The first time Frank Military wrote and directed for NCISLA, Spoils of War was born; a very dark episode, full of anger, torture, psychological torment and dramatic action. Rage is his second outing as writer / director, and as the title suggests, this is also full of anger, psychological torment, tension and drama. Dark themes are again prevalent, but this time very different; child abuse, police brutality, racism and the subjugation of women. The case itself focuses on a gang of white supremacists, suspected to have in their possession nuclear material stolen from a closed Naval Hospital.
Early in season six, Callen and Sam were pulled from an undercover operation as prisoner and guard respectively, to focus on the dark net case and save Hetty. The operation has now been revived and Callen is once again undercover as Steven Walinksi, an alias introduced in the season one episode Full Throttle. The team is briefed by FBI Agent Rand (from season two’s ‘Little Angels’), who has information the supremacists, led by Dallas Alder, are planning a bombing. Dallas was released from prison shortly after Callen was pulled out, so the team facilitate Callen and the remaining gang’s escape so he can meet with Dallas, in the hope he will lead them to the nuclear material.
Racism is not a topic usually tackled in NCISLA, (even though most of the villains are Middle Eastern), but the beliefs of the Aryan Brotherhood are very much at the forefront, and harsh and difficult to watch scenes between the Supremacists and Sam are peppered throughout. During the hostage scene in the bank, Dallas can hear the ethnicity in Sam’s voice and so Sam pretends to be Italian. Dallas states that he (Sam) is one chromosome short of being a monkey; his racist remarks are painfully uncomfortable to hear.
When Sam interrogates captured gang member Jimmy Ray, their arguments about the white revolution and poor white men lead Sam to tell Jimmy that is sounds like the plight of poor black people, but at no point does Sam allow himself to be a victim. It also serves to highlights the solidity and bond between Sam and Callen; the difference in skin colour is invisible to them. Sam threatens Jimmy Ray with an undisclosed punishment, should anything happen to his partner. Callen, despite being tied up, covered in petrol with Dallas threatening to set him alight, has complete faith that Sam will shoot Dallas to save him.
It is surprising that Kensi (as undercover as Sage, Callen’s girlfriend), is not called out by Dallas, as her olive complexion belies a non-white American heritage. Sage is a strong, attractive woman; Dallas’ own girlfriend Ginny is over-weight and plain, believing herself fit only for keeping house and obeying Dallas’ orders. When Kensi has one on one time with her, both in the house and later in the boatshed, she struggles to understand why Ginny stays with Dallas. Dallas has suppressed her artistic talent and threatened to kill her if she leaves him. Kensi crouches down to make herself smaller than Ginny, but the psychological trick has little effect. Her self-worth is almost non-existent, and there are some heart-breaking moments between her and Kensi.
Callen’s personal safety is questioned from the very opening scene, particularly from a psychological stand point. He is seen exercising in solitary confinement and then, in a change to the usual formulaic set up, he has a flashback to his teenage self being thrown in a cell by two police officers. He spits out fresh blood, implying the officers have punched him, before deliberately antagonising them, inviting them to attack him again. They comment that Callen has “a real mouth on him”, and with one foot on Callen’s back and batons drawn, the officers proceed to beat him. The teenage Callen provokes them further, and the camera closes in on his open eyes as he’s beaten; the shot then merging into the adult Callen. Clearly this undercover role is already causing Callen angst, whether he is recalling his own feelings of rage and hatred to keep in character or whether prison is naturally dredging up these memories.
The only other remotely likeable guest character is the youngest Aryan Brother, Charlie. He was born in prison, has never known his parents and the white supremacists are his surrogate family. The early flashback of teenage Callen in jail underlines the parallels between the two of them; Callen’s own surrogate family is now the NCIS team, yet he was once on the same track as Charlie, hating the world and himself. Callen identifies with Charlie and makes it his personal mission to save him, and as his own empathy and understanding builds, so does the viewers. Throughout the episode, Charlie is puzzled as to why Callen is so intent on looking out for him. He eventually asks him outright, and Callen admits that he too never knew his parents, and that there’s a better way to live than hating the world. Charlie has not been so hardened by the hatred that surrounds the Brotherhood that he could still be saved, but he knows no other way of living.
