Beginning early in Season 2, Peter Cambor’s Nate shifted to a recurring role on NCIS: Los Angeles, popping in and out of L.A. on a series of super top secret missions. In “Head of the Snake,” written by Joseph C. Wilson and directed by Robert Florio, Nate’s motivations on his current assignment are in question. In Granger’s words, “Is Nate going method or is he just gone?” Or to paraphrase Sam, did Hetty bite off more than Nate could chew? We’ll talk about that…
…But First, The Plot
We open on a robbery of an undercover military transport containing weapons and ammunition. One guard is tased and the other shot. Footage shows that Nate is involved (and doing the shooting!). He’s been investigating the connection between organized crime and terrorism in Los Angeles, but hasn’t checked in for the past three months. The Wonder Twins track the truck to a wildlife reserve, and when Sam and Callen investigate they walk right into an ambush. Sam is less than pleased (I’m gonna project confidence into your face when this is over), but Nate and his crew kidnap Callen and then interrogate/torture him about the whereabouts of JDX, fancy explosives used by NASA. Nate’s partner in crime is identified as the infamous Alisa Chambers, AKA the Black Widow, whose partners always disappear when the job is finished. She’s also a known associate of one Henrik Vuksan, member of the international criminal organization Omni, who was busted by the team in the aptly named episode “Omni” and is currently doing time in Chino.
Thinking Omni might be behind Nate and Alisa’s current crime spree, Deeks and Kensi are sent to interrogate him. They eventually discover that Omni wasn’t responsible, but Vuksan knows what’s about to go down thanks to his many prison contacts (what a great place for networking!). It’s actually the triple threat of the Triads, the Armenian Mafia, and the Molina Cartel who’ve banded together to procure the JDX. If Nate can pull off some arrests, it could cripple these organizations. And thanks to the team (and a lot of back-up for a change), that’s exactly what they do.
The episode’s best written discussion was between Kensi and Deeks about the difficulties of deep cover work. Deeks understood what Nate was going through:
Deeks: I’m more worried about Nate and his power of self-deception.
Kensi: What do you mean? How so?
Deeks: When you go this deep, you gotta convince yourself before you convince anybody else, right? Nate’s a master of the psyche so he’s gonna go deeper, which means if this thing goes bad it’s gonna be disastrous.
Kensi: Living a lie.
Deeks: And the longer it goes, the worse it gets.
Kensi: Yeah, how do you know when to drop it?
Deeks: Unfortunately that’s the problem… you don’t.
How many times has Deeks deceived himself in an effort to maintain a cover? And how many times were the men he was playing worse than Nate’s undercover persona? It can’t be easy to convince yourself you’re Max Gentry level bad, or worse. The conversation brought to mind Deeks’ propensity to confuse his alias with his true self, to assume that he’s as bad as his worst undercover inclinations. It also felt very appropriate to the storyline and was a great moment for the audience to learn from the experience of the team’s best undercover operator.
There were several other scenes that worked well. First was the opening of Nate’s interrogation of Callen. Here Evil Nate turns the tables on Callen, using his deep understanding of his lifelong pursuit for identity against him, mocking him about his quest. Your whole life is built around finding out who you are, I mean, the search is just this security blanket, right? This to me was the exact power an Evil Nate would possess, to use his familiarity with the team and his “master of the psyche” skills to exploit personal weaknesses. Imagine how awful he could have been to Kensi or Deeks, using their perceived failures in Afghanistan against them. Peter Cambor was strong throughout, showing us a Nate teetering on the edge between an undercover role and a real turn to the dark side.
Let ‘Em Roll Hetty
I also enjoyed Sam’s repeated questioning of Hetty, asking for “full disclosure.” Surely we all wanted to know exactly what she knew, which always differs from what she chooses to share. Oh Hetty, I am so tired of your shenanigans. Here she did display a tiny bit of regret: I tried to lure him out. But her true colors appeared when she told Sam, “Is it truly a gamble if you don’t lose?” That was classic Hetty, and reveals so much about why she so often finds herself in trouble. Her overconfidence in the end result, her disregard for sharing vital information, has repeatedly put her team at a disadvantage against the bad guys. At least this season they have all seemed to recognize the pattern and understand the need to be more demanding of answers.
Banter? Check. Bravado? Check. Suspense? Not So Much.
