Review: NCISLA “Murmuration” (S13E12)
Nice to be with you again for a review of this very interesting episode!
The official preview of “Murmuration,” written by Samantha Chasse and directed by James Hanlon (who has directed so many of my favorite episodes, including “The Grey Man”), said that “The NCIS team investigates an unidentified aircraft that flies into U.S. airspace and crashes into a Navy plane.” That sounded interesting enough, but the reality of the case was actually much more fascinating and more than a little disturbing – for several reasons.
With the title as a clue and some recent events that have had drone shows for entertainment, it seemed likely to me when the single object split into many objects that this was a group of drones. Without that foreshadowing, the crew on the USS Allegiance and the team in OPS took a little longer to arrive at that suspicion. And rightfully so, because William deVry as Navy Captain Lombardo/XO (who was born in Canada and whom I totally remember watching on Earth: Final Conflict) and the Army Futures Command folks looked very suspicious and based on the ending – I’m not convinced we don’t see them again… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The other part of the preview described Kensi and Deeks’ continued path towards parenthood. And since this site is focused on Deeks, it seems fair to give that theme in this episode a little attention before fully exploring the case. As a viewer of a (ahem) certain age, I absolutely loved the toys Deeks was buying. I don’t recall the Oregon Trail video game or the toy gun, but I know either I or my friends had all the rest of the toys Deeks ordered. I’m imagining there was some fun and childhood reminiscences from folks of a similar vintage in the writing room as they tossed around ideas of what to include. (I also couldn’t help remembering “What’s in the box???” – but that’s a topic for another day.)
Aside from the fun of hearing the “best of” vintage toys, it did break my heart a little to see Deeks trying just a little too hard to be the “fun dad” so their future child would like him. It fits with his history of adverse childhood experiences and his tendency towards being a clown as a coping strategy. But it’s also deeper than that, in my opinion. There are lots of gaps (big gaping holes, really – that might be solved with a Deeks, M. episode – hint, hint) in our understanding of Deeks’ relationship with his father, but clearly, he didn’t like the man, since he shot him. While being a clown is a way of coping with the past, a painful childhood often resurfaces when parenting as some of those past experiences and memories become current fears. Such as, “I didn’t like my dad…. Will this kid like me??” – which becomes “How do I try hard enough to make this kid like me?”
I’d love to know if there are folks in the writers’ room who have a background in psychology who ensure there is some coherence in how those unspoken, but clearly evident, parts of the characters are portrayed, or if it’s more that they know these characters so well by now that this portrayal just flows from their knowledge of the character without actively trying to link all the psychological aspects of past and present. I also can’t help but wonder how much the actors contribute to this process from their own experience? ECO has young children so he undoubtedly understands some of the challenges of becoming a parent that prompt you to examine yourself, your past, and your fears.
In my imagination, it’s a combination of all of the above that leads to these characterizations that are not a large part of the episode, but that continue to develop the character we here know and love. I couldn’t help but think that it’s kind of amazing that they’re still adding meaningful depth and layers to Deeks after 13 seasons. I guess that’s the ultimate rebuttal to folks like me that have wanted that Deeks, M. episode for years. Do that episode too soon and you rob yourself of the slow character build that continues to add richness and depth season after season. (Of course, 13 seasons in would be a good time for this episode…just sayin’.)
I also thought Kensi’s response to the toys and Deeks trying so hard to make sure the kids like him was sweet, but I don’t want to take up too much space on this part of the review, so perhaps you could share your thoughts in the comments while I get back to the case.
I normally appreciate how the guest cast just jump in and seamlessly integrate alongside the main cast, but in this case I kind of wondered if the pilot wasn’t played a little over the top. Why was he so jittery? I mean, yes, it was kind of a freaky situation. But I feel like you don’t get to be flying an F-35 solo without having nerves of steel, right? I’m in the medical field, so I think of crisis situations that involve life/death and I’ve never seen someone that flustered no matter how badly things have gone sideways (and by sideways in my world I do mean catastrophic deaths). Besides needing and having nerves of steel when you work in high intensity environments, usually people have an external persona of calm that they project while at work, so they’d be more likely to fall apart at home, if at all. It’s part of why suicides are more common in medical and military folks. I’m not saying that’s right, but it is the reality that folks hide how they’re feeling so they can do their work and maintain their professional image. I understand Sam and Callen were not direct colleagues, but they were all military. I’m just not sure why he couldn’t hold a cup of water the next day. Am I being too harsh?
I had a similar thought about Fatima in OPS when Rountree asks her if she’s done this before (when discussing how she was going to try to take control of the drone swarm) and she says “no” with a very worried look on her face. I felt like that was all wrong. Women working in male-dominated fields like tech and the military have to prove themselves over and over and are much more likely to make sure their male colleagues never see them sweat than to show obvious lack of confidence like that. If I was in the director’s chair (lol), I would have had her play that as bold and confident almost to the point of being arrogant: “No, but I’ve figured more complex stuff out before” (which she has!!) and if there was self-doubt, to have that be expressed in body language after Rountree leaves. Kensi has done that many times in difficult situations and I wish they would have taken that approach with Fatima here.
