In the second of this week’s NCIS: Los Angeles double-feature, writer Eric Christian Olsen followed up his stellar debut episode, “Mother,” with another strong outing that featured great performances from LL Cool J and Gerald McRaney and a gripping final act aided by strong directing from none other than Daniela Ruah, making her fourth appearance behind the show’s cameras.
Escape from the Devil
The episode’s cold opening featured standout directing decisions, beginning with a start in complete darkness that left us struggling to get our bearings as we listened to the fear-filled words of what turned out to be a whistleblower and his DEA protector. Once the lights came up, Dani kept the disorientation going with a bleached-out transition into blinding sunlight, followed by the heavy use of hand-held cameras that left me feeling like I was right there on the roof with the two men, and then down on the street below.
The most interesting aspect of this scene was the relative lack of conversation. Our whistleblower said nothing of substance the entire time, yet he completely conveyed his desperation to escape his fate. One line of dialog I only made out on a second viewing was the cartel assassin’s voice on the other side of the door, asking what would become her trademark question: “Do you believe in the devil?”
This scene was the only one for the whistleblower until the episode’s end. Given his near-complete absence, it was remarkable how much I came to care about his fate. I think that’s thanks to how passionately the team – particularly Sam and Kilbride – conveyed their desire to save him. And if they want something badly, then I usually badly want them to have it because I care about them. In this case, it was also the right thing to do, a theme that carried throughout the episode.
Sparking Joy and Demo Days
After the opening, the episode settled into a relatively standard case of the week structure and feel. Delightfully, we got almost a full-team banter session in the bullpen. It felt like old times to see them joking around, and to see so many smiles. I actually don’t know how much of the smiling was from the characters, and how much was from the actors, who must have enjoyed shooting a throwback, although Callen-less, scene that’s sadly become rare in COVID times. The best line was Sam’s sarcastic, “A detective at the height of his powers!” I’m happy Beale gave them all checks, but again I have to point out that he probably owes Deeks way more than $10,000 thanks to his early-stage investments in his various business ventures. Come on Beale, save the bar before the sale goes through!
I also must point out my increasing, um, maybe boredom is the best word, with millennial jokes and L.A. complaints. I get it- the newbies are young, Kilbride is old and curmudgeonly. I’d just like to see the group as a whole find new topics of conversation. This brand of humor carried through the whole episode, but I’ll try to confine my complaints about it to this one.
Deeks and Kensi were largely used as comic relief. I can only imagine how many other things Dani and ECO had to manage during this process, and while I’d have loved another scene like the bomb room scene from “Mother,” I largely enjoyed their banter throughout the episode. Their conversation about how to spend the money had a sweet ending. Good job Kensi for telling Deeks that he is “incredibly thoughtful.” He needs all the positive affirmations he can get. (Plus, it’s totally true.)
I also enjoyed the home improvement banter, especially the pay-off line from the Bomb Squad guy that “Everybody loves demo day.” HGTV is also one of my go-to channels. It’s especially fitting for ECO to insert it given his own appearance on the network’s House Hunters. The dead guy as air bag was funny, and gave ECO a chance to give himself Deeks’ second line closing out an act, with his “”I hate demo day” remark. (The other was “Well that’s not like, foreboding at all” when they learned they were being watched.)
Do the Right Thing
The episode’s primary theme (if we don’t count that millennials are young and Kilbride is old) was that of doing the right thing. ECO used many characters to beautifully explore it. We had the obvious bad guys, starting with gun manufacturer Carlyle Huntington, played by Dan Gauthier. Gauthier made this guy about as smug and smarmy as he could, which made him easy to hate if not a little cartoonish. Huntington was the first to describe the ep’s theme when he explained the presence of the two cartel men at the restaurant:
Gentlemen, if we do legally sell weapons and they somehow illegally get smuggled into Mexico, then I would imagine the buyers in Mexico would do everything they can to preserve that supply chain. People who have a very different idea than us about what’s right, or wrong.
He identified himself as a good guy even though Sam and Rountree saw him for the profiteer he was. I loved (and laughed out loud at) Rountree point blank telling him, “I don’t like you.”
