Core Values is an episode where the title really does have a meaning – in this instance, a dual meaning. In the literal sense, the title refers to the radioactive nuclear core but it also refers to the core values of NCIS, which in essence, is their (nuclear) family.
The case of the week is an investigation into how Marine Gunnery Sergeant Hugh Patterson suffered radiation poisoning, and yes this episode is a rare example of the Los Angeles team actually going back to their roots in the traditional NCIS sense. Patterson was exposed to radiation after moonlighting as a security officer at a decommissioned nuclear power plant. When Sam and Callen get the ‘PR’ tour of the plant, Kensi and Deeks go undercover to find the real story. It turns out that Chief Engineer Leon Chadmont, was extremely bitter about taking a hefty pay cut and also concerned about safety levels, so he decided to fake a nuclear accident to demonstrate his point. Unfortunately, Patterson was patrolling the pool area during the time the cores were exposed.
The synopsis of the episode is remarkably similar to that of season five’s The Livelong Day, where a young train driver hijacks a train to carry hazardous waste through the suburbs of Los Angeles, to display to the world how unscrupulous the railway company was. Both episodes are penned by Joe Sachs, a man who is a stickler for detail. The detail in Core Values is an understanding of how the radioactivity from nuclear cores are kept safe underwater, and the audience learn this as the field agents do. Oh, and apparently, underneath the glorified swimming pool is a large plug – just so water can drain out really quickly to allow the cores to heat up rapidly..!? And then there is also a question about why Deeks’ cell phone jammer, effective up to 50ft, failed to work…
Despite these quirks, the provided details serve the plot well. But for those that like booms (and possibly to make up for the lack of explosions so far this season), there are three in the second half of the episode – the last is made partially safe by Sam & Callen before Granger, clad in bomb disposal gear, jumps on top of the device just before it explodes. Granger has risked his life to ensure the safety of Sam / Callen…He really is becoming protective of the team.
The real villain of the piece is a home grown terrorist masquerading as an environmental professor Richard Nader, real name Rashad Nader. The internal threat now has a middle eastern sounding name, thus making him one step removed from a real American. Under the guise of a protester he infiltrates the plant and is responsible for all the bombs. The best boom is the first, unexpected blast, which prompts the team to re-start their investigations.
Many of the scenes take place on location at the nuclear power plant, where the field agents are segregated to work in their pairs and really only meet up when searching for the second bomb. There is the usual banter between Sam & Callen with gentle ‘mathemagician’ jokes (never grow old), (although Sam now states he’s a mathelete, rather than his usual correction to a junior math Olympian). Kensi and Deeks too are on form, with Deeks challenging Kensi’s domestic cleaning abilities versus her undercover cleaning, and Kensi challenges how Deeks’ undercover alias is allowed facial hair. These scenes take place in the men’s toilets and are partially filmed with the use mirrors and reflections. Characters visualised in this manner are frequently used to illustrate the multiple layers of their personality, particularly for duplicity and evil intent. Kensi and Deeks may be undercover but they are not lying to themselves or each other and so in this episode, the technique is merely an alternative to the conventional shot/reverse shot.
Core Values has the theme of family running throughout. Gunnery Sergeant Patterson is only moonlighting to earn money for his heavily pregnant wife. Sam tells Callen that nothing good ever comes from lying to your wife – so he’s heard…Deeks pretends he has left LAPD for a security job as it’s safer and he’s looking to start a family. The closing scenes have Sam and Callen checking in with ‘parents’ Hetty and Granger, followed by the real possibility of a nuclear family; Kensi holds the Patterson’s newborn baby, reluctantly at first and then, with Deeks looking over her shoulder and singing a lullaby, she relaxes.
The family unit of the team is stable for the moment, however in upcoming episodes, the boat may well be rocked. Kensi and Deeks are ready to move in together, just as Kensi’s ex-fiance Jack resurfaces, and then Callen discovers more about his past (and his name). Teasers about the season finale suggest Sam and his family could be at risk. There should be repercussions from all these scenarios, whether they are resolved during the episode or linger for a while. But as Callen said back in season six’s In The Line of Fire, they are all “just one big happy, slightly dysfunctional, family.”