When a 10-year-old refugee becomes the target of a gang threat, NCIS must figure out what she knows and why a mysterious man is hot on her heels.
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S15 E19
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This week, NCIS wades into political territory with a refugee-centric episode that has Gibbs stretching his paternal muscles. The action starts with two bodies discovered in a record shop. One is a maker of fake IDs, and the other is a member of the vicious drugs-and-murder gang La Vida Mala.

The last ID printed from the dead man’s machine was for a Marine Sgt. Rico Ruiz, and DOD logs show it was used five minutes ago at the Joint Base Hanover commissary. McGee and Reeves head right over and, when their questions to Count Olaf’s Henchperson of Indeterminate Gender go unanswered, they turn to a woman shepherding a group of children through the cafeteria.

Kelly Conner explains that the kids in her care are all unaccompanied refugees. If the gang violence in their own countries didn’t leave them orphans, their journey to the United States did. Since Health and Human Services housing is at capacity, she takes care of the overflow at the base while they wait for their day in court.

One of the children says he spotted Ruiz taking pictures around the base, and when McGee nabs the cloud backup from his phone, they find photos of one little girl in particular, so that’s not good.

At the grim barracks where the children are housed, Kelly’s impressed that Gibbs is able to make a connection with the girl, Elena. Her father died years ago and her mother died on their journey from San Salvador, where Elena was clinging to her mother’s body when the authorities found their boat. Kelly says all the children will likely be sent back to their home countries once their cases are heard in immigration court, and in fact, Elena’s about to be transferred to North Dakota to be closer to the court hearing her case.

Gibbs refuses to allow that and takes her into his own protective custody. When they arrive at NCIS and Torres learns that Elena only speaks Spanish, he greets her in her own language. She responds by asking why his shirt’s so tight. Don’t ruin this for us, child!

At Chez Gibbs, Elena starts fiddling with Gibbs’ boat-making tools and confesses that she actually does speak English. While Gibbs gives off strong concerned dad vibes, she explains that her father was a carpenter, and he made her a music box before he died, although it doesn’t work anymore.

Although Elena doesn’t recognize the picture of Ruiz, the team does find a photo of him with Javier Martinez, the leader of La Vida Mala. Also, while Ruiz was on base, three crates of rocket-propelled grenade launchers disappeared, along with various other weapons.

In the morgue, Palmer’s talking to one of the bodies when Ducky suddenly appears on a video screen that Casey set up the last time they were there. He’s been watching Palmer work, and together they wonder why one of the bodies has translucent teeth that fall right out of his head.

Turns out, the dead gangster over-bleached his teeth, which causes looseness and transparency — a fact that Palmer thinks we should all be aware of. Oh, and they were able to pull an address from his home bleaching kit company. At the house, Torres lets Reeves find and incapacitate the gang member they find there and then discover three bodies stashed in the wall.

The gang member they subdued was in regular text contact with La Vida Mala’s leader Javier Martinez, so Gibbs pulls him in for questioning.

The man so terrifying that nobody will testify against him looks a lot like Sloane’s mattress salesman, and the interview starts on a friendly note. Javier declares himself a fan of law enforcement and disavows knowledge of any bodies, stolen military weapons, or 10-year-old girls. BUT WAIT! GIBBS NEVER SAID THE CHILD WAS A GIRL! This is my absolute favorite police show cliché, and I will never get tired of it.

Realizing his mistake, Javier drops the polite mask and starts to menacingly unbutton his dress shirt to reveal a variety of tattoos, including an exhortation to “KILL PIGS” on his forearms. He gloats that Gibbs has nothing on him and never will, and anybody who gets in their way, including a little girl, will pay. “You have no idea what we’re capable of,” he sneers, and it’s downright chilling. (Next page: A bittersweet family reunion)

Meanwhile, Sloane’s trying to figure out what Elena knows that’s gotten her into trouble with the gang. Elena explains that a truck would arrive to give free ice cream to all the kids, and then afterward, violence would erupt.

