Review: NCISLA “Survival of the Fittest” (S14E07)
There may be little sign of a backstory-heavy “Deeks, M.” episode so far this season, but we have been gifted with some really great Deeks scenes offering insight into how his father impacted him and his mom, and how his own chance at fatherhood is impacting him today. This week’s NCIS: Los Angeles episode, “Survival of the Fittest,” written by Andrew Bartels and directed by Eric Pot, gave us two wonderful Domestic Deeks scenes, and an episode that revolved around the emotional well-being of our favorite investigator.
The Emotional Center
I don’t think I can ask more than for Deeks to be at the emotional center of any given episode, and this episode certainly placed him there. Although we’ve been a bit lacking in Densi this season, part of the reason this episode could focus so exclusively on Deeks was because Kensi (and Daniela Ruah) was away, and I enjoyed seeing Deeks’ needs highlighted.
We started with an apron-clad Deeks “killin’ it,” happily making breakfast and lunch for Rosa. One of the best lines from the episode was Deeks referring to himself as “Dad” (“Dad’s out here killin’ it”). It’s a one-word indication that he’s gotten everything he ever wanted. And that he is in fact killing it, savoring the everyday routine that includes a sit-down breakfast with his daughter.
When it turned out Rosa (played by Natalia del Riego) was in no shape to enjoy breakfast, Deeks leapt into action, offering a rambling menu of potential remedies. Poor Rosa just wanted her mom’s soup and comfort, and Deeks responded from the heart, with compassion and love, telling her he was sorry her mom wasn’t there, and that he wished he’d met her. Then he told her he loved her and laid that sweet kiss on her forehead. The clear affection between them communicated how close they’ve become in a relatively short time. This opening sequence showed us that Deeks is exactly the father he always wanted to be, but doubted that he could become (not that we ever doubted it).
Deeks clearly hated to leave Rosa, especially knowing she’d be subjected to Roberta’s shenanigans, but he had a job to do. His day didn’t noticeably improve when he left home, as he became subject to Kilbride’s wrath on his arrival at OSP, was reminded by the victim’s mother of how much worse his worry over Rosa could become if she were more seriously ill, and had to man the computers in Ops, where he felt like a fish out of water.
Thankfully, Roberta (played by Pamela Reed) had tired herself out and was in more of a mood to listen as Deeks got home and told her about his crappy day. We’ve seen Deeks regularly fret and worry over all assortment of things, and Kensi regularly tries to comfort him. Yet there was something different about the way he just unloaded all his worries on his mom. I think it’s because with Kensi, he worries more about her than himself, so is reluctant to be completely transparent about his concerns because he doesn’t want to burden her. It’s why this episode would have played out so differently if Kensi had been there.
This certainly wasn’t the first time a conversation like this has played out between Deeks and his mom. It conjured images of similar conversations they must have had when Deeks was a child and an adolescent. The history between them felt almost tangible in that moment. And Roberta providing just the comfort Deeks needed was a beautiful way to end the episode. The repetition of the forehead kiss, the “I love you’s,” her running her fingers through his hair. Seeing how well it all worked to actually make Deeks feel better brought a tear to my eye. This is a man who’s dealt with so much trauma in his life, and dealt with a lot of that trauma on his own. Seeing that he has the support of a family around him now makes me very happy for him.
Consistency and Conflict
OK, I did say I couldn’t ask for more than Deeks being the episode’s emotional center, but, well, maybe I can ask for a little more? You all know that I always want Deeks to be portrayed as competent, and for all the characters to be, you know, in character. Let’s talk about how these things played out in the episode.
We can start with Kilbride. If you’re just describing him in broad strokes, you could say that he’s consistently been characterized as grumpy, patriotic, and regretful over how he prioritized his job over his family. In some ways he’s been one of the most consistently drawn characters on the show.
