‘Matryoshka’ is the name given to the Russian nesting dolls. Each time a doll is opened, a smaller one is found inside until an entire family is revealed. The dolls are an analogy to the mysterious past of Callen. Every time a secret is revealed, he is a step closer to discovering the truth about himself, his family and the past he cannot remember. When he does encounter someone with information, they usually die (Eugene Keelson, Alexa Comescu, Hans Schreiber), and during the season six finale, Arkady Kolchek is also removed from his reach. Arkady is a tantalising link to Callen’s past; he’s met his father.
In the season seven premier, Callen allowed Russian Anatoli Kirkin to blackmail him into art theft in exchange for information on Arkady’s location, until Kirkin sold him out to his Russian rival. ‘Matryoshka’ leads on from the opener and is the first of a two part storyline which sees Callen rekindling his search and rescue attempt of Arkady, whose daughter Anna, has kidnapped Kirkin. Anna has been contacted by men who will confirm her father is alive if she sends Kirkin to them in a shipping container. The team fake photos of Kirkin and a proof of life video is received; Arkady is being held in a Russian prison, with a man named Balinksi. To ascertain which prison, Kirkin advises they need to directly access the Russian prison network via the Russian Consul General’s computer and the team go undercover at a Russian Gala, to gain access to the computer and files.
The proof of life message from Arkady had him citing his superior mental toughness and revealed a message for Callen. He says that his good friend G worked with Balinksi in Sevastopol. Callen does not know the name but worked in Sevastopol when he was in the CIA. Further investigations confirm Balinski is CIA Officer Sharov who was assumed dead. Arkady dropped in this information as it allows Callen to launch a rescue attempt for the CIA officer which by default, means he can be rescued too.
The premier portrayed a version of Callen that had withdrawn from his friends and support system, a Callen that wantonly broke the law. This episode again shows a different side of Callen; one that constantly lies and acts unpredictably (possibly an insight into how he most likely was earlier in his career). The initial bullpen scene has Sam accusing him of being socially challenged, or as Callen corrects him – socially selective, valuing his private life. This is a well established fact, last brought up by Deeks when they were paired up in ‘The Long Goodbye’.
From the moment Kirkin’s details appear on screen in Ops, Sam literally studies Callen’s every action and expression. He is determined not to let Callen go rogue. The alarm bells ringing in Sam’s head are very much justified and he is clearly uneasy with Callen’s approach to obtaining information from the Russian’s in a bar. Callen swigs Vodka from the bottle, spits fire and smashes the bottle over a Russian’s head. Sam openly challenges him afterwards and is met with humour. Callen really enjoyed his party trick and starting the bar fight and does not understand Sam’s problem.
Hetty too – with a much larger role in this episode – is monitoring Callen. He takes on the Kirkin case without permission and is summoned to her office, answering ‘no’ before she can even ask if he was behind Kirkin’s kidnapping. Hetty is suspicious of her favourite agent. Callen may have admitted he wasn’t involved but she asks if he wasn’t, then who was? Her choice of words illustrate that lack of trust. Callen is more than capable of orchestrating such an operation off the books, particularly for information on his family. He then lies by stating that he was going to run the op past her and tries to make a deal with her time limit on his investigation (it was a directive – non negotiable). Later, closely observed by the rest of the team, he persuades Hetty to allow him an extension. Hetty is trying extremely hard to control Callen, who repeatedly pushes the boundaries. She grants him more freedom than she should in an effort to maintain that control as otherwise she knows he will rebel and go rogue. Hetty does not want to carry out her threat of terminating him with extreme prejudice. There are lies again when she sanctions the mission for Sam and Callen to go to Russia to extract the CIA officer held with Arkady. She has to repeat that they can only rescue the CIA officer. If Anna and Arkady compromise the mission, he has instructions to cut them loose. Callen readily agrees and this is clearly one order Hetty knows he will disobey.
The narrative pace is slower than usual and as the first part of two episodes, it needs to set the scene, re-introducing Anna and building new dynamics between her and the team. There are several crucial set pieces involving Anna, Callen and Hetty. Firstly Hetty and Anna have a heart to heart about trust whilst sitting in Hetty’s Porsche Spyder. Anna states she prefers to work alone, whereas Hetty believes it is much safer and stronger to have a team around you. This is a throwback to the opening bullpen scene when Sam says to Callen that teamwork makes the dream work, underlining again that Callen is still not a full team player. It could easily have been Callen and Hetty have that conversation and indeed Hetty admits she’s had the same conversation with someone ten years ago – and the conversation is still ongoing.
The second set piece again takes place outside the boatshed. Callen said without hesitation, that he would help Anna rescue Arkady and he is giving smouldering looks to the ocean when Sam joins him. Callen thanks him for not trying to dissuade him from his rescue mission, and Sam reveals how conflicted he is about Callen’s plans. But Sam is a team player and will support his partner as much as possible. Along with the opening bullpen scene, this is a rare moment of honesty for Callen in ‘Matryoshka’.
During the undercover operation at the Russian Gala, Callen plays the boyfriend of Anna’s undercover aspiring pop star and the pair flirt with each other whilst dancing. Callen says he picked up ballroom dancing from when he worked as a janitor at a country club when he was a kid, which sounds like another lie. The dancing is also a throwback to last season’s ‘Humbug’, where he danced with Joelle to distract her and admitted he’d not done this [danced] very often – that also sounded like a lie. But there is a moment of honesty when Anna pushes Callen against the wall and kisses him to distract the guards, allowing Sam to enter the room with the computer. When they finish kissing, Callen is literally stunned and lost for words. Curiously though, when the team have reassembled in the van to leave the Gala, Sam asks how the pair distracted the guards. Sam saw them kiss, so why is he trying to gauge their reaction?
The drama and building of character dynamics are punctuated with scenes of humour involving Deeks. He is off his game with Kensi at the Spa and she repeatedly gains the upper hand, and there is unwitting sexism from Deeks as he struggles to understand how one woman could kidnap Kirkin. It’s a view shared by Kirkin who interestingly thought NCIS was behind his kidnapping when he saw Callen and Anna together. Deeks is still the object of Kirkin’s affections and there is now a term for everyone (man and woman) who cannot resist him – ‘Deeksness’. His mouth goes in to overdrive when Hetty hands out the undercover assignments with Kensi even telling him to shut up. Two of the funniest scenes were Deeks struggling with the choke hold on the large Russian guard and when Kirkin said he would send for Marty when he could, and summoned his driver (i.e. his armed NCIS escort).
There is also some great continuity with other episodes, particularly with reference to the missing Granger, who has accompanied prisoner Jennifer Kim (Korean spy in Cancel Christmas) to Washington, potentially setting up a future episode for Granger. The reference to Kim also allows Sam to wind up Callen by saying there is footage of her kicking his ass. Unfortunately for Sam, Eric does not play along.
If there are any themes season seven could adopt, they are ones of trust and feminism, both of which feature in Matryoshka. The women are all strong characters, extremely capable in terms of intellect and physical action and are not afraid to use their sexuality (Anna). Trust is a prevalent theme through the lack of it, notably with neither Callen or Anna trusting in others, and also with Sam and Hetty not particularly trusting Callen to follow directives and act within the law.
Part two will see Sam, Callen and Anna head to Russia to rescue CIA Agent Sharov (and Arkady). The promotional photos and teaser clip focus on Callen’s past. If nothing else, the fact that Callen meets the elderly man from the Moscow coffee shop in Chernoff K, and the promise that he discovers what the G stands for, makes for an episode with high expectations. But…there may be some curve balls thrown and there won’t be answers to all the mysteries that surround Callen.