Cliff Lipson/CBS
October 23, 2018 at 11:00 PM EDT
We gave it an A-

Who else loved Cold Case back in the day? Tonight’s NCIS carries a whisper of that early aughts CBS show as Gibbs and company delve into a long-dormant case with emotional tentacles that wind around the parties involved a half-century later.

The episode opens when the renovation of an old post office unearths a package that was mailed in 1970 but never made it to its destination. It was sent to Claire Hall by her husband, Danny, who died that year in Vietnam. They corresponded by sending recordings to one another, and when Claire listens to the contents, she heads straight for NCIS.

You see, this package contains the last recording Danny made before his death, which sounds very much like a suicide based on his goodbye to his wife. But another Marine has served 48 years for killing Danny, and Gibbs, naturally, won’t let that stand.

Danny died in a grenade explosion, prompting newly appointed permanent forensic scientist Kasie to put together a Ken Burns-level multimedia presentation on the history of fragging, in which a superior officer was murdered by someone in his command via fragmentation grenade. Per her information, it happened for many reasons, including racism, drug use, or the desire to stop a combat-hungry superior.

Ray Jennings, who was in his unit, pleaded guilty to the murder, but when Sloane listens to the recordings, she hears the two men laughing together almost like brothers. And when Gibbs and McGee visit Ray in prison, he tells them they’re wasting their time reopening his case.

Vance, also, isn’t completely on board, denying Gibbs’ expensive request to exhume Danny’s body due to lack of evidence. But Gibbs cares not for small things like budgetary concerns and threatens to push until he gets his way.

Bishop and Torres track down retired Marine Sgt. Thomas Fletcher, the eyewitness to Danny’s death, who tells them that everyone was tense because the radio was down, and things got worse between Danny and Ray when they returned for a two-man scout. Fletcher says he heard Danny tell Ray, “I’m done talking about this,” and that Ray came running out of Danny’s hooch just before the explosion.

At NCIS, Gibbs and Sloane watch Kasie’s presentation, which affects them both, especially Gibbs. “Different war, but still … woof,” he says. Then McGee enters the lab to announce that Ray changed his story: First, he said he threw the grenade into Danny’s hooch, then he told investigators he was inside the hooch, which matches Fletcher’s story.

When Gibbs and McGee return to the prison, they find Ray in the library. Trying to forge a connection, McGee talks about his father’s Vietnam experience, but Ray scoffs that McGee’s father should have taught him not to talk in libraries. Ray used his commissary money to build the library, and he’s made his peace with dying in prison. “I belong here,” he barks.

Gibbs, who’s been silent, hits play on the tape of Danny and Ray laughing together and pushes until Ray admits that he was black-out drunk that night, so he changed his story to match Fletcher’s account. Still, Gibbs believes he’s hiding something, and Vance finally relents on the exhumation.

In the morgue, Palmer introduces the skeleton of Danny Hall to 2018, with its email and kale chips. The grenade caused extensive damage, but he does find a four-inch metal plate fused to Danny’s rib.

When McGee joins him, Palmer asks if the case is like staring into a glassy lake, where a reflection is all that separates him from the answers at the bottom. McGee agrees and says the reflection is his father and all the associate regrets he carries with him. “Well, I just made this very, very awkward,” Palmer understates.

(Next page: Ray walks free)

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