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TV Review: NCIS – “Ex-File”

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“Ex-File” first aired Tuesday, October 9, 2007.

While the NCIS writers sans Donald Bellisario are still getting their sea legs, they collectively pack four episodes of major character development into the single episode of “Ex-File,” cleverly titled as it involves Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs’ (Mark Harmon) third wife, Stephanie Flynn (Kathleen York), proving that at least until Army Lt. Col. Hollis Mann (Susanna Thompson), Gibbs had a major thing for redheads (think NCIS Director  Jenny Shepard [Lauren Holly]).

The episode opens with the wife of Marine Captain Trent Reynolds, Jill Reynolds (Lilli Birdsell) and her friend Stephanie Flynn (Kathleen York) entering the Reynolds’ house following a business trip that took Mrs. Reynolds to a pharmaceutical conference. The two enter the house looking for Mrs. Reynolds’s husband, who is apparently home because a stereo is blaring in the study. They find Captain Reynolds dead, speared from the back through his sternum by one of his own spear gun darts, Captain Reynolds propped upright by the spear in front of his laptop computer displaying a picture of his family on the screen. The team determined Marine Reynolds worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and was on Fort Belfore army base, ultimately making this a joint Army-NCIS case to be led by none other than Army Lt. Col. Hollis Mann (Susanna Thompson). Sparks will fly.

When Gibbs and his team reach the crime scene, Lt. Col. Mann is already present. Mann makes it perfectly clear to Gibbs that she is in charge of the investigation. NCIS Medical Examiner Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard (David McCallum) estimates the time of death and the team, seeing the laptop as evidence, confiscates it. The brass from the DIA sends Army Major Eric Sweigart (Myk Watford) and Army Lt. Joseph Marsden (Robin Dunne) to NCIS where the two insist that the laptop holds secrets too sensitive for the wrong eyes and should be returned to them immediately. Shepard (Lauren Holly) will not let go of the laptop as it is evidence and the two units come to the agreement that DIA personnel will be sent to work with NCIS Forensics Specialist Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette), who is resistant to the idea, to say the least. The Agency sends a geek Woton named Fred Rinnert (John Mallory Asher) to oversee Abby and whom Abby initially loathes but eventually warms up to.

The NCIS-Army investigation team turns up Major Sweigert’s fingerprint on the door to the Reynolds' house. His explanation for the print was he was there having a date with Stephanie Flynn, Mrs. Reynolds’ friend and Gibbs’ ex-wife, which would place him at the Reynolds’ residence. Mann takes Gibbs to see Director Shepard to discuss Stephanie Flynn and the propriety of having Gibbs on the investigation considering his past relationship with Flynn. Mann and Director Shepard conclude that Gibbs’ involvement will not be a problem because Mann will conduct the interrogation.

Mann interviews Flynn with Special Agent Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) and Mossad Agent-on-Loan-to-NCIS Ziva David (Cote de Pablo) in the observation room, discussing who is more attractive, Gibbs’ ex-wife number three or future ex-wife number four. Gibbs shows up, Tony and Ziva being unsure how long he was behind them. Meanwhile, Flynn, tiring of the interrogation, demands to see Gibbs, yelling for him through the glass darkly. Gibbs enters the interrogation room with coffee for Flynn and Mann. Gibbs speaks briefly with Flynn, the conversation cut short by McGee summoning Gibbs to Abby’s lab.

Abby having warmed to Fred Rinnert, the two found that Trent Reynolds had been sending and receiving email and using a file sharing application with which he procured Tom Lehrer's "The Elements Song" that recites the periodic table to a tune (a geek’s “Conjunction Junction”). The song was embedded on Reynolds’ hard drive and presents a query that Abby must unravel: exactly why was Reynolds sharing "The Elements Song" just before he died?

On the character development front, Ducky and Mann discuss Gibbs. Mann doesn't want to be another Gibbs causality considering Gibbs is a three-time loser. Ducky absently corrects her that Gibbs has been married four times. It dawns on Mann that Gibbs must be a widower. Ducky fills in the gaps for Mann about Gibbs’ murdered family and Mann figures out that the name of Gibbs’ boat Kelly was named for his dead daughter. Gibbs arrives, redirecting Ducky to explain that a substance found on the dead Marine's cheeks was tears. He was crying when he died.

Meanwhile, Tony and Ziva arrive in autopsy and reveal that the dead Reynolds' phone records disclosed nothing but that Major Sweigert had been frequently speaking with Reynolds' wife. The team surmises that Jill Reynolds was having an affair with Sweigert. After a few time calculations, the team determines that her alibi of being at a conference in Charlottesville, a two-hour drive away, would have allowed her to drive home, kill her husband, and drive back. Reynolds held a considerable amount of life insurance that would make a tidy nest egg for her and her lover; an arrest warrant is issued for Mrs. Reynolds.

