By Sara Netzley
February 18, 2020 at 11:47 PM EST

NCIS

S17 E16
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  • TV Show
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genre

NCIS experiments with storytelling this week, and the result is a sweet, sad, satisfying cold case with more flashback than you can shake a Seated Liberty at.

It opens when retired Navy Master Chief Art Amador puts on his Sunday best, kisses his dog Sonny Lee, and grips an old photo of a pretty woman as he turns on his car in his closed garage.

Art served for 30 years, then volunteered at the Navy Museum for the last 17. Never married, no kids, and he left a letter addressed to NCIS reading, “Had a good run, time to be with my beloved.”

Marie Stanhope, who oversees the docent program at the Navy Museum, arrives shortly after NCIS does, having found a note that Art left for her. Inexplicably, Gibbs tells her that her friend is dead by SHOWING HER ART’S BODY IN THE CAR. Is … is that somewhere in Gibbs’s rules? Rule No. 53: Show me the body!

In his note, Art asked Marie to take care of Sonny Lee, and he donated his rare 1870 S Seated Liberty silver dollar. Marie explains that this donation will help keep Art’s beloved Vietnam War exhibit open despite budget cuts. Indeed, Kasie’s research reveals that it’s the 13th known Seated Liberty coin in existence, worth a cool $1.4 million. But the museum can’t accept a gift without knowing its origin, so it’s time to commence the investigation.

When he performs the autopsy, Palmer discovers that Art had terminal brain cancer and would’ve been gone in under a year, all of it unpleasant. In a beautifully lowkey moment, Gibbs recognizes the pain in Palmer’s voice, prompting Palmer to explain that his grandmother had a glioblastoma in the same spot, and her decline and eventual death was painful for the whole family. Aww, Jimmy.

The rest of the team’s having a gloomy week as well, so Ducky encourages them to lose themselves in imagining other lives they could’ve lived while sorting through Art’s impressive piles of ephemera. And it works! McGee finds a ticket stub to Star Wars: A New Hope, Torres finds a 1986 Mustang brochure, and Bishop finds a love letter from Annie Downing, the woman in the photo.

Flashback! Flashback time, y’all! Torres-as-Art asks Bishop-as-Annie to dance at a Navy gala, and it’s love at first sight. The disco decorations are incredible, as is Bishop’s fabulous ‘70s styling. Torres’s mustache is … also extremely there.

So why did Art end up single his whole life? Gibbs-as-Annie’s-dad tells Torres-Art that Annie is as rare as his precious Seated Liberty, while Art is a common, tarnished quarter. (Gibbs with dark hair, glasses, and a tailored suit is *chef’s kiss*)

In the present, Annie’s brother Spencer (Gregory Itzin) arrives to explain how Art came to be in possession of his family coin: theft. The Seated Liberty disappeared in March 1972, shortly before Annie died of the thyroid disorder that killed their mother. Spencer has appraisals, insurance records, and a burning need to reclaim the coin so he can sell it to keep the Downing industrial printing presses in business. Look, NCIS, don’t show us Gregory Itzin and not expect us to immediately know he’s the murderer because HELLO, it’s Gregory Itzin.

Marie’s disappointed that the museum won’t have a legal claim on the apparently stolen coin, but NCIS isn’t done investigating. A new letter from Art’s collection reveals that he bought Annie an engagement ring, and while Ducky wonders if it was all a long con to get the coin, Bishop and Torres are all in on this romance. A flashback shows Annie’s father tossing the ring into the fire while his martini-swilling sister Bertha (played by Sloane) heckles him.

Then a police report offers up another flashback as ‘70s cops Palmer and Kasie interrupt Art and Annie having some kind of domestic disturbance in a car. When Officer Palmer pats down Art-Torres, he finds him in possession of a stick of gum … and an old silver dollar.

“Rule 39,” Gibbs mutters. And not only is there no such thing as coincidence, but there may also have been a murder: Palmer’s review of Annie’s medical records points to poisoning, not thyroid disease.

Bishop joins him in the solemn task of examining Annie’s body in the family crypt. As he prepares to collect a tissue sample, Bishop notices that Annie’s wearing the engagement ring that her father tossed in the fire. The mystery deepens!

When Annie got sick, Art was stationed in Vietnam, where we see a flashback of him receiving a nasty burn while rescuing a wounded friend. Aunt Bertha served as the go-between for his letters to Annie — who, it turns out, was poisoned by small daily doses of thallium. Colorless, odorless, tasteless, dissolved in water, and delivered to her even while she was in the hospital dying.

The new suspect quickly becomes Spencer, who was passed over when their father put Annie in charge of a new Downing industrial scrap venture. And thanks to Ducky taking a sledgehammer to Art’s filing cabinet, citing Rule 20 (always look under), the team finds Annie’s last letter before her death. In it, she tells Art that her father had the ring reset and gave her permission to marry Art when he returned home from Vietnam. In a flashback, McGee-as-Spencer looks on enviously. The ‘70s fashions are less kind to him than they are to Bishop.

Into questioning we go! NCIS thoughtfully places chrysanthemums in the interrogation room, which cause the allergic Spencer to sneeze into a tissue. Hello, DNA! They’re able to match it to traces left on the thallium-tainted stamps that Annie licked each day as she sent a letter to Art.

The final piece of the puzzle is solved when Aunt Bertha turns up, swilling martinis from her wheelchair, to explain that Annie stole the coin so she and Art could elope. But he insisted that Annie return it, and they get married when he’s back from his deployment to Vietnam.

After Annie’s death, Bertha and Art have a heart-to-heart next to her resting place in the crypt. Bertha returns the letters Art wrote, along with the Seated Liberty coin that Annie wanted him to have. Looking lost, Torres-as-Art asks, “What do I do?” It’s another subtle acting choice this week that works. Sloane-as-Bertha advises him to live the rest of his life. So he does.

And now, with Spencer headed to prison, Bertha’s the executor, and she gives the coin to the museum. Why was Art so invested in keeping the Vietnam wing open? The camera pans in on the answer: a framed photo of a Navy gala that includes Art and Annie dancing and smiling at each other in the background, forever locked in the moment they fell in love.

Stray shots

  • What a lovely episode! The flashback format was a fun storytelling device to aid in the unraveling of a solid, old-fashioned story. Now I’ve got a hankering to revisit old Cold Case episodes.
  • Line of the week is Palmer’s response to hugging Gibbs: “So warm.”
  • Did you give a little “aww” at learning that Senior’s blissfully happy in Paris with the reunited Tony, Ziva, and Tali?
  • In conclusion: protect Sonny Lee at all costs


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NCIS

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  • TV Show
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  • 16
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  • In Season
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