This week’s installment of NCIS: Los Angeles, titled “Russia, Russia, Russia,” offered fans a delightful hour of television, providing us with all the classic elements that have made this show great over the years. Written by showrunner R. Scott Gemmill and directed by none other than Daniela Ruah, this throwback episode had me smiling throughout and enjoying myself more than with any other episode in recent memory. In fact, my list of positive elements got so long it turned into a top 10 list. So, in no particular order, here are the top 10 things that made “Russia, Russia, Russia” so strong…
1. The opening featured a main character. It’s always a good sign when, instead of seeing something bad happen to a stranger, the teaser features one of the team. It’s a sign that the episode is going to incorporate a personal angle that usually makes for a more compelling story. This time, we got some interesting original music to accompany scenes of Callen alone by the sea calling a number we assume to be Anna’s that’s sadly no longer in service. It was an atmospheric start that updated us on Callen’s quest to find his would-be fiancée, and the moody tone-setting was accompanied by a plot development, with Callen noticing a tail. Hmmmm, intriguing.
2. The entire plot revolved around a main character. After a super-quick version of the opening credits (another good sign that the episode had so much good stuff, they just didn’t have a whole 20 seconds to do the regular version), the rest of the story played out with the team’s quest to find the real Russian mole and make sure Callen wasn’t blamed for being said mole.
While this did up the stakes, the episode wasn’t played for high drama. Callen himself never seemed worried, which in turn made us not really worry. It’s an encouraging development to have Hetty’s secret plot begin to unveil itself, but I’m not holding my breath that this mole storyline will be any easier to follow than the last one. For now though, it’s holding my interest.
3. The whole team was together. Ah, remember the days when nearly every episode would open with the team bantering in the bullpen? We didn’t quite get that, but we got two scenes where the key foursome were all together, and it was wonderful. The first scene only lasted 20 seconds, and Kensi was under a tarp for part of the time, but the highjinks of tricking Kapitan Gonchgarov were just silly enough to have me laughing rather than questioning whether the scheme actually made any sense.
The scene at the Santa Monica Pier was more extended, with each team member playing a role (although I’m not sure Sam really looked like he was ready to fish) and exchanging funny insults with Agent Carlson. Having them spread out on the pier but hooked up through coms was another great social distancing technique that allowed them all to interact. I suppose it was too much to ask to see Deeks singing and playing that guitar, but at least he didn’t have to be the maintenance man! The perks of being related to the director, perhaps?
4. Someone went undercover (albeit as himself). This show is about an elite team that specializes in undercover operations, and yet we don’t see undercover ops all that often. This aspect of the show has always been fun because we get to see our favorite characters – and actors – take on a new role. Here the role was different even if the name stayed the same- “Martin Atticus Deeks – boom! – Esquire.”
While the opening scenes with Callen held my interest, Callen’s coolness under pressure, along with the long time it took before the other characters appeared, gave the beginning of the episode a quieter feel than everything that followed. For me, Deeks’ appearance delivered an immediate injection of energy that brought the whole thing to life and made it immediately funner. His verbal “boom” may have been the only boom of the show, but it still did its job. His rapid-fire wordplay, “The old DOJ for the JTF for the ODNI OMG that’s such a BFD,” was impressive and showed Deeks’ sharp mind even if he didn’t really get to invoke much legal talk. (The suit was also impressive.)
5. Deeks and Callen had scenes together. These two characters have worked together for more than a decade, and yet I feel like I could count on two hands the number of scenes they’ve had alone together. Here we got two of them back to back. The writers have never seemed interested in exploring everything they have in common, but their scenes always work because of their differences, specifically Callen’s reserve and Deeks’ talkative nature. Here, Deeks couldn’t resist using humor to cut the tension in the interrogation room:
Callen: Best I can tell they are hunting for a Russian mole.
Deeks: So they finally gotcha?
Callen: Not funny.
I also loved Deeks’ repeated use of the nickname Tiger. There’s so much potential between these two. Here’s hoping that post-COVID, we’ll see even more scenes like these.
