Review: NCISLA “Head of the Snake” (S7E21)
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
Thank you for the great reveiw. I agree almost everything, and I want to say something more later, but for now, one thing. During the takedown, Deeks was there. Right after Alisa made Nate close the door of the van, you can see Deeks at the left on the screen.
I certainly enjoyed the episode. I thought the separate conversations with nate were vitally important. Callen’s talk had two goals. One was to assure Nate he was still a team member, while the other was a warning about working alone. Callen had always had trouble with that part, so I’m hopeful this helped him see how his actions affects the rest of the team.
Sam’s conversation needed to be separate because his experience was different than Callen’s. He needed Nate to understand the consequences of his actions. He was still pretty mad at Nate at the end of the day.
Finally, Hetty’s conversation was the clincher. Nate got in too deep and needs to learn how his mistakes can be avoided.
We don’t know how long it takes to be an elite agent. I know he wasn’t elite in season 2, but he was learning. His path for the last five years ha been about learning. It sounds to me that now the training will be about honing his skills, which is much more difficult. Hence, now the real training begins.
great review Karin as always, still I enjoyed the episode despite some hiccups. But what I actually cannot believe is that you miss to mention naked Deeks on the surveillance video from the kitchen. Or he wasn’t naked and it is all my wishful thinking…
At least he was shirtless!! 🙂
Hi all, thank you for this site. I actually found you because of your question on the Paleyfest panel. I was watching it on youtube and heard about your site. I am from the Netherlands so these episodes haven’t aired here yet. The last one that aired here last week was the Seventh child. But I am loving all te spoilers and reviews. I look at the episode different. Thank you for what you do on this site about our favourite show, and couple (Densi off course). Now about this episode. I managed to watch on internet, and I agree it didn’t grab me. Loved the Densi scene about the food. The waterboard scene felt weird to me, maybe because of Callen’s comments. Can’t wait for the season finale (hopefully the much anticipated proposal?) And season 8 (according to Shane Brennan on the Paleyfest panel) a big Deeks and Kensi season.
First of all thanks for the review, I love reading them!!!
I COMPLETELY agree with you. Especially about the pacing of this episode and about there being no suspense while callen was being tortured. I wish nate had focused on more of the psychological torture, as that worked so much better for both characters. I found myself disagreeing with Nate through the end, and hoping he had gone evil and was the mole even though it was so obvious that’s not how the episode was going to conclude.
Loved the densi banter, and I liked their scene when deeks explains the evil of self deception in the boat shed even more. but I feel like they missed out on a great conversation between deeks and Nate about undercover -kensi and deeks didn’t even have a scene with Nate in the end! It felt like their part in this episode was far removed from everything else. There was no real worry over callen or urgency in their interrogation as you said. In previous episodes they lead into an interrogation with the threat of sending someone back to prison labeled an informant, here they kind of just chilled and waited around for a while.
I liked it less than you. I was bored, even with Kensi and Deeks. ( That is hard for me to say.) I measure how much I enjoy an episode by how many times I rewatch it. Rewatch = 0
Future episodes look and sound great though!
Excellent review, Karen. I did like the episode for the most part. I thought Evil Nate was an interesting development for that character and Peter Campor did a very convincing job of making us believe he had gone over to the dark side. The show played up the torture of Callen to the point where we were expecting something a lot more harrowing than it was, especially after seeing Deeks tortured. I know Callen is a seasoned agent and has probably been tortured before, but he appeared rather blasé about it, smirking and coughing a bit as if he was totally unaffected. Where’s the drama in that? He didn’t appeared stressed, not even a small grimace, making it unbelievable that he would so easily give in to their demands to hand over the information on the explosives. I kept picturing Deeks waterboarding that cleric in Spoils of War. It was emotional and terrifying. Here it was just ho-hum…no big deal. Sad loss for a possibly great scene.
This would seem to be an odd episode unless it leads to Nate returning and I wonder if it might possibly be another alternative for the show if LL Cool J decides not to return for season 8. Callen and Nate as partners, or Nate and Kensi as partners, with Deeks assigned to Callen…now that would be interesting. Don’t expect to see that last scenario, but I would much prefer Nate to Anna.
I find myself in almost complete agreement – and I thank you, Karen. I had wondered if I was becoming an un-pleasable, jaded viewer or something? I wasn’t convinced for a second that Nate was “turned”. I don’t care how much dark beard you put on him, he just didn’t convince me he was all this sudden evil at all or that there was anything between he and that girl? I don’t know enough to blame the acting, the directing, the dialog – I’m no drama expert, all I know is none of it seemed particularly stressful or scary to me. I, too, was expecting a grater in the ground after the explosion. I’m not sure why there was even an explosion. Didn’t they have control of the truck? I questioned why every bell and alarm in the place didn’t go off after Callen gives his “take over” code to the delivery guys? They can track unmarked, unlicensed cars all over the city, they couldn’t track a big red van? It just all seemed very flat to me. Put Nate back in the psychologist chair. I agree, 5 seconds of Deeks and the Cleric still squeezes my heart every time I see it! The only thing I ever heard about Nate’s assignments was that he was being a profiler. That doesn’t make you an undercover master. We’ve got two of those in Callen and Deeks (and Kensi and Sam, too, I guess) – don’t feel like we need another. But Nate over Anna – any day, any way! Did like my Densi arguments (and discussions, and videos) – but since when do they park right outside the front door :-)? I think it’s a bit hard to be “scared” by an episode when you are already getting previews two and three weeks out that make it pretty clear that nothing happened, nobody died, got hurt, etc. Sort of like reading ahead in (or the end) of a book? Didn’t hate it, certainly didn’t love it, Won’t bother to watch again except maybe to figure out how Deeks managed to email that video to Kensi LOL!
