Before this week, only 53 scripted primetime series in U.S. television history had made 250 episodes. With “Mother,” written by Eric Christian Olsen and Babar Peerzada and directed by Dennis Smith, we saw all the reasons why NCIS: Los Angeles has earned spot #54 on the list. The episode gave us humor, excitement, suspense, romance, heart, and at the end of the day, family. If you wanted to show someone what this show is about, “Mother” would be a great example to share. I’ll talk more about all its worthy elements, just as soon as my heart stops pounding…
After a surprisingly conventional cold open with an attack at a spectacular mansion, the episode really got started with a throwback to team openings of the past. It continued the show’s long tradition of a gym competition filled with banter and humor. My favorite parts were Kensi’s underhand free throw (not sure it was in character but it was hilarious), and the funny reference to “touché” after Kensi tells them, “It went in” (although I’d have gone with a “That’s what she said”).
Also appreciated was what I consider canon about Beale’s athletic prowess, or lack thereof. I can’t recall the exact episode, but I remember a scene where Eric, talking to himself, commented on his basketball skills playing varsity (or was it JV?). I didn’t care for that at the time because it contradicted previous scenes, and the version we saw here, of a guy who’d get picked last for the team, felt right to me.
The episode had humor sprinkled throughout, such as Rogers asking apropos of nothing about sandwiches, or Callen describing Fimmel as “either dead or being held captive by a sociopathic poet.” Particularly wonderful was the episode’s second reference to “touché”, when Kensi gave Deeks good reason to stop complaining about her plan to free him, telling him, “Even the worst plan in the world is better than scraping your remains off the ceiling,” to which he replied, “And there it is, there’s the touché.”
What worked well in this episode was that the humor started off strong, but then lessened over time as the stakes increased for the team. There was still an occasional joke but it was more used by the characters to lessen tension. It never felt out of place and it never detracted from the suspense.
The excitement and the suspense
Speaking of suspense, this might have been the most stressful episode of NCIS:LA ever. First though, a shout-out to the episode’s excellent fireworks as Deeks surfed his way out of the exploding building. Nice job ECO with a lot of the actual work, along with what I assume should be a shout-out to David Paul Olsen for the final shot where the fire temporarily engulfed Deeks. It reminded me of the best explosion of all time (not just on the show), the great ”Sans Voir (Part II)” boom.
But “Mother” went way beyond the explosions. Its defining element has to be the steadily ratcheting suspense. Going in, knowing how anxious ECO had been about Linda Hunt’s reaction to the script, I was slightly worried that he might have killed off Hetty. One of my pre-episode notes read, “What’s next after this ep – Is Hetty still alive?”
We didn’t learn Hetty’s fate until well into the hour, but right from the start we got the super creepy woman sitting silently in the mission courtyard with her box. (I kept waiting for Deeks to ask, “What’s in the box?” And the more I saw of the episode, the more relieved I became that it hadn’t been a human head!) The episode that had started so lighthearted quickly devolved into something different. And while the jokes didn’t stop altogether, I began to feel a sense of dread, that something really bad was going to befall our beloved characters. That feeling came from the strong writing and acting, as well as great direction and editing.
Then we got the rest of Fimmel in a scene I desperately wish I could unsee. Maybe his head in a box would have been better! That was some major Frank Military influence right there. It was totally reminiscent of “The Monster.” Poor Deeks, you think you were having trouble sleeping before this? Yikes! (Did they show the body in the sneak peek? I avoided them all week.) The shot made it clear that the team was dealing with a madman.
The stress level was already high at that point and then Hetty was taken and Deeks was in peril and everyone was freaking out. This was not our normal, ultra-professional, calm under pressure team. The loss of their technology was a great way to make them more vulnerable, and to make us feel that vulnerability. Seeing Callen on the verge of panic about Hetty, and Kensi on the verge of panic about Deeks, and poor Sam trying to keep things under control, and the Wonder Twins trying to get back control of their equipment, was one of the very few times, if not the only time, that we’ve seen them all so simultaneously rattled. And because it’s such a rare occurrence, their reactions drove home to us viewers that things were very much not good. It was incredibly scary to watch.
