By Sara Netzley
September 26, 2018 at 12:40 AM EDT
Sonja Flemming/CBS

NCIS’s 16th season — 16! Old enough to drive a car! — wastes no time in dropping us back into a world of action, plots and counterplots, quips, and Gibbs’ stoicism. Let’s do this.

Vance, last seen at the mercy of Sloane’s tormenter, Hakim, is being held captive in a tastefully appointed house. Hakim is in favor of torture, but his mother, Zaiyema, believes Vance can be incentivized to come around to their way of thinking. As Vance killed her sons in Afghanistan years ago, I suspect those incentives won’t be of the “cash back” variety.

Four weeks later, a dusty and dispirited Torres checks in via video chat to say that his month in Afghanistan convinced him that Vance isn’t overseas. This hypothesis is confirmed when a breaking news report about a local bank heist shows that one of the robbers is Vancey Hearst himself.

Kasie (Hi, Kasie! Welcome to the lab full time!) suggests a perfect Vance clone, but McGee and Bishop check out the bank in case the clone thing doesn’t pan out. The irritated bank manager explains that Vance had ordered all of Hakim’s charity assets frozen and consolidated at this branch. That’s what Hakim stole, along with a good portion of gold bullion. So did Hakim snatch Vance because he knew where the money was? And why did he trust Vance with a gun during the robbery?

At a strategy session with Gibbs, Sloane, and Vice Admiral Halsey, we learn that all the security codes were changed after Vance’s kidnapping. We also learn that Sloane’s spent the last four weeks blaming herself for not keeping her cool with Hakim. His former colleague, British Deputy Ambassador Rigg, speaks calmly and slowly to Sloane, and I kind of hate her.

Speaking of Gibbs, the world’s most reluctant acting director of NCIS has his meal of skillet sausages interrupted by the arrival of Kayla Vance. Despite the fact that she’s been assigned a protective detail, she’s still attending college because her dad didn’t raise her to be a quitter. And then an explosion rocks Chez Gibbs.

The target was a Navy recruitment center at a nearby strip mall, and a second one in Salt Lake City was also bombed. And then a robe-wearing Vance turns up on television, speechifying about “Brother Hakim” and “American oppressors.”

Kasie quickly sorts the situation out. First, she notices that Vance fired three warnings shots in the bank, and they each hit the eyeballs of people pictured on bank posters. Next, she determines that Vance only blinked five times during his hostage message, on the words “avalanche,” “apple,” “lifeless,” “karma,” and “yearning.” What’s that mean? She and Gibbs aren’t sure — yet.

At Vance’s luxury prison, Hakim gloats about the chaos their attacks have caused, but his threats against Vance’s children fall flat. “You missed the window, Chuck,” Vance says, tipping them off about his video blinking code. Zaiyema’s furious and orders her henchmen to kill Kayla, who’s currently on campus chattering about her Sociology of Taylor Swift class with her bodyguard. (For the record, I’d sign up for that class.)

Then an armed man charges them and kills her guard; poor guy dies with the word “Taylor” on his lips. Quick-thinking Kayla grabs the gun off his body and returns fire. She misses, but Gibbs and McGee, having successfully unscrambled Vance’s on-the-fly acrostic to spell “Kayla,” pop up and save her life.

Morgue time! Palmer chats with the shooter’s body, and when Gibbs arrives, Ducky declares, “We already know the cause of death: You.” Blunt, but true. Also, we didn’t have nearly enough time with this duo in the premiere.

Just as Kacie discovers that the shooter was an Iowan named Rafi Paiz who worked in the custodial department at a local tech firm, a Hakim-connected suicide bomber attacks an Ohio movie theater. (Next page: Torres smash)

Rafi’s coworker at the tech company Glowbeam is shocked to hear that he was a terrorist and explains that her company uses lava lamps to randomize encryption numbers for Fortune 500 companies and governments. Torres admits to nursing a grudge against lava lamps after he burned himself on one and was forced to sit out of his Little League regionals game. Naturally, he’s the agent assigned to stay with the Glowbeam people and their lava lamps.

