NCIS takes on the scourge of fake news
Handle With Care
Credit: Michael Yarish/CBS
S15 E16

It’s good-guy Drew Carey versus snake-tongued Jake Busey in a battle of the guest stars this week. I don’t know about you, but I’m ride-or-die Price Is Right in this particular matchup.

The episode starts with the sudden death of young, healthy Navy Petty Officer James Sweeney, who suffers a heart attack while on deployment in Spain. Abby discovers that that the cause of death was cyanide in the frosted almond cookies sent in his care package from Virginia.

The leads the team to retired Marine Sergeant John Ross (Carey), who coordinates a large effort to send daily care packages to troops stationed overseas. Torres and McGee find him in the Legion Hall, where the care packages are assembled, and bring him in for questioning. He says the cookies were his mother’s recipe, but he most certainly didn’t kill anyone.

Then he starts to get edgy and demands to be let out of the interrogation room — and for good reason. Years ago as a U.S. embassy guard in Iran, he was captured and held for five years.

Sloane discusses his post-rescue checkered past with Vance: violent outbursts, road rage, fired from several jobs. Vance says this sounds familiar, and Sloane tacitly acknowledges her similarities to Ross but points out that he came home in an era that barely knew what PTSD was. She and Vance agree that she should talk with him again, but someplace that he feels more comfortable.

At Sweeney’s memorial, his drunk uncle Bob bursts in yelling about the large inheritance that Sweeney’s parents left to their two sons when they died years ago, then accuses Sweeney’s wife Emma of only being interested in the money. Sweeney’s brother Clyde kicks Bob out and tells NCIS that Bob’s angry he didn’t get a cut of the estate.

Meanwhile, Torres and McGee question a postal worker, who immediately recognizes John’s photo. The tracking information on Sweeney’s poisoned cookie package indicates it was dropped in a blue mailbox, which surprises her because Ross always brings the packages in person and sticks around to chat with her about her family. Also, Ross was in Chicago when the package was mailed, so we’re looking at a frame job.

One possible suspect: terrible human being Whit Dexter (Busey), whose conspiracy theory podcast recently invited Ross on and then hijacked him with accusations that his care packages are a government plan to prop up the Post Office and that his POW stint was a false flag operation to drum up tension between the Middle East and the U.S.

It’s offensive in the extreme, and when Ross stormed out, Dexter promised that he’d reveal something huge about Ross very soon. When NCIS tells Dexter about Sweeney’s death, he shrugs it off with, “At least he knew what he signed up for.” Yikes. What kind of monster would say that?

Dexter’s the first person Ross thinks of when Sloane arrives to chat with him, although they agree that nothing Dexter says can be worse than Ross’ five years in a cage. Ross identifies Sloane as a veteran and comments that Afghanistan was a tough assignment for a woman. She points out that it was tough for everybody.

Next thing you know, Dexter’s all over social media and on ZNN claiming NCIS is framing him. He claims Sweeney was going to expose Ross as a bad dude but was killed with poisoned cookies before he could tell all. But…but NCIS never told Dexter about the poisoned cookies! DUN!

That night, Ross finds Dexter as he’s preparing to leave a restaurant and lunges for him. NCIS has just shown up to bring Dexter in for questioning, so they pull Ross away. Dexter immediately starts filming, narrating that “NCIS thugs” are siding with a murderer against him.

You can imagine how well Gibbs responds to this stunt, and before long, the extremely punchable Dexter’s in interrogation. Gibbs asks how he can live with himself and if he’s spared a thought for what it’s like for his daughter to have him as a father. Dexter laughingly admits that he’s an entertainer who lies for a living, and he was going to make up something juicy to reveal about Ross to please his ravenous listeners. Seriously, somebody please slap this dude.

Vance and Torres watch the questioning, and Vance reminisces about that time six years ago when Dexter accused him of running a money-laundering ring out of the Navy Yard. It was too crazy to catch on — at the time, anyway. But honestly, in the year of our Lord 2018, can’t you picture that rumor gaining traction? (Next page: Sloane opens up about her past)

Good news, everyone! Ducky’s back for a visit! Sloane asks for his help with profiling, describing her subject as retired armed forces with past trauma and a life still wrapped up in the military.