What also worked well to increase the suspense was the literal ticking bomb. Going into the episode, I had no reason to worry for Deeks’ safety, understanding that ECO is, I believe, contracted with the show through the end of the season. But the speed with which events unfolded, the way that clock just kept winding down, simply didn’t give my mind a calm moment to reassure itself that everything was going to be fine.
Most weeks when I watch the show, I’ll jot down notes as I go so that I don’t have to take time to rewatch the episode and can get the review done as quickly as possible. This time, I gave up on the note-taking about 10 minutes in, realizing that it was too tense to try to write and watch at the same time, and wanting to enjoy the suspense without interruption. This episode had about twice as many scenes (or shots?) as a typical episode, and going in I worried it would end up feeling too fractured, not cohesive enough to tell the story. But it all worked. It was yet another element that upped the suspense. Going in, I’d also thought that I’d probably end up wishing for a two-parter, and of course I’d have liked that too, but I think a more conventionally paced version would have lost a lot of the suspense. And surprisingly, I got all that I needed. The episode left me feeling very satisfied (I mean, I’d always want more – give me the 12 extra minutes every week please, but I had no complaints).
We have been spoiled over the years by the many incredible, emotional scenes between our favorite couple. One thing we’ve never heard from them is the classic dying declaration (and let’s hope we never have to see one that ends in an actual character death). We kind of got one in The Silo, but Kensi broke off the call pretty quickly, telling Deeks she’d love him ‘til the end of time and back. Here, he wasn’t going to be stopped from telling her what she meant to him, and it was heartbreaking. I have to say, Deeks was pretty brave in that moment. I don’t know if I’d be courageous enough to comfort someone else; I’d probably be too terrified to handle the situation so gracefully. Of course, that’s part of the benefit of writing your own words, right?
What was amazing about those words was that Eric Christian Olsen gave Deeks exactly the thing that he most wanted Deeks to have. When we were lucky enough to interview him, we asked what he most wanted for Deeks:
This is a cheat answer, but I just hope he finds peace, you know what I mean? I hope that that character finds whatever it is that he’s looking for. ‘Cause I’m not sure if he even knows. I think he has this idea that he wants to, you know, maybe go back to being a lawyer, but I know he wants kids. I think that’s probably the thing that’s most important to him, which ironically is the same thing for me, I think that I found the best version of myself, you know, as a father. I hope that he finds peace ‘cause the amount of stuff that that character has gone through in the last whatever years of this life… I hope he finds home, which I think is with Kensi and probably with kids.
Hearing him tell Kensi that she had brought him that peace was so meaningful. Deeks obviously carries a lot of darkness inside of him. He holds himself responsible for too many dark acts. I’m not sure he yet believes that he deserves to be happy, although I love that he keeps fighting for it. So knowing that he’s found exactly that sense of peace in his life was, for me, a profoundly emotional moment. There were a lot of tears shed during that long commercial break.
Deeks: Kensi we got four minutes! Please stop. I need to tell you something. Baby sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I can’t breath.
Deeks: I wake up and the world is narrow, and claustrophobic, and I feel like my, my chest is caving in and I feel like I’m gonna die.
Kensi: What? What?
Deeks: But then, I look at you – granted you’re usually drooling on yourself and snoring like a chubby dachsund – but just knowing that you’re there, and that somehow in all of this madness that you chose me… It makes my whole body relax, and I have this thing that I can only describe as peace. Baby I look at you, and I see us, and I can fall back to sleep.
Kensi: This can’t be the end. Not like this.
Deeks: It’s OK. Hey, look at me. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me and I love you.
Kensi: I love you.
ECO was great in this scene, but most of it played out on Kensi’s face, and Daniela Ruah was fantastic. Her desperation to free Deeks, her denial about what was happening, the way she reached her arms into the room to try to have as much physical contact with him as possible, all of it mirrored the emotions I was experiencing as I watched and rooted for them to find a way out.