For me, Huntington really became interesting when Kilbride confronted him and Huntington spewed the truth about the situation as he saw it, exposing where his moral compass lay. He simply didn’t see the point in doing the right thing, because he didn’t believe it could change anything. It would only get him killed by the cartel, who were monitoring his every move. As Kilbride told him, “This is about people who choose financial gain over human decency.” In other words, people who fail to do the right thing.
Huntington was joined on the bad guy side by two female assassins. Neither of these women showed any remorse at their actions. The first took pleasure in taunting her victims. (Did you notice Rountree and Talia passing her on the apartment building’s stairs? I wasn’t sure until I rewound.) The second, who doubled as Huntington’s attorney, was willing to sacrifice her freedom to carry out the cartel’s wishes. I had to wonder if she might have had the same dilemma as Miguel Flores, with a family at risk back in Mexico.
The most interesting characters were the two who struggled with their decision to do the right thing: Flores and whistleblower Martin Henderson. Here’s how ECO described it at Paleyfest:
We know what it feels like to make a bad decision. And when we continue to make that bad decision, and find identity in it, we become the villain of the story. And every opportunity, every moment, is a chance to turn it all around. And when we speak the truth, or stand up to what we know is wrong, thatʻs that moment, and then we have the opportunity to be the hero of the story.
Flores had to overcome his drive to protect his family to try to save Henderson’s life and impact the greater good. Henderson risked (and gave) his life as well. Their sacrifices were at the heart of the episode and generated its big emotional impact. The way their fates were tied together made the ending all the more heartbreaking. They were the heroes of the story, but tragic heroes whose efforts failed.
Lastly we had the good guys, our team, who of course tried their best to save Henderson and dish out justice. Kilbride suffered his own crisis of conscience over the silencing of Henderson’s recording. In the end, he did the best he could to do the right thing (to fulfill his “moral obligation”) and spread Henderson’s message.
Living Free but Dying Tragically
From the moment we met Flores, his plight brought a human element to the story that our absent whistleblower hadn’t yet done. Goya Robles, who played Flores, was fantastic, a combination of resignation and vulnerability, and his appearance was the first sign of ratcheting tension.
Shortly thereafter, things started to really escalate with the confrontation between Kilbride and Huntington. This was an A Few Good Men-level showdown amidst withering dialog. Kilbride exercising his psyops experience to pull Huntington’s mother (a woman who tried to make the world a better place) into the conversation really took things up a notch. Lines like these had my undivided attention:
Kilbride: Must be fun, being on that side of the table. Not to care about anything but yourself. Sociopathic capitalist, a narcissistic civilian parasite that’s sucking the blood from the dying carcass of the American dream…
Huntington: Wow, there it is. Sanctimonious military hypocrisy. How high and mighty you must feel, flying your moral authority under the banner of American principles. Don’t act like you and your people don’t have the blood of thousands of innocents on your hands.
Kilbride: At least we’re on the right side of history.
Huntington: Well you’re lying to yourself. This is a country born in genocide. There hasn’t been a good war since the Great War. So you know what? Go ahead and dress up in your fancy military blues and act like your kills are justified, but you are just another cog in the war machine…
Kilbride: Your dead mother in heaven know what you’ve become?… [She] dedicated her life to making the world a better place… I know that she is weeping in heaven because what you are is an abomination.
The acting here was first-rate. Gerald McRaney must have had so much fun with this dialog. And Gauthier nicely shifted his smarminess to honest contempt for people who claimed to be “on the right side of history.” The direction and editing here were impeccable, and succeeded in completely drawing me into the confrontation. The scene also marked the beginning of a real crescendo of tension as the team raced to save Henderson.
With Huntington’s gruesome demise, attentions shifted to Flores as the lone person who might be able to shed light on Henderson’s location. Here, LL Cool J got a fantastic monologue:
I do understand! I understand. I understand that you probably don’t remember a time you weren’t working for the cartel. That they take care of your family. That they put food on the table. That they helped you cross the border. That they helped you join the military and through that you got dual citizenship. That as conflicted as you may feel about what you do for them? It doesn’t matter because they own you. I can’t speak to that. Those sins are tied to the circumstances of your birth. All I know is right now, you have the power to save an innocent man’s life. And maybe at the same time, end the flow of weapons going into the hands of the same monsters that own you and your family… Usually, the hardest thing to do, and the right thing to do, are the same thing.
