With “Uncaged,” NCIS: Los Angeles writer Frank Military (or as I like to call him, The Prince of Darkness), showed us what happens when he doesn’t get a chance to let that darkness loose for an entire season. Having written only a single light-hearted episode until now clearly has its consequences. Bottling up the darkness for so long can only lead to pain, and that’s exactly what we got big time in a tense episode that was beautifully directed by the very same Mr. Military. Beautifully directed, but tough to watch.
A Nemesis Returns
Let’s start with some easier topics, like the plot and the bad guy. The episode marked the return of Sam’s old enemy, Tahir Khaled. Khaled has never been one of my favorite villains. While I enjoyed the journey his sister Jada took to find her independence, I’ve always found the clashes between him and Sam a bit forced, a little over the top. I know we’ve all asked for recurring bad guys, but Khaled has always felt more cartoonish than actually menacing. In short, he’s no Sidarov.
Nevertheless, Khaled is back and he’s out to gain his freedom with an elaborate and apparently well thought out plan involving using Zirov as a distraction, kidnapping Michelle Hanna, and employing a whole lotta Toyotas. All in all, the plot here worked well. Military the director moved things along at such a breakneck pace that I never had time to breath, let alone look for holes in the story. On top of that, the show is always scarier when Military has written the episode because he really is capable of anything. His name alone automatically ups the suspense. This episode was reminiscent of his other strong writing/directing work with “The Seventh Child” and “Spoils of War,” which both involved the team racing to save someone with limited time.
No Happy Endings
Unfortunately, this time there was no happy ending. I allowed myself to hope when Deeks noticed the light coming through the boarded up wall, actually thinking they’d get to Michelle in time. For a moment I forgot who we were dealing with. Not Khaled, that is, but Military. The ending sequence was beautifully directed and edited and felt quite cinematic.
Unfortunately that ending also felt, for lack of a better word, cruel. Cruel because we had come to love Michelle and her family. Because we had watched her struggle for the entire hour. Because our hearts broke for Sam and especially for her children. Up until the final sequence, I was riveted to the story. I teared up when Michelle told Callen to take care of her husband. I keenly felt Sam’s desperation. But once the outcome became clear, I moved from sad to a little angry, and then went into immediate analytical mode to try to figure out why.
I think the reason is that it was just a little too dark for me. I didn’t think it possible- you all know I love the angst! Yet having to watch Michelle struggle for the entire hour, to watch Sam’s pain, and to know what’s in store for Kamran and Aiden was too hard. I think the flashback to Michelle with Kamran might have been what pushed me over the edge from feeling sad to feeling a little manipulated.
I asked myself how I’d have felt if Deeks were the one who had lost someone close to him. (Of course, I’m not sure who that would be if not Kensi- Ray might be the only comparable candidate.) In that situation, I might be eating up the angst and planning on enjoying a summer’s worth of angst-filled fan fiction. I’m honestly not sure. All I do know is I didn’t enjoy how this episode made me feel.
The episode reminded me of “Descent” for its darkness and pacing. Yet as much as “Descent” caused a summer-long obsession, I never doubted that Sam and Deeks and Kensi would survive. (I did wonder a little about Michelle.) The suspense wasn’t whether they’d die (no one did), it was how damaged they might be by their experience. Military has been super hard on this cast in the past (heck, he buried Sam alive in “Little Angels”!) but I don’t think he’s ever quite pushed things this far in the direction of tragedy. Again for me, the presence of those kids makes a real difference in my reaction.
Death is a Part of Life. Killing is a Part of NCIS:LA
So that got me to thinking about the showrunners’ decision to kill Michelle. Was it good drama? Was it necessary to further the plot, other characters’ development, or one or more longer running storylines? I’m really looking forward to hearing all of your thoughts on this topic. But first, for what they’re worth, here are mine…
First I tried to put this death into the context of the show’s history. (Disclaimer: I’ve never watched any other NCIS programs so can’t comment on anything beyond NCIS: Los Angeles itself.) This show has killed off other recurring characters- Dom, Renko, and Hunter come immediately to mind. Dom died because his character wasn’t working and the showrunners needed room to bring in Deeks (may I say, Best Decision Ever). Hunter and Renko died to give Hetty a dramatic story arc and to make Janvier even more worthy to be Callen’s arch enemy. Michelle seems to have died for a similar purpose.
