NCIS recap: Welcome to the dollhouse
Who’s up for a history lesson, a twisty mystery, and a totally boss Bishop leg-sweep? If so, you’ve come to the right place this week.
It’s spring cleaning time at NCIS, and Bishop is going all out. Bags and bags of clothes, mementos, accessories, all of it bound for a donation to the VA and all of it raising the eyebrows of her co-workers, who worry that she’s purging her whole life.
Delilah, meanwhile, has put together a donation box that includes McGee’s favorite T-shirt, vintage Atari joystick, and ’80s action figure, which feels a little like the step before she hands him actual divorce papers. Worse, Gibbs swoops in and claims the shirt as a new shop rag, while Palmer manages to swipe the rest of McGee’s stuff for Kasie, who’s got her eye on the joystick.
But charity donations aren’t driving the case of the week. That would be the murder of Petty Officer Third Class Noah O’Donnell, whose body was dumped in the road with execution-style gunshot wounds in his chest and head. Noah was an intelligence specialist at Quantico who taught self-defense in his spare time and lived with his sister Claire in the small town of Fillmore.
The first person to attract NCIS attention is Det. John Fischer, who investigated the unsolved murder of Noah and Claire’s parents 10 years ago. He’s poking around Noah’s murder but trying to keep it quiet so the media attention doesn’t explode like it did during the popular The Fault in Fillmore podcast about the O’Donnell murders, which turned the town into a three-ring circus for weirdos. He’s overall cagey and hostile with NCIS and claims not to know where Claire’s hiding.
But Fischer might be on to something. Like his parents, Noah was shot at close range execution-style, and like his parents, the bullets were removed from his body with long tweezers. Also, when the police found Noah and Claire the night of their parents’ murders, they were wandering in the road, which is exactly where Noah’s body was found. So do we have a copycat, or is the original killer back?
The team next questions Paul Johansson, a tank of a man who taught self-defense at the same facility as Noah. He says Noah was well-liked, while Claire’s nothing but trouble: unable to hold a job and prone to wandering at night like a zombie. Noah moved in to keep an eye on her, but she dragged him down too.
Next stop: the old O’Donnell house, where the murders happened a decade ago. It’s a condemned wreck, and Gibbs and Bishop are keenly aware of all the neighborhood eyes on them as they investigate. (Rule 35: Always watch the watchers!) In the backyard, they find a storage shed with a padlock that has Claire’s initials on it. Once they gain entry, they find a macabre workroom with crime scene photos everywhere and dollhouses that painstakingly recreate the murder scenes depicted. And yes, one of the dollhouses showcases Claire’s own parents’ murder.
Back at NCIS, Ducky recognizes them as modern-day nutshells in the style of Frances Glessner Lee, who created a series of crime scene miniatures in the 1940s. Called the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, they were intricate and beautifully rendered dollhouses that were used to train homicide detectives and forensics students to analyze crime scenes when the field was still in its infancy.
Three of the dollhouses feature solved crimes, with the O’Donnell murder the only unsolved one. Sloane wonders aloud if Claire’s a hobbyist coping with trauma through true crime. Then again, NCIS found long-handled tweezers with Noah’s blood on them in Claire’s desk, so she may also have found a different coping mechanism.
A talk with the head of the Historical Society Miniature Enthusiast Group reveals that Claire’s the most recent HSMEG member, and she’s fixated on her parents’ murder in part out of fear that the killer isn’t done with her family.
Notoriety isn’t done with the family either; when news of Noah’s death hits the news, the O’Donnell house is swarmed by podcast fans there for Claire. The loudest women in the crowd are a goth and a cat sweatshirt aficionado, who remind NCIS that Claire always returns to the scene of the crime in her nocturnal wanderings. Ah, but tonight she has a new crime scene to visit.
