Hetty: My boss wants to assign a liaison officer from LAPD, and your boss thinks it’s a good idea.
Deeks: You guys don’t need a liaison officer.
Hetty: I agree. I told him we already have one.
– Hetty makes Deeks a job offer, in “Hand-to-Hand“
As we count down to our final few wikiDeeks posts, I wanted to take a moment to sing the praises of Marty Deeks, a TV character we’ve all come to love. It’s no secret that I think he’s one of the best in all of television. In fact, I don’t believe NCIS: Los Angeles would still be on the air if he hadn’t run into them back on that Daniel Zuna MMA case.
Of course, every original character on the show brings something unique to the team. It absolutely wouldn’t be the same if any one of the original cast left. The core pairs are quite an amazing compilation of personalities that somehow fit together like pieces of puzzle, a diverse group that has become family. But this article isn’t about what makes the team so special, it’s about why it was made even more so by the presence of a certain shaggy LAPD detective. We don’t know what the future holds for him, but there’s no doubt the show will suffer if he’s not around to fill it with, well, all the great things listed below.
So in no particular order, here are my Top 10 ways Marty Deeks saved NCIS: Los Angeles…
10. He brought the L.A.
I guess there’s book smarts and then there’s street smarts.
– Deeks to a one-upping Kensi, in “Black Widow”
From the beginning, the showrunners treated the City of Angels almost as another character. I may not have been overly inspired by the characters or stories, but the frequent use of location shooting kept me coming back to see how my home city would be featured amidst the banter and the booms. Then, as my good friend Lindy, AKA Sweet Lu, has often observed, Marty Deeks arrived and brought the L.A. in NCIS:LA to life. He’s a native Angeleno, the only one on a team of transplants. He’s blond, playful, and has lots of wacky New Age ideas. Heck, he even surfs. In other words, he displays all the stereotypical traits of us L.A. residents. He’s a human link to the show’s titular home.
Beyond the surface traits, Deeks is the team’s local link to the city. His experience as an LAPD detective allows him to brief the team on local happenings such as gang activity or Russian mobsters hanging out at local clubs. His past working the gritty streets as an undercover cop gives him a scrappy quality otherwise lacking on a team that includes an ex-Navy SEAL, an ex-CIA operative, and an Ivy League educated tomboy. As he tells Kensi in “Enemy Within,” “My training comes from the streets.”
It’s his relative lack of training that forces him to rely on those street smarts, making him a regular object of ridicule early on (well, pretty much all the time). But it also lets him act as the viewer’s representative when he asks a team member to explain a new term, more for our sake than his. It also lends him an underdog quality that makes us root for him to succeed.
9. He brought the humor.
Have you seen my corgis? They’ve run amok.
– Deeks to Kensi in front of CIA Officer Snyder, in “Wanted”
Along with his SoCal cool, Deeks brought a degree of looseness the other somewhat stiff characters lacked. Just think of Dom, the character he replaced: inexperienced, hesitant, and serious. Early on, the team still shared plenty of witty banter, but Deeks brought full-on humor into the mix. He was a “cheeky bastard” with Hetty. He completely transformed Kensi, giving her the ability to be downright silly (see #6). His humor brightened up the slightly dull show we watched in Season 1. His apparent joy for life, that ability to enjoy making others laugh – even at his own expense – didn’t simply brush off on the rest of the cast to allow them a few more moments of silliness. It jumped out of the TV and gave the audience something to really laugh about.
8. He brought conflict.
Sam: You one of those guys that needs external validation and coddling?
Deeks: Only from you, Sam. You wanna coddle me?
– Deeks and Sam, in “Fame”
Deeks differed in so many ways from the rest of the team. He appeared laid back and quick to joke around in tense situations, although boy did he have a dark side that popped out every now and then to put the team on its heels (see #3). He was the outsider, the liaison officer who lacked their special training. Plus he had a background as an attorney and sometimes approached situations from a different perspective, even playing devil’s advocate with his teammates from time to time.
All these (and other) differences caused their fair share of conflict. He and Kensi got off to a rough start, lacking trust and unsure they’d ever succeed at their work partnership. He and Sam had continuing run-ins that appeared to be minor but eventually climaxed with the epic events of “Descent” and “Ascension.” He even occasionally questioned Callen’s, Granger’s, and even Hetty’s decision-making.
