By Sara Netzley
April 16, 2019 at 11:26 PM EDT

Well, that’s another layer of the Gibbs onion that we peeled tonight, isn’t it? And just like an onion layer, it had the potential to bring a few tears.

This week’s big orange room shenanigans involve McGee and Bishop waiting to buy badges to the 50th Comic-Con (city unspecified), where the secret surprise guest panelist is rumored to be George Lucas.

Naturally, Torres scoffs at the “nerd convention where losers dress up like elves or whatever” and doesn’t know who George Lucas is. Why do you want us all to dislike Torres, show? Also, who doesn’t at least recognize the words “Star” and “Wars”?

Before the cool kids in the room can complete their purchase, Gibbs orders them to a construction site where a work crew turned up a skeleton in a heavily decorated Marine uniform. Gibbs points out the lack of Global War on Terror ribbons, which means the person’s been dead for at least 18 years.

Palmer rules the cause of death to be a blow to the back of the skull and matches surgically implanted teeth to Major Ellen Wallace, whose remains were never recovered after the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.

Credit: Sonja Flemming/CBS

Flashback! A slightly less silver (but still foxy!) Gibbs works on the bones of his boat as ZNN reports Ellen’s death in the attack. Iiiiinteresting

In the present, the celebratory mood when McGee announces that Delilah scored three VIP Comic-Con badges is shattered when Gibbs shouts at the team to track Ellen’s final moments. While he’s never exactly sunny, this level of anger seems disproportionate.

Former co-worker Amy Tano reports that she last saw Ellen on Sept. 10, when she left a Hail and Farewell party early to return to the Pentagon. Amy says Ellen seemed distracted and had a complicated relationship with her ex-fiancé. Also, a fender-bender ran Amy late on the morning of 9/11, which ended up saving her life; her division’s offices were directly hit, and no one survived.

Next to be questioned is Ellen’s father, Gen. James Wallace, who led missions all over the world and served as White House adviser before retiring to guest lecture at the academy. We learn all of this during a conversation Gibbs has with Daniel Kent, commandant at the academy, who served under James and says the man is like family to him.

Gibbs stands in the back of his classroom and listens to James lecture about the rules of engagement before entering the conversation to debate military ethics. The two men clearly know and respect each other, and afterward, Gibbs breaks the news about Ellen’s death.

James is, naturally, distressed by the news and asks Gibbs to find the killer who’s been walking free for 18 years. He also says he last saw Ellen around 11 p.m. on Sept. 10, when he left the Pentagon to get drinks with a colleague. (Side note: Raise your hand if you’re way too old to go to any social event that starts at 11. You can’t see it, but my hand is waving like Hermione Granger.)

Bishop and Kasie, meanwhile, search through bins of Ellen’s belongings looking for clues. Kasie says the old floppy disks make her as happy as Dr. Grant spotting his first Brachiosaurus. (Bishop tries to Jurassic Park-splain the quote, but Kasie’s having none of it.) Then they find a photo of Ellen and her mysterious ex-fiancé.

“Wait, is that Gibbs? And a hot Gibbs?” Kasie asks.

That’s right, friends. Hot Gibbs had a secret fiancée we’re just learning about. The team watches old footage of Ellen on ZNN and wonder why Gibbs didn’t tell them. Well, most of them do; Torres tries to wrap his mind around Gibbs being married four times.

They agree to leave it alone for now, which is … weird. Even though nobody would ever believe Gibbs was capable of murdering an intimate partner, it does seem like something you’d, you know, bring up. Say out loud. Solicit a verbal response. The man himself then enters and sends them after more evidence, and although McGee waits for additional information, Gibbs doesn’t offer it.

Y’all. It’s just good law enforcement to ask these questions, not in an accusatory way, but with an eye toward the murderer’s eventual defense attorney, who absolutely will be asking, “I’m sorry, who was investigating the case?”

Back to the investigation. Torres and Bishop try to convince DOD cyber-engineer Taylor Southard to piece together Ellen’s entry and exit times on the Pentagon’s security system … the system that was destroyed 18 years ago. And oh yeah, they need it in two days. “At first I thought it was funny, but this is just annoying,” Taylor tells them. Then Torres, noticing the geek-friendly figurines around the office, offers up three VIP badges to Comic-Con (seriously, in what city??) over Bishop’s objections. Taylor delightedly gets to work.

In the lab, Kasie matches the blood on Ellen’s uniform to, you guessed it, Gibbs. Yeah, this is why he needs to recuse himself. Of course, that brings us to an amazing visual: Gibbs on the other side of the interrogation table. He fidgets in the chair, then stands up, whips out a knife, and pops the caps off of the legs to level it. Do, uh, suspects get to take huge knives into questioning?

The team, watching through the two-way mirror, argue about who has to take on the questioning. Sloane finally agrees to do it. Under her questioning, Gibbs says that breaking things off with Ellen was complicated but insists their relationship isn’t relevant to the case.

A flashback shows Ellen wiping Gibbs’s cut hand on her uniform when he injures it working on his boat. He tells Sloane that he last had contact with Ellen two months before her death, and then Sloane drops her gotcha: Gibbs didn’t correct her when she asked why he broke it off with her when all of his previous relationships worked in the other direction.

