It’s been quite a while since an episode centred around Special Agent Sam Hanna. He’s the most normal character on NCISLA; he has a stable marriage, two children, a former SEAL who takes pride in his morals and work ethics, and is a perfectionist. A real team player. There is no mystery, no challenging childhood, no absent parent, and so Sam centric episodes need to call on external circumstances and characters to question his high moral standards and character judgements.
“Unspoken” focuses on trust, which has clearly become a theme for season seven. Sam’s former NCIS partner Mark Ruiz is deep undercover for the ATF and has failed to check in for weeks. He is caught on camera after he’s involved in a failed deal to buy a new type of military grade explosive, believed to have detonated an explosion and is seen absconding with two million dollars in cash. As a former NCIS asset, the team are brought in to find Ruiz.
Immediately there are questions as to whether Ruiz could have betrayed the ATF. Deeks remarks that long term undercover operations can cause agents to go rogue (could this be a disguised reference to the IA investigation)? Away from the team, Callen challenges why Sam withheld information from Kensi and Deeks. It is usually Callen who avoid answering questions, but rarely Sam. The tables continue to be turned as Sam fails to update Callen on where he’s driving them. Logic dictates (as Callen points out), that Sam has driven them somewhere familiar and unthreatening; Ruiz’s house.
There are hints at a possible betrayal by Sam; at the Ruiz home, Callen witnesses Sam hugging Ruiz’s wife and realises they are close, something which Callen openly comments on. Callen is clearly confused by Sam and appears to have a slight doubt as to his partner’s unwavering loyalty. Ruiz himself adds fuel to the fire when he throws around words such a ‘betrayal’ during his interrogation. The question over Sam’s loyalty is only answered towards the end, when Ruiz’s paranoia finally becomes too much and the two confront each other. Ruiz believed Sam slept with his wife. But this is Sam – of course he didn’t and he convinces Ruiz their relationship is purely plutonic. The pair can now move forward to trap the villains, who have their own trust issues. The main bad guy, boss Santos, turns out to be a Filipino terrorist in disguise – much to the disgust of his locally hired Filipino help who then turn on him.
The issue of trust is also addressed through the establishment of boundaries. The opening bull pen scene has Kensi and Deeks fondly bickering about the lack of boundaries that exist between them in their private lives (which occasionally overflows to the professional). They trust each other implicitly, but this has eroded Deeks’ perceived needs for no boundaries. It is a topic that amuses Sam and Callen and again confirms that the team has no issues with them as a couple. But neither Kensi or Deeks trust Ruiz and they are aware that Sam (and by proxy, Callen) is withholding information, so by extension, there is diminished trust amongst the team. Their backdoor attempts to access Ruiz’s NCIS file fail and so they use the internet and later confront Granger.
Granger is yet again the surprise package. He tells them to trust Sam, however Sam does not have the same faith in Granger. Granger’s character has been settling down during the last few seasons. He can still rub the team up the wrong way but he has, since mid season four, had the team’s back (unless they cross the line without his approval)…He accompanies a partner-less Callen in the field without their usual personality clash – the action is a little below his pay grade although it’s good to see Granger likes to keep his hand in the game.
By contrast there is very little of Hetty, however her minor conversation with Callen reveals the history and connection between Sam and Ruiz. As Callen states, Sam is loyal to a fault, which also means that his loyalty is open to abuse. Ruiz is an interesting partner for Sam, a former drug addict whom Sam has supported during his periods of rehabilitation. Ruiz is a passionate and dedicated man. He is purely focused on the case at the detriment to his family, and it is easy to see how he and Sam worked well as partners. Both are committed to the cause but are not quite the polar opposites that Sam and Callen are. It seems that once Ruiz left NCIS due to his drug problems, Hetty partnered Sam with another man that requires nurturing and saving from himself; Callen.
Callen has an odd role throughout the episode which is notable through his body language and how he is filmed. He is very much on the sidelines, quiet and observing. When Ruiz is identified as Sam’s ex-partner, he is leaning against a pillar in the bull pen, at the edge of the scene.
At another point, he is left leaning on the bonnet of the Challenger. And when Sam is inside t
he Ruiz house, Callen is seen in shadow outside. He is quite literally on the outside looking in. Callen’s own trust issues come in to play. He doesn’t trust Ruiz and tells Sam, but he reluctantly trusts his partner and permits the two to go undercover. Even in the final take down Callen is sideline with a physical punch.
In certain respects there are similarities to the season opener when Callen turned rogue to pursue his own interests. Sam caught him and through his own judgment of character, trusted Callen enough to let him continue his lone wolf charade. Except that Sam didn’t fully trust Callen; he placed a tracker on him which Callen found but kept; an act of trust that his team would track him down and rescue him if required. Sam shows similar faith here with Ruiz, which again pays off.
The closing scenes restore normality to the established partnership of Sam and Callen. Their bromance is back on again with literal declarations of love, now Sam’s dalliance with a former partner is over. Callen can once again return to winding his partner up, and starts by calling him Sammy.
This episode works well on a number of levels. Although centred on Sam, it is a team affair with everyone playing a part. The Kensi / Deeks relationship is managed efficiently and fans receive confirmation of how passionately Deeks feels about Kensi, telling her that if she committed murder for the right reasons, he would still have faith and protect her. There is no unnecessary absurdity between Nell and Eric and thankfully the writers had the sense not to send Nell into the field with Callen. Ruiz is a great character and the amount of screen time and character development devoted to him within the allotted timeframe, is a testament to the talent of experienced NCISLA writer Frank Military (Crimeleon, Descent, Ascension, Spoils of War, Rage) and relative newcomer Erin Broadhurst (Praesidium). But which one decided that Santos was a member of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, with the acronym of ‘MILF’? The direction as tight as the writing with no waste and nothing is superfluous. With a few small touches of humour after last week’s laugh-fest, it was great to get back to more serious drama with a solid storyline, which looks set to continue next week in another Frank Military penned episode, An Unlocked Mind.
What did you think of the episode?