All this conflict made for incredible television. When everyone gets along and follows orders, drama comes strictly from outside the team. A cohesive team can be a little boring. That’s why we need Callen to occasionally go rogue, and Sam to occasionally break out of jail to protect his family. Having Deeks as a foil to the others brought drama into the team mix on a near-weekly basis. It wasn’t always intense, but it always made the story more interesting. Where would Sam be without Deeks to antagonize him? He’s a pretty straightlaced character, after all. Having Deeks to react to makes Sam more interesting. The same goes even more for Kensi (again, see #6).
7. He has chemistry with everyone. Everyone.
Hetty: How’s your heart?
Deeks: My heart? My heart’s great! Are you kidding me? I’m running sub-five, 30 miles, I got a new road bike, thinking about doing the Malibu Ironman. I’m like a…I’m like a Shaolin monk with a… with a young bull, mixed with, like, a very charismatic cheetah.
Hetty: I meant your emotional center…
– Deeks and Hetty, in “Unwritten Rule”
The conflict Deeks brought to the team came courtesy of the writers and showrunners. What enhanced that conflict, as well as every other interaction Deeks has ever had, is Eric Christian Olsen’s incredible chemistry with everyone. His ability to improvise and to react to his co-stars makes his scenes come to life in a way few actors achieve.
Just think about all the characters with whom he’s had memorable scenes: Kensi, Sam, Hetty, Granger, Nell, Roberta, Bates, and Detective Whiting, just to name a few. But even one-time guest actors have enjoyed great scenes with ECO. How about the young immigrant from “Allegiance,” the follicularly-impaired SEAL hunter in “SEAL Hunter,” or Agent DiNozzo in “Blame It on Rio.” And then there are his many appearances with children and animals- he even had chemistry with a poodle named Chaucer!
We all remember Jemadar Thapa from his memorable work with ECO in “The Frozen Lake” and “Expiration Date.” Ernie Reyes, Jr. described his experience acting with him this way: “But the one thing in terms of working with Eric and staying within the lines the writers have given us, it always feels like a constant improv. That’s what I love about working with him. It’s very alive, it’s very organic. It’s happening in the moment. So you never know what you are going to get. He’s awesome to work with and definitely it always feels like an improvisation with him.”
There’s almost no one ECO fails to generate serious chemistry with. I’m not the only one to notice this ability. At the 2017 London Comic Con, Daniela Ruah told him, “One of the greatest things about you is you have the capacity of having chemistry with almost everybody that you act beside. Not, not a lot of people have that… He’s Adaptman here. If you were a superhero you’d be Adaptman… You adapt to any situation, and to every person. Adaptman.” And ECO doesn’t just adapt, he adds new, improvised moments that keep his co-stars on their toes. It’s a powerful combination of abilities.
6. He made Kensi a more interesting character.
Bartender: Well, she’s cute, but her sense of humor needs work.
Deeks: You have NO idea.
– Bartender to Deeks, in “Empty Quiver”
Speaking of Daniela Ruah, her character in Season 1 is nearly unrecognizable today. And while all characters should grow and change over time, a huge proportion of the change we see in Kensi is due to Deeks’ presence in her life. Season 1 Kensi has a dry wit, but she rarely seems to have any real fun. Over the many years she’s partnered with Deeks, she’s developed that sense of humor. But more than just the ability to crack a joke, she’s embraced silliness and a sense of playfulness that makes me so happy for her. She’s come a long way from that serious and slightly stiff career-focused agent, and that change would never have happened without a partner like Deeks.
5. He brought the sexual tension.
Kensi: Looks like somebody was being dragged, which fits the scenario. You ready to go for a little ride?
Kensi: On the bikes, Deeks. On the bikes.
Deeks: [Smiling broadly] I didn’t say anything!
– Kensi and Deek doing some desert-based investigation, in “Borderline”
Deeks and Kensi became an amazing pair, so much so that they were the subject of two recent essays. But you can’t talk about the differences Deeks made to the show without including Densi. He may have been the frequent subject of Kensi’s disdain early on, but that didn’t stop him from persevering, from continuing to chip away at her defenses. One way he did that was through non-stop sexual innuendo. Sexual tension requires two people, so Kensi and Daniela Ruah get credit here as well, but without Deeks walking into Kensi’s life, we would never have enjoyed the flirting and propositions that made their every scene come alive. The will-they-or-won’t-they game they played for years tantalized and frustrated fans, and created Densi Shippers big time.
4. He brought the romance.
Brett: Here’s a million dollar question: Do you remember what he was wearing?
Kensi: [Instantly] White t-shirt, red shorts, black socks.
Deeks: Wow, that’s actually quite impressive.
Polina: And Melissa- what was she wearing?
Deeks: Are you trying to get me in trouble? There’s no possible way that I could remember that. [Kensi looks hurt] Black tank top. Jeans. Bag that goes across your shoulder. Hair down, wavy.