Gibbs heads straight to the stretch of road where Noah’s body was found, and there’s Claire, brandishing Noah’s gun for protection. Gibbs gently suggests that her parents would want her to come into the light, and he escorts her to NCIS for questioning. Vance, seeing a traumatized young woman who lost her parents, scampers off to call his kids.
Claire starts things off by asking Gibbs, “Has anyone you love ever been killed?” (Oh dear. So many.) Then she says Noah was helping her solve their parents’ murders and must’ve uncovered something. “He’s dead because of me.”
In fact, Noah did have an almost illegible evidence custody document on his body, and Claire has an alibi thanks to the #WheresClaire hashtag with photos of sightings that night placing her nowhere near Noah’s body. Time for a new suspect.
At this point, Fischer storms NCIS, demanding to know why Claire’s being held. He tells Gibbs that he’ll never forget coming across the O’Donnell kids the night of the murders, and he spits out that the only reason he didn’t solve the case years ago was because a bureaucrat like Gibbs wouldn’t spare the budget to exhume the body of the transient man Fischer liked for the crime to compare it to a DNA sample.
Gibbs takes another run at getting answers from Claire, which he does by proving his investigative chops on her nutshells: a murder/suicide stemming from a financial dispute. An acquaintance kidnapping. Robbery/arson/murder.
That last one stops Claire short. It’s the nutshell that Noah built, although it was officially ruled an electrical fire thanks to bad wiring, not arson. “We’ve been looking into the wrong case,” Gibbs realizes.
This new case involves the recently widowed Louise Fitzgerald, who was worth millions and found dead in her burned home. If Noah started to suspect murder, that points in a whole different direction. Specifically, it points toward the self-defense classes, which Louise attended with Noah… and his buddy Paul, whose day job is an electrician.
Paul realizes the jig is up and tries to run, charging directly at Bishop. He’s easily twice her size and clearly intends to bowl her over and escape, but she drops and sweeps her leg in his path, taking him down. It’s … it’s impressive.
In short order, we learn that Paul had gambling debts, so he stole from Louise, killed her, and set the fire to cover it up. When Noah asked for his input on how someone might stage an electrical fire, Paul killed him and tried to frame Claire.
The case solved, Sloane urges Claire to make an appointment to start therapy with Grace Confalone, while Kasie tries to recruit Claire to join her in forensics. Claire declines but mentions that someone recently offered her $10,000 to build their daughter a dollhouse. OOOH, DO THAT, CLAIRE!
Also, Ducky called in a favor and got an exhumation order for the suspect in the O’Donnell parents’ murder, so Claire heads off to meet with Fischer, hopeful that he can deliver the same justice she helped provide for Noah.
In the final minutes of the episode, Bishop slides onto the Elevator of Schemes and Secrets with Gibbs and rather defensively tells him that she’s giving away all her things because she’s evolved and isn’t the same person that she was when she started. Gibbs doesn’t disagree, but he does remind her, “You can’t erase it all,” handing her the OSU Pistol Pete hat he plucked from her donation pile.
Then Bishop gets a text from Odette that reads, “Tomorrow 6 a.m.” Who’s ready for secret agent Bishop, y’all?
- Very cool episode tonight! While the podcast fandom could’ve been fleshed out into something bigger and more fun, the mystery itself and Claire’s sad story were well done, and the ambiguous ending leaves us with a little frisson of uncertainty. Will Claire ever find a resolution to her parents’ murders?
- Torres quote of the week: “Are you trying to tell me how to Kondo?”
- Hey, CBS, I’d watch a 24-episode series of people solving crimes based on nutshell dollhouses. Likewise, I would watch many seasons of Claire building gorgeous dollhouses and solving crimes. Either or both would be fabulous. Hit me up.
- Speaking of the nutshell dollhouses: Frances Glessner Lee is real and did, in fact, utilize a traditionally feminine craft to excel in the male-dominated world of law enforcement in the 1940s. If you want to learn more, this CBS News Sunday Morning piece is an excellent overview of her work. I hope you’re as blown away by her talent as I am!