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Essential Episodes: NCISLA “Descent” (S4E24)


 

DensiKiss-DescentIn the wake of the lackluster Season 6 finale “Chernoff, K.” what better Essential Episode of NCIS: Los Angeles to discuss than the best season finale of the entire series: “Descent”? This gripping episode was penned by the NCIS:LA Master of Darkness, Frank Military, and ably directed by Terrence O’Hara. By episode’s end they left nearly the entire team in jeopardy, and inspired a summer filled with more post-ep fan fics than seemed possible to read (but I managed). Plus there’s a Densi kiss! We’ll talk about what made this episode so special…

…But First, the Plot

The story picks up from long-running events whose origins go all the way back to the Season 3 episode “Crimeleon”, which introduced us to master criminal- and Callen nemesis- Marcel Janvier. Here the team is on the trail of another multi-episode bad guy, Isaac Sidorov, who had previously absconded with three stolen nuclear weapons. We open with one of the nukes being set off in a Mexican desert to demonstrate the weapons’ viability. The team pulls Sam’s wife and ex-CIA agent Michelle in to assist, given her prior dealings with Sidorov. She and Sam reactivate their covers and re-embed themselves with the Russian arms dealer. In the meantime Kensi and Callen travel to Iran to kidnap Janvier, who is needed to act as middleman between Sidorov and the Iranian weapons buyers.

Things take a horrible turn when Janvier betrays the team and outs Sam as a federal agent. The last act has Sam nearly drowned in a pool until Deeks comes to his aid, giving himself up to Sidorov in the process. Michelle tries to fight off Sidorov’s Russian “Bond girls”, only to be pushed out a window and left dangling from a sheet of construction plastic as Kensi races to her aid. And the final scene shows Sidorov halting Sam’s torture to focus instead to torturing Deeks into admitting that Michelle is also an agent. As Sidorov’s goon Andros puts a drill to Deeks’ mouth, we’re left with a final shot of Sam’s reaction as he, and we, listen to Deeks’ heartrending screams.

Say Something You Actually Mean

This episode may be notable for its excitement and drama, but it’s also hugely significant for Densi. We witness the culmination of events from episodes leading up to “Descent”: the duo’s independent realizations of their deep feelings for each other, evident most vividly in “Wanted,” and the growing frustration at their inability to act on those feelings, as evidenced by Kensi’s jealousy in “Parley.”

That frustration is on full display in an early scene in the armory, where Kensi tries to call Deeks on his lack of assertiveness. Neither one of them seems to want to risk the vulnerability that would come with complete honesty. Instead they dance up to the edge, only to be interrupted (for the millionth time!) by a co-worker before they can make any real progress.

Deeks: You know I can ride a camel, right?

Kensi: Deeks, I’m gonna be fine… this is what I do.

Deeks: Not without me. I’m just saying that I would feel a lot more comfortable if I was there watching your ass, that’s it.

Kensi: Of course you would.

Deeks: I don’t, I mean, watching your back.

Kensi: That’s not what you said.

Deeks: You know what I mean.

Kensi: Do you know what you mean?

Deeks: Yeah. Wait, why? What, what do you think that I mean?

Kensi: I really have no idea.

Deeks: OK, so where does that leave us, exactly?

Kensi: I don’t know. Where does that leave us?

Deeks: You can’t keep doing that. You can’t just keep answering my questions with questions.

Kensi: Why not?

Deeks: You have terrible communication skills.

Kensi: I do?

Deeks: Yes.

Kensi: You’re the one who never says what he means.

Deeks: That’s not true.

Kensi: Then say something you actually mean.

When we next see them together, their bickering continues on a hill-top overlooking the bad guys’ house. Kensi’s frustration is at an all-time high, but she can only hint at the reasons, still unable to be direct with Deeks. This time, however, he takes matters into his own hands and decides that, if he can’t say what he really means, he’ll show her. He catches her completely by surprise with a dramatic kiss, and a brilliant follow-up line where he throws her words back at her.

Deeks: [watching Michelle kiss Sidorov] Wow. We should not mention that to Sam, like… ever.

Kensi: It’s not like she had a choice. She was protecting her cover.