Ducky correctly guesses that this person is intelligent, unable to move on, prone to aggression, and averse to counseling. He says if that person continues to internalize what happened, they’re on a road to disaster. “Use all your tricks to get him to open up,” Ducky concludes. Look, the Jack parallels aren’t subtle, but I’m still here for them.

When she returns to talk with Ross, she points out the anger behind his happy face and then does something extraordinary: She shares her own story. She was held for nine months in Afghanistan while insurgents tried to torture Army intel out of her. She never said a word, although she admits to screaming a bit.

Ross in turn says it isn’t what happened to him in captivity, but the life they took from him. His girlfriend was pregnant with their child when he was captured, but after five years, she assumed he was dead and moved on.

When he returned home, he was a broken man, so he made his girlfriend promise to raise their daughter as if her husband was the father. And although his girlfriend and her husband are both dead now, he says too much time has passed to reach out to his daughter, who’d reject him, maybe even hate him, if he tried to approach her. “It’s too late,” he says.

Following this conversation, Vance finds Sloane brooding in her office. He knows how difficult it was for her to share her story with Ross and assures her that she’s not like him. She scoffs and points to her bar fight in Texas, her road rage issues, her six months of mandated anger management in San Diego. She says she’s great at looking pretty and pretending to be pulled together all the time, but in truth, she was hooked up to a car battery, and that isn’t a problem that can be solved. “I let them die,” she cries, letting Vance hug her. So there’s Sloane’s big secret.

Back on the case, NCIS can’t find any evidence tying Dexter to the cookies, and the story was all over the internet in time for him to hear about it before NCIS’s visit. So the team starts sorting through online archives to identify the first person to post the poisoned cookie story.

After a night of searching, they find the first post, which came from a dummy account that they trace to Ross’s Legion Hall. Thankfully, the Legion installed surveillance cameras to keep people from abusing their computer privileges, and it reveals Sweeney’s brother, Clyde, uploading the post. And who’s that with him, caressing his shoulder and kissing him? None other than Sweeney’s wife, Emma.

So in the end, Sweeney’s murder wasn’t about money; his wife wanted out of the marriage, and they decided to impress Clyde’s hero Dexter by framing Ross in the process. Just hire a divorce lawyer, people! Speaking of Dexter, this incident cost him a number of sponsors, but if I know a thing or two about the actual fake news outlets scuttling around the fringes of polite society, they’re as resilient as cockroaches.

In a quiet moment post-arrest, Gibbs asks Sloane if she’s okay. She says she is and then makes plans to connect Ross with his daughter.

Then we cut to the pair sitting in a car outside the post office, watching Molly, the young postal worker from earlier in the episode. Ross says he just wants her to know how much he loved her mother. “You got this,” Sloane assures him. He exhales hard, exits the car, and approaches his daughter, who cries when she realizes that Ross has handed her an old photo of him and her mom.

Then Sloane pops her glove box and takes out that old tin with the Wingo memorabilia in it, sifting through the contents before slamming the lid back on and angrily shutting it away again.

Stray shots:

  • Excellent guest stars this week! It’s always a treat to watch Drew Carey actually, you know, act, and I genuinely hope John Ross and his newfound daughter can forge a connection. And as for Jake Busey, WOW did he do a bang-up job playing the loathsome Alex Jones stand-in. Even though I found every scrap of his story line an unpleasant reminder of the “baldly lying for clicks” corners of the internet, I would love to see his character return to get a true comeuppance in a future episode.
  • Torres fought the IRS and won tonight! Sure, it took hours to dig up the paperwork from when he was undercover, but they ended up owing him money, and that, my friends, is the real victory.
  • For those keeping score at home, Ducky selected one of each lollipop in Sloane’s stash. I like how he rolls.
  • So now we know Sloane’s story. Was it worth the wait? Think we’ll see more of the story uncovered layer by layer? Let me know in the comments!

Episode Recaps

harmonc (2)
  • TV Show
  • 19
  • TV-14
  • CBS
stream service