There have been other deaths, such as everyone’s favorite Ghurka. His death truly served little purpose other than to make Deeks sad for one scene- what a waste of a great character. And that’s not even counting the random friends from their pasts who’ve encountered tragic endings, even if we never got to know them very well. I’m thinking of characters like Moe and Michael Saleh. (Moe was killed by Military and Saleh got radiation poisoning from him- Sam should always be afraid of Military!)
The fact that a good chunk of these deaths are clustered in Sam’s direction may not be an accident. It may be because Sam is the most well-adjusted of all these characters. He doesn’t have a dark alter ego or a questionable cop killing in his past. He doesn’t have a troubled childhood with a mysterious family of spies and gypsies. He doesn’t have any murdered family members whose death he’s trying to investigate. Could his character’s lack of dysfunction actually cause the showrunners to feel the need to hurt people he cares about as a way to generate drama for him?
While I’m on the general topic of death, let’s acknowledge that every week this show begins with at least one murder to open the episode. Military even blew up a young boy at the beginning of “The Seventh Child.” So we can’t pretend to be surprised to see people killed here. Michelle’s death only drives home for me how unaffected we are by those characters we haven’t gotten to know.
A Necessary Death?
Thinking about that carnage we witness every week that generally leaves us unaffected helps me understand why the showrunners would see it as both powerful and necessary to occasionally kill off characters we have met and liked.
One reason that killing such a character is important is the show’s unbelievable weekly body count. How often have we expressed disbelief at the number of bullets that fly past the cast’s heads as they rather easily pick off the bad guys with precision aim? It verges on the cartoonish, as if they were actually a team of superheroes. It’s important for the writers to keep us believing that these are real flesh and blood people who can be hurt. Otherwise they’d become less interesting, we’d stop caring so much about them, and we’d definitely stop worrying about their safety. There’d be absolutely no suspense to the stories unless we see occasional consequences.
It would appear, for the moment anyway, that the core cast isn’t going anywhere, meaning they can’t actually be killed. So if you can’t always hurt these characters physically, you have to hurt them emotionally. We experience the show through their eyes. If they’re unaffected, we will be too. How often have I commented in a review that the best episodes are the ones where one or more team members are personally involved in the story?
And if you want to personally affect one of these people in the harshest way possible, whether it be for sweeps month ratings, a season finale, or just because you want the most drama possible, killing someone close to them is sure to accomplish that. For what could be worse?
Killing people is kinda integral to this entire show, so the fact that they’d kill off characters we know shouldn’t be a surprise. On the other hand, it’s not like this show has a lot of great spare characters they can afford to lose. If we don’t count the main cast, who else’s death might we even be affected by? Talia? Anna? Arkady even? Roberta? Michelle was really the only effective option, particularly if they were looking for someone close to Sam. (Thank goodness they didn’t take out one of the kids!) It just feels frustrating because Michelle was such a truly great character. She was so strong and funny and felt so real. She had such great chemistry with Sam. At the beginning of the episode I found myself hoping she really would go back to fieldwork so we could see more of her. There’s a big price to be paid to lose someone like her, because great characters like this aren’t easily created.
This episode was gripping from the start and didn’t need Michelle’s death to be great. She also didn’t need to die in order to send Sam off on a spree of vengeance. Some of the most gripping episodes of NCIS: Los Angeles haven’t involved the death, or even the feared death, of a character. I’m thinking of “Spoils of War,” where the suspense revolved around how far Deeks would go with torturing the cleric, or “Descent”/”Ascension,” where the suspense revolved around how affected Sam and Deeks would be by being tortured.