6. Deeks was hilarious- and competent. Deeks shone in every scene, bringing humor while also managing to remain fully competent (if not entirely comfortable). We’ve already discussed fast-talking Counselor Deeks, but we also got amazing silliness with Kirkin (see below), a quick Hannibal Lecter imitation, and a hilarious verbal warm-up for his pretend screams of pain. I do have to say that those screams, especially once I saw they were paired with a table full of tools, brought back decidedly unfun memories from “Descent,” but I shook them off and enjoyed Sam’s deadpan responses to Deeks’ silliness.
Throughout, though, Deeks did his job well. He talked his way in to see Callen. He convinced Kirkin to help. He recognized the woman on the pier. And he leapt not one but two fences during the chase on the pier. He was so much funnier than the Deeks we saw at FLETC, all while maintaining competence throughout. A huge difference from the same writer.
7. Densi was happy and flirty. Another aspect that felt like it was pulled from the good old days was the Densi. You all know how much I enjoy angst, but it was so refreshing to see these two being silly and flirty together. It felt almost joyful, a real reminder of how much fun these two can be.
Deeks: No! Why does it have to be Kirkin?
Kensi: Because we need someone with legitimate Russian connections.
Deeks: Okay, great. What about Arkady? Everybody loves Arkady.
Kensi: It can’t be Arkady, he has obvious links to Callen.
Deeks: Yeah but Kirkin? Come on, he just, he just makes feel so-
Deeks: Dirty. Like a dirty bird. It doesn’t matter, you know what? It doesn’t matter. Even if you wanted to find him you couldn’t because we have no idea where he is.
Kensi: That’s okay because Fatima already has a location and sent it to you.
Kensi: Sweetie, you are the only one who can convince him to work with us… Baby?
Deeks: Don’t use that voice with me. OK, yeah.
Kensi: Thank you. That’s my baby honeypot.
Deeks: That’s right. I am. I’m your little honeypot. Remember that when he kills me. [hangs up]
Yes, Deeks, everybody does love Arkady. And how hilarious was it that he didn’t even take a breath between warning Kensi not to use her special voice and immediately agreeing to do what she asked. This was well written and played with charm and again, energy, by both Eric Christian Olsen and Daniela Ruah. I can only imagine that they enjoyed doing the scene as much as we enjoyed watching it.
Their antics continued in the completely superfluous scene at the House of Kirkin where Deeks modelled and Kensi enjoyed every second. Her facial expressions and her enjoyment of multiple rounds of champagne just made Deeks’ misery all the funnier. Again, it was refreshing to see her enjoying herself, and it made it fun for us to watch.
8. The guest actors provided interest. Aside from Nicki Micheaux’s Agent Carlson, who seemed like just one more in a long line of humorless officials investigating the team, the episode gave us two really entertaining guest actors in Gerald McRaney as Admiral Kilbride and Ravil Isyanov as Anatoli Kirkin.
I have no idea how Kilbride manages to pop up at the last minute (doesn’t he live in Washington, DC?), but he’s fun so I’ll go with it. His default operating mode of Grumpy Annoyance played well off the team’s shenanigans here. The multiple references to using corpses during an op were funny, as was his biting question about the op’s success: “How’s Masterpiece Theatre working out?” I did laugh out loud at his assessment of Fatima’s generation – “Not everyone got a trophy when I grew up” – even if I wish they’d find a source of humor other than age to use as a running gag.
Kilbride was great, but the episode’s highlight was Kirkin. Kirkin and Deeks (or should I say, Isyanov and ECO) have always had great chemistry. What’s unique about their scenes is the way Kirkin drives them forward while Deeks reacts. When we interviewed Eric, he told us that one of the reasons Linda Hunt is such a pleasure to act with is how she drives the scenes, making for a different dynamic than the one Deeks usually has with Kensi. I see the same dynamic with Kirkin.
Their conversation at the House of Kirkin was amazing. Deeks telling Kirkin that LAPD didn’t fire him, he fired them, showed a little spunk. Kirkin’s telling everyone within earshot that Deeks was now “a very secret agent” reminded me of Roberta’s inability to restrain herself. Throughout the scene, it seemed like Kirkin could barely restrain himself from reaching out to touch Deeks. Adorable and hilarious.