The dialog reiterated the episode’s theme, and tied in the title by showing us how Miguel had never been able to truly “live free.” LL’s intensity matched McRaney’s in the prior scene. I think he is such an underrated actor, and Sam is the anchor of the team at this point. It was great to see him get such a nice chance to really shine.
And then the bullets started to fly. And the fire! The sense of urgency Sam and Kilbride conveyed had me really invested in saving Henderson, even though we had barely heard him speak. Tragically, he didn’t survive, but Kilbride made sure his words were heard by at least those who’d fought to save him. And his video recording was heartbreaking as it addressed his reasons for trying to do the right thing, and confirming that Sam was right about how hard it is to do just that:
Believe me. I did not want to be a whistleblower, but I can’t look at another picture of a burned corpse or a bus of dead students or bodies hanging off the side of a bridge without acknowledging that I played a role in this. I’m the son of a pastor and a preschool teacher. I’m the father of two beautiful girls. I spent twenty years in the Navy, fighting for this amazing country but I’ve spent the last ten years justifying my silence in the face of something I knew was wrong. We all know that feeling. It’s that cold, dull guilt that eats away at your soul as you fall asleep. Money doesn’t set you free from that. Only the truth does. Speak the truth, and the dawn will come.
Henderson evoked the episode’s title as well, telling us that he had found freedom (and sadly, death) through his decision to do the right thing. The calm camera work and editing as it cut back and forth to all the characters taking in his words was beautifully done. Again, LL provided tremendous gravitas as he reacted to hearing the video as he sat with Henderson’s body. Even the music supported the emotion of the moment, soaring to a rather cinematic level. All in all it was a tremendously effective final act, and achieved a level of intensity the show rarely hits.
- I was impressed with the speed with which the assassin managed to behead the DEA agent. As I recall from Season 2’s “Special Delivery,” according to Deeks, “It takes time to sever a limb, besides being incredibly, you know, messy.” The image also unfortunately conjured up the bad guy whom ECO chopped in half in “Mother.” Yikes!
- The gruesomeness continued with Huntington’s demise. Was Kilbride foreshadowing his death when he described Columbian neckties? It seemed like the attorney-assassin came pretty close to creating one. I like to think all the blood is ECO’s small tribute to Frank Military.
- I loved how ECO wrote Deeks in as the driver on the way to Lancaster.
- The one instance of handheld camera use that didn’t work for me was when Sam and Rountree took down the cartel men in the restaurant. I know the quick cuts and camera movements convey action, but I prefer to more clearly see the fight choreography so I can appreciate it fully (and judge how well it’s done). Something like Eric Pot’s awesome slo-mo from “Sorry for Your Loss” is my kind of fight scene.
- And let’s not forget Talia. I’ve ever been a big fan and can’t help but think about how we’d gauge her actions if the genders were reversed. But I did kind of enjoy seeing her flummox Rountree and I appreciate Mercedes Mason’s ability to command a scene.
- The movie and TV references just flew by and included Top Gun, The Matrix, John Wick, Karate Kid, Cocoon, Dumb and Dumber (or was it Dumb and Dumberer?), and Fixer Upper.
The contrast between the relatively light first half of the episode and the darker, more intense second half reminded me of a question we asked ECO in our Q&A with ECO video series, about how he balanced comedy and drama. He said:
I think that drama works the best when our emotional walls are down as an audience member, and I think that if it’s just strictly drama, sometimes we have self-preservation emotionally, which doesn’t allow us to experience the true lows and highs of what the story is. So I think that comedy defuses that, and allows us to open ourselves, and therefore we experience the drama in a much more real way. But, the other side of that is the balance of… you never want the comedy to take away from the stakes of what it is that’s happening. So it’s a constant struggle to see if it goes too far or detracts from the plot or the rising tension, or whatever it is that we’re doing for the dramatic through-line of the episode.
I’d say he balanced these elements quite well, leaving me open to experiencing all the emotion of the story’s end. I can only hope we’ll see more writing and directing from this talented duo next season. In the meantime, be sure to come back later this week for new editions of Deeks’ Surf Log and Kensi’s Journal, plus a preview of the upcoming 300th episode! Before you go, tell us what you thought about “Live Free or Die Standing.”