The other thing that ECO wanted for Deeks, and what I think many of us want for him, is to be a father, a far better father than his own, one that can help him be, to use ECO’s words, “the best version” of himself. Kensi’s crazy plans to have his babies and live in a van surely makes it look like that is an increasingly possible scenario. And if the way she tackled him doesn’t mean they were immediately racing home to start making little ninja assassins, it would be a surprise.
Deeks: Kens! What are we doing?
Kensi: I wanna have kids with you.
Deeks: What? We’re making babies?
Kensi: We can sell the house. We can all live in a sprinter van. And, we can teach the kids how to surf, and we can teach them French, and we can collect berries.
Deeks: OK, yeah but baby, baby, I don’t speak French and some berries are poisonous and the kids gotta be in school.
Kensi: That’s OK because we can home school them in the van, it’s totally fine.
Deeks: OK, this is a terrible plan.
Kensi: What, homeschooling them in the van, or the rope?
Deeks: I mean, both.
Kensi: It’s OK now, you know why? Because the great news is, even the worst plan in the world is better than scraping your remains off the ceiling.
Deeks: And there it is, there’s the touché.
Then, when the whole sequence couldn’t possibly get any better, we got an awesome callback to “Deliverance.” It was one of the first episodes where their chemistry leapt off the screen, and an essential episode for Deeks and Densi fans. I enjoyed the way their roles were reversed here, with her rescuing him, yet somehow she still ended up on top of him.
Kensi: Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. Are you OK? Did you get burned?
Deeks: I’m OK.
Kensi: Oh my god. I need to pee.
Deeks: I think I just did.
And it’s not just that it was a lovely parallel that makes us think more about how far they’ve come. It’s that it’s there only for us obsessive types who would recognize that dialogue even if Kensi hadn’t been lying on top of Deeks. Casual fans would merely view it as a funny exchange and go on about their day. So it’s a very sweet gesture from the writers and showrunners. In that way it’s similar to the recent callback to a Nell-Granger talk that was included in “Concours d’Elegance.” If this is the start of a trend, I’m all for it.
The heart and the family
Obviously for me Deeks always provides the show with a tremendous amount of heart (see my sobbing above). But this episode also gave us a more vulnerable Hetty than we’ve almost ever seen. For many of us, she’s still a bit of an enigma, and certainly a flawed human being. But that’s part of what makes her fascinating. What ECO and Peerzada gave us was a genuinely introspective Hetty, a definite rarity for the show.
Hetty has resigned more times than I can count, and suffered greatly when her agents (many of whom she found when they were children) were killed. Yet in all these past events, it always seemed as if Hetty were crying crocodile tears, that she felt more sorry for herself than truly understanding of the dramatic effect she’d had on these people’s lives. While watching this episode I was struck with Hetty’s approach to her work and its similarities to Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men:
I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom… And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives! You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.
Here, particularly in the last scene with Callen, we got a Hetty who finally – finally! – appeared as if the consequences of her life choices, her intervening into the lives of others, had actually sunken in. She looked genuinely afraid. Linda Hunt was great throughout, but particularly here. Earlier in the episode, Nell had a great line that followed from her showdown last week that, “This is what happens when you try to play god in the lives of the people you say you love.” It was a beautifully delivered line, nicely understated but exactly right. Could we see real growth for Hetty’s character? Is it possible for her to learn from these events, or will she always be that somewhat grotesque figure who plays with people like pieces on a chessboard?
Exploring Hetty’s twisted past certainly made for a dark subject, but as you all know, I enjoy the darkness. It was striking to see how much similarity there was between ECO and Peerzada’s approach and Frank Military’s. It definitely makes me look forward to their producing partnership on a potential new CBS series (but of course only if they can both clone themselves to continue their current jobs). I’d assume Military’s writing has influenced ECO, who also spoke with us about Military:
Even when he goes incredibly dark, I think it’s a reflection on finding the human element in that darkness. So even when it’s kinda too much to handle, it’s usually some sort of reflection of finding love in those places, or hope, or relationships. It’s not dark for dark’s sake… Frank is searching for beauty in there. And I think that’s interesting, because there is enough chaos and pain and suffering in the world, that to find something beautiful in the midst of that is an important story to probably tell.