Deeks: Oh that’s interesting. Kind of like me, when I was undercover with Monica?

Kensi: Undercover? Or under the covers?

Deeks: And there it is again, little green-eyed monster makes an appearance.

Kensi: What does, what does that mean?

Deeks: Nothing. It means nothing.

Kensi: Like I said, poor communication skills… I never ever ever know what the hell you’re talking about, because you never say what you mean. It’s so frustrating, it’s like working with a 14-

[He kisses her.]

Deeks: How’s that for communication?

I’m guessing most people reading this review could have quoted this dialog without it even being printed here. It’s a thrilling scene for Densi fans, something we’ve only seen to this point in undercover situations. Here, it’s the real thing, with their true emotions on display. And it’s not just the climax to a recent build-up of tension, it’s an event they’ve really been building up to ever since their first meeting in “Hand to Hand” more than four years prior.

It’s Not About Your Hair

In a less desirable development, this episode is also the culmination of more than four seasons of Sam’s dismissive attitude towards Deeks. Right from the start, when they faced off in that MMA gym in “Hand to Hand,” the relationship between these two has been strained. In “Descent,” the tension is high from the first scene in Ops when Sam openly, and shockingly, questions Deeks’ ability to watch over him and Michelle. Soon after, in a refreshingly honest scene, Deeks and Sam play chess on a stake-out, and Deeks finally calls Sam on his attitude. This episode gives us a big helping of Direct Deeks (the biggest ever?), on the hilltop with Kensi and here with Sam. Here Deeks prods Sam into finally admitting to his lack of trust, and in another of the episode’s shocking moments, Sam outright questions Deeks’ character.

Deeks: Fourth move, Bobby Fischer style, wait for it… Boom. Check, partner.

Sam: We’re not playing for real, Bob. And we’re not partners.

Deeks: We are right now.

Sam: Not really.

Deeks: We’re in the midst of a nice little three-way, you and I and… that is a terrible choice of words.

Sam: You talk to Kensi this much during a stake-out?

Deeks: Usually more. Sometimes we text, even though we’re right next to each other… it’s pretty adorable.

Sam: Alright that’s cute. I’m not texting with you.

Deeks: You know what man? I’ve done this job for a few years now. Some would say- Hetty for example- exemplary, always had everybody’s back.

Sam: What’s your point?

Deeks: I can take the crap you dish out ten times over, I’m just curious about the why.

Sam: I’m Navy, straight up. Everything you do is different: the way you dress, your jokes, your hair.

Deeks: If this is about my haircut, it needs to end.

Sam: It’s not about your hair, it’s about what it says about you as a person.

Deeks: So you’re saying it’s about my character?

Sam: Yeah, something like that.

The first time I watched this exchange, I was shocked by Sam’s words. I had never really interpreted Sam’s feelings this way. It prompted me to do a full marathon rewatch back to Season 1, which helped me see not just the underlying tension between the two all along, but some of the reasons why Sam could have misjudged Deeks so badly (it also eventually led me to writing my first feature for wikiDeeks).

This conversation between the two is long overdue, and it sets the stage beautifully for the final act. For Sam couldn’t be more wrong about Deeks, and his failure to recognize Deeks’ inherent courage and loyalty is a huge oversight on his part. Deeks shows him just how huge when he (literally) leaps to Sam’s rescue without a second thought, exchanging his gun for the key to handcuffs keeping Sam pinned to the bottom of a swimming pool. As Sam eventually tells Deeks in “Ascension,” underestimating Deeks “was my mistake. I won’t make it again.”

The Weak One

Sam isn’t the only one misjudging Deeks in this episode, for Sidorov underestimates him as well, referring to him as “the weak one.” The final scenes, first at the pool and then in the garage, are among the most intense of any NCIS:LA episode ever. They are so good because all the actors involved play their roles perfectly. First, Timothy V. Murphy and Massi Furlan, playing Sidorov and Andros, are so calmly sadistic, they make it clear that our heroes aren’t going to receive any kind treatment. They go about their torture as if it’s something they do all the time; the routine of it actually makes it more disturbing. And while LL Cool J may not quite be able to convince us that Sam is actually in physical danger, his face in the final moments, as he silently pleads with Deeks not to give up Michelle, and then listens to Deeks’ screams, shows us how Sam’s torment is as emotional as it is physical.

