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Review: NCISLA “The Reckoning” (S14E19)

This week marked writer and director Frank Military’s final NCIS: Los Angeles offering, the Callen-centric “The Reckoning.” Callen finally got (almost) all the answers he’s long sought in a tense episode from one of the show’s best writers. Given the lack of Deeks in the ep, this review would surely have been better written by one of our Callen experts, but alas, you’re stuck with me… I’ll do my best. Fair warning to Hetty fans though: you might want to skip this altogether.

A Dark Story Well Told

Given the time constraints from the cancellation announcement and the apparent limitations in Linda Hunt’s availability, Military brought the last of the show’s many Callen-seeks-answers-to-his-past arcs to as fitting a close as possible. We got some of his requisite darkness with mentions of the bad guys burning people’s eyes out with cigarettes, and the opening’s Pershing Square location even called to mind the time Military blew up a young boy (in one of the show’s best episodes, “The Seventh Child”). More importantly, Callen got a fuller picture of what was behind his time as Drona Subject 17. 

Despite how dark we all expect Military’s stories to be, he can be plenty funny when he wants to. This time around, the only instance of humor in the entire episode was Deeks’ failed joke about Kilbride’s mood early on. The ep was unusual in its lack of banter and in its almost sole focus on a single character, from the first scene through to the last. That laser focus on Callen’s story actually made me sad, as it conjured images of how good a “Deeks, M.” episode could have been with a similar tone and the focus on our favorite Inspector. Alas, it’s not to be.

Military succeeded in bringing a fair amount of suspense to the scenes between Callen and Pembrook, and to the cat and mouse chase through the empty building, but the dialogue was really where he excelled. Did I believe that Pembrook was really trying to make up for his past sins, and that he had been all this time? Well, not so much. I don’t think people who torture children grow out of it or come to see the error of their ways. But it made for an interesting story that remarkably managed to tie a lot of threads together in a short period of time.

The best scene was in the creepy garage as Callen confronted Pembrook about the impacts of his actions so long ago:

Callen: Understand it has taken me years to trust any relationship. I have gone from jobs at DEA, CIA, NCIS, all to distract me from having to face what you did. You broke in me the most elemental aspect of being human. 
Pembrook: I tried to kill your ability to feel. I know. It was a terrible thing to do. It was a terrible thing to do. I’m sorry.
Callen: Well just so you know I don’t accept your apology. 
Pembrook: Of course.

Chris O’Donnell was so good here, conveying Callen’s anger, bitterness, and vulnerability, what it has felt like to “bang your head against your past over and over,” to paraphrase Pembrook. Then at episode’s end, Pembrook gave Callen more clarity on Hetty’s role in all this: 

Callen: If Hetty pulled me out of the program why didn’t she ever tell me that?
Pembrook: It’s not something you’d ever see in her, but Hetty was consumed with guilt for putting you in the program in the first place.
Callen: Well her guilt doesn’t make up for it, OK? I was used. She was trying to turn children into super agents.
Pembrook: That wasn’t her intention. She put you into the program because you were brilliant and you were gifted, and she wanted you to fulfill your potential. 
Callen: Her version of my potential.
Pembrook: She couldn’t teach you the violin. That world was all she knew. It’s all she had to offer you. It’s a mistake parents often make.
Callen: She’s not my parents.
Pembrook: You’re missing the most important part. Call her what you will, you mean everything to her. And you always have. 
Callen: What are you saying?
Pembrook: You were as close to a son as she’s ever had. 
Callen: How do you know that? 
Pembrook: She told me… Even Henrietta Lange needs someone to talk to once in a while… Now I know you think you have been alone in this world all this time but you have been… you’ve been far from an orphan. You’ve been loved, deeply. 

I had a strong reaction to this conversation. Please feel free to share your disagreements in the Comments! When Pembrook had described the “psychopathic killing machines” who had now turned on him, my mind had gone immediately to Ahkos in “Mother.” I think in many ways, both Pembrook and Hetty deserved to have the children they’d taken into their care grow up and want revenge.

Military did his best to clear Hetty of wrong-doing, enough to give Callen the opportunity to reconcile with her in the finale. And maybe that’s the best thing for Callen to be able to move forward into his future, just as Pembrook encouraged. Still, having Pembrook tell Callen how much Hetty loved him, as if that love should excuse any and all of her actions, felt wrong.

