By Sara Netzley
November 19, 2019 at 11:26 PM EST

Meet the Anchor Ensemble, the Navy’s most elite band. They play state dinners and diplomatic events throughout South America, and this week as their bus travels down the highway, their highly enjoyable off-the-cuff version of “Sing, Sing, Sing” is interrupted when clarinetist John Warren abruptly runs down the aisle and throws himself out the back of the bus.

John’s body crashed through the windshield of the follow vehicle driven by the Ensemble’s civilian equipment manager Hugo Grava. I say “body” because when NCIS arrives, Palmer notices the lack of blood on the scene and John’s cyanotic fingernail beds and suggests that he was dead before he hit the vehicle. And look, all the deaths on NCIS carry some level of tragedy, but as an earnest junior high-through-college clarinet player myself, I felt this one keenly. Protect the clarinet section!

The Ensemble’s conductor, Navy Senior Chief Musician Neil Farzad, blames himself for not realizing that John’s depression was back, while hottie piccolo player Luke Undervoy blows Torres’s mind by explaining that it takes five auditions and a stint in boot camp to join the Ensemble. However, before the investigation’s fully underway, Gibbs gets a text, tells McGee to take point for the next few days, and leaves without a word.

“Musical Chairs” — The NCIS team investigates the murder of a musician in the Navy’s most elite band that performs at diplomatic events around the world, on NCIS, Tuesday, Nov. 19 (8:00-9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured: Maria Bello as NCIS Special Agent Jaqueline “Jack” Sloane, Mark Harmon as NCIS Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Photo: Greg Gayne/CBS ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Greg Gayne/CBS

Or he tries to, anyway. But Sloane inserts her arm into the closing elevator door like a Terminator and forces him to tell her where he’s heading. “It’s sturgeon season” doesn’t work, so he confides that Fornell called to say Emily left rehab. Gibbs being Gibbs, he’s off to help. Sloane, in turn, receives an unexpected text from the daughter she gave up for adoption 28 years earlier, asking her to meet for coffee. She’s terrified, but Gibbs encourages her to go. And that, weirdly, is the last we see if Gibbs until the final moments of the episode.

In the morgue, Kasie announces that John was poisoned with toxic golden dart frog secretions from the Columbian rain forest, which caused a serotonin spike when it interacted with his antidepressant. The poison came from the reed on his clarinet, but the reed size (3.5 as opposed to his preferred super-soft 2) belongs to fellow clarinetist Hannah McLean. So while Kasie processes the rest of the instruments looking for additional golden dart frog poison, Bishop and Torres talk to Hannah and piccolo Luke. Luke explains that on the day of his death, John broke a reed, so Luke tossed him one of Hannah’s, which means that Hannah’s the real target.

She’s not sure who would want to kill her. She’d only been with the close-knit Ensemble for a year and the group was recently reassigned from South America to Europe. She wonders if it’s the Ensemble’s superfan stalker. They call him Nugget Creeper because he wears a hat from Ned’s Nuggets, which makes him easy to identify in security footage of their most recent concert.

He’s Andrew Hopper, and while Bishop and Torres wait for him outside the restaurant, they wonder why Gibbs left behind his cell phone, wallet, and badge in his desk when he left for his mysterious errand. When they finally have a chat with Hopper, they find a hood, zip ties, and stalker photos of Hannah in his car, but he insists that he’s trying to save her from a Skull and Bones-style secret military band society that recently “disappeared” three other members.

McGee checks into it and finds that the Deadhead-turned-Juggalo-turned-Anchorhead is correct about the three missing former members. Hannah’s not impressed by the rumors of a secret killer band society that they heard about from the Nugget Creeper, but when conductor Farzad calls to invite her to something special that he has planned, the team shows up instead. They’re surprised to find select Ensemble members holding a ceremony to honor Naval musicians killed while serving their country over the past year, including John.

As the Ensemble members and alumni play the Naval Hymn, a.k.a. the song that gets me every time, Farzad explains that the tradition started when an entire Navy band was killed at Pearl Harbor. Oh, and the three missing band members all have their whereabouts accounted for, which means listening to the conspiracy theories of the Nugget Creeper got them nowhere.

Thankfully, former trombonist Kasie saves the day when she’s inspired to order a new instrument for herself and realizes that the case is lighter than the one she processed for the Ensemble. All told, she discovers the Ensemble’s instruments are about 100-pounds heavier than they should be. And who in the group has connections to smugglers who might take advantage of groups with luggage that frequently crosses international borders? Civilian manager Hugo Grava, that’s who.

Torres literally sniffs out the smuggled goods in the cases, recognizing the scent of rhodium from the catalytic converter on his dad’s ’76 Mustang. Grava had been swapping out the Ensemble’s case linings with rhodium, the chief component in catalytic converters, which is also used in nuclear reactors and jewelry and is worth twice its weight in gold. Case closed!

The grateful Ensemble invites the whole team to their concert that weekend, and Gibbs arrives back in town just in time to join Sloane, who tells him that Faith wanted Sloane’s medical history records. She worries that Faith must be sick, while Gibbs reminds her that Faith didn’t settle for requesting the information via email. As the band launches into “Sing, Sing, Sing” as an ode to John, Sloane receives a friendly thank-you text from Faith, and we’re left to wonder what on earth Gibbs got up to that left him with a bruise to the eyebrow.

Stray shots

  • Let it be noted that Torres judges how much something weighs by curling it. Glad to see him keeping it on brand.
  • Gotta be honest, I’m deeply suspicious of the whole Ensemble. Unless none of them ever picked up their own instrument cases (unlikely!) they absolutely would’ve noticed an extra ten pounds here and there. I also don’t understand why they had all their instruments out on the bus, but it’s churlish to complain when the music was so delightful… until the hideous death, of course.
  • We’re left with some unresolved mysteries this week. Did something keep Mark Harmon away from the set for this episode? What does it mean that Emily Fornell is fine “for now?” Will we ever see Torres’ piccolo? And did the Ensemble’s drummer give anybody else strong Megan Rapinoe vibes? Let me know in the comments!