“It’s like watching John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon,” Palmer marvels, and Torres responds, “That is the whitest thing I’ve ever heard.”

At this point, Gibbs declares the interrogation over, but McGee stops him in the hall with evidence that contradicts Gibbs’s statement: a two-minute call Ellen placed to Gibbs the night she died. Gibbs refuses to provide details, so McGee puts on his big-boy pants and declares, “You’re off the case. Go home, Gibbs.” It’s awesome and clearly immensely difficult for Tim.

Afterward, he fumes to Sloane that even after 16 and a half years, Gibbs still doesn’t trust him. On the contrary, Sloane says, this case is personal. “Would he have left if he didn’t trust you?” Aww, Sloane’s role was small this week, but it was important.

Good news on the Pentagon security front: Taylor found an encrypted file on an old backup server, last updated the morning of 9/11, showing that Ellen scanned in at 2200 hours and never scanned out. That, plus the presence of her car at the Pentagon, led investigators to assume she died in the attack, and it leads Torres and Bishop to conclude that her killer worked in the Pentagon with her. This, of course, rules out Gibbs. Also, Torres is miffed to discover that Taylor has a higher pay grade than he does, given that they’re not old enough to rent a car. Yeah, “but I could just buy one, so…” Taylor points out. Ha!

This sends McGee to track Gibbs down in his basement, where he’s doing something interesting with boat parts that I’d love someone to tell me more about in the comments. It’s wet, and there are special shelves for curved pieces? I want to know more!

Anyway, McGee says everyone knows why he keeps them at a distance (ouch!) and hammers the importance of learning what Ellen said during that phone call. Gibbs throws his tools in anger, and we flash back to him drinking and letting her call go to… I almost typed voicemail, but of course, it’s an answering machine. She begs him to pick up, but he just looks pained as she finally hangs up. Eighteen years later, he still blames himself for not answering to help her.

“Ellen still needs your help, boss,” McGee says, leaving behind the Polaroid of the two of them.

Meanwhile, Kasie’s working with Ellen’s crash-happy IBM ThinkPad 240x, which Palmer remembers fondly, including the flying toaster screensaver. Kasie found a private email Ellen used to communicate meet up places and times with someone emailing under a codename.

They trace it to investigative journalist Franklin Morrison, who said it was part of a tip-line he hasn’t used in 14 years. But he remembers Ellen; they were working together on an investigation into a 1998 attack in Kosovo. Rebel soldiers were blamed for the deaths of multiple civilians, but an eyewitness said it was U.S. forces. And the Marine in command in Kosovo? Ellen’s father.

When Gibbs returns to the academy to question James, Daniel the commandant gets prickly about the suggestion that the great Gen. Wallace was involved. Once they’re alone, James says he heard the rumor about Kosovo and asked Ellen to investigate. He and Gibbs both know the pain of losing a child, and even though James always liked Gibbs, he tells him, “You didn’t deserve my daughter.” Gibbs agrees and explains that he cut and run “because I loved her. And that never ends well.”

Oh. Oh, Gibbs.

Torres solves the case by noticing a familiar name among the 8,233 Pentagon employees who were in the building on Sept. 10: Daniel Kent, who was James’s aid in 2001, served under him in Kosovo in 1998, signed out of the Pentagon at 2 a.m. on Sept. 11, and lived two blocks from where Ellen was buried.

Although McGee and Bishop can’t get Daniel to break under questioning, they turn him over to Gibbs, who looms as an ominous black silhouette in the doorway in what is easily his most dramatic entrance ever.

He flips the chair on the table and pulls his same trick with the knife to the leg caps while Daniel watches like a mouse hypnotized by a cobra. Five minutes later, he’s confessed everything. Oh, and Palmer’s friends with a Stan Lee relative who hooked him up with six all-access passes to Comic-Con. The team laughs at the idea of Gibbs attending with them—except McGee, who suggests that you just never know with Gibbs.

Finally, Ellen is laid to rest at Arlington. Gibbs watches from a distance as James accepts the folded flag, and he’s joined by McGee, who knew he’d be there.

“I was trying to do the right thing for her,” Gibbs says. “But she still ended up here. I regret that choice.” McGee urges him to take a few more steps to Ellen’s grave, and Gibbs makes the walk alone to pay his final respects.

Stray Shots

  • My word, that cemetery confession is more personal, emotional information than we’ve gotten from Gibbs in an age. And do any astute NCIS scholars know if we had an inkling of another fiancée in his past prior to that?
  • Is it me, or are the characters all over the place in the back half of this season? The Gibbs of old would’ve walked himself into Vance’s office to discuss his conflict with the current case, and Vance would’ve known it was coming and been prepared. And are we just forgetting about the Torres/Bishop rift from a few weeks ago? Let’s see a bit more consistency in characterization from week to week, please.
  • As interesting as it was to learn about Gibbs’s history with Ellen, I can’t help but feel a little letdown. The big emotions we deserved for a story like this just weren’t there as the story unfolded, which is especially surprising as it also involved the still-traumatic legacy of 9/11. Anybody else left wishing for … more?

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