The idea that Hetty would have sought to turn a child into a super-agent in the first place, even if the school was somehow not a scary and dark place, is, shall we say, not the most maternal decision. That Hetty stayed in touch with Pembrook, enough so they could have heart-to-heart chats about the guilt she felt, and long enough so Pembrook could refer Sam to her, seems particularly twisted. (In other words, right on par with Mr. Military’s penchant for dark themes.) How angry could she have been about what had happened to Callen if she didn’t get the place shut down and make Pembrook pay? 

Plus, I think Hetty has shown herself to excel at avoiding guilt in general. Sure, she claims to feel bad when her agents get killed, or when someone like Ahkos becomes the darkest version of himself, yet they have often seemed to me to be crocodile tears, insincere or at best, short-lived.

And while I do believe that Hetty loves Callen like a son (and I was surprised to see Callen surprised by that “revelation”), that doesn’t mean she’s been a good or healthy influence on his life. Parents aren’t always capable of doing what’s best for their children. That she didn’t know anything beyond “the language of violence” should have been a disqualification from any sort of motherhood. That she didn’t understand that is for me, one of the show’s greatest, and longest running, story lines. At the end of the day, those flaws contribute a great deal to making Hetty such a fascinating character. If anything, I kinda wish the show had gone all in on making her an increasingly dark character, but I have enjoyed watching them skirt the line between darkness and light. 

Everything Else

One of my favorite aspects of Military’s writing over the years has been how competent he makes the whole team. Deeks got a slightly short straw this time, with his tone-deaf joke to Kilbride, but otherwise everyone provided strong support. Particularly enjoyable was seeing Sniper Kensi doing the math to figure out where the shooter had been, watching Fatima and Kilbride put together the clues about Cortes, and watching the entire staff take Cortes down (although it seemed like they all missed before Fatima got to take care of him, so maybe some target practice is in order). Still, it was nice to see that there actually are other agents besides Castor who work there!

LL Cool J’s and Eric Christian Olsen’s absence was not Military’s fault, but it was frustrating knowing how little remaining screen time Deeks has in his future. Even more unfortunate was Sam’s personal day during such a stressful and important time for Callen- he could have really used his friend’s support.

Memorable Moments

  • Ah, one last day of shooting in San Pedro! I actually got to watch the scene where Pembrook gets driven away from the ambulance, which was fun, especially because I could hear just a bit of the dialogue.
  • I loved that for once, the bad guys weren’t actually Russians… they were USC Trojans! I’m not surprised. (Go Bruins!)
  • I’m pretty sure you can’t blow up a gas tank by shooting it.
  • Why does a server room need to lock from the inside? Do the IT staff need to hide from angry users with computer problems?

All in all, “The Reckoning” was well written and directed, even as it focused on a single character to a greater extent than maybe any other episode. It’s a shame because Military writes a great Deeks, and a great Densi, and we’ll never get to see that again. Will that balance be restored in the two-part finale? Will we get one last juicy Deeks/Densi story line? I wish I had more faith that will happen, but we will have a case or two to wrap up, and a wedding to attend, so I’m keeping expectations low. Before then, let me take this opportunity to thank Frank for everything he contributed to making NCIS: Los Angeles such a great show. So many of my favorite scenes and favorite episodes came from his amazing mind, and I’m grateful for what he brought to the show and in particular, for his portrayal of Marty Deeks.

While we wait, be sure to check out this week’s Surf Log, Kensi’s Journal, the Drabble of the Week, and any number of special “epilogue” fics and other features we’ll be posting. And tell us how you felt about “The Reckoning.” Did you like how it wrapped up Callen’s inquiries into his past? Are you more forgiving of Hetty than I am? Are you optimistic about how Deeks’ and Kensi’s stories will be wrapped up starting next week? Tell us all about it in the Comments below.

A/N: Thanks to Lyssa for her usual speedy and helpful fact checking. Any remaining errors are mine alone.

About Karen (287 Articles)
wikiDeeks Writer & Assistant Editor. I never wrote for fun before... until my ECO-obsession. Now I love to analyze any and all aspects of the best character on television.

