Toil and Trouble
Credit: Bill Inoshita/CBS
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S16 E11
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NCIS returns from its winter hiatus with a time-hopping episode that finds our favorite agents maybe, possibly, kind of engaging in a little accidental-ish hostage-taking. But hey, what’s a little Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility deployment among friends?

We open in the midst of Secretary of Defense Wynn Crawford (Mitch “FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner” Pileggi) demanding Torres and McGee’s weapons and badges, warning that their felonious hacking will land them in prison.

But before we can get to the hacking, we have to jump back two days, with Bishop and Torres sitting in for Gibbs and McGee at the multi-day Optics in Law Enforcement seminar at the Freemont Inn.

The woman conducting the seminar busts the pair for talking and texting (Bishop’s setting up date No. 5 with someone named Boyd), so they duck out and — oopsie! — stumble across a room full of corpses.

In the present, Sloane texts Vance before she and Gibbs interrogate a terrorism suspect named Hartgrave. (Weirdly, she’s in Vance’s phone as “Sloan.”)

Two days prior, a frazzled Freemont Inn employee chides NCIS for declaring a crime scene without all the facts. The twenty bodies in the room Torres and Bishop found are actually cadavers intended for a surgical robot medical conference, which would be fine — if there weren’t, in fact, twenty-one bodies in the room. And the employee’s attempts to keep a lid on things fail when the law enforcement officers at the conference, along with a local TV anchor, all peer curiously into the cadaver room.

In autopsy, Palmer cuts open the only body without a toe tag and discovers that the internal organs are basically mush. Kasie’s follow-up testing uncovers something terrible: The man’s lungs disintegrated from chlorine gas — you know, the stuff banned by the Geneva Convention.

But hey, in lighter news, McGee’s thrilled to get a box of gadgets from fancy tech company Splendifida. He suggests it’s a thank you after he pointed out a few bugs in their mechanical dog that he bought the twins for Christmas, and the agents go gaga for the free drone, VR goggles, and watch with a hidden knife and camera. Also, Torres gets ahold of Bishop’s phone and cancels her date with Boyd by sending a terse, “Sorry, work stuff.”

In the present, Hartgrave claims no knowledge of enough missing chemical weapons to wipe out a city block.

Back to two days ago, McGee and Torres settle into Kasie’s lab movie theater for a presentation on the past and current uses of chemical weapons. (Gotta say, I’m enjoying Kasie’s multimedia approach to information sharing, even if this week’s subject is extra distressing.) She also announces that the chlorine gas victim was Keenan Grant, who drove trucks for the Trine Chemical Agent Destruction Plant.

And this is where we first meet Dr. Patton Hartgrave, Trine’s lead chemical engineer. Hartgrave has a cough that we all knowwill end up tying him to some the crime of the week. The Trine CEO says their supply of chlorine gas was destroyed years ago, but this claim is undercut when the team learns that Grant was on a run to the Freemont Inn the night of his death.

Just as things are getting interesting, Secretary of Defense Crawford bumps into Gibbs and orders him to shut down NCIS’s investigation lest it interfere with the State Department’s work on a Syrian cease-fire agreement.

Ah, but in the present, Hartgrave starts coughing up chunks of lung thanks to chlorine gas exposure. ”I’ll be dead before you can get me to talk,” he gloats. Still, Crawford doesn’t want to move on this new information.

Then we’re back to the day before when the team starts tiptoeing into ethically gray areas. They don’t have permission to access missing weapons files, but they do have permission to search security records pertaining to this week’s victim. Rather than hack the Pentagon, they decide to hack Trine. And is it even really hacking if Torres was wearing the fancy hidden-camera watch that captured Hartgrave’s admin password?

They log in and download whatever they can before their hack is traced. Reviewing the records on Kasie’s computer reveals that Hartgrave was on the Freemont Inn pickup with Grant, indicating that’s when the gas poisoning happened.