The rest of the team offer support throughout, with varying degrees of personal sacrifice. Deeks volunteers to drive a bus to take the Aryan Brotherhood and hostages to an airport, Sam has to manage his emotions when dealing with the racism, and Kensi (as Callen’s girlfriend) risks personal safety and potentially her relationship with Deeks. To secure their undercover aliases, they kiss passionately in front of the gang, and the next morning are seen half naked in bed. The scenes also serve as a reminder of how far they may have to go in any operation in order to maintain their cover, or at least to provide the illusion of their cover.
Callen is more than able to hold his own amongst the Brotherhood, even with leader Dallas Alder, a nasty, violent racist – and there seems to be a power struggle going on between the two. Callen declines an offer to join the Brotherhood, and agrees to rob the bank – but later openly challenges Dallas about various aspects of their plan. Inside the bank, he firmly suggests they leave without opening the safe, describing the security combinations required, and continues to question how they will escape. It is no surprise really, that when Jimmy fails to escape from the bank, Dallas challenges Callen, the last man to see him. Despite Callen’s slightly supercilious response, his lies are discovered as he has no back up from his team. The power struggle reaches its climax when Charlie turns up, aiming his own weapon on Sam, whilst Sam’s gun remains trained on Dallas. Both Dallas and Callen try to persuade him to do the right thing. In Dallas’ eyes, it is shooting the black Federal Agent, whereas Callen tells Charlie this is his moment to decide between right and wrong, to take the first step in his own salvation.
Charlie makes the right decision but is shot by FBI Special Agent Rand, freeing Sam to tackle Dallas and save Callen. In a rare show of emotion Callen tries to revive the dying man; continuing with his efforts even after Charlie has died. This is a change to the norm as it is usually Sam (with his nurturing nature) who administers first aid. Unless a case directly relates to Callen’s search for his past, he is never shown to be emotionally affected by situations, undercover operations or death. Now, Callen walks away from the team and from Rand’s statement that Charlie had to die.
The concluding scene brackets the episode and is visually transitional, from the darkness of the abandoned factory, to the lightness of a suburban street. Callen is struggling to make the transition back to his real self and has maintained his distance from the team. Sam only finds him thanks to Hetty’s intuition. He remains silent as Sam asks why he is so affected by a racist’s death and why he is there. He finally admits he was once like Charlie and candidly reveals his criminal past; robbery, three weeks in juvie before escaping, stealing a car and crashing on that street.
More flashbacks of a teenage Callen permeate the scene; he is pursued, tackled by the police and handcuffed. In the present, Sam tries to persuade Callen that he changed as he had the presence of mind to do so, a point which Callen refutes; Hetty saved him. Charlie had made a decision to change just as he was killed. Both he and Callen are reminders that childhood experiences, families and society can shape the path individuals take, but not everyone can be saved. And in true Sam style, he does not judge his partner or even pass comment, merely inviting him back to the fold with a barbeque that Kensi and Deeks are also attending.
The elevated status in which Callen holds Hetty is underlined when he refers to her as the “hand of God” intervening in his life. The final flashbacks are accompanied with ethereal music, which contrast with the LAPD officer’s threats that Callen should be tried as an adult for attempted assault with a deadly weapon [driving directly at them]. Hetty verbally brushes the officer aside, and the episode closes with Hetty offering the fifteen year old a home with her for as long as he wants, as she sees great potential in him, and has a plan. The reason why they have such a special bond has been revealed and now enables previous episodes to be viewed in a different light.
Overall, the plot is pretty straight forward. There are no unseen twists or turns and the only humour comes from the doctoring of Jimmy Ray‘s photo, to show him wearing women’s clothes; a small element of light relief in a very heavy episode. The case itself is secondary to the character development of Callen, and the scene where Deeks finds traces of the nuclear material is superfluous.
The racist themes make for uncomfortable viewing, particularly in today’s politically correct society and within a show that is renowned for its light-hearted and somewhat comedic elements. The police brutality against a teenage Callen is left to linger in the viewers thoughts as a reminder he had a tough childhood, but is never further explored. If you’re a Callen fan, this episode is pretty much perfect and if not, it at least serves to show that NCISLA can tackle dark themes with heightened drama and tension, when in the hands of the right writer/director.