepts, and yeah, NCIS is definitely trying to make this relationship happen.) Sloane decides instead to accompany Gibbs on one of his least favorite tasks: breaking the bad news to Melissa’s parents that she actually did commit suicide. And honestly, Sloane should go along, since she’s the one who gave the mother hope that her only child’s death had played out differently.

Sloane tells Gibbs that it’s hard when people hoard their secrets, and he responds that his gut tells him Sloane’s speaking from experience. So there’s another layer in the “what is her secret?” mystery.

Stray shots

  • If, as Sloane says, Bishop’s selection of a green lollipop indicates that she has a gigantic heart, what does Sloane’s own choice of a yellow lollipop mean?
  • Torres hijinks of the week: His new ID photo is hideously unflattering, while Bishop looks like she posed with a wind machine and Gibbs was somehow able to use his previous ID photo. So Torres charms a new HR employee into letting him redo it, which mostly serves to make Bishop jealous. Y’all, they’re definitely going to be secretly dating by May sweeps.
  • My highlight of the night? Palmer having the moxie to refer to Gibbs as “Jethro.” Honestly, that medical degree agrees with him, don’t you think?
  • In conclusion, curse this episode for making me do a deep dive into Fifty Shades of Nonsense.

Episode Recaps

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