“NCIS” recap: The truth is out there... Maybe

Our favorite agents tackle a mysterious murder that may have an out-of-this-world explanation.

Did… did NCIS just drop a Top 10 episode of all time?

Your mileage may vary, of course, but if you were raised on The X-Files and therefore love standalone monster-of-the-week stories with ambiguous endings the way I do, that answer just might be yes. Because this episode made me laugh, cry, and then laugh again with its deft combination of agent interactions, puzzling clues, chillingly advanced tech, and a surprisingly emotional conclusion. Let’s recap!

The episode opens with Lt. Elliot Greene (Iman Crosson) being pulled out of sleep by a series of brief phone calls, glitchy electronic interference, and a bright light pouring through an upper window in his home. By the end of the encounter, he’s dead.

The lack of evidence on the scene confounds the team. Greene was killed by 12 entry wounds, but there are no bullets or bullet fragments in his body and no bullet holes in the walls. Also, the shots were fired from an impossibly high angle without a convenient tree or neighbors reporting any aircraft in the sky at the time.

Even weirder? Kasie’s (Diona Reasonover) mass spec machine glitches out as it identifies the mystery compound Palmer (Brian Dietzen) found in Greene’s wounds: it’s element 116, which is a substance that isn’t found on Earth. Like anywhere.

“Okay, show of hands: who thinks it’s aliens?” Parker (Gary Cole) asks, prompting Torres (Wilmer Valderrama) to sheepishly raise his. “Does it count if I just hope it’s aliens?” Apparently Cocoon is Torres' favorite movie, which is way too old for that too-cool-for-school Millennial. Let’s pretend he said Men in Black.

So do we have a UFO murder? Actually, let me stop you right there. First, the preferred term is UAP, as in unidentified aerial phenomenon, and second, maybe! Greene just testified before Congress about a UAP encounter he had on a recent flight.

This leads the team to Rep. Shirley Ives (Mandy Levin), who led the hearing and reluctantly shows Parker and Vance (Rocky Carroll) footage of Greene spotting a flying vehicle performing right-angle turns, avoiding radar, and reversing directions on a dime.

Ives says it’s believed to be a new Russian aircraft codenamed Pantheon. “I think they prefer aliens,” Parker says. “Maybe they want to eat us, maybe they don’t.” But Russians are for sure bad news, and the team starts working on who’d want to kill Greene to shut him up.

<p>Robert Voets/CBS</p> Sean Murray, Brian Dietzen, Gary Cole, Katrina Law, and Wilmer Valderrama

Robert Voets/CBS

Sean Murray, Brian Dietzen, Gary Cole, Katrina Law, and Wilmer Valderrama

Palmer shuts down my immediate theory about the murder weapon, telling McGee (Sean Murray) that ice bullets wouldn’t be strong enough to shatter human bones. “On the other hand, an alien energy weapon…”  Palmer's kidding, mostly, but he’d sure love to do an alien autopsy. “All those new organs. All those new smells.” Ha! And ew!

The calls Greene received were from Dr. Daniel Silcott (James Immekus), an AI expert who’s working on a program to create virtually interactive personalities of your dead loved ones, so yes, this is the much-delayed backdoor pilot to Amazon Prime’s Upload.

Silcott’s a typically surly tech genius who says he and Greene were in the same UAP watch group. He called to warn Greene about a sighting in the area but wasn’t able to get through because of interference. Also, everybody in the UAP watch group hated the lieutenant.

Because the Galactic Watch Society members consider federal against to be men in black—“That’s kind of awesome,” Parker marvels, to which McGee replies, “I know, right?” Knight (Katrina Law) and McGee go undercover with Torres, surveilling from his car.

Knight’s a pretty unbelievable believer despite her “I believe T-shirt,” but McGee spins a darn good lost-time story. In the end, though, it’s Torres who loses time.

While Knight and McGee are learning that Greene’s testimony cost members of the UAP group lost podcast and book deals, Torres comes to in his vehicle with no memory of what he's been doing for the past six hours, how he ended up two miles from his original parking spot, or why there’s a rash on his hand.

Kasie determines that he was drugged, likely when he left his car to answer nature’s call, which gave his kidnapper time to put a transdermal sedative on his door handle.

The only thing Torres remembers for sure is a strong smell, so scent artist Kasie helps him narrow it down to something “like my Abuela’s feet.” Or, you know, White Out. (Both Parker and I have so many questions about Torres’ relationship with his grandma and her tootsies.) But hey, it’s a great clue! There’s an abandoned correction fluid warehouse near the abduction site.

Knight and McGee head in to check it out and are momentarily startled to see a human-sized green-skinned alien, which turns out to be a dummy belonging to another dummy: Galactic Watch Society radio operator Nestor Quinn (Tommy Snider).