At this point, Trine complains to Vance about the NCIS hack, and we’re now caught up with the beginning of the episode, as a furious Crawford threatens Torres and McGee in Vance’s office. (Next page: Can we really trust the SecDef?)

Vance tries to spin his agents’ actions as “shrewd computer tactics” and points out that they’ve implicated Hartgrave in moving enough chlorine gas for a major chemical attack. Crawford’s still livid, but I’ve got faith in him. He’s just living up to the legacy of AD Skinner, who always harrumphed and stuck to the rulebook before eventually seeing the wisdom of what his rule-breaking agents were up to.

Anyway, Hartgrave refuses medical treatment and admits that he discovered the gas in storage and slipped it out, riding along with Grant so he could unload it himself. But Grant got there first and accidentally punctured a canister, dying on the spot.

Hartgrave’s proud to say he’s sending the gas to Syrian freedom fighters so they can have a chance against a government that’s killing its own citizens. Even though Gibbs and Sloane point out that Hartgrove can’t control where the chemical weapons will actually end up, he refuses to give tell them its current location.

At this point, Sloane texts McGee a request that he buy them more time. (Her name is spelled correctly in his phone, for the record.) McGee and Torres hatch a hasty plan that has McGee locking down the room using the aforementioned SCIF protocols, while Torres just reaches for his gun. Naturally, this only further incenses Crawford, who now believes he’s being held hostage. Since they’re stuck in the room with no cell service, they turn to the closed caption TV, where they watch Hartgrove’s interrogation.

Said interrogation’s interrupted by a commotion in the hallway. Then Gibbs and Sloane storm in and turn on the local news, where an anchor introduces a cell phone video of a gas attack, complete with fleeing, screaming, coughing civilians and bodies in bags. Hartgrave’s horrified that this is where the gas ended up and offers up the name of the customs agent he gave the chemical weapons to.

Ah, but it was all a ruse: The agents at the Freemont Inn conference volunteered to play the role of terrified citizens, and the reporter in attendance delivered the fictional newscast in front of a green screen to NCIS’s closed circuit TV. That’s some tidy circular storytelling!

At a shipyard, Bishop and Gibbs secure the incredibly old canisters of chlorine gas, and when Gibbs arrives back at HQ, he obeys Crawford’s commands that he add his badge to the growing pile collecting on Vance’s office table.

But then he points out that Trine lied about destroying the gas so they could save millions by just sticking it in storage. And whaddya know, Crawford’s a Trine shareholder and close friends with the CEO.

Crawford’s horrified at the coincidence and argues that he didn’t know, then realizes that it’s easy to assume the worst about people. And with that, he completes the classic Walter Skinner turnaround, as the gruff, uncompromising lawman acknowledges that his agents acted in good faith for the safety of the country.

Once the case is wrapped, Torres apologizes to Bishop for canceling her date. She tells him she has to be able to trust him and asks why he did it. For a moment, it looks like he’s ready to confess something – something pretty major that I suspect they both know – but in the end, he just wishes her good night.

Torres isn’t the only one keeping secrets this week. Kasie’s wise to the ways of tech companies and tells McGee that they only send those goodie bundles to prospective employees. McGee admits he’s being head-hunted. It’s flattering that a cutting-edge tech company’s interested in him, and they are offering quite a bit of money. Is our stalwart agent ready to jump to the private sector?

We close this week with one more secret: Crawford may have had less of a change of heart than we realized. He sits down to a meal with Westley Clark, the CIA agent who’s been surveilling Vance. Crawford orders Clark to get him all the intel he’s gathered, refusing to specify if he wants it for business or pleasure.

Stray Shots

  • It’s bold of NCIS to give us an episode called “Toil and Trouble” that doesn’t involve witches, no?
  • Exchange of the week comes courtesy of the amorous bridal party couple, having just discovered a roomful of bodies. Him: “Should we look for a bathroom?” Her: “I’m not in the mood anymore!” Aww, wedding receptions are magical!
  • So what do you think, friends? Can you picture an NCIS team sans McGee? Let me know in the comments!

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