But what really sells the final scene is Eric Christian Olsen’s portrayal of Deeks. He shows us that Deeks is afraid, and that vulnerability makes us feel his pain, and fear for his future. Those final screams are nothing less than haunting, and they stayed with most of us for the entire summer.  Now that’s what you want a cliffhanger to do.

Long-Term Storylines Pay Off

“Descent” is great thanks to the overall direction from Terrence O’Hara, who gives us intense emotions along with a nearly cinematic feel to many scenes, such as the rendezvous in the desert. The editing by Edward Salier, Lise Angelica Johnson, and Eric Wilson is top rate, cutting back and forth between Sam and Deeks, and Michelle and Kensi, and Janvier and Callen, especially in the final act. Frank Military, unlike any other NCIS:LA writer, seems willing to take his stories to a much darker place (“Spoils of War”, “Ascension”, “Rage”), and I think the show has always been better for it.

What’s most impressive though is the way “Descent” brings together storylines and character development that have been in the works for the entire season, or even longer.  It’s the culmination of a multi-episode arc featuring Sidorov and Janvier as the Big Bads that takes us back as far as Season 3. (I counted at least eight prior episodes where one of the two is the subject of the team’s case.) It’s also the culmination of Deeks and Kensi becoming, or at least acknowledging, Densi, which takes us back to Deeks’ initial appearance in “Hand to Hand.”  And it’s the culmination of the tension in Sam and Deeks’ relationship, which also takes us back to Deeks’ initial appearance on the show.

All these elements combine to build up to a riveting, and horrific, set of cliffhangers concerning both the plot and the characters: Would the bad guys be stopped? Would the nukes be recovered?  Would Kensi rescue Michelle? How soon would Sam and Deeks be rescued? Would Deeks crack and show himself the weak one? Would Sam realize how wrong he was about Deeks? Would Densi be able to take up where they left off or would the torture change everything? A lot of open, and weighty, questions. It’s no wonder the summer was so completely filled by fan fiction.

Especially given the lack of many of these factors in the two most recent season-enders, “Descent” offers a vivid example of how good the show can be when the showrunners actually plan the story- both the plot and the character development- out in advance. It didn’t just bring several series of events to their natural climax, but it also set the stage for much of the storyline the following season. Not to mention how positively fans reacted to the darker, more serious, material that they only rarely seem willing to take on. All in all, “Descent” offers a great example of how to do a season finale right.


EPISODE INFO
Title: “Descent”
Writer: Frank Military
Director: Terrence O’Hara
Original Air Date: May 14, 2013


Karen P.

Karen P. is a contributor at wikiDeeks.com. Follow her on Twitter: @anonklp

About Karen P (159 Articles)
wikiDeeks Writer & Assistant Editor. I never wrote for fun before... until my ECO-obsession. Now I love to analyze any and all aspects of the best character on television.

20 Comments on Essential Episodes: NCISLA “Descent” (S4E24)

  1. hoopsdiva // June 9, 2015 at 3:52 PM // Reply

    Excellent article about a superb episode. I truly believe that Descent/Ascension represent the pinnacle of what the show will ever achieve, whether it continues beyond season 7 or not.

    Like

    • Thanks hoopsdiva! I hope you are wrong about Descent/Ascension never being topped, but I agree that Frank Military set a very high bar with these two episdes.

      Like

  2. donnamarie // June 9, 2015 at 8:51 PM // Reply

    Eric Christian Olsen was brilliant in this episode as he always is. It always annoyed me how Sam treated Deeks and now Sam owes him for saving his life (and Michelles). Lets hope that there is more of Deeks & Densi in Season 7. Because sometimes it feels like the Sam & Callen show at times.

    Like

    • Hah! Season 6 definitely felt like the Sam & Callen show: Sam & Callen on a Sub, Sam & Callen Go to Mexico, Sam & Callen Go to Tunisia, Sam & Callen Get Kidnapped. Sigh. The showrunners owe us a serious dose of Deeks next season.

