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December 7, 1941.

The day lives in infamy, and almost 80 years later its legacy drives the emotionally resonant finale of NCIS’s 17th season.

Admiral Michael Caplinger, head of the Fleet Forces Command, returns home from 45 days at sea and finds the leaded glass on his front door smashed, blood on the floor, and his daughter’s Purple Heart medal missing.

And it’s not just any Purple Heart. Julia was killed in an IED explosion during her first week in Afghanistan, and Caplinger’s father, also an admiral, hand-engraved a message on the back of the Purple Heart before he died two months afterward. The medal is irreplaceable.

Thankfully, the thief left behind a note that says “I took it,” along with a motel name and room number.

NCIS arrives to find Joe Smith (Christopher Lloyd), who proudly announces that he broke in and stole the Purple Heart. He’s happy to go with the armed agents, but he’s not talking until he gets a root beer. I like Joe already.

Joe pops the cap off his root beer (it smacks into Torres, hilariously) and quizzes Torres and Bishop about the attack on Pearl Harbor. What day did it happen? How many people died on the U.S.S. Arizona?

Credit: Michael Yarish/CBS

The two young agents stammer non-answers, which I don’t buy for a second. Borderline genius Bishop, at least, would know these details, right? Regardless, Joe demands that they produce the “gray-haired leatherneck.”

Once Gibbs is in interrogation, Joe explains that he was on the U.S.S. Arizona on December 7, 1941, and when he dies, he wants his ashes interred on the ship.

Gibbs agrees that any survivor has the right, but Joe needs to provide proof. And this is where Joe runs into trouble. You see, he was only 16 in 1941, so he used his older brother Henry’s birth certificate to join. Now, he’s 95 years old and doesn’t have time to wait for the red tape to clear things up.

He wrote three letters to Caplinger, who attended every internment when he was the commander of the Pacific Fleet, but Joe never heard back. Now he’ll only return the Purple Heart once he has it in writing that Caplinger will see him laid to rest in the Arizona. The only proof he can offer is an ancient burn scar on his arm that he says is from the Japanese bomb.

Bishop and Torres, who were shamed into doing their research, recite the facts for audience members who may be unaware: 2,400 Americans died during the Pearl Harbor attack, almost half of whom were service members aboard the Arizona, which remains underwater to this day.

The team finds a record of a Henry Smith serving as an electrician’s mate on the Arizona, but Henry himself died in a drunk driving accident when he was 30. Lacking any hard evidence, Gibbs hatches a plan that would’ve worked on his own father to get Joe to talk.

He heads back into interrogation with a broken slide projector and asks Joe to help him fix it. While he works, Joe talks about his childhood, but he gets angry when he realizes the projector is full of images of the attack and refuses to share his memories with Gibbs, who also knows a thing or two about the horrors of war. “How many people did you tell about the worst of it?” he demands.

Gibbs shoots back that if it was so bad, why does Joe want to be buried there? At that point, Joe shuts down.

The rest of the investigation isn’t going well. Joe’s driver’s license address is out of date, and his motel room shows no traces of the medal. The cab driver who dropped him at the motel takes off when NCIS arrives at the depot to question him, leading Sloane and Vance to wonder if this is some kind of con.

While Sloane gently reminds Gibbs that Joe Smith isn’t Jackson Gibbs, Vance reminds them that Caplinger wants Joe charged with theft, breaking and entertaining, and obstruction of justice.

Back into questioning Gibbs goes, with the entire NCIS team watching on the other side of the glass. Gibbs insists that Joe give them anything they can verify. He flips on the slide projector to show images of the attack and asks Joe what he saw, smelled, tasted?

With a shout, Joe opens up about the whole day. It began with him tossing a football on the quarterdeck with Ozzie O’Connor, waiting to catch the liberty launch to play on the beach. Then he heard a plane approaching and saw the red ball on its wing.