Sloane, meanwhile, has gone off the grid to interrogate Rigg, whom I still don’t trust. Sloane cuffs her and repurposes kitchen implements as interrogation instruments as Rigg begs for mercy, pleading, “Are you trying to find your monster, or become one?”

This stops Sloane in her tracks — but of course, it’s a trap, and Rigg turns Sloane’s own gun on her. Oh, Sloane. This … this wasn’t a great move.

Vance, meanwhile, finds unexpected help in one of Hakim’s henchmen, an impossibly handsome fella who reveals that he’s CIA agent Nazy Rickman (Keon Alexander). He sneaks Vance a burner phone and shuts off the cell phone jammer, allowing Vance to make a quick call to Gibbs.

When Vance reaches Gibbs, he explains that he met Rickman and warns them about Hakim’s interest in the Bethesda nuclear station. The top brass agree to go into Operation Lockdown, which will keep any outside actors from infiltrating the facility.

Then, in a total curse-your-sudden-but-inevitable-betrayal move, Rickman reveals that he was on Hakim’s side all along, and Operation Lockdown was their end goal. Say it ain’t so, impossibly hot henchman!

Oh, it’s so. Rickman, whose real name is definitely not Rickman, created a Trojan horse in the lockdown codes, which can only be activated by the federal government. As Vance is absorbing this, a bound Sloane is delivered to the house so she and Vance can have a front-row seat to the irradiation of the area.

At the nuclear facility, a supervisor assures Gibbs, McGee, and Bishop that nothing can possibly go wrong during Operation Lockdown, but naturally, everything goes wrong. They get locked in the facility and the system spirals toward meltdown.

McGee discovers not-Rickman’s Trojan horse in the coding but realizes that it’s actually coming from Glowbeam’s encryption off-site. Thankfully, Torres is still there, bored out of his skull. “Oh, we’re having different days,” he says when Bishop explains that she’s locked in a nuclear facility on the brink of meltdown.

With 20 seconds to act, Torres gets revenge for his missed regional baseball game by tossing a stool into the gleaming wall of lava lamps. It makes a wet, colorful mess on the floor, and more importantly, it shuts down the Trojan horse programming.

When Hakim gets the news, he destroys a perfectly nice TV and starts threatening Sloane, who openly laughs at him. You see, she and Gibbs hatched Operation Cuckoo’s Nest, which involved her convincing Rigg that she was unraveling, and then having a satellite track her to Hakim’s location. And OH THANK GOD because otherwise, her actions this week would’ve been unpardonably foolish.

Gibbs and company come charging in, taking out the bulk of the baddies but leaving Hakim alive. (Please note: Torres shoots impossibly handsome not-Rickman because there can be only one impossibly handsome guy.) Hakim tries to make Sloane feel bad about his pending torture at a black ops site, but Sloane says nuh-uh. The U.S. are the good guys, so he’ll get a fair trial.

In the end, a thrilled Kayla is reunited with her father, who holds her close and tells her how proud he is of her, while Sloane visits her fallen Wingo comrades at Arlington Cemetery and lays her box of memories to rest in the soil next to them.

Stray Shots

  • For the record, lava lamp encryption is absolutely a thing, and you can, in fact, Google it, as many characters insisted tonight.
  • Not to tell the NCIS writers how to do their jobs, but could we have more of chop shop snitch Joey (the always delightful Chad Linberg) in upcoming episodes? Just snippets of him in interrogation, singing like a canary?
  • So, uh, did Gibbs ever sign the paperwork to fix the AC? A comfortable climate seems like job one for any good supervisor, even an interim one.
  • Welcome to NCIS’s 16th year, friends! Now that Vance is back home, here’s hoping we can spend more time in future episodes with our favorite characters, both old and new. What are your hopes for this season? Let me know in the comments!