      Like

  3. Reader1976 // June 10, 2015 at 12:26 AM // Reply

    I wasn’t expecting any updates and what a wonderful surprise. I love the way you think, Karen. Your analysis is spot on. I am in total agreement that long term story lines pay off. With the mind-numbing thought of at least 24 episodes to write and produce in a single season, the need for multiple writers is a necessity. So many writers, can at times lead to disjointed story lines and awkward pauses in the story progression. I must preface this, with the question, who am I to second guess the show runners? Having said that, I am in agreement that It certainly appears that the story runners would have a better result with long term story planning in advance. I’ve floated this out there before..perhaps adding a writer(s) that specializes in putting continuity in each episode. Once Shane Brennan has an outline for the season and each episode is assigned and written, the “specialist(s)” can add their magic touch of continuity. It doesn’t have to detract from the story it can be as brief as a few lines of dialogue or flashbacks that allow the audience to follow and appreciate the multiple storylines. It also allows the viewer to become vested in the characters and want to watch when the episode airs instead of the other alternatives.

    And yes, I can quote the lines from that famous kiss, but I still appreciated reading it again. (Thank you). 😄 I think this will forever be my favorite scene. And the final scene in the season finale, Descent was literally mind blowing. To this day, I remember Deeks’s scream and my brain did a reboot and went to black screen. And all summer long the debate that followed about violence and graphic scenes when in fact the acting skills of ECO allowed our brains to fill in or not fill in what was supposed to have occurred. Amazing how our brains fill in the blanks. Yes, indeed, that was an awesome cliff hanger and season finale. I do hope next season will pick up on the looses ends of this past season and improve on the continuity of storylines. Your observation of steadily building towards the season finale and potential cliffie is spot on.

    Great write-up, Karen! Appreciated the walk through my favorite episodes and the opportunity to vent a bit.

    Like

    • Thanks Reader! I love your suggestion of a Continuity Specialist who would actually contribute part of the writing. I don’t remember hearing that idea before and it would be so helpful. But I think they’d almost need an obsessed fan to really take the job seriously enough, LOL. (And sadly I couldn’t even volunteer- I only remember important info about Deeks and Densi, I’d be no help with anyone else’s storyline.)

      Like

  4. hermionesmydawg // June 10, 2015 at 3:32 AM // Reply

    Great review for a great episode. This was the episode that finally pushed me over the ledge into die-hard fandom. You’re right, they haven’t had a season finale that even comes close to this one since.

    Like

    • Thanks Hdawg! I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who was launched into obsession territory by this episode.

      Like

  5. Natalie Ryan // June 10, 2015 at 5:58 AM // Reply

    This article surprised me big time. I hadn’t expected anything till the fan fiction relay, but it was a nice surprise. And it has a review of one of my Favorit episodes from NCISLA.
    First, let me start with how much I hate Janvier. The guy mocked Callen throughout season 3, killed Hunter in Sans Voir Pt. 1, he was given to Vaziri and later on was brought back to LA for what? He only made the things worse. He wax supposed to be a middleman, yet he pushed Sam and Deeks in the hands of one of the most brural men. Never hated a villain that much prior after Foyer in Criminal Minds.
    Sidorov was played by Timothy V. Murphy which gives me the creeps. I mean he is a great actor, and he plays his roles so good. For Criminal Minds lovers we recognize him as Ian Doyle, the man that was after Prentiss believing she was guilty of his son’s murder, but in fact she staged it.
    Nevermind, but those two characters I don’t want to cross. Imagine my fear of the dentist’s. Ever since I watched this episode I can’t go there. I’m afraid it’ll happen the same that happened to Deeks.
    I must admit that I liked the way the torture turned out to be for Sam and Deeks. Think on the bright side, if they weren’t tortured and Deeks being loyal they would’very never bonded as people and friends.
    Sam’s open talks about Deeks and his abilities and Deeks’ open remarks on that matter was the best scene ever that left us wondering what will happen between the two of them.
    If Deeks failed and said the word than there was going to be two solutions. The first was Deeks to go back in LAPD, and the second was Sam leaving the NCIS, neither one good scenario.
    But, you could’ve seen the outcome since Deeks jumped in front of the Russian terrorist with nukes in his possession to save Sam that not so long ago said terrible things to him, what’s most important that he still was wary of him having his wife’s back. He proved himself too when he didn’t tell her name.
    Descent/Ascension was one of the best double episodes we could get in NCISLA history. The way Deeks pleaded Kensi to untie him and get him out of there, her face expression when she said to him that he need to stay there just for a little while, my heart broke at that moment.
    Then the scene in the hospital, the mighty talk by Sam and Deeks questioning his ability to continue with his job, the way his eyes shined and the voice caught in his throat. I want to cry now as I’m writing my comment because the scenes play on front of my eyes.
    The Densi kiss we got was the best thing we got, sadly it was left behind since the torture.
    I think that the torture affected Deeks very much. I mean, Spoils of War and Deep Trouble Pt. 2 show the dark side of Deeks we hadn’t seen prior to the torture. He was ready to torture a man to gain information.
    I could talk about this set of episodes like forever, but I need to stop now.