And just as ECO pointed out about Military’s work, here we worked our way through the darkness (and mangled bodies) to find love, hope and relationships. To find family. Because Callen was right there with the woman who’s as close as he’ll ever come to a mother, watching her comfort another son as he lay dying in her arms. And yes that was a dark, dark scene, but even though Hetty killed that son, she saw the good that had once been in him, telling Callen, “He was just looking for the same things all of us look for – a home, an identity, something to keep the darkness at bay.”
And that’s what this family does for one another. Kensi keeps the darkness at bay for Deeks. Sam looks after Callen to keep him from wondering back to his lone wolf roots. And Callen provided beautiful support to Hetty in the final scene, telling her that they’d face whatever happens next “as a family.”
In last week’s review, I commented that Beale’s overall character arc has been the least satisfying of all the show’s characters. For me, both Kensi and Deeks have had the most satisfying evolution over the course of the show. And now, having confirmation that Deeks has found a sense of peace nearly completes the arc I’d want for him. Yes, I’d still love to see him become a dad, and to maybe forgive himself for his past deeds, but otherwise, if the show ended tomorrow, I’d feel great satisfaction for his development as a character and gratitude to ECO and the showrunners for shepherding him through the seasons.
However, I feel compelled to put an addendum on that comment and say that if the show ended tomorrow, I’d still have a ton of questions about his backstory, and I would be forever disappointed to not get a “Deeks, M.” episode. Do you know how many characters have had an eponymous episode? I count eight. Fingers crossed that ECO and R. Scott Gemmill will remember Shane Brennan’s promise for a “Deeks, M.”
- I, too, find myself looking straight into security cameras when I know they’re there. I see it as a sign of a clear conscience.
- I’m sorry, why was Rogers there again? (Not that I wasn’t happy to see Peter Jacobson, who always brings a refreshing angle to his role and his scenes.) I assume we’re going to see some sort of Rogers-related storyline through the latter part of the season, but I actually think it would have been more interesting to hear Nell deliver some of his lines about Hetty.
- What did Sam mean when he told Deeks, “Don’t worry Deeks, I don’t judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree”? It sounded like an insult.
- I was so glad they didn’t try any more awkward de-aging in the Hetty-Ahkos flashback.
- The second wedding photo in two weeks- sweet! Although, yeah, posting it to announce that you’re about to blow someone up probably isn’t the most romantic way to use it.
- I wish the window frame on the door where Deeks was trapped had been a little smaller. I kept wondering why he didn’t try to squeeze through.
- While the quick cutting back and forth between scenes worked quite well to up the suspense, I wished that Hetty’s final conversation with Ahkos might have had one or two fewer cuts back to Kensi and Deeks. I found their frantic energy slightly overpowered the quieter conversation Hetty was having.
- I also might have liked to understand where Ahkos got all his intel and how he hacked into Ops, but given that it would have taken too long, I am good without the extra exposition.
- CBS has never tried very hard to advertise the show but with such short promos, why do they even bother?
One other thing this episode did really well was to show us exactly what we love about each of these characters in all their complexity: fierce but fragile Kensi, fighting the darkness with humor Deeks, Grammy Sammy looking out for Callen and staying relatively cool in a crisis, a Callen who’s maturing over time and learning how to form bonds, and a Hetty who’s full of mystery and contradictions. Giving each character room to shine is another thing that Military does well, and I was so happy to see that ECO and Peerzada were able to do the same.
Whew, that’s all I got for now. I ran out of time for a rewatch, otherwise I’d probably have another 1000 words. Instead, I’ll spare you that and leave things in your capable hands. I can’t wait to hear what you all thought of “Mother.” Tell us all about it in the Comments below. And come back later this week for a new Log and Journal, and new fan fic from some of your favorite writers.