NCIS: Los Angeles S11E10 ’Mother’ Review

For a television series to be in its eleventh season and reach the 250th episode is a huge milestone worthy of celebration.  NCIS Los Angeles celebrated with an explosive episode, literally and metaphorically, co-written by one of the main cast, Eric Christian Olsen (Deeks).  'Mother' focused on the show's most enigmatic character, Henrietta Lange and the results of her past, selecting and grooming children to become instruments of the U.S. Government. 

There is a permanent undercurrent of violence in the show. Barely an episode goes by without at least one dead body and as a general rule, the baddies are shot (and frequently die) whilst the main characters generally remain unscathed. The driver for violence among the perpetrators is often touched on, for example they're motivated by revenge, religion or ideology and sometimes even love. Rather than exploring the psychology of the baddies in more depth, 'Mother' instead examines the impact of a life of violence, as a result of Hetty's grooming.

Ahkos Laos was sent away by his family to a Botswana tribe, labelled as ‘devil born’ and rescued by Hetty. Flashbacks show them together at the natural history museum, with Hetty reading him passages of poetry. She trained and then lost him when he was commandeered by the State Department to take part in black ops, trained by CIA operative Barrett Fimmell. Ahkos later escaped his clutches by faking his own death and grooming Nathasa Ali, a girl he callously orphaned (unknown to her), all the while plotting his violent revenge against the two people who led him down this rabbit hole.

The episode opens in the usual way with a crime being committed and then a post credit team scene in the gym.  Last week featured a long overdue bull pen scene and here, the team are once again together, relaxing and having fun with a game of basketball; Callen gently cheating and Kensi showing off her skills. The banter, broken by Eric, resplendent in his tight sports kit, comes to an end when an intruder (Nathasa) with a box is spotted outside the mission. From there on, the plot develops at an increasingly frantic pace as the team face threat after threat and race to save Hetty from Ahkos and Deeks from being blown up.

In an episode that explores violence, it is no surprise there are some ‘Frank Military-esque’ touches of horror. The box contains a severed hand, a knife piercing the hand with a note attached it, a cup of blood on Femmill’s kitchen counter replaces the cup of coffee that Ahkos planted in the opening. In a shot which calls back to season 9 ‘Monsters’, the top half of Femmill’s bloody torso is positioned on his bed. And not to waste any body parts, his other hand is in a different box, holding a ringing cell phone. The shock value illustrates how unhinged and dangerous Ahkos is; his use of the Dante’s Inferno quotation demonstrates his delusions of grandeur, and his references to ‘mother’ and referring to Callen as his brother, is downright creepy.

XLLS​Violence begets violence, which is obvious with Ahkos and evident with Callen. The only way Ahkos can stop is to remove from this world the people who trained him. Callen has responded with violence (or threats of) when Hetty was at risk from Matthias in season 6 Praesidium (“we hunt him down, and we kill him”), like he did in Romania (Kensi, “we have a plan?”, Callen, “Yeah, kill them all”) and the repeated flashbacks to his mother’s murder as he shot the Comescus when breaching the Romanian beach house, again to rescue Hetty. In season 9 he barely thought twice about trading Kirkin's life for that of his father's. Callen’s penchant for violence is triggered when certain members of his family are threatened, and tempered by the family he has at NCIS, a support system which Ahkos was lacking. By contrast, Deeks was exposed to his violent father as a child and has a darkness which surfaces when Kensi (women) are in danger (torturing the cleric in Afghanistan in season 5, killing his former LAPD partner). Although this is not an exploration of Deeks’ psychology, he does reveal his nightmares to Kensi. Whether they are triggered by his childhood, PTSD from the Siderov torture or from his own acts of violence, is left unsaid.

Hetty: He was just a young boy with potential.
Callen: The kind of potential that scares most people away?
Hetty: He was just looking for the same things all of us look for.
Callen: A mother.
Hetty: A home, an identity, and something to keep the darkness at bay.
Callen: So you took him in? Trained him?
Hetty: I did.

The team may not know the details but it is obvious Hetty did the same with Callen. During this exchange, there are close-ups of Callen and sideways glances from the rest of the team. His response of ‘a mother’, either demonstrates how wrong Hetty was in understanding what ‘her children’ were looking for, or how deeply scarred Callen is by not having a mother. It certainly explains why he would kill to save Hetty’s life. Sam attempts to follow this through as they stakeout the cemetery and of course is shut down immediately. He questions why Callen does this job, his motivations, why he risks his life. At the last question, the shot moves from a distant and thoughtful Callen, to Hetty. As has repeatedly been said in the show, Hetty is the closest thing Callen has to a mother.