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  6. My response to Descent was very emotional. I felt anger at Sam from the beginning, and may not be over that even yet. To question Deeks’ abilities in front of everyone actually stunned me, and I knew the episode would be a roller coaster ride for me. I loved Sam completely until that scene in Ops. Then to have him question Deeks’ character in the chess scene was crushing as it must have been for Deeks, who I believe deeply respected Sam. And the roller coaster continued with Kensi not admitting any similarities between what Michelle was doing undercover and what he did with that god-awful woman in Parlay. I know she was jealous, but her refusal to admit that was frustrating and infuriating. Her refusal did cause Deeks to act, giving us that incredible kiss and that smouldering look that sustained me for a very long time. The rest of this episode is a benchmark for all that can be good in NCISLA. Deeks at his best and most loyal, throwing himself into that pool to save a man who had ridiculed him only hours before. Then that final heart wrenching scene…Sam holding out in a pure white room, while Deeks’ screams echoed out of the dark, leaving me with a pounding heart and a deep need to write out my emotions. A true cliffhanger that may never be topped, but one that should inspired the writers and the showrunner.

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    • Wonderful observations, Lindy. I think Deeks has always wanted to see Sam as a big brother, and Sam’s constant disparaging comments towards him have to have been so disappointing. Then to hear the comments Sam made in this episode must have been devastating for Deeks. I however have been able to forgive Sam and I feel like he’s largely tried to do better by Deeks ever since. Now Hetty, on the other hand, don’t even get me started on her…

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      • I often wonder why Sam still doesn’t let Deeks know that he respects him. Whenever he says something nice about him to someone else he always says “Don’t tell Deeks I said that”. Why? And I still want an episode that expresses how he feels about Deeks.

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        • Yes! I want an episode where Sam demonstrates his trust and confidence in Deeks, by asking that Deeks be the one to watch his back, or explaining that Deeks should take the undercover role because he’s the best on the team. I would also love an episode where the two of them are partnered up, and for more than just a single scene.

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  7. Spectacular recap/analysis.

    I could not agree more with “Descent” being a culmination of so many storylines. “Rude Awakenings”/”Out of the Past” really set up a road map for the Sidorov storyline but Frank Military incorporating other storylines – not making it all about Sidorov – makes this a great season finale.

    My only problem with the episode is when it is rerun, I turn it off as soon as Deeks jumps in the pool. There’s no fun in watching characters I like being abused. I understand the need to remind the audience that terrible things can happen to our heroes in this super-secret high-stakes agency. It is why Dom’s death and Renko’s death are so powerful. But I find no entertainment value in the final few scenes. And I’m a “Criminal Minds” fan.

    Again, great work – can’t wait to see what’s next.

    Like

    • Thanks so much, Tess! I totally understand why you and many others can’t rewatch the final sequence. And while I have a higher tolerance for seeing my favorite characters “abused,” LOL, for me that final 10 minutes, where everything truly spiraled out of control for these characters in a way I hadn’t seen before, is what sets the episode apart from most others.

      Like

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