At this point, images of the carnage flash on the screen behind Joe and the sounds of planes, gunfire, explosions, and chaos punctuate his story of fire and death and the stench of scorched flesh. He took shrapnel in his burned arm as a plane screamed overhead to strafe the deck again.

When he was loaded into a rescue launch, he pulled three men out of the water, including his friend Ozzie O’Conner, now sporting a grievous face wound. Then he woke up in the hospital, and to this day doesn’t know who rescued him. “We saved each other. All of us.” And now he wants to be with the shipmates who were his brothers. “I want to be laid to rest with my family. I want to go home.” This whole sequence, with only Joe's voice and the audio effects, is enormously effective. Christopher Lloyd is a gift.

At the end of Joe’s story, Gibbs signs a note promising that his ashes will be interred on the Arizona when Joe dies. From the other side of the window, Vance points out that Gibbs can’t actually promise that.

Nevertheless, Gibbs and Joe go to the motel to secure the Purple Heart, which Joe left in a safe place: the air vent in the ceiling. As Gibbs unscrews the vent, Joe calls him “son,” which I love, and encourages Gibbs to talk about what he saw in his own war. “It may make you lighter, too.”

But the vent is empty, and in his distress, Joe collapses as his heart seizes up.

At the same time, the cab driver resurfaces and tells NCIS that Joe asked him to pretend to be his grandson to sign him out of his nursing home, where Joe was recently diagnosed with coronary artery disease and the early stages of dementia. Sloane wonders if Joe was mixing up his brother’s stories with his own, while Gibbs sees more proof that Joe acted because he knew the end was near.

But the dementia gives the team a clue to go on: Joe may have put the Purple Heart in a safe place but transposed a few details. And sure enough, Torres finds the medal in an air vent inside the Caplinger home. The couple is overwhelmed to have it back.

Joe, though, didn’t survive the massive heart attack. As Gibbs sits with his body, he notices something in the scarring on Joe’s arm that provides the evidence they need. The metal that embedded itself in his wound in 1941 is a match to the bolts from the U.S.S. Arizona. Joe was on board that day.

Vance makes the arrangements for Joe’s internment, but before Gibbs leaves to see to it, he asks McGee to sit down and proceeds to tell McGee about his time in Kuwait. “It took something from me,” he says. “It’s what war does.”

Then we see Gibbs in a suit, standing at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, where Joe’s name has been added to the list of crew members entombed on the site.

Gibbs's voiceover continues as a diver accepts the box of Joe’s remains and carries it to its final resting place under the turret gun. Gibbs tells McGee that he worries his girls wouldn’t have recognized him afterward, with the best of him gone and half of him back in Kuwait where things made sense, even with the bullets, blood, and chaos.

There, you knew what matters, he says: it's the person on your right being willing to die for you, and you feeling the same. “It shouldn’t take a war to make the world that simple,” he concludes, saluting as Joe’s remains disappear under the water.

The episode — and the season — ends with a dedication to those who served on and around Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, as well as those serving today.

Stray shots

  • The showrunners have long wanted to tackle a Pearl Harbor story, and “The Arizona” employed an unusual format for an NCIS episode, with no murder to solve and no bad guy to bring to justice. It paid off in a moving hour of television, and I can’t think of a more perfect performer to play Joe than the incomparable Christopher Lloyd. The COVID-19 shutdown shortened season 17, and although this episode wasn't intended to serve as the finale, it works beautifully to send the show into a hiatus of undetermined length.
  • Three survivors of the Arizona were alive when the writing room began work on this episode; Donald Stratton died in February, leaving two survivors. More than 30 Arizona crew members have chosen to be interred with their shipmates upon their death.
  • On a lighter note, how perfect was it to have a scene set at a taxi depot?
  • “It shouldn’t take a war to make the world that simple,” Gibbs says tonight. The past months have been a frightening, uncertain time around the globe, but the world is full of kindness and compassion too. Take care of yourself, take care of your family, take care of your friends, take care of your neighbors until we meet again. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to make the world that simple.

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