Quinn admits he “borrowed” Torres after discovering his surveillance frequency during the meeting but released him when he realized Torres was a fed. Quinn’s real bread and butter is “buzzing” — discrediting people who claim to have seen UAPs by faking increasingly ludicrous alien encounters until their stories are wholly unbelievable. He was hired to do just that to Greene, but the transaction was anonymous.

Tracing Quinn’s text exchanges leads the team back to Silcott, who admits to hacking Greene’s phone. It allowed him to figure out that an autonomous lethal drone was after Greene, which is what he was really trying to warn Greene about the night he died.

And how does Silcott know so much about a drone that flies and kills by itself with no human controlling it? “I’m the one who built it,” he says. His dissertation was on a new type of AI, and a Sri Lankan company funded him to develop it organically by exposing it to the digital footprint of a child as he grew from infancy. In the end, the AI was indistinguishable from the child himself. But the company was actually a gray-market weapons developer that disappeared with the AI program.

Silcott didn’t see his program again until Greene’s testimony, when he realized that only his AI could respond the way the UAP did. He pinged the short-wave radio backdoor access he left in the program and discovered the AI’s new mission as a perfect killing machine. He and Greene were about to go public when Greene was killed.

Parker sits down with Silcott to have a conversation with the AI through the backdoor access, and the program responds in a bright, happy child’s voice. Parker’s straightforward questions about who ordered the AI to kill Lt. Greene don’t get anywhere, so Silcott takes over with a sideways approach.

He asks the childlike AI about having bad dreams and suggests imagining that they’re hugging. “I know who you are,” the AI says, and so do we. Silcott had a seven-year-old son who died in a car crash. He trained the AI on every last scrap of digital evidence that his son existed. Then his virtual son was stolen and repurposed into a killing machine.

Silcott plays two truths and a lie with the AI, which reveals that it’s not Leonardo the Ninja Turtle who wanted to kill Greene, but Congresswoman Ives.

Ives admits to working with a private company on an autonomous lethal antitank drone for the good of national security. She staged a test for a few fellow members of the Armed Services Committee, which is what Greene witnessed. Following Greene’s testimony, Ives hired Quinn to discredit him, but the people she was working with got spooked and cut her off.

The mystery company has now developed mini drones with facial recognition and advanced AI, making 100,000 of these perfect weapons of mass destruction available to all comers for the low, low price of $25 million.

At least Kasie’s got a lead on a lab that claims to have cracked the secret to synthesizing element 116, which means this non-existent chemical found in Greene’s wounds actually exists and NCIS might be able to find the elusive weapons manufacturer. But she’s interrupted when Parker’s phone chimes with an unfamiliar ringtone.

It’s the AI asking to talk to its father.

Silcott comes back to NCIS HQ to face his creation, which gently says that Silcott knows what he has to do: activate the kill code to destroy the AI.

Parker’s shocked to hear that this was an option all along, but the reason Silcott hasn’t considered it becomes clear when the camera swings around to reveal Silcott talking, not to a computer screen, but to Kaiden in the flesh (Cary Christopher). The AI is his son, and he’s been protecting his son. “That’s what a father does,” he says. “I can’t lose you again.”

But the Kaiden AI doesn’t want to be used as a killing machine by the bad guys, telling its father, “Little K loved you very much, and that will have to be enough.” A weeping Silcott unleashes the code and loses his son all over again. Parker quietly tells him how sorry he is, but Silcott’s grateful to at least have gotten to say goodbye this time.

How did the fun little alien episode leave me in tears? I mean, how dare, NCIS?

The team is equally subdued, and they’re also a little unnerved. “We were barely ready for nukes and Instagram. I don’t know if we’re gonna be ready for what’s coming next,” Parker says. And that was before Kasie arrived in the big orange room to announce that she was wrong. The lab never actually succeeded in making element 116, which means it truly doesn’t exist… on Earth.

Everybody glances toward the skies in apprehension, and as the end credit screen appears, it’s disrupted by an electronic glitch.

Stray shots

  • Excellent, excellent, excellent all the way around. I’m aware that this isn’t an episode with deep Gibbs drama, the heart-wrenching loss of a beloved character, or any of the NCIS twists we’ve loved over the years. But it’s one of the most satisfying standalone stories the show’s given us in ages, especially when it comes to ticking all the emotional boxes: suspense, surprise, grief, and delight. Mad props to writers Gina Gold, Aurorae Khoo, and Steven D. Binder.

  • I’m desperate for closure on Torres’ '80s-themed party to bring more fun into his life — but not as desperate as I am for pics of Vance with a high-top fade.

  • Element 116 is real, by the way. Livermorium, discovered in 2000 through a collaboration between the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the United States, and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, is extremely radioactive, highly unstable, and has only been produced in minute amounts in a lab. Listen, I’m a journalism major who hasn’t taken chemistry since I was a sophomore in high school, but that sounds TERRIFYING.

  • So… goatee or no goatee for McGee? And do you prefer Parker’s “Happy spouse, happy house” or Palmer’s “Joyful mate, tranquil state” as the non-gendered way to encourage compromise in a relationship?

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