Toxic land, a gnome to the dome, Hurricane Ziva. That’s all well and good, but WHAT IS GOING ON WITH GIBBS AND SLOANE?

The case of the week involves a body that’s been wrapped in plastic and stuffed under an 18-wheeler. The team piece together broken shards of ceramic stashed with the body and discover the remains of a garden gnome. The gnome’s pointy hat matches the dent in the soft part of the body’s temple, which is pretty high up on the list of undignified ways to die.

Using the truck driver’s pick-up and drop-off records, the team quickly identify the victim as Eli Buck, who recently purchased a trailer park with his brother, Peter. When NCIS arrives at the trailer park, one of the residents, Vince, discovers that one of his gnomes is missing from his garden, and Gibbs finds drag marks near Vince’s failing tomatoes. Vince and neighborhood ringleader Esther explain that the Buck brothers had recently doubled the rent, but most of the tenants are on a fixed income and can’t afford to move, which means they could soon be homeless.

McGee and Torres hit a mobile home park investment seminar, where the sleazy trainer remembers the Buck brothers and muses out loud that the only reason to increase rent like that is if you’re trying to drive your property into bankruptcy. Nobody’s quite sure why the Bucks would want to do that, and things get more muddled when Peter finds a note that says “you’re next” on the windshield of his car. He accuses the tenants of conspiring under Esther’s leadership.

Gibbs pays Esther a visit and finds the woman painting genuinely delightful portraits of animals that she hopes to sell at the county art fair so she can leave her grandchildren enough money that they’ll never find themselves in a desperate situation like she’s in. Gibbs gently points out that they might rather have one of her paintings instead of the cash. He also swipes a pencil from her art supply stash, but it doesn’t match the pencil used on the threat note. And when Peter’s car is torched by a Molotov cocktail, the pressure’s on to figure out who’s after the Bucks.

Okay, before we wrap up the case, let’s talk about the weird vibe at NCIS HQ. Following Ziva’s sudden reappearance and subsequent departure, Vance is concerned about team morale and asks Sloane to check in with everyone. Everybody blows it off initially, but the first to stop by her office is McGee, who says sure, he wishes Ziva had said goodbye to him, but the person he’s worried about is Bishop.

But when Sloane corners Bishop, Bishop says that seeing what Ziva’s life has been like since she left NCIS didn’t concern her. However, she’s worried about Torres because Ziva beat him in that fight and, well, we all know how Torres is. Bishop points out that since then, he’s been distracted, irritated, and unable to look her in the eye when they talk.

So Sloane corners Torres on the Elevator of Schemes and Secrets, but Torres says Ziva threw him off his game in that fight by distracting him with something personal. (We, of course, know that the “something personal” are his feeeeeelings for Bishop, whose hair looks dynamite in this episode, by the way.) Then, taking a page from Ziva’s playbook, Torres turns the tables and accuses Sloane and Gibbs of having “a thing.” It works; Sloane’s clearly rattled when he tells her that they looked awfully cozy last Christmas. (And they totally, totally did.) Sloane whispers, “Christmas was so long ago” and knocks her skull against the elevator wall after Torres exits.

Gibbs isn’t off the hook, either; Ducky mentions a “palpable tension” between him and Sloane and warns Gibbs that Sloane’s going to be coming around to do a check-in with him, too. In the end, Gibbs swings by Sloane’s office and woof, the tension between them really is palpable. She asks if he wants to talk about the elephant in the room, and just when you think they’re going to talk about whatever’s going on between the two of them, Gibbs rather coyly insults her Rorschach painting and pivots to talking about him and Ziva.

Credit: Sonja Flemming/CBS

He admits that yes, it bothers him that he didn’t look for Ziva, and it bothers him that she’s disappeared again. We’re then reminded about the child Sloane gave up for adoption when she advises Gibbs that he needs to let his surrogate daughter go for now. Before he leaves, they stand extremely close to one another, and Gibbs asks if there’s anything else Sloane needs. They engage in a round of head-tilting and meaningful eye contact, and seriously, has there been this much heat on the NCIS set since the heady days of Tiva?

Enough personal stuff; let’s get back to the case. The clue they need comes from trailer park gardener Vince, who reveals that his asthma’s gotten worse recently, and his tomato crop’s been suffering, too. This prompts Kasie to run some tests, and she discovers that Happy Trails Mobile Home Park is a death trap teeming with toxic chemicals. The culprit is easy to locate when they realize that the Zullow pesticide company’s headquarters are nearby, and a warehouse fire last year could’ve released toxins into the earth.

For plotty-plot reasons, Ducky takes the lead on the meeting with the Zullow senior VP, with Gibbs playing the role of his bro-ish driver. The Zullow VP admits to the insecticide leak after the fire and says they’re handling the issue internally. “Internally” turns out to be bankrolling the Buck brothers to buy the trailer park and to give quiet payouts to the tenants to get them to move without involving Zullow directly. So why do none of the tenants know about this extra cash?

Peter cracks under questioning: He pocketed the money and doubled the rent to drive out the tenants. Eli got cold feet and wanted to blow the whistle on Zullow. When they fought, Eli fell on Felix the gnome, so Peter hid his body in the 18-wheeler and torched his own car to throw off suspicion. The bad guy apprehended, Gibbs delivers the good news to Esther that she’s entitled to a settlement from Zullow, and she cries at learning she’ll be able to leave money to her children after all.

With the case wrapped, Sloane comes around to congratulate the young’uns on the good work. This prompts McGee to apologize to Bishop, who apologies to Torres, who reminds everyone that he let Ziva win that fight. Also, Sloane clarifies that she and Gibbs aren’t having a thing. Bishop and McGee feign shock that Torres would think that, but once Sloane leaves, they all agree that Slibbs is totally a thing.

And you know what? I THINK THEY’RE TOTALLY A THING. Because when Sloane gets back to her office, she finds the Rorschach painting’s been replaced by a painting of Esther’s that shows an elephant sitting with its back to the viewer. Attached to it is a sticky note that says “Merry Christmas,” and this literal elephant in the room makes Sloane swoon into her chair with a huge smile on her face.

Stray shots

  • How nice to see Ducky in the field! And I’m loving the way Kasie rolls with her oddball coworkers but doesn’t get sucked into the drama. The team dynamic has gelled nicely with this current configuration.
  • Let it be noted: Gibbs and Kasie share a healthy distrust of leprechauns.
  • If the tone of the first non-Ziva episode of the year is any indication, things may be a bit lighter and more lovey-dovey around the big orange room this season, which I, for one, am here for. Is it in part a result of Gibbs burning Rule No. 10, do you think? And doesn’t Mark Harmon look like he’s having more fun than he has in ages? Let me know in the comments!