Unfortunately some things didn’t work so well for me in this episode. One was happy-go-lucky Callen being waterboarded. I understand that showing weakness in that situation would likely encourage even more torture, but it didn’t feel realistic to me. Contrast it with “Descent” and the pain and fear we saw from both Sam and Deeks. Here Callen’s bravado took away the suspense. It brought to mind one of my least favorite episodes, “Forest for the Trees,” where a kidnapped Sam and Callen were having so much fun bantering that I never worried they were in any jeopardy, and the whole episode became pointless. Callen’s behavior here, along with Nate’s stopping Alisa from shooting Sam and later Callen, made it pretty clear that Nate was still a good guy, and removed any worry over whether Callen would be hurt.
The other element that felt off was the episode’s overall pacing. Not only did I feel no suspense, but I thought the brief Densi banter in the boatshed seemed a bit mistimed given Callen’s situation, and their interrogation of Vuksan seemed oddly unrushed. Their first run at him resulted only in a discussion of the surf report, and they didn’t seem to have any sense of urgency about getting information out of him quickly. Also, while I’m the first to applaud any returning villain, Vuksan couldn’t have been less threatening if he was snuggling with a puppy while he chatted with Deeks and Kensi.
Then at episode’s end, the separate conversations with Callen, Sam, Hetty and Nate all felt a bit redundant. I do hate to complain about any character-driven scenes, but maybe Sam and Callen could have spoken with Nate together? I did enjoy the irony of Lone Wolf Callen lecturing Nate about trusting in his teammates.
The Detective Detects
I loved how Deeks used his keen observation skills to uncover key details about the scene of the crime. The crime of stealing leftovers, that is. It may not all have been well timed, but the Densi banter over the missing leftovers was pretty darn cute. And although this latest domestic Densi kerfluffle seemed a bit contrived, their expressions as they traded places watching the video were adorable, and I’ll always be happy to enjoy scenes of their blissful domesticity.
Deeks: Oh. My god. You’re eating the leftovers of my sleepwalking leftovers. You care to explain this?
Kensi: Okay. You know how much I love Loco Moco. It was calling my name. It really was. I was sleeping, and I heard it call my name. It was like “Kensi!”
Deeks: I can’t believe you. I don’t even know who you are!
Kensi: Wait, wait.
Deeks: No wonder I’m stressesd out. The love of my life is like a Loco Moco hyena.
“Love of my life?” All together, now: awwwwwwww.
The Real Training Begins?
Finally, the ending confused me a little. I thought Nate had been out in the field for the past six years? Yes, “elite takes time, and reps,” but this can’t have been his first deep cover assignment. Yet that’s how Sam, Nate and Hetty seem to frame his situation. I was also disappointed because while we got some oblique references to a mole, with Nate knowing information above his security clearance, we seem no closer to finding said mole. Was Hetty the one giving him the intel? Or perhaps she was referencing a full-out mole hunt when she told him, “Now your real training begins”? At any rate, I do like his character and hope we’ll see more of him in Season 8.
- The opening scene showed one guard shot at point blank range with a shotgun. Did Nate, who did the shooting, feel remorse about this extreme action? Or was he using a non-lethal weapon of some kind? Was the guy wearing a bullet-proof vest? This struck me as particularly violent and not something I could see any of our regular team actually doing. I’d have liked a bit more explanation or follow-up on it.
- What happened to Deeks during the big takedown? Was he hiding on one of the towers like in Daniela’s Instagram photo? Or, perhaps there’s a deleted scene of Action!Deeks out there?
- Was I the only one disappointed in that boom? For an entire stockpile of explosives that should be able to destroy entire city blocks, it didn’t seem all that bad. Less scary in fact than the RDX that nearly killed Deeks in “The Debt”- I think it only took a few bricks of the stuff to blow up that red sedan.
- It made me happy to hear Callen tell Nate that he’s still part of their team. He’s got to feel so alone out there, working without the safety net that the others enjoy. If his return didn’t mean less Densi time, I’d be the first to welcome Nate back as a regular team member.
If I were a betting woman (unlike Hetty), I’d gamble that many of you enjoyed this episode quite a bit more than I, and if so, I’m genuinely glad you did! Either way, tell us about your views in the Comments. And be sure to check in later this week for Deeks’ Surf Log and Kensi’s Journal, plus the Edit of the Week.
Title: “Head of the Snake”
Writer: Joseph C. Wilson
Director: Robert Florio
Original Air Date: April 11, 2016