Abby employs a method of cyber-ciphering called steganography to divine the hidden file in files stored with “The Elements Song.” Fred offers help and Abby resists, claiming to be a control nut. She resists but warms more and more to the apparently harmless uber-geek. Meanwhile, Gibbs and Mann enter an elevator and, taking advantage of the privacy, Gibbs asks Mann what is wrong. Mann confronts Gibbs with not ever having told her about Shannon and Kelly. Gibbs replies, "They're dead. End of story. I've put it behind me". Mann asks "Have you?" They resume their descent.

Tony and Ziva meet DIA officer Army Lt. Joseph Marsden at the Reynolds’ house as they go to arrest Mrs. Reynolds. He reveals that he was there to discuss the death benefits she can expect. The two find Jill Reynolds obsessively cleaning the house. It is wiped completely clean. Mrs. Reynolds reveals that "Cleaning is kind of therapeutic for me," indicating an acute need for obsessive-compulsive disorder intervention. Meanwhile, Stephanie Flynn is pleading with Director Shepard to have Gibbs removed from the case. Flynn wants to protect Sweigert from any collateral career harm that could come out of this investigation. Flynn, knowing that the Director and Gibbs worked together, asks whether the Director and Gibbs had been intimate. The Director prevaricates, stating her and Gibbs’ relationship was "only professional." Hmmm.

With Mrs. Reynolds’ back in interrogation, Mann confronts her over her affair with Sweigert. Mann informs her that her husband had been reading their love emails and crying when he died. Mrs. Reynolds denies killing her husband. Gibbs and Mann get called to the lab where McGee produces ATM footage proving that Mrs. Reynolds was indeed at the conference in Charlottesville at the time of her husband’s death. Gibbs and Mann talk. Mann asks Gibbs what if Stephanie could have possibly killed Reynolds. Gibbs thinks not and says so. Gibbs orders Tony to call Flynn to ask her to come back into headquarters only to find out that she has left her job that morning.

Meanwhile, Abby grows closer to the unlocking secret on Reynolds’ laptop Abby determines that “The Elements Song” can be filtered, providing a number of audible elements, each represented by a number on the periodic table that can be interpreted as a numeric code, one she does not understand. Fred, meanwhile, answers Abby’s phone and tells her that her that Gibbs wants to see her up stairs her. Abby locks the laptop in an evidence bag and leaves the lab. Gibbs tells Abby that he did not call her and Abby realizes that she has left Fred in her lab unattended, with evidence. Abby and Gibbs race back to the lab, leaving McGee to unravel the meaning of the numbers from “The Elements Song.” Abby finds her computer and the laptop erased. Everyone figures out that Fred is the killer but the team has no hard evidence. Fred begins to walk out with the team following him. They slow him down while Abby keeps asking Gibbs if she can throttle him. Gibbs says no each time.

In a most timely manner, McGee discovers that the numbers represent a bank account number for the deposit of money from the sale of defense secrets. It turns out that Reynolds and Fred made a cool million from a Beirut dealer. Incredulous, Gibbs asks Fred, "What did you sell and who did you sell it to?" Insolently, Fred responds, "Maybe if you cut me a deal, I'll tell you." Gibbs allow Abby to hit him, thus issuing one more NCIS female-on-male ass whipping. It just doesn’t get better than this.

Back on the interpersonal front, Mann and Gibbs, in full party togs, descend into Gibbs' dimly lit basement, with Mann questioning why all of their romantic nights end with sanding boats in his basement. They find Stephanie Flynn inside Gibbs boat. Humiliated, Flynn passes her hands over the name "Kelly" carved on the boat, and hands Gibbs his dog tags, which she still had. Gibbs walks her out to her car. In Gibbs’ basement, Mann has found a cassette player and an empty cassette cover on his workbench. She hits 'play' and the music comes out: a home-recorded solo piano, very simple, naive, like early classical. Mann smiles until the music stops and she hears voices: Kelly's voice and Shannon’s voice. Mann's smile evaporates. Gibbs has stopped midway down the stairs, sitting, staring straight ahead, and listening to Mann listening to the tape. The voices cease. Mann fully internalizes the gravity of Gibbs’ loss and the emotionally precarious position she and Gibbs are in.

While sputtering like a Model A being cranked, NCIS is already light years ahead of last season. Gibbs and Mann seem made for one another. Tony and Ziva may finally couple like two cultural gods and McGee and Abby may try and see if things are better the second time around. And then there is the Director. NCIS sets itself apart from the CSI franchise, Criminal Minds, and Num3ers by not trying to take itself so seriously and without being pseudo-intellectual. It is a culturally aware and pleasing procedural that rarely fails to entertain.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...