Military (with Chad Mazero) actually already gave us the Sam storyline equivalent to “Spoils of War” with “Revenge Deferred,” where Sam tortured Khaled to get him to reveal the source of his intel on Sam’s family. It would appear that the showrunners felt the need to up the ante from mere threats against the family all the way to kidnapping and murder in order to make this episode feel less repetitive. I do wonder if there might have been a happy medium.
One thing Michelle’s death ensures is that we will never feel truly safe in the presence of a Frank Military script.
Repercussions and Reverberations
Something else Michelle’s death ensures is big change for Sam’s character over the course of Season 9. Had she been rescued, we’d have expected Sam to return to being Sam, just as he did after “Revenge Deferred” and after the Season 7 finale at Aiden’s school, “Talion.” Instead we’re likely to see a very different man, for how could Sam not be dramatically affected by this tragedy? And in the long-term, how can he even continue this dangerous job when he’s the only parent his kids have left?
For that matter, her death is bound to reverberate through the entire team. Deeks and Kensi came so close to saving Michelle but failed. Plus, they must have looked at Sam and Michelle’s marriage as a model, something they could strive towards. How will this tragedy affect their wedding plans and even their thoughts on having kids someday? Hetty pulled all the strings but couldn’t come through. Callen could do little to rescue a woman he must have seen as family. The entire team dynamics may change as a result. It may not be pretty, but it is likely to be interesting. Going into the show’s ninth(!) season, that type of shake-up is important to keeping things feeling fresh.
Next week we’ll start to see how Sam’s character is changed by this tragedy, which is potentially interesting and likely depressing, given that he’s apparently going to start by being “Unleashed” on Khaled. I kinda feel like I’ve seen this story between Khaled and him already, maybe even more than once. It will be interesting to see if R. Scott Gemmill can bring anything new to it. Will Callen be able to keep his partner from pulling a Callen and going rogue? Will Sam really cross the line and kill Khaled? (And did someone take a minute to use some Overwatch spray on the guy before they let him go? If not, that’s really poor planning!)
Or, as many clever people have suggested on social media, might some or all of this be a ruse? Is there reason to think Michelle isn’t really dead? The use of the flashback scenes at the end communicates to me that Sam fully believes she is. I’d sure hate to see Sam confront anyone (Hetty I’m looking at you) who’d use him like that. As happy as I might be to see Michelle revived, I don’t think I’d handle the trickery all that well either. On the other hand, I could see Hetty and Callen working out some Khaled-related plan, perhaps to finally track down the One True Mole, the person who leaked Sam’s information to Khaled in the first place. It would explain why they allowed him to escape so easily. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
- Yay for another appearance by David Paul Olsen, playing Sam’s “brother.” I hope we see more of him in the future.
- I did not appreciate Sabatino shooting Zirov to make him talk. All of sudden I felt like I was watching an episode of 24. I’d much prefer seeing them use their smarts to convince him to give them information.
- I also didn’t appreciate that they did let Khaled out of prison. That didn’t feel realistic and definitely goes against the whole reasoning behind why we don’t negotiate with terrorists. For me it’s the main reason to think Hetty and Callen are up to something.
- I did appreciate Nell’s risking her career to guarantee safe passage for Khaled and maximize Michelle’s chances for survival (but such credit is unneeded if Nell is in on the plans).
- Given the stakes of this episode, it didn’t even feel right to change the subject to a Densi proposal. And while I can see shoe-horning it in next week in the context of “let’s not waste another day given what could happen in this job,” it’s hard to imagine it feeling right after such a tragedy. I do think if anyone can pull that magic off, it will be R. Scott Gemmill. We’ll see.
Throughout this episode, LL Cool J was stellar. And let’s not forget Aunjanue Ellis’s performance as Michelle. What a great presence she brought to the show, even as only a rarely recurring character. Even in episodes where Sam merely mentioned her, I could vividly picture her in whatever activity he was describing. She’ll be sorely missed. This episode was very well written, directed and acted. But it was so dark and sad (and lacking in Deeks) that I’m not sure I’ll ever rewatch it. As it is, I didn’t even give it my usual second go for fact-checking, so apologies for any errors.
Still, I can’t wait to hear what you all thought! Tell us in the Comments.