The season 8 premiere of NCIS: Los Angeles was a treat, with the first two episodes merged together to create a two hour movie; an epic adventure that ends in tragedy. There may have been no cliff hanger at the end of the previous season but there were plenty of threads to be pulled, the main one being the mole, who has been floating around since season six. That mole may have been captured but there is another at large, one that has infiltrated the Office of Special Projects. And that is where the opening episodes take us, running in parallel with the team’s investigation in to stolen radioactive material which leads them to Syria and a mission to capture a high value target. And incidentally this target was in US Naval Intelligence, a Syrian born American national, who betrayed his adoptive country and defected to Syria.
Both parts one ‘High Value Target’ and two ‘Belly of the Beast’ are written by Scott Gemmill (as is next week’s episode) which creates a familiarity with the subject matter and a seamless continuity in a similar fashion to the opening of season six. Then, Hetty was ordered to Washington and placed under investigation, with the Department of Justice interrogating the team in LA. This time, the Under Secretary of Defence Corbin Duggan and his team have stormed the Mission as Hetty and Granger have failed to root out the mole. The consequences are that the entire staff are being replaced. Instead of resigning in the usual Hetty tradition, this time she has retired. Such a situation is usually a cue for Callen to act like a rebellious teenager, to point blank refuse to obey orders from those he has no respect or trust but to his (and the writer’s) credit, he just gets on with his job.
Duggan arrives in a fashion reminiscent of Granger’s back in season three’s The Watchers (interesting, also written by Scott Gemmill). In addition to OSPs mole problem, Duggan also cites technological change as a driver, referring to both Hetty & Granger as relics from the cold war. He even goes so far as to say Hetty should open a museum with her weapons. Duggan is played with relish by Jackson Hurst. He is smarmy, smug and untrustworthy. Hetty in her resigned state, adopts a resigned attitude but in response to Nell’s pep talk, she advises her to get as much information on Duggan as possible. Does the man have a hidden agenda? Or is Hetty looking for some blackmail material to use against him? Whilst Hetty is playing a game known only to her, Granger falls victim to the very arguments he made to Sam and Callen about Hetty during his opening episode; he is old and replaceable with new technology – drones and cell phones. But instead of siding with the man, Granger now fights to defend his team, dropping Duggan’s cell in a glass of water and stating that his gun still works if it’s wet.
There is much talk about the future and change in this opener, initial driven by the bullpen banter of bucket lists, and Sam’s disbelief that Callen doesn’t have one. Kensi does, openly admitting she wants to get married, have kids, go to Bali, buy a horse…Her bucket list becomes a talking point later with Deeks, this time the uncertainty of their jobs prompting them to discuss their future together. Deeks states that Kensi should quit her job to become a mum – and it a testament to how far their relationship has progressed, that Kensi does not lose her temper for such an apparently sexist statement. Deeks redeems himself by saying he would do the same as a father. Having already sourced an engagement ring in a possibly dodgy deal with a Jewish man in a car park, Deeks is clearly preparing the ground for marriage. Kensi may not be ready for kids and it seems Deeks is not yet ready to propose, ending up swallowing the ring…and then recovering it…
The banter is rife between all the characters and as was the case throughout season seven, Granger gets the best one liners, particularly when Duggan says he’s still waiting for his briefs, to which Granger replies that he’s more of a boxers guy and he doesn’t like to share!Sam and Callen tease each other relentlessly, Callen hosing down Sam to put out his flaming leg and Sam saying he told their suspect in Arabic that he (Callen) finds the suspect sexually attractive. The character interaction on the helicopter before the crash was also excellent, seeing them all relaxed – maybe with the exception of Callen, taking on the role of ‘dad’. Even the wonder twins had some uncringeworthy banter.
As well as humour there is an abundance of action throughout; there are bike chases (with Deeks, almost falling off and constantly talking), tackling suspects through windows whilst on fire (Sam), tackling suspects in to a swimming pool and head-butting them (Callen) and violently kicking a Syrian insurgent unconscious (Kensi – probably killing him). The pivotal event though is the helicopter crash, which leaves Kensi trapped beneath the wreckage. The men become solely focused on freeing her, working as a team. Sam takes the role of nurturer, taking charge of Deeks (dazed after banging his head), and looking after Kensi, with Callen also expressing serious concern. Deeks to his credit did not lose his temper but contained his fears and emotions, reassuring and comforting Kensi. He magnanimously volunteered to stay whilst Sam & Callen sought help, only to be shot down by the pair; they are a team and they would rather die protecting each other than leave someone behind.
With Kensi unconscious but finally free, Sam allows Callen to track and hopefully re-capture the High Value Target, Ahmed Han Asakeem, who escaped after they left him unconscious as they focused on Kensi. This is the last action scene of the premiere; an intense fist fight that sees Callen smacked in the head with a rock and finally recapturing Asakeem, holding off the attacking insurgents with Sam and Deeks, and emerging unscathed from a targeted drone strike. Callen is clearly demonstrating his invincibility – like a cat with nine lives. In reality, the crash was a clever move to ensure Kensi could be kept at a distance. Her injuries will keep her in hospital and presumably rehab for a number of episodes, allowing actress Daniela Ruah maternity leave. For much of the premiere, she is standing behind people, sitting down or trapped under wreckage. It was a shock to witness her undercover as a pregnant woman with a buggy in one scene and for a moment it appeared the show had given up trying to hide her pregnancy.
The intense drama may have been unfolding in Syria, but the slow game was being played back in LA. The remaining team, with Hetty and Granger sneak into Ops to assist their team, illegally use Duggan’s authority for the drone strikes, with Granger even showing he has a conscience by allowing Eric to sent a warning strike before killing anyone. But in a move which was predictable, Hetty wrote Duggan a letter. Not of resignation this time, but a confession that she is the mole. He knows it is not true but accepts it anyway, ordering his minion Chen to cuff Hetty.
For a season opener, this had all the quality, tension, drama and cliff hanger of a season finale. Yes there was a lot of familiarity with Hetty’s actions, and the takeover of Ops was reminiscent of early season six, as well as the formulaic banter, humour and action. The only character inconsistency was Eric getting seasick at the sound of the extremely close waves in their new / temporary boatshed. In earlier seasons, Eric is repeatedly referred to as a surfer. Finally, the mole is being tackled head on, but Duggan may not be all he seems, and Nell was seen sneaking away and plugging / unplugging a flash drive to a computer in ops – was this really just the backdoor into their systems Eric referred to later? More will undoubtedly be revealed in the next episode, aptly named The Queen’s Gambit, reflecting the move Hetty made in sacrificing herself as a pawn for the sake of the large game at play. But both the mole and Kensi’s recovery have a long way to go until normality is restored – if it ever is..