Essential Episodes: NCISLA “Borderline” (S2E3)
“Borderline,” from early in Season 2, was R. Scott Gemmill’s first turn at writing Deeks, and it’s an essential, if underrated, episode for any Deeks fan. Of course it’s filled with great action and fine Sam-Callen bromance, but what makes it special is how it set the tone for the relationship that we’ve all come to love, how it took us from Deeks and Kensi to Densi. We’ll talk about that…
…But First, The Plot
We open with a “boom!” as Marines patrolling the California desert take fire, apparently targeted by one of the Mexican cartels smuggling people, guns and drugs over the border. As Sam and Callen work with a costume-wearing snitch and re-use a compromised alias to find clues about the fate of the kidnapped Marines, Kensi leads Deeks through the desert in search of them. The episode ends with a rescue and fiery shoot-out complete with grenade launcher (and another “boom!”). In the end, the team proves the involvement of a wealthy businessman seeking to frame the cartels impeding his Mexican business interests.
Still Sort of a Temp
The Deeks of “Borderline” is still finding his place on the team. This is, after all, just the third case he’s officially worked with them. His tense relationship with Sam is still going strong, and on display when Deeks makes an unfortunate argument about Sam being better suited for the desert assignment. And it’s not just Sam who’s yet to fully embrace him. After the final shoot-out, no one calls out his name to make sure he’s alright. He pointedly shouts to them, “I’m good too, just in case anybody cares.”
Deeks: Well, I’m just saying that, you know, Sam is clearly better suited for a tropical climate.
Sam: Do tell.
Deeks: Well, I mean, for starters, you got the whole bald head thing going on, which is awesome, and it’s gotta be better for, you know, heat exchange. I don’t want to have to overstate the obvious here, but you are African American, yeah? And Africa is hot.
Sam: I’m from Brooklyn, Huckleberry.
Deeks: Brooklyn. Right.
Kensi: And we’re good. We will call you guys if we find anything.
Deeks: I just meant because I’m-
Kensi: No, you are done.
Deeks: -Norwegian American.
Sam: One of these days, I’m going to kill him.
Callen: Maybe he grows on you.
Sam: So does ringworm.
We and the team do learn more about Deeks’ skills: his “method” undercover range is clear when he greets Kensi as Homeless Deeks, his bilingual abilities are on display in his translation of the kidnappers’ note, and his experience under fire is apparent when he tells the Major at the desert crime scene that he’s been in “one or two” firefights. Yet the team seems thus far unimpressed, choosing to tease him about his hygiene and (condescendingly?) ordering him into the desert for needed experience.
Surprisingly, Deeks doesn’t appear to mind, and he actually encourages the team to focus on his perceived shortcomings. He plays up his delicateness with talk about his “ivory complexion” that burns “kinda easily.” We get the first mention of his aversion to nature, his “city mouse” character, which has since been referenced every time he’s gone anywhere without pavement. Ironically though, he is tough enough to go undercover as a homeless man on those rough city streets. Whether his apparent comfort in being underestimated is an indication of his self-assurance, or a sign that he has very low expectations for himself, is unclear.
A Little Ride in the Desert
Early in Season 2 we still don’t know all that much about Kensi, and even less about newer addition Deeks. This episode gives us key information about them both. Kensi reveals more about the strong relationship (“best friends”) she had with her dad, who taught her to “track, shoot, fix an engine, play poker, wire a house, basically anything you’d teach a son.” With that single statement, we understand so much about how Kensi came to be the confident agent she is.
Deeks discloses that his relationship with his father was strained, to say the least (“The last time I saw him, he said, ‘Marty I hate you’… Then he fired a shotgun at me.”) Yet Deeks isn’t ready to reveal the exact circumstances of that fateful exchange, so he gives it a more recent timeline, and laughs as if it might not even be true (“Man, I hate Thanksgiving.”) During a story about his friend’s snake, he also mentions his mother in a way that suggests she’s still alive and present in his life. Given his lack of a next of kin, this seems likely to have been just part of his tall tale. Watching this episode after seeing “Personal” gives it a bittersweet quality that was missing the first time, when his stories made me laugh.