But it’s that grumpiness I’m going to quibble with. Sometimes Kilbride is like a grumpy grandfather who’s really quite fond of his grandkids. Other times he’s like the angriest person we’ve ever met, whose blood pressure must be through the roof due to the amount of hatred he carries in his heart. I think part of the vacillation I see with his character is based on how much any given writer feels the need to introduce conflict within the NCIS group, as opposed to letting them function like a smoothly running team whose conflict only lies with the bad guys. He’s a convenient foil.
This week, it felt like Bartels wanted to make Deeks’ whole day pretty bad. Since this set up the beautiful scene of comfort at the end, I have no complaints about this arc (you know I love the angst). But I do think that these agents and investigator have to always wonder which version of Kilbride they’re going to encounter on any given day. It can’t inspire trust, or reduce their stress. And it makes me as a viewer just a little confused over exactly what to think of this man. Should I feel fondness for his curmudgeonly qualities? Or should I actively dislike him for being so genuinely mean?
In this case, obviously he jumped on Deeks without bothering to find out the cause of his lateness, prompting his non-apology apology at the end of the episode. His reaction over what time someone starts work, out of everything he could be angry about, seemed even more confusing given the entire season’s comings and goings of team members who show up at random times because of the show’s welcome new focus on the characters’ personal lives, and the need to account for missing cast members. Didn’t Kensi recently just change her mind entirely about working for a day when she got to the mission and then turned around to drive home and greet Roberta? Before Kilbride lights into another person for being late, I’d suggest he set some clearer ground rules around his expectations.
Kilbride’s hostility brought back unwelcome memories of how disdainfully Mosley treated Deeks at times. But she only sent him back to LAPD, she never made him man the computers all by himself in Ops. (Thank goodness for Janice!) Here’s where the question of competence comes in. Of course Deeks is “not built for Ops,” so he struggled to handle the job requirements there. I couldn’t tell if we were supposed to find his struggles amusing. He seemed so miserable that I only felt bad for him. Hopefully that’s what Bartels intended, because putting Deeks in a position to fail and then mocking him for it would not be a welcome development.
One reason this move felt potentially mean-spirited is how Rountree has been able to take care of all the Ops requirements without any apparent background in information technology or intelligence analysis. Of course, this is the result of sending Beale and Nell away and replacing them with random field agents, but it made Deeks’ struggles feel a little unfair (not to mention minimizing the skill of those original teammates). On the other hand, if Deeks had come in and smoothly run the place, it would have truly been out of character, so in the end I’m OK with the scenes themselves.
It did make Kilbride’s decision to send Deeks there feel lacking in judment, potentially putting the team in harm’s way or making it more difficult for them to catch the bad guys. Kilbride seemed to prioritize punishing Deeks over accomplishing the mission, despite the pressure he was getting from the higher ups.
At least he kind of apologized for his tantrum. While I found the framing of the conversation between the lines of the metal screen distracting, I could watch Gerald McCraney and Eric Christian Olsen talk to each other like that all day. We didn’t really learn anything new about Kilbride, but at least he had the good grace to acknowledge his bad behavior. Watching Deeks listen to him talk reminded me of everything ECO has shared about the importance of listening in acting. He was absolutely glued to Kilbride’s every word, which made me listen even more carefully. Sadly, I saw a wariness there that came from being screamed at earlier in the day. It almost felt like a pattern Deeks may have experienced with his dad, who might very well have semi-apologized for losing his temper when Deeks was a child.
By the way, if Kilbride was trying to be encouraging, he needs to try a little harder. Telling Deeks that he didn’t envy his efforts to balance job and family felt a little hostile, even if he has confidence that Deeks can do it. But referring to Rosa as “your daughter” was another lovely little way to reinforce that Deeks is actually a father. And by the way, Admiral, you really should be more impressed with Deeks because he is, in fact, killing it as a dad balancing job and family.
- The opening sequence’s cool slow motion, blurred motion, and warped sound immediately reminded me why Eric Pot is one of my favorite NCIS:LA directors. He made the opening much more intense than it would have been without those effects.
