An episode written by Frank Military is characterised by dark, in-depth character stories that are worth numerous rewatches. In S2 Little Angels, a girl was buried alive, causing Sam to relive the time he was buried alive during a SEAL mission. In S3 The Job, he blew up Kensi and introduced Callen’s nemesis Janvier in Crimeleon. He tortured both Sam and Deeks in the Sidorov / nuclear arms deal arc and in S5, had Deeks visit his dark side when he waterboarded an Afghan cleric to find Kensi. In S6 he sent Callen undercover with white supremacists and touched on Callen’s self destructive youth, and in S7 almost had Kensi sexually assaulted and blew up a child suicide bomber. Frank Military penned episodes take the audience to places where they feel uncomfortable; the lighthearted core of the show is called in to question and so his reality hits hard; life as an agent is not all sunshine and laughter. It is not only the bad guys who die.
NICSLA has not killed a noteworthy recurring character for a while; they do not do so wantonly. Dom, Renko and Hunter have all been lost to the greater good of the narrative and the decision to kill Michelle Hanna, Sam’s wife and coping mechanism, would not have been taken lightly. It would be very foolish of the show to kill one of the main cast when they have such chemistry and so they have turned to the periphery cast. There are only a few such characters that would have any impact; Arkady (already done, sort of), Anna (which would really only affect Callen), and Michelle.
Sam has been prominent all season yet has only had the odd episode taking centre stage. He has continued to be Callen’s anchor in the face of his huge family revelations (although whether his errant partner always listens..?). He supported Deeks during Kensi’s turbulent recovery, imparted words of wisdom to Eric and given Anna Kolchek advice on her father and Callen. He is the wise and sensible older brother of the team, grounded with a secure upbringing and a loving family of his own. He is a constantly stable presence for the team and has been since the very first episode. And that is what makes Uncaged even more heartbreaking. It rips the heart and soul out of not only Sam, but the entire team.
The episode is set up with a demonstration of how in love Sam and Michelle are. They exercise together, joke with each other and talk about their future. A normal family portrait is painted with the two of them and daughter Kamran in the kitchen, the first day mother and daughter have returned home from the safe house (after the mole’s threats). At one point Michelle tells Callen to take care of Sam, to which he replies he always does; a line which is repeated later in a very different context. The focus on the normality of family life and their relationship makes the coming events even more brutal.
Rather than a random kidnapping and death, Military has cleverly pulled on threads from earlier episodes and seasons, yet not fully tying them together. Michelle is called to a federal prison as Zirov (cohort of S4 Russian arms dealer Sidorov) has information to pass on, that he will divulge to her alone. Tahir Kaled returns, having been transferred to the same prison as Zirov. In an effort to prove he had nothing to do with targeting the NCIS LA team in the mole debacle, FBI Agent Sabatino makes an appearance to help Sam find his wife,. Crucially though, all of this happens on the very day Michelle finally leaves the safe house. Is there another mole? Is Sabatino still playing the team? Is Joelle aka Beth connected to these events? And how is Kaled obtaining his classified intel?
Michelle is taken early in the episode and is on screen throughout via a video feed. Kaled’s crew has permitted Michelle to communicate with Sam and the team; he has allowed them to watch her suffocate to death. It also means Michelle unwittingly feeds false information about how long the van drove for, throwing the investigation off kilter before it really starts. But more importantly the open communication channels allow her and Sam to have those goodbye conversations no couple ever wishes to have.
During these conversations the rest of the team are desperately for any lead possible. The tension is built at a frantic rate as Kensi and Deeks search for nearby cameras. Hetty negotiates Kaled’s release in exchange for Michelle, with Sec Nav’s caveat that he’s kept under surveillance, which Callen runs. Hetty and Nell later risk their jobs, advising support agents that Sec Nav authorised them to let Kaled go, when he’s lost to an unforeseen ploy. The team have no leads and realise at the eleventh hour the van never left Sam’s neighbourhood. The intensity of Kensi and Deeks’ return search of a former pharmaceutical storage building is gut-wrenching. They were so sure they were in the right place, and as they leave the camera transitions through a false wall to a large room with a single refrigeration unit at its centre.
The real tear jerker comes when Sam realises his wife is not unconscious, but has stopped breathing. Kensi and Deeks are embroiled in a gun fight and only by chance find the storage fridge. The camera cuts to Sam and Callen driving to their location. The desperation with Kensi and Deeks’ rush towards Michelle is countered by a lack of urgency to Sam’s driving; he knows. When they arrive at the scene, surrounded by ambulances, Sam does not frantically run to find his wife. He walks past the paramedics and everyone parts to allow him through. Very few words are spoken and the rawness of emotion is felt from the extras through to Sam’s fellow agents and the use of the soundtrack.
The hype surrounding this episode meant there was a high level of fan realisation that Michelle would die. Yet the manner of her death, the surrounding storyline and the acting, particularly from LL Cool J could not have been predicted. It really was a tear jerker, and not just the odd tear trickling down the cheek. This was full on. The only questionable antics were initial confusions over Zirov (pronounced by the characters as ‘Sharov’, who was last seen as a dead body, having been killed in Hetty’s bomb blast during the mole hunt), and the slightly predictable ploy that the van was always close by…
The season finale next week is entitled Unleashed, clearly a reference to Sam who will go rogue to exact his revenge on Kaled. But what after that? Showrunner Scott Gemmill has said season nine will be something of a reset, so how will this change Sam in the future? By taking away a core element of Sam’s being, he will become destabilised and have to work his way through to find a new equilibrium. During that journey he might become more reckless which would mean a change in the dynamics of his partnership with Callen. He may also stop feeling, bury his emotions and remain numb in an altogether different way to how Callen builds his internal defences. Kensi and Deeks could question their shared profession and future. More likely it will make them realise they need to live for the day, and Deeks may realise that a proposal of marriage need not wait for the perfect sunset over a southern Californian beach.
The best episodes are those which affect the characters personally and Frank Military has demonstrated time and time again this is the case. The episodes he writes and directs tend to be the darkest, affecting both characters and the audience, and pulling the best performances out of the actors. This is by far the best performance from LL Cool J, and by far the best episode of the show to date.
What did you think of this episode? Did you feel the tension and share this horrendously emotional journey with Sam? Do you think Frank Military should write more than two episodes a season (maybe turning his hand to black comedy, to lighten up the darkness)? Please leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts on this traumatic episode.