The duo also takes some tentative steps forward with the trust issues that will plague their partnership well past this episode. When the major completely disregards Kensi’s theory about the bad guys’ tracks, Deeks doesn’t immediately assume he’s right. Instead, he asks her how confident she is. When she assures him that he can bet his life on it, he simply replies, “Awesome.” He may not want to be out in this environment, but he’s willing to follow her there nonetheless. This readiness to accept Kensi’s strengths and abilities is one of Deeks’ most appealing qualities. Of course, the trust isn’t fully there yet, and he’s quick to panic when she temporarily loses the tracks. They are still feeling each other out. In the end, they successfully work together to free the hostages, with Deeks’ patented ability to defuse tension with humor on full display as he utters a series of very funny one-liners while the bullets fly. Kensi may not yet fully know what to make of this, but she has to appreciate that Deeks saves her life, stopping a bad guy from shooting her in the back.
Deeks: [shoots bad guy] Did you miss me?
Kensi: Where have you been?
Deeks: They killed my bike… Any idea on how to get us out of here Tonto?
Kensi: I’m thinking, I’m thinking.
Deeks: Why do I keep seeing the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?…
Kensi: They have a grenade launcher.
Deeks: What? They have a grenade launcher? That’s so much worse than the ending of Butch and Sundance…
Kensi: That SUV might be our only chance.
Deeks: What if there’s no keys in it?
Kensi: We hotwire it… Oh, come on. Please don’t tell me you can’t hotwire a car.
Deeks: I’m a cop, alright? We stop people from doing that. What? I’m sorry if my father didn’t spend the weekends teaching me how to be Jason Bourne.
The Beginning of Densi
Learning about back stories is great, but it’s the now-familiar Densi banter that makes this episode one of my favorites. Prior to it, we saw slightly tense teasing and “one-upping” in “Hand to Hand,” “Fame,” and “Black Widow.” Here the wariness has disappeared, and Deeks and Kensi are having fun together for the first time. Deeks beams at her in delight when she opens the door for a dirty remark about going “for a little ride,” even as she shuts him down before he can decide which one-liner to use. In previous episodes, Deeks tried to joke around with Kensi, for example in “Black Widow” when he compared one-named terrorist Vakar to Cher and Madonna, but Kensi largely brushed him off and stayed focused on the job. Here she smiles throughout their exchange about poolside cabanas, and has a huge grin on her face when she tells him his fly is open. She’s allowing herself to participate in the joking, and the result is exactly what we’ve come to expect not from Kensi and Deeks, but from Densi.
Kensi’s Malibu Ken line was the high point of this episode’s Densi-ness. She grins proudly at her zinger (if she were to repeat that line now I think we’d get an actual snort out of her). It’s an indication that Deeks’ humor might be opening her up a little. And Deeks’ response to the line, laughing and then uttering his favorite word, “Awesome,” as she drives away, reveals so much. His laughter at her teasing shows his confidence in his actual anatomical correctness- he’s not insulted, just happy to get her joking. And I read a lot into that one “Awesome”: maybe a little sarcasm at still being stuck driving around in the desert, happiness at getting her to actively participate in the banter, and genuine awe at her skills with the tracking and bike-riding. I think this is also the episode where he’s beginning to fully realize what an amazing person he’s been partnered with, and he’s (figuratively and literally) hanging on for the ride.
Every desert scene with these two qualifies as Classic Densi, among them:
Deeks: [fires his gun] It’s OK. It was just a rattlesnake, it was getting ready to pounce.
Kensi: Snakes don’t pounce, they strike.
Deeks: Uh huh. This one looked like a pouncer. Listen, I’m sorry about that, but when I was a little kid, my friend Darryl Donkins’ boa constrictor tried to strangle me to death at his eighth grade birthday party.
Kensi: Darryl’s, or the snake’s?
Deeks: See, you think it’s funny but it’s not funny, alright? Paramedics had to use the jaws of life to set me free, made the front page of the Encino Times. My mom still has a copy laminated on the front of her fridge.
Kensi: Your fly is open.
Deeks: Son of a-
Kensi: Where are they going?
Deeks: I don’t know, but I hope to hell it has air conditioning. I can’t believe people do this for fun.
Kensi: You look rugged Deeks. I wouldn’t make you for a four-star hotel camper.
Deeks: My idea of roughing it is being at a pool without a cabana. What, you think I look rugged?
Kensi: Yeah. Like Malibu Ken. He’s not anatomically correct either. [drives away]
- Homeless Deeks may not be his best look (I could smell that jacket through my TV), but how cute was his little sign written just for his partner, saying “Morning Kensi”?
- He does clean up well though- definitely deserving of that high school hygiene award. I loved his wardrobe throughout, first with the white shirt and then with that jacket- he did look rugged driving around on his motorbike.
- Speaking of which, at least Hetty lets him ride a motorbike when he’s working.