- And oh yeah, there was a case. It was fine, but light on the action and any sense the team was in actual danger. Pot’s talents directing action scenes were sadly underutilized with this particular story.
- I like those plates at the Deeks-Blye-Reyes household. They look like the ocean.
- If you’re interested in the soup Rosa mentioned, here’s an article on caldos.
- The budding scientists with their unusual implants were actually quite fun.
- That sure was some handy evidence in the van- a fully powered up laptop with a non-password protected screen with an open article implicating the bad guy.
- I was intrigued by the messy house while Kensi was away because it seemed out of character for Deeks. I started to think it was caused by Roberta, and that maybe Roberta’s innate messiness had actually led to Deeks’ love of neatness, but Roberta actually made the observation of how messy it was. When Deeks took a moment to put away a bunch of files on Callen’s desk, it confused me further. I took the whole thing as Deeks prioritizing fatherhood over neatness.
- Roberta was right- Paul Newman was amazing. The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are my favorites. The only thing better than Paul Newman is Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
- I wanted to send thoughts out to little Pilar. Not sure if we’ll ever hear what happened to her, but I hope she’s doing well.
That’s more than enough from me! Come back later this week for new editions of Deeks’ Surf Log, Kensi’s Journal, and the Drabble of the Week, and come back this weekend for a preview of next Sunday’s new episode. In the meantime, what did you think of “Survival of the Fittest”? Tell us all about it in the Comments below!
I loved this episode, except for the scene with Kilbride chastising Deeks – he really is mean-mouthed – overall, he has said some really harsh things about Hettie, too. I was glad to see his semi-apology scene, even though he should have apologized for his mean-mouth when he was yelling at Deeks – I think some of that dialogue at the end is leading to us finding more and more about Kilbride’s personal life. I loved the ending scene with Deeks and his Mom. They are both such fine actors.
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Excellent review! I absolutely loved the moments between Deeks and Rosa and his mom. As I made very clear on my tumblr, I thought Kilbride was massively out of line. My personal theory is that his extreme response to Deeks was a combination of several things. Kilbride was already on edge from a rough morning, needed someone to unload his anger on and Deeks was the most convenient of those present, and finally, Deeks reminds Kilbride of his own son in some ways.
Your suggestion about Deeks’ dad possibly apologizing, or showing some remorse, in a similar way is intriguing. Although I enjoy being righteously angry on Deeks’ behalf, I hope Kilbride truly realizes the error of his ways.
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Lovely review for the best episode of the season. Your insight into the interaction between Deeks and Kilbride made me wonder if they are going to explore their relationship more closely. Placing a screen between them as Kilbride apologized was intriguing. It emphasized their differences, and made me wonder, as you mentioned, that Deeks might well have heard something similar in his childhood. But it also made me wonder if this was how Kilbride treated his own son. It shed light on both characters, and I really hope they explore it more deeply. It makes for heightened turmoil and drama, and quite possibly a future conflict.
The best scene by far was the last. It mirrored the earlier scene Deeks had with his daughter. Mama Deeks realizing her son was feverish and doing her mama thing. Touching. The direction here was wonderful…full of closeup shots and tenderness. Just what I needed on a cold night.
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I agree with Lindy 100%. This was a really well written and well directed episode and and the ending was just perfect! I too was curious of the interplay between Deeks and Kilbride. This is their second conversation he had with Deeks dealing with parenting. Maybe it is time to bring his son into the picture and relieve some of the guilt. As far as his demeanor with his grumpiness – it is who he is as a leader and Admiral. Hetty was not exactly a smiley guy either. She wasn’t as grumpy but she was very aloof and she did her fair share of scolding the team members. Overall the writing is improving as we are allowed to see their personal lives intertwined with their work lives. I still miss the four of them bantering in the bullpen! Imagine them discussing Callen’s wedding, Deeks and Kensi as parents, Sam and his dad. There is a lot of material here to explore. The episodes are improving very much and it is so sad that they cannot be enjoyed at an earlier time frame.