– Undercover dinner party, in “Neighborhood Watch”
Again, romance requires two participants, but Densi’s epic journey couldn’t have happened without Marty Deeks. That Densi went from two people who barely tolerated one another to being each other’s “everything” is a testament to the showrunners and writers as well. But the way Deeks’ wears his heart on his sleeve, always letting the audience know how he feels about Kensi even when he couldn’t tell her, helped make their Thing special. Just think about the way he reassured Kensi that he didn’t doubt her innocence in “Blye, K.” Or how he’d be with her every step of the way in “The Job.” How about his non-proposal proposal, his coma proposal, or his wheelchair proposal? Or how he’d tear the world apart to save Kensi when she’s in danger, sacrificing his life, or his very soul, if necessary? That’s romantic.
3. His dark side- and troubled history- added dimension.
This is an alias I did not miss.
– Deeks about “alter ego” Max Gentry, in “Plan B”
Each member of the team has tragedy in their past. Callen and Sam have certainly done things they regret, and we know that Hetty has a closet full of dark deeds and regrets. But none of these characters possesses the same degree of darkness as Deeks. Callen’s childhood in 37 foster homes resulted in an aloofness that hinders him from getting close to anyone. Deeks’ childhood of abuse resulted in his near superhero level backstory of shooting his father to defend his mother, then growing into an adult who seeks out that same feeling of empowerment over and over. Yes, he wants to help people, but his goodness actually comes out of dark experiences. That goodness can easily veer past the letter of the law into torture (“Spoils of War”) and maybe even murder. Yikes that is dark!
But it’s also fascinating. I think quite a few of us first became Deeks fans with the episode “Personal,” when we learned about his tragic backstory. It immediately put his surface behavior, his use of humor to keep others at arm’s length, in a different light. Others were clever enough to pick up on it sooner, with “Human Traffic.” Shane Brennan, who wrote that episode, laid it all out for us: not just his rugged charm and humor under fire, but his darkness and rage, his fierce protectiveness of women, and his toughness and solitary nature.
As ECO said at London Comic Con, “And I look at my character… when you talk about two characters, especially mine, that was so much of a clown at the beginning… was brought in for kind of comedic elements, but then became a fully realized human that’s deeply flawed, with I think significant emotional scars and repercussions from his own milestones in his own childhood, that’s really fun to play.” And it’s really fun to watch.
2. He’s full of intriguing contradictions.
[To Andros] This isn’t going to work. Let’s start on the other one. [To Sam] Why was I wasting my time with you when I have the weak one?
– Sidorov referring to Deeks, in “Descent”
Deeks is a man of huge contradictions. The same experiences that gave him his dark side created his insatiable drive to protect women. That drive is so strong that he might protect them without regard for his own safety or the law, leading him to feel guilt and even shame over his behavior and the darkness he sees as responsible for it. He can be quick-tempered and dangerous, yet gentle enough to be loved by every child and animal he meets.
He’s the “delicate” member of the team whose very character is questioned, yet who withstands torture to protect another man’s wife (there’s that protectiveness again). He’s the “weak one” who has survived so much in his life, yet despite that tragic childhood, he manages to convey a joy for life that brightens every conversation. He’s the silliest member of the team by far, yet when the bullets start flying no one takes his job more seriously. He seems more than confident in his abilities but is quick to blame himself when things go wrong.
He’s cheeky and willing to take on those in authority, yet reverential towards the strong women in his life. He’s known as “Party Marty” yet he’s fiercely loyal to everyone he cares about and 100% devoted to Kensi. He’s generally scruffy and plays a homeless man with ease, yet he’s the best educated member of the team. And although he’s arguably the most talented undercover operator, he’s the easiest to read, wearing his heart on his sleeve when he’s not playing one of his well thought out undercover characters.
These contradictions should probably make Deeks feel like he’s been cobbled together by a team of random writers and their random ideas, yet somehow they combine into a character who feels real, understandable and just tremendously complex. That’s a tribute to the showrunners, writers, and Eric Christian Olsen. Many of his contradictions can be traced back to his childhood abuse. For example, wanting to play the “class clown” was likely a way of coping as a child, trying to distract himself and his mom from painful events. It also accounts for his low expectations for himself (“…at some point the other shoe is gonna drop”) and his tendency for psychosomatic illnesses. It even increased his likelihood to experience PTSD after being tortured. And shooting his dad taught him that violence solves violence, making his career change to the LAPD a logical move from the Public Defender’s office. Because these seemingly random traits all have an origin in his background, they all feel organic and realistic, and super interesting.
