The case of the week began with a simple premise; a prisoner exchange goes wrong. Cuban prisoner Ricardo Pena held in America was to be exchanged for an former US Naval Officer held in Cuba. When Pena escapes the team are called in to investigate and quickly discover that it was Anna Kolchek who sprung him. The case then becomes increasingly complex, with the team challenging why Pena escaped rather than head home to Cuba, why the Department of Justice had two separate records with Pena’s details and why it was imperative that Pena be imprisoned. Eventually Callen and Anna realise Pena is actually a Russian spy who was keen to complete his mission and return to Russia.
The case is barely noticeable as Exchange Rate predominantly focuses on relationships, both the romantic type and team-wise. Kensi and Deeks, and Nell and Eric were the pairs at the forefront of this exploration, and the burgeoning relationship between Callen and Anna Kolchek is tentatively examined.
Early on it is realised that Hetty is missing, yet no one (bar Callen initially) seemed overly concerned. Granger took on the challenge of finding her, leaving Callen and team to locate the missing prisoner and Anna. If only they could recall previous cases – when Hetty goes missing, it usually means she is involved – and so proved to be the case here. Hetty employed Anna Kolchek to spring Pena as she suspected he was really a Russian spy. Hetty must have known her team would easily crack Anna’s backstopped alias and identify her, meaning that her end game was to force Anna to work with the team, as part of a team.
The comparisons drawn between Anna and Callen in previous episodes continue to be made and not in a subtle way. Granger has a one on one conversation with Callen who himself bemoans the fact that Anna is not a team player. Granger calls him on this and again it is Callen who doesn’t quite complete his sentence about Granger comparing him and Anna. In one of the closing scenes, Hetty apologises to Anna for believing she could manage the case alone. Hetty wants Anna to be part of a team (the LA team?), leaving the door open for Anna as a recurring character, or possibly as a temporary replacement should there suddenly be a Kensi (read Daniela Ruah pregnancy), another Afghanistan mission, or if another character takes a leave of absence.
Of course the reappearance of Anna means Arkady also graces the episode, playing games with Sam and Callen, and generally enjoying being the focus of their attention. At one point he even causes Hetty to call him a drama queen. His scenes bring a light hearted element to the show and even when his name is mentioned in the closing dialogue with Sam and Callen, it is for light comedic effect.
An equal amount of screen time is given to the main pairings to focus on relationships. Kensi is suspicious about why Deeks is showering at the boatshed and deliberately flushes the toilet to change the water temperature to cold. Deeks honestly tells Kensi it is due to the number of shampoo and conditioner bottles in their shower. The bickering continues during the episode and eases, particularly when they are undercover in the restaurant talking about their bedroom antics, even though Sam can hear them. Is the honeymoon period finally over? Are they now back in the realms of reality, learning about the give and take of a normal relationship?
Nell and Eric have had little focus this season and are given their moments to shine in Exchange Rate. Their first big scene entails a conversation where they refer to shipping names for Kensi and Deeks, with Eric calling them ‘Densi’ and Nell ‘Keeks’. The scene felt uncomfortable and forced, especially when they also referred to their own shipping name ‘Neric’, all of which is very popular on social media. But the use of shipping names is where fans of TV shows want to hook up characters romantically and so merge the names together. This does not happen in real life and came across as awkward. Unfortunately this contrasts with the DiNozzo episode Blame it on Rio, where he and Deeks have a conversation about ships. That writing and acting provided a comedic element that was self-referential to both NCIS and NCISLA, and turned the scene in to an enjoyably clever parody. It is also inferred in this same ‘ship’ scene that Nell and Eric are a couple – clearly with an off screen relationship. Nell seems to be the one to not let the personal overflow to the professional, chastising Eric a little cruelly, when he attempts to defend Nell’s honour and integrity to Granger.
Sam and Callen’s bromance continues in much the same vein as usual. The closing scene has Sam admitting that he has finally figured Callen out, which causes the lead agent some confusion. Almost lost in their exchange of dialogue is Callen questioning if Sam is calling him out over meeting his father; confirmation that Callen has told Sam about Russia. But that conversation is one that did not happen and did not need to happen on screen. It is a reminder that events and conversations take place off screen and may subsequently be alluded to briefly in Ops or during stakeouts.
Finally, the relationship between Callen and Anna is danced around as they try and solve the case. It’s an interesting relationship as it is still developing, both characters have trust issues and are natural loners. Apart from the undercover kiss that left Callen stunned, Callen called her once since Russia and she ignored his call. Anna knows he doesn’t trust her and Callen openly admits to Granger that he doesn’t trust her. However there is chemistry between them and Callen is concerned when he finds Anna tied up and beaten. This is what Sam finally gets about Callen; that he is a glutton for punishment – by choosing a woman like Anna over a nice girl like Joelle. And then like a dog with a bone, Sam can’t let the it go, ribbing Callen that he would have Arkady as a father-in-law, visiting him for Christmas dinner, fly fishing etc.
On a couple of side notes to the episode, it was peculiar that even after Deeks dental torture, he still likes dentists. Secondly, the audience always know when something shady is going on with a character, as the wardrobe department get out the black leather jackets (Hetty, in this instance). Kensi’s discrete cough, when Callen tells Anna that there team is highly specialised was amusing, especially after her and Deeks’ bedroom talk, heard via earwigs. Lastly, anyone would have thought Chris O’Donnell was directing this episode, as he likes to feature a naked Deeks…
The show usually has the right balance between the team’s personal lives versus cases, and that includes the romance. NCIS: Los Angeles is not a soap opera, although this episode was leaning towards that genre. The case would have been more fun with the ‘Cuban spy, no he’s been set up a spy, oh – he’s really a Russian spy’ scenario if there had not been so much focus on relationships. Next week there should be a lot less focus on romantic relationships, with the third episode written and directed by Frank Military. After season five’s Spoils of War and season six’s Rage, there should be some intensity and a darker mood to the narrative in The Seventh Child.