6 Comments on Review: NCISLA “The Reckoning” (S14E19)

  1. I am glad to see your comments about Hetty. I have for a long time really had bad feelings about Hetty’s manipulation of all the characters, especially Callen. I started feeling like this back when she sent Kensi to save Jack’s life without telling anyone what was really going on. And then expecting the team to get Kensi out safely (to soothe Hetty’s guilt) without letting any of them know what was really going on – and then blaming Granger for not being honest with her. She did that in several episodes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Becca shugart // May 9, 2023 at 1:18 PM // Reply

    Nice review at least for Callen fans.I kept asking where the hell is Deeks? you would think they would have the last four eps center on the 4 main characters G sam deeks kensi but no. And if Swat can get canceled and then get it changed to get another season with 13 eps why couldn’t NCIS LA? We should at least get a few 2 hr movies.I think the fans desrve it!! So much is not gonna be wrapped up. Im sad but now i am mad at the new lady in charge at cbs.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brenda (@BP_NP) // May 9, 2023 at 9:43 PM // Reply


    If I wasn’t working Mon/Tues I would have been in your emails on Sunday evening begging to co-author this with you!!! I think we might have actually pulled off a debate (sans the Deeks in the “Debating Deeks” we used to do) on this one.

    I can absolutely appreciate your perspective, and I don’t necessarily disagree. I just view it from a particular vantage point based on my past work that influences how I saw/heard what they were saying.

    I spent 10 years working in palliative care as a consultant for a fairly large program, and prior to that, 10 years working in oncology. So I have participated in and facilitated a lot of final conversations as people reached the end of their lives, including those conversations that did not necessarily end with a satisfactory reconciliation between estranged people. A prominent palliative care physician, Dr. Ira Byock, wrote a book in 1997 called “Dying Well” and in 2004, “Four Things That Matter Most,” His thinking has been influential in guiding how end-of-life conversations are approached. Dr. Byock’s position is that there are four “final things” people need to say before they die: 1) Please forgive me, 2) I forgive you, 3) Thank you, 4) I love you – and then “good bye.”

    As I watched the episode, I kept seeing and hearing echoes of those “final things.” No one is dying here, but the series is winding down, and the time we have left with these characters is running out quickly, as is the time to get answers about Callen. Pembrook and Hetty are both in the later parts of their lives, and understandably, they would become reflective about what they have done, good and (very) bad.

    You identify that Pembrook appeared to be trying to make up for his past sins. Can people change? I don’t know. Was he successful in making amends with Callen? Didn’t seem like it. Can one possibly atone for what he did? It was pretty horrible. But all of that notwithstanding, I couldn’t help but see the “Forgive me” thread through so many of those scenes.

    When Callen says he does not accept Pembrook’s apology, Pembrook’s response seems to carry that undertone of “I forgive you.” He appeared to clearly understand that his actions had been unforgivable, and he wasn’t angry with Callen for being unable to forgive. This is one of the misconceptions that is often perpetuated in scripted dramas, that end-of-life scenes are filled with sunshine and rainbows and angels hovering over the bed. A lot of folks have complicated relationships with their family members that do not get easier because one of them is dying. In fact, more often, people die as they live, and their relationships become more of whatever they were previously. Consequently, sometimes “forgive me” and “I forgive you” is just as fraught and messy and painful as the entirety of the relationship that preceded it. That’s what I saw with these two.

    The “Thank you” seemed most explicit in their current situation and Callen’s efforts to save Pembrook from the folks that were chasing them after he was shot and not able to run any longer. But I also felt like Pembrook genuinely appreciated Callen’s willingness to listen to him and consider what he was saying, whether Callen accepted the veracity of it or not.

    The “I love you” thread in the episode was the most painful, in my opinion. I believe it wasn’t just Hetty who loved Callen like a son, it was also Pembrook. That scene you quote about how Callen was loved deeply was quite something. I think Pembrook handing Callen his very large file was an act of “love” on his part, such as he is able to give. There was obviously serious dysfunction in the relationships between all of them, but was it 1) flawed people loving the best they knew how, 2) toxic people gaslighting and calling abuse “love,” 3) relatively decent people who unintentionally caused grievous harm with misguided actions that went really awry? I honestly couldn’t tell. I would like, for Callen’s sake, to believe that perhaps he really was loved and all the harm caused by Drona was just unintentional, but I’m not sure.