I really liked your review, Karen.
I can’t say I didn’t like the episode, on the contrary, I enjoyed most of it, a lot of scenes were terrific and I was so glad that Peter Cambor had a chance to come back in an episode in which he was not the filler but the leading character. What I found a little strange, on the other side, is that some awesome scenes almost came together with some moments which seemed a little off, but as a whole I consider it a good episode.
What I especially liked:
– Nate and the “promise” that he may be coming back in the future. I was afraid this could be his last episode and I am glad it was not.
– All the scenes with Callen even if he sounded a little too self-confident and sassy but that’s Callen we’re talking about! (I may sound repetitive, but this season COD has been extraordinary)
– Densi banter was entertaining even if it had nothing to do with the case of the week. This season – more than ever – playful Densi have often had the role of the “relief” scene/s and this week it was not an exception. We have been reassured that Kensi is still a leftovers hyena and Deeks always babbles when he’s cornered by Kensi.
Moreover, we have enjoyed shirtless Deeks again, which is always a welcome bonus, even if for a few seconds, in a blurred video and in another house’s kitchen. Luckily he seems to have gotten rid of his “Expiration date” striped tank top!
– My favorite moment (that might have more ramifications which I hope the writers might consider worth-exploring in future Season 8 episodes, especially if we are finally given a “Deeks, M.” episode) was Deeks talking about the “power of self-deception” at the boatshed with Kensi. I literally felt shivers when he said (as you also quoted): “When you go this deep you’ve got to convince yourself before you convince anybody else” and “The longer it goes, the worse it gets”.
He was so serious, so pensive, as if all his undercover operations abruptly resurfaced, and I noticed he never looked into Kensi’s eyes. I wonder if he will ever share this past that still seems to haunt him, with her.
Seeing this kind of episode I am really looking forward to Season 8 where we will hopefully have more characters’ backstories and understand better how present day behaviors sometimes are deeply rooted in past experiences.
I did enjoy this episode, probably a lot more more than you did , however, I also agree with your review.
I am just so happy that they are portraying Deeks and Kensi in such an adult relationship. I think it is amazing that they are able to keep the banter and fun up between them even though they are now a couple. It is just wonderful and I really love it.
I could always use more Deeks in an episode. I thought the boat shed scene between he and Kensi talking about deception and undercover was so well done, it could have gone on a little longer . I also thought they missed an opportunity to have Deeks talk to Nate about undercover which Deeks does better than anyone else on the team. Additionally they could have brought closure to the season 5 conversation, with Nate saying you figured what make your relationship with Kensi unique.
As has been mentioned I thought the waterboarding of Callen was not well done at all. The scene with Deeks and the cleric in Spoils of War was so powerful and so well acted by both ECO and the actor who plays the cleric, it made clear what waterboarding really is, and it is horrible. This scene with Callen had none of that, it was like they put water on his face.
I did enjoy Nate, it is great to have a recurring character that is interesting and played by an actor who is actually is a good actor, so we need more of that.
How about we let the powers that be know we want Nate back? #NCISLAbringbackNate or something like it? Bombard them.
I would like to see more of Nate!!! I agree with you sassyzazzi that it was a missed opportunity to have Deeks and Nate discuss both those issues. Thanks for the great reviews and comments. I enjoy both.
It seems like this episode could have been better than it was. (In Australia so we are some episodes behind). I have watched the Densi scenes via the Densi Lover You Tube channel and liked what I saw. Why couldn’t we get another close up of shirtless Deeks!! I really look forward to reading the reviews every week along with everyone’s comments. You are all wonderful fans of the show and Densi who share great insights into each episode. I really look forward to the remainder of the Season and what happens with our favourite Detective and Densi. I hope there is a marriage proposal before the end of the season!
Great review Karen! I agree, especially with your points about the waterboarding, the comments about Nate’s “real training” now begins (inconsistent with him being in Yemen and other hotspots in the past), and the small boom from this supposedly super-explosive.
Also agree that I love Nate and have long wanted him to be a regular character. I wasn’t a fan of Dom in season 1, but Nate was a useful asset to the team.
I enjoyed the episode while I was watching it, but definitely not one to re-watch.
I think they shouldn’t have announced this story as a “Did Nate flip side?” one. It was possible but unlikely. This story was about Nate’s state of mind and how far Nate would go in order to finish the mission. The team didn’t act very seriously because deep down they knew Nate wouldn’t flip side, just went a bit too far.
And Hetty could have briefed them, like, Nate’s assignments had been mainly surveillance and collecting information from outside, and the times he infiltrated he was pulled out because of the risk or he was needed somewhere else (i.e. Deeks in S5, Nell in S6). That should have explained the lack of his experience after all these years and his desperation to prove himself. Instead she said Nate was enamored by Alisa. WTH?
And yeah, Deeks and Nate should’ve had the talk in the end. Deeks could’ve said that he had similar experience before but now things were different because he had the team, and his partner.
The writers have missed some golden opportunities for some deep meaningful scenes – Nate and Deeks talking about going deep undercover, Deeks and DiNozzo bonding about being cops and DiNozxo giving Deeks advice on being an agent, Sam really and truly apologizing to Deeks about questioning his character, etc. I guess that’s why fanfiction exists.
As always, thanks for the great comments everyone!
Elizabeth, I do agree that Sam was still mad at Nate at the end. In fact, I was kinda rooting for him to make good on his threat to project something “into his face,” LOL. Patty that’s some impressive attention to detail! I practically had to rewatch in slow motion in order to catch the shot of Deeks at the takedown and I’d never have seen him if you hadn’t told me where to look.