1. He brought the heart.
You know, but I’m also a realist, and I understand there’s a possibility that she doesn’t wake up. Or what if she does? When she does wake up, what if she needs help? You know, like, what if she needs a lot of help, and I don’t, I don’t know how to help her? I want, I want to be that guy. I want to be that guy, but what if I, what if I can’t do it?
– Deeks to Hetty, discussing comatose Kensi, in “Ghost Gun”
Deeks joined a team of extremely capable professionals. They were experts at their jobs, the best of the best, and they knew it. They handled most setbacks professionally, which is to say without exhibiting too much emotion. Sure, Callen might cry over his dead sister and Kensi might cry over her troubled history with her fiancé, but all in all this was one well-oiled unit that rarely showed vulnerability.
Deeks popped into their lives and began by getting beat up by Sam. Just look at his face when he’s told he’ll be fighting Sam for a spot on the MMA team. You can totally read his mind and see how discouraged he’s feeling by this turn of events. Then after going back undercover for the LAPD, he shows up at a bar to talk to Hetty in “Human Traffic” and his voice breaks as he shares his concern about the drugged, underage girls being trafficked. He’s blown up and beat up again here, making for a sharp contrast with the team. I mean, Sam looks like bullets would just bounce off of him, but it’s obvious that Deeks isn’t bulletproof before we ever get to “Personal.”
We see Deeks’ vulnerability right from the start. He gets hurt, and he shows sadness and rage. He’s definitely flawed. It makes him both intriguing and loveable. Again, contrast Sam’s and Deeks’ respective reactions with Sidorov. Sam handles the torture by dissociation and he tries to hide his fears when being electrocuted by the bad guys. Again, it never seems possible to imagine him truly, seriously injured, and we’re not at all surprised to see him drag himself from his hospital bed to protect Michelle. Deeks, on the other hand, shows us how afraid he is. He makes that final scene of “Descent” so appalling and scary and riveting because he seems genuinely – and understandably – terrified. We might all want to behave like Sam if we were in their position, but deep down we all probably identify more with Deeks’ reactions.
Afterwards, Sam calmly describes what happened to Nate. He shows vulnerability to a degree, but nothing like the insomniac Deeks who’s desperate for his mind to stop running. He’s barely holding things together for several episodes post-”Impact.” And we’ve continued to see that kind of vulnerability, through Kensi’s absence in Afghanistan and her long illness, and right through this current season with Deeks apparently reaching a breaking point over the stress of his job, a job that the rest of the “superhero” team shrugs off with relatively little burden. That vulnerability makes him feel real – human – in a way that a show full of near-superheroes saving the world every week desperately needs.
Deeks’ face always betrays his feelings. ECO’s incredible expressiveness always tells us exactly what is going on in Deeks’ head. Those “puppy eyes” are powerful. Contrast this with Kensi, who understandably needs to project strength and seriousness in a job where she’s likely frequently underestimated because of her gender and youth. Or with Sam, with his disciplined and macho military background, or Callen, who learned as a foster child and as a spy to play things cool. ECO has spoken on multiple occasions about Deeks’ “human” reactions to seeing Kensi in danger. For example, about the Season 9 finale, he said, “…the goal with Deeks is always to play the human element of it; not the Bruce Willis version, but a guy who is flawed and is terrified of losing the love of his life.” That humanity endears him to us and makes us root for him to overcome his flaws and to find happiness.
It is about his character
Deeks: You know, I was doing a little bit of thinking that maybe what’s happening at work is, you know, it’s a sign. That maybe the universe is telling us it’s ready to move on to the next chapter of our lives.
Kensi: Which is?
Deeks: I don’t know, but maybe it involves a career change.
– Densi in “High Value Target“
It’s impossible to write an article like this without addressing the possible departure of this amazing character from the show. As of this writing, we don’t yet know what the future holds for Marty Deeks – and Eric Christian Olsen – but if Deeks is leaving the team, he’s leaving behind absolutely gigantic shoes to fill. I pity whoever is asked to try to take his place.
Marty Deeks is a self-made man who overcame a trauma-filled childhood to become successful in a challenging and dangerous field. He’s brave and loyal. That’s all admirable. His charisma and his chemistry with the other characters always makes his scenes come alive. But it’s his human qualities that have made him so valuable to NCIS:LA. His vulnerability makes us root for him. It has made us love him. Thank you Eric Christian Olsen, and the writers and showrunners, for creating such a memorable character.
Thank you Lindy AKA Sweet Lu for the beautiful artwork.