    Again, no one is dying, but this is the closure of the relationship between Callena and Pembrook and I was extremely impressed that there were shades and shadows of these important “final questions” present in this episode – and they seemed to almost flow in order from the beginning of the episode to the end. I was very much wondering (yet again!!) if there is a psychologist (who happens to have palliative care experience) on speed dial for the writers!

    I was particularly glad that these “final things” were addressed without it being neat and tidy with a flower on top. That would not only have been implausible for what had happened, but it would also have been profoundly disrespectful to all Callen has been through. This was an excellent conclusion to the painful, complicated, and dark relationships that marked Callen’s early life and haunted his adulthood. I thought this episode was so very well done, with all of the well-placed mess and muck and mire. I have long contended that fiction need not depart from reality to implausible scenarios because reality is sufficiently messy and complex to create no end of drama. This episode showed exactly that. Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Debra Gillespie // May 12, 2023 at 2:09 AM // Reply

    Just a few random thoughts….
    Frank Military certainly created another finely crafted episode to end his history of riveting episodes he’s done for this show. Such a wonderful blending of emotional and gripping action scenes. Did anyone else have a sense of deja vu with the large, open floor under construction in which Callen and Pembrook were barricaded in that server room? I immediately thought of Descent/Ascension, when Michelle and Kensi were fighting with those Russian bad girls on that top floor under construction.
    I was surprised that Sam wasn’t in this episode; for some reason I thought he had completed his four absent episodes for the season already. But a nice closing scene where he is mentioned, which no doubt in my mind is a segue for his appearance in the final two part episode. I couldn’t understand why Deeks disappeared halfway into the episode, unless he was filling in (in a way) for Sam at the beginning of the storyline.


  5. Susanna H // May 20, 2023 at 4:37 AM // Reply

    Wow, this one was… wow. Maybe they have strung us along on Callen’s life so long that there is no way to write a resolution. (And I don’t say that as a Callen hater— he is probably my 2nd favorite on this show). Maybe they would have crafted a better ending and they just ran out of time.
    But this… it’s difficult to think how they could have written a less satisfying “conclusion” to Callen’s story.
    If you’ll indulge me to just lay out a few of my major problems with it:
    1) I can’t believe I have to say this, but there is no version of “treating foster children as a resource pool to find and train future law enforcement” that is ethical. Even if we aren’t straight-up abusing them. No one would be off the hook here even if Pembroke were not a psychopath.
    2) “When Hetty found out what I was doing, she pulled you out of the program.” Oh, just Callen?? What about the other children? What about shutting down the program and prosecuting you to the fullest extent of the law?? It isn’t always clear from Callen’s fragmented memories what, exactly, Pembroke was doing, but it seems like he hit or otherwise hurt children when they gave “wrong answers” or didn’t “perform correctly.” To say nothing of his voice on tape at that Russian school where he had teenage girls beat each other to a pulp. This guy was BAD, and I can’t understand why everyone let him off Scott free.
    3) So Hetty found out about Callen’s crimes and saved him from Pembroke… and yet somehow she and Pembroke still stayed super close, and he has somehow had access to Callen ALL his life?? And he still has government files that he can just go handing out freely? None of this makes sense, both from an ethical standpoint and from a common sense stand point.
    4) Is there any justification for Hetty not telling Callen, oh, ALL of this, years ago? Her weird secrecy about him has never made sense. Is she protecting certain case files and things that are secure? Is she trying to protect him? If so, from what? Even so, it’s not okay. He is an adult and he deserves to know.
    5) “I made the recommendation to Hetty about Petty Officer Sam Hanna. I thought he would be a good friend.” This might have been the worst part. Who is Pembroke to be making recommendations about ANYTHING? But more than that, this confirms what Callen has feared and been angry about for so long: he really is just a puppet, someone else’s creation. Everything good and meaningful in his life has been set up for him and he has just followed along without knowing that’s what he was doing. That made me furious and I felt like it should have made Callen furious but somehow the show played it like… it was touching??

    Am I missing anything here, folks? Is there any redeeming this narrative?


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