Then in the boatshed, Kirkin’s concern for Deeks’ wellbeing again brought humor. Kirkin is obviously a pretty over the top character (take, for example, his expression when he tells Deeks that “Perhaps we can help each other”), but there’s an element of truth in his feelings for Deeks that makes him feel real. He’s just so darn sincere. It’s not lust, it’s love. And that makes him very sweet. It also makes him a stand-in for a large part of the Deeks-loving audience- it’s almost like he’s voicing our own concerns and feelings.
9. Everything wasn’t tied up by the end. This wasn’t just a case of the week. It has bigger implications, and the fact that the story will continue is hopefully a positive that will make for a more interesting, and impactful, case. Of course, mole storylines don’t have a great history on this show, so we’ll see how it plays out.
10. The pacing was brisk and the dialog fast and furious. Daniela did a fine job her first time in the director’s chair. Once Deeks arrived on scene, she kept the episode moving forward. Gemmill’s writing contributed greatly as well, with his quick-fire dialog keeping us on our toes as we tried to keep up. Parts of the dialog were reminiscent of Gemmill at his best, invoking memories of some of my favorite banter-filled episodes like “Borderline” and “Wanted.”
I also liked the crane shots such as the one Daniela employed in the bullpen that started high, showing the whole setting, and slowly swooped in to give us a closer view of Sam and Fatima. She also worked well with her editors, for example in cutting together the sequence where the mole-catching plot was explained by jumping between Sam and Kilbride in Ops and Kensi and Fatima in the bullpen. It’s a nice way to have more characters talking while maintaining social distance, and one the show has employed previously.
It wasn’t all perfect, of course. There were a few disappointments, but they were so small that they didn’t impact my overall enjoyment of the episode. For example, we didn’t have a single real shot fired, let alone a real boom, and yet this only occurred to me after the fact because the faked shootings offered interest and the overall pacing was so strong.
A few of Daniela’s more experimental choices distracted me, like the close-ups on Callens’ and the Kapitan’s mouths when they were on the phone, or the shots of Kilbride and Fatima speaking straight to camera (those kind of freaked me out).
And I’ll also forgive Sam’s apparent name change, even though you all know how I feel about canon consistency. We’ve seen screen shots (thanks Alyssa) of Sam’s service record with the name Samuel, but if the show-runners want to make this change now, I’ll go with it. Alyssa also reminded me that the imam in “Unleashed” called him Osama, so perhaps Sam changed it when his faith became more important to him. (Or, maybe he was jealous of his partner getting a new name, and Deeks getting a middle name, and he wanted in on the fun?)
Despite these distractions, the episode offered nothing but fun and energy. In fact, I don’t even want to count the number of times I’ve used the word “fun” here. It was a throwback to old times, to the show we all fell in love with. It was heartening to see that they can still produce this high level of work and I hope we’ll see more of it in the future.
- Callen requesting coffee from his interrogator across the table reminded me of Deeks doing the same with Whiting in Gemmill’s “Internal Affairs.”
- Callen’s words to Agent Carlson about her imaginary theories, “I bet you write fan fiction in your spare time” felt like some sort of message, although I have no idea what. My response would be that sometimes we fan fiction writers need to come up with our own “imaginary theories” because the show’s writers refuse to fill in the blanks.
- So the Squid & Dagger is in Venice. I thought Deeks had originally mentioned a place on the Eastside when he was talking about buying a bar, but perhaps that was before he’d found the S&D. How sad though, that he’s still planning to sell it. Come on, Beale- fix this problem now!
- Even the set dressers had fun- the House of Kirkin was spectacular.
- Again I have to ask where was Nell? But in addition, where was Beale? Where was Rountree?
I hope you enjoyed “Russia, Russia, Russia” as much as I did. Tell us all about it in the Comments below.
And be sure to come back later this week for new installments of Kensi’s Journal and Deeks’ Surf Log, plus a preview of next week’s new episode, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”