- Sam and Callen engaged in some of their own classic bromantic banter. I particularly liked Callen telling him, “You and I have a very different idea of what playing it cool means” after Sam throws a bad guy through a window.
For me this was the first episode where the easy-going and very funny Deeks was on full display. Over the course of Season 2, the writers apparently caught up to ECO’s ability to improvise, and the character seemed to grow a little closer to ECO’s own personality. Whether there was much improv here, or whether Gemmill just had Deeks completely pegged, is hard to know. Either way, the actors were clearly enjoying playing out the great dialog, which allowed this character to come into his own for the first time.
And while there was clearly something between Deeks and Kensi right from their first scene in “Hand to Hand,” this is the episode that showed the true potential of the Densi partnership: their ability to conjure the magic of a 1930’s screwball romantic comedy in the midst of a modern action-filled procedural. And that’s something that has come to separate NCIS:LA from many similar programs.
Writers: R. Scott Gemmill
Director: Terrence O’Hara
Original Air Date: September 28, 2010
This is one of my favorite episodes, cementing my love for Deeks. The only scene that made me uncomfortable was the one where he tells Sam he would be better suited for the desert basically because he’s black. That made me very uncomfortable and still does. However I loved everything else about this ep, especially the lines you quoted. His reference to Butch and Sundance made their situation that much more frightening and heightened the tension for me, even though I laughed at the comparison. We do get a hint that his home life was less than perfect, and I agreed he was probably not telling the truth when he talked about his parents.
They gave us a good cliffhanger just before commercial when they let us believe Deeks may have been shot off his road bike. Of course he wasn’t, and even though he got the bad guy, it still made me worry. And I agree that his uncertainty about his acceptance by the team was there for all to see in that line, “I’m okay too, in case anybody cares”. Now that I think about it, it mirrors that line at the end of Ascension when he tells Kensi thinking of her got him through…”for whatever it’s worth.” His insecurities showing once again. Both lines made me feel so sad for him.
Thanks for the great memories. Made me want to watch it again.
Karen: Now I understand your affinity for Deeks uttering, “Awesome!”
Awesome! : ) Thoroughly enjoyed reading your review.
Need to pull out episode and watch again. : )
Great job on the review Karen!! One of my favorite episodes too. So many awesome quotes and as you say, the episode where they really became Densi.
I enjoyed the review also and that episode was full of funny Densi moments…and one of the episodes that made me fall in love with the characters.
Im just hoping..the writers in season 6 can revive their funny give and take…and get the Densi train back up and running full steam ahead.
For me. the last truly great Densi centric episode was Frozen Lake. Nothing that happened after that espisode…has been able to capture or reignite…the easy playfulness and the genuine emotional connection the characters displayed so effortlessly before FL and in the previous seasons.
Maybe it was just me but…I found in the last few episodes of season 5…that Deeks & Kensi’s interactions..seemed almost forced. ..like that connection that once came so easy to them..was now lost & missing in action.
Perhaps… that was all by design…due to their changed circumstances..at least..I hope thats the reason.
I understand that things between the characters took a more serious tone after the events of Frozen Lake..But what I didnt like or understand..was how the show just glossed over the fact that Kensi now knows Jack is alive..not to mention..the fact that she was sent overseas by her boss to kill her former fiance.
Hopefully.. with the start of the new season the writers will fill in these interesting plot holes…but maybe with their new night & time ..the producers will think the best way to win the night ..is by having more gun battles and bigger & better explosions.
( At least…thats the impression I got from one of the producers of the show on his twitter feed.)
Honestly…the only “explosions” I care sbout & interested in seeing..are the ones between Deeks & Kensi…whether they be funny or dramatic ones..
If I really want to watch things explode & make really loud noises…I can always go watch The Transformers!
I can find loads of movies & TV shows with things going boom…but the only place…I can find two characters with the chemistry of Deeks & Kensi..is NCIS:LA….no where else.
The producers & writers of the show are very lucky to have two awesome characters like Deeks & Kensi & two great actors in ECO & DR..so..I hope in S6…they give them lots of chances to shine..
Great review. The one thing in this ep that made an impact on me you didn’t mention was when, after the bad guys are finally captured, nobody thinks to check and see if Deeks is okay. He could have easily been lying somewhere injured, but they wouldn’t have known because they didn’t think to check. Kinda breaks my heart when he says, “I’m okay too…. if anybody cares.”
Thanks Mary! You are totally right about that line. It made it clear how far he had to go to become a real part of the team (and I can’t believe how long that really took!).