Come on CBS you can do better for these great actors than 10:30 on a Sunday night! As an aside Roundtree and Fatima have really grown on me. Roundtree teams up well with Deeks.
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Great review, Karen. Loved Deeks cooking breakfast….loved my dad, but the only thing he could ever cook me for breakfast was oatmeal, lol. Didn’t ECO go to a culinary school very early in his acting career? I thought I saw that in an article somewhere.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Roberta was my favorite recurring character and loved her and Deeks’ closing scene in “Flesh and Blood”, and the first scene this week with those two, plus Deek’s caring for a sick Rosa, were wonderful. But the closing scene with mother and son was…oh. the. feels. Like most of you I’m wishing for intimate Densi scenes soon, but a tender one with Roberta and Deeks ending this episode definitely tides me over in a pinch.
Liked Sam and Callen during this case, and the boatshed scenes with the snake were amusing. But remembering how his half sister Alex was – even though we haven’t seen her or Jake for some time – makes me wonder if she’d actually agree for her son to own such a large snake. Especially one named Houdini who can escape from his glass pen pretty frequently.
Kilbride’s non – apology, apology actually rang true to his character for me. There are times that he reminds me of Granger in the early seasons, in that he’s also so crusty that it’s hard for him to really give a direct “I’m sorry” type of apology. And I agree with Lindy D and Em that Deeks probably reminds Kilbride in some ways of his own son. I believe it subconsciously might have begun with Kilbride last season with that wonderful talk he and Deeks had in “Hard for the Money” when Kilbride opened up about his estrangement with his son.
Deek’s absence in earlier episodes, and now Kensi’s absence in this one, would have been a great time to have it explained once or twice in that they were further investigating Pilar’s background, like Deeks did last season in going down to Guatemala to get info on Rosa. The reason given here on Kensi’s absence (Quantico) and the lack of mentioning Pilar at all this season is convincing me that the show writers have dropped that storyline. Which IMO is a shame.
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Forgot to ask this earlier…is having crunchy peanut butter when you’re sick really a thing? Frankly I had never heard of this before, but then I am of the “7-UP and saltine crackers” generation.
Thanks, Karen for another great review! It was an excellent episode overall. I loved it starting with chef Deeks and I especially liked the camera and shots showing Deeks preparing breakfast. It looked like he knew what he was doing. The same with the shots through the metal screen! It accentuated the kind of uneasiness between those two still lingering from Kilbride’s outburst from the morning. However, I do not expect to have any clash between them in the future. I think that Kilbride is the most private with Deeks as I do not remember him talking to anybody else about his son and their estranged (or lack of) relationship.
The touching scenes with Roberta were great. They could bitch about each other but the love they share is so deep. They have made each better person. The scenes with Rosa were so sweet and warm and we saw one of the best versions of Deeks – as a father.
I also haven’t found Deeks working from the OPS incompetent. Struggling yes, but incompetent no! Even Callen and Sam were suitably impressed with Deeks’ handling of things and info from there. He was there as punishment but he showed that (eventually) he could handle that too.
Deeks was so wonderful in this episode that I haven’t missed Kensi at all. Kudos to Bartels for giving us the best version of Deeks. Season 14 is going strong IMO.
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Enjoying the insights from Karen’s review and all the additional comments.
I just have a few of thoughts.
One of things that made me sad was that Deeks knew that Fatima and Roundtree witnessed Kilbride tirade. Deeks didn’t want either one either one of them to stick up for him. I’m sure he was relieved that Kensi did not witness it.
It was a sweet moment when Rosa said her mom would have liked Deeks, of course, except for his hair. His “styled by pillow” response was more dad like than at other times he gave that same reply.
OPS was punishment and maybe for comic relief, but realistically why would any manager put a person in a situation that could compromise a case.
I missed Kensi, but always look forward to the scenes between Deeks and his mom.