The way the AI in the drone storm was described was honestly a little terrifying. I didn’t have the time to research machine learning and drone AI before writing this, so I’m hoping this was just some sci-fi-ish riff on the Borg (Star Trek humanoid/machine combination villainous aliens that are always learning, for the non-Trekkies). If there really are drones with AI that can learn like this and potentially go rogue, please feel free to discuss in the comments and just start your comment with “Brenda don’t read this!!” (Just kidding – sort of. I want there not to be evil drones in the world yet. It’s bad enough with evil humans right now).
I’m trying to remember if we’ve ever had an episode that had such an unsettling ending, where the case isn’t really solved at all, and not in a “to be continued” way, just “drop it.” Kilbride tells Fatima the truth, but it seemed to me that the whole team doesn’t seem to know exactly what happened. Obviously, the general public was lied to about the “weather balloons.” The XO and the Army Futures people were introduced but didn’t really play a huge role, so that seemed like a set-up for the future – especially because they were all so obviously suspicious, shady with a little bit of an evil vibe. It doesn’t seem to me that this is the end of this drone swarm, but also not a completely clear foreshadowing of an arc with the swarm or the XO/Army Futures people as the villain, like in Season 3 with Janvier. We knew we were going to see him over and over until he was finally dead, even after he was caught and in prison. This is less clear and I was just left with this vague sense of unease like something really bad is going to happen with these things in the future. Did you all feel that way too or is this me projecting some Earth: Future Conflict vibes because I’m locked in on an earlier character played by guest DeVry?
The final scene with the stars on the ceiling was beautiful and a nice way to come full circle to the opening scene with the toys. Kensi and Deeks lying there looking at the stars in awe was really beautiful and exactly the kind of contented togetherness I always wished for in the years before they were dating.
I loved that they included a murmuration of birds in one of the scenes. It’s beautiful and also seemed to me to be a little bit of a hint that we humans sometimes make things worse when we try to mimic parts of the natural world with our inventions. A bird murmuration is beautiful and not harmful, but a rogue drone murmuration – truly terrifying.
Because of all of these factors, the massive number of stars on the ceiling at the end made me just a bit uneasy because I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a hint that the drone swarm was coming back bigger and badder in a future episode, or if I was just reliving my past cinematic encounters with the Borg and seeing evil machines instead of focusing on the stars.
I’d love to hear what you think in the comments! Don’t forget to come back later this week for Deeks’ Surf Log and Kensi’s Journal too! See you then….
I need to add something about the writing of this episode (AARRGGH – you think you’ve focused on everything you want and then it’s published and you see a gap!!).
I thought this episode was brilliantly written. Aside from my little “complaints” above, I was so impressed at how interesting, engaging and suspenseful this episode was. I feel like at some point this might be a memorable or pivotal episode in a future storyline.
Sometimes the writing seems to steer you away from one suspect and towards another. I felt that it was equally possible that the drones were operated by a sinister group as well as that the XO/Army Futures people were somehow involved. As I mentioned, I found the drone swarm very unsettling, largely because the threat was so unclear. Defined enemies/challenges are easier to manage than those that have fuzzy edges. This episode had a lot of “fuzzy edges” in the threat and the real nature of the villain, which is why I suspect this is the start of an arc. But it was brilliantly written in a way that achieved that vague sense of unease despite the happy stars on the ceiling at the end, and for that I give kudos to Ms. Chasse!!
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Excellent review, Brenda. Glad to have you back. I found this episode strangely satisfying. The ending helped. Kensi and Deeks staring up at a ceiling full of stars gave me a weird sense of hope. But I was also struck by the contrast between Deeks’ vintage toys and the scary futuristic drones. That early scene didn’t really make sense to me until the end. Contrasting the familiar with the unfamiliar world just over the horizon. Old things can be comforting.
For me this episode highlighted what this show does so well, the contrast between the dangerous world of espionage and end of the world stuff they deal with every day, and the personal, close to home concerns that make these characters so relatable. Now I want stars on my ceiling.
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Yes!! It was totally unsettling but also strangely satisfying.
I didn’t comment on the toys/drones because I was a little more intrigued with the Borg vibes and the presence of a sci-fi actor in the guest cast (though I didn’t recognize him immediately, but when I looked him up I was like – thaaat’s where I know him from) and I didn’t want to go on too long. But I’m glad you mentioned that, because the toys did seem kind of random at the beginning, but so clever in how they wove it all together. As you say, it’s so well-written in the contrasts between the dangerous and the mundane.
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Thank you Brenda, enjoyed your article..I have to say I enjoyed last week and this weeks episodes..I have always enjoyed the banter between kensi and Deeks..it interesting to how nervous Deeks is about making the right impression to adopt..of course with his background , I can see why..loved when kensi shot Deeks with the toy gun..love those light moments, and also loved them looking at the stars on the ceiling..cute..looking forward to upcoming episodes, especially with Eric writing and Dani directing, and Talia in the mix..thanks for listening
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Thanks Brenda, great review! Thanks especially for tying Deeks’ fear about his kids not liking him back to his childhood. His fear had struck me as out of character given his extensive history of bonding with children during cases, but I can see now how, although he is of course great with kids, he might not recognize that in himself, particularly given his childhood and its resulting issues of self-doubt.
I agree about the silent Army Futures people being creepy, and the case did hold my interest. I do wish we’d actually get more classic bad guys that we get to know and to hate and fear. Perhaps they’ll develop this storyline more in the future and we’ll get some creepy people who also get a few lines of dialog. 🙂
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