By Sara Netzley
October 23, 2018 at 11:00 PM EDT
Cliff Lipson/CBS

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)

The metal turns out to be a brass plate engraved with “Until we meet again,” and it matches the one attached to Claire’s recorder case. She bought one for each of them before Danny left for Vietnam. He was so touched that he proposed on the spot, and they were married the next day.

Because the explosion lodged the plate against his ribs, Sloane believes that Danny was holding the recorder -– the stand-in for his wife -– close to his heart when he detonated the grenade. So what happened on that final scout?

McGee the library-talker enters the prison yet again to try to reach Ray. At first, Ray pushes him away. McGee confides that his father shut him down the one time he asked him about Vietnam, and McGee regrets not asking a hundred times until his father did talk, wondering if it would’ve made a difference in their relationship.

This reaches Ray, who finally opens up about the scouting mission. He and Danny stumbled across a large number of Viet Cong with a near-dead American POW. Danny refused to leave a man behind and wanted to mount a rescue, but Ray argued that the six of them were dangerously outnumbered and would be killed.

They fought, and Ray started drinking when they returned to camp. So maybe he doesn’t remember what happened after he blacked out, but he knows that he wanted to stop Danny from following through on the rescue, hence the changed story and the guilty plea.

This new information explains Danny’s statement on his last tape that he didn’t have it in him to lead. And then Bishop comes through with another key bit of evidence: The commissary money that Ray used to build the prison library had been donated over the decades by Fletcher, operating behind shell companies and false names.

Gibbs pulls Fletcher into interrogation and gets in his face for lying and going on with his life in a military uniform as if nothing happened. Fletcher confesses that he heard Ray and Danny argue, he knew Ray was passed out, and he knew that Danny was the one who detonated the grenade. So why blame Ray?

Simple racism. Fletcher had altercations with black Marines and says he didn’t trust them to have his back since they were on the other side of the war over civil rights raging at home.

Since fragging was hard to prove and usually resulted in a slap on the wrist, he thought Ray would simply be sent home. Ray shocked him by pleading guilty, but Fletcher couldn’t admit to the lie without ruining his career.

Exonerated, Ray prepares to leave the library he built, asking Sam the guard to take care of it. Once he’s free, he visits Fletcher, who won’t be punished, as the statute of limitations on false statement has passed.

Ray says he’s angry at himself and the world, and he’s angry with Fletcher, too. But Danny did what he did to ensure that the rest of them would live, so “I decided I’m going to let go of that anger. And I’m gonna live,” Ray tells Fletcher. “I just wanted you to know that.” While Ray may be moving forward, it looks as if Fletcher may not have many more peaceful nights.

Ray and Claire meet for the first time at Arlington, where they embrace before laying roses on Danny’s casket as he’s reinterred. Gibbs and McGee watch from a nearby bench, and Gibbs clasps McGee’s shoulder to assure him, “Your dad would be proud of you, Tim.”

Could … could somebody pass the Kleenex, please?

Stray Shots:

  • Seriously, show of hands: Who’s up for a Cold Case reboot? No crime show consistently called forth my personal waterworks more often than that one.
  • We had some blasts from the ’90s TV past tonight! Ray was Charles Robinson from Night Court, Fletcher was Fred Dryer from Hunter, and Dee Wallace was from The New Lassie. Always fun to see familiar faces.
  • I have some food questions. First, what kind of vegetarian restaurant serves bacon? Second, what kind of addictive chemicals are in those muffins being sold across the street from the Navy Yard? Third, can somebody pick me up a cranberry one?
  • Why did the show decide to resurrect the Laurel/Yanny debate five months after that trend lived and died? Was it so we’d know that Gibbs hears Laurel, Yanny, and blizzard, all at the same time? Or maybe it was to let us know that both Bishop and Torres missed the initial debate because they both unplugged for three days. At the same time. But, uh, in different locations. YOOOO, BISH AND TORRES ARE DOIN’ IT. YA HEARD IT HERE FIRST.
  • It says Laurel. Obviously.

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