In 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?
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.
Writer: Frank Military
Director: Terrence O’Hara
Original Air Date: May 14, 2013