Sloane guesses that the ice cream trucks were smuggling weapons, and when Elena gives them the name of the company, Abby quickly confirms that the weapons are packed into the dry ice used to ship the ice cream, which is actually quite clever. Also, all the RPGs in the dry ice have their spring coils snipped, permanently disabling them, and the fingerprints on them point to Rico Ruiz. But why disable weapons you just stole?

Palmer, who’s been quietly hating his life as Ducky drones on and on from the video screen, adds to the mystery when he tells McGee that the bodies in the wall bled to death when the RGPs exploded in their hands while they were trying to reinsert the spring coils to make them functional again.

Then the motion sensor that “Peeping Tim” McGee installed on Gibbs’ door (without his consent, which isn’t wise) goes off, and a neighbor identifies Ruiz as the intruder. Elena also recognizes Ruiz as the “ice cream man” from back home, but all she remembers is that he scared her, and she ran away and hid.

That night, Sloane arrives at Chez Gibbs and finds Elena asleep and comments that it must be tough for Gibbs to have another little girl in his house. He doesn’t respond, so she turns to business, reporting that they still haven’t located Ruiz. That’s when Elena then wakes up, guesses that she’s there because Ruiz is after her, and blames herself for accepting her mother’s life jacket when their boat sank.

“Your mama did what mamas do. She protected you,” Sloane assures her, and both she and Gibbs promise that no one will hurt her. And then Gibbs notices that the lock on Elena’s window is ajar. Since he hasn’t opened that window since 2004, he realizes something’s up and sets a trap.

That night, when Ruiz sneaks in through the window he left open, he finds a passel of armed NCIS agents waiting for him. But he’s confused about why they think he’d want to hurt his own daughter.

In interrogation, Ruiz explains that he’s a carpenter whose wife left him six years ago, and even though he never saw Elena again, he took a job driving trucks for La Vida Mala in order to send her money to move her out of the slums.

He was never on board with the gang activities and was the person who sabotaged the weapons. When Javier found out what he’d done, he killed the two men at the start of the episodes for vouching for him, then put a hit out on Ruiz and his daughter.

When Gibbs asks why Ruiz didn’t work with U.S. immigration officials to assume custody of his daughter, Ruiz responds that working through official channels would’ve gotten them both deported back to San Salvador and the gang danger waiting for them there.

With Ruiz as a cooperating witness, Gibbs and McGee confront Javier at the funeral for the gang member he had killed. At first, Javier’s not scared — but then Ruiz strolls in and Gibbs identifies him as the man willing to testify against the scary gang leader.

Um, I’m not in law enforcement, but why why why would you bring your only eye witness to the scene of the arrest where the gang leader has many presumably loyal, presumably armed minions there who’d likely be happy to take matters into their own hands? I just…I do not understand

Anyway, in the end, Ruiz is left in a vulnerable state with no legal status and a history of criminal activities along with effort to undermine the criminal activities. As Vance understates, “It’s complicated.” And while his reunion with his long-lost daughter and her now-working music box is emotional, it leaves Gibbs asking, “What happens now?”

Stray shots

  • What a timely episode, and what an ambiguous ending. NCIS doesn’t preach, and it doesn’t provide easy answers, but it does offer a human face to what can be an abstract issue for many Americans. Whatever side of the issue you’re on, it’s a worthwhile topic to discuss.
  • The good Bishop this week: Her irritation at being called “ma’am” by a hipster barista. I agree; being “ma’am’d” is THE WORST.
  • The bad Bishop this week: Oh my God, just tell Abby that you blew up her Mass Spec! Hiding and lying and sneaking around is soooooo not the way to handle this situation. Abby’s going to figure it out and will (eventually) forgive you, and that will all happen much sooner with honestly rather than deception, Eleanor.
  • Gotta love Palmer putting a stop to Ducky’s backseat autopsying by simply unplugging the video feed. May all of your problems this week be so easily solved.

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