As Callen refuses to have an existential crisis, Kensi and Deeks breach a warehouse. Deeks is drawn to some soft, 1960s sounding music into an area that is suspiciously reminiscent of the Kill House in Season 4 and becomes trapped with a bomb with a timer. Clearly he has not watched enough horror films! There are a few one liners, black humour and Deeks even fires a bullet at the encased bomb, only for it to ricochet around the room. This of course allows for some emotionally heavy scenes with Kensi on the outside, desperately trying to free Deeks. Simultaneously, the power goes down in Ops, Hetty is kidnapped and taken by helicopter from the cemetery, the bomb squad are too far out to save Deeks, and Special Prosecutor Rogers (remember him?), is interrogating Nathasa, the woman who set this in motion.

The action comes fast and furious; the number of different scenes edited together demonstrates the urgency felt by the team. It is fast paced and at no point is that to the detriment of the plot. With Ops down, there are no comms, and the team are on their phones tracking Hetty, monitoring the bomb squad, Sam is talking to Kensi about the bomb, Callen is pressuring Eric. Nell looks like she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, particularly having told Hetty some home truths after placing Eric in danger last week. She has probably the most insightful line, delivered perfectly:

"This is what happens when you try to play God in the lives of those you say you love.”

In Kill Beale Vol 1, Hetty admitted she no longer wants her job. Here she doubts her abilities and believes she has failed Ahkos, Callen and the rest of the team. She has no answers for Ahkos and can only apologise. He constantly refers to her as mother, sharing that his only good memories took place with her at the museum, before accusing her of abandoning him. In an oblique reference to Hetty and Callen’s earlier conversation in Ops, Ahkos challenges her on the purpose she gave him in life, which was to violently take life away from those who threaten the peace. It sounds like he too, just wanted a mother to love and protect him. He is a tragic character and feels tremendous guilt at the lives he has taken. Yet his actions to achieve his revenge are fascinatingly circular; his cold and calculating manipulation in murdering Nathasa's family under the guise of a black op missile strike, then training her to exact revenge on Henrietta Lange is a twisted version of Hetty’s moulding of ‘her children’.

Smiles are few and far between, but there is almost a comedic moment between Callen and Ahkos. Callen breaches the museum on his own, doesn’t announce himself as NCIS. He shoots to kill and without a backwards glance, fire execution shots as he passes each prone body. This dark side of Callen is occasionally hinted at but rarely seen. He is so focused when he enters the exhibition area, that Ahkos, who was waiting around a corner, simply punches Callen in the face and sends him sprawling. Considering the stylish manner Callen was sliding on his knees, the cold manner in which he killed the accomplices and the slow motion shot of her entering the room, it seemed like a slither of black humour emerged with that one punch. The tables are turned when Hetty saves Callen from Ahkos and tells him ‘no’ when he makes a move to fight Ahkos. Instead Callen becomes a passive, frozen observer, watching in horror, as the mother comforts the son she has killed. 

A violent death at the hands of Hetty, up close and personal with the knife she once gave him, was the only outcome for Ahkos. Hetty recites lines from Dante’s Inferno, the same ones she read to him as a child in the same museum, seen earlier in flashbacks. Ahkos entered the gates of hell years before (as per the first quotation written on the note pinned to the severed hand). The words he fondly remembers, that Hetty softly repeats as he dies, relate to emerging on the other side of Hell, towards the stars, which in this context represents peace for Ahkos. He has no chance of redemption or entering heaven.

The frenetic pace of the episode continues even through the scenes with Hetty and Ahkos. They talk, Sam and Callen are driving at speed towards the museum, Rogers interrogates the woman and Deeks is still trapped in a room with a bomb. Ahkos is challenging his mother. This heightens the tension and Deeks’ unexpected example of his love for Kensi triggers her problem-solving skills and confirmation she wants children and an idyllic life. The madness of their escape contrasts with the deep conversations in the museum. Kensi frees Deeks, who rides the door like a surfboard through the flames, the explosions reminiscent of Callen running out of the warehouse in Season 1 finale (Callen, G) and Kensi's comment after that she needs to pee with Deeks saying he already has, hark back to season 2 Deliverance. 

The calm after the storm takes the form of the second tete a tete between Callen and Hetty in as many weeks. Callen still has blind faith in Hetty, even though she has kept secrets from him, moves ‘assets’ around the chess board and has groomed children into a life of violence, killing one son to save another. Earlier Sam forced Callen to think about the reasons why he does this job, for what reason does he risk his life daily, stating it’s practically the only life he’s ever known. Now, he answers Hetty:

Sometimes when we finish a big case, two or three days later, I go back to where it all happened. And I just sit there and I watch. Now it's a guy walking his dog, or a couple holding hands, kids playing around. And I think about all the violence and chaos that was there just a few days before. And now it's just life. And I know that we gave them that life. In that moment, this world seems like it's worth fighting for. And my role in that fight, in all this, it makes sense to me. You have never failed me, Hetty. Or anyone on this team. And you never will.

It is a long speech for Callen and one that suggests that he is still values the peace and happiness of others more that his own. Is that why, although he has a glass, he never actually drinks with Hetty at the end. How many children did Hetty introduce and groom for a life of violence? Callen asks the question, one which Hetty declines to answer, mirroring the same question he asked her in anger, in season 4 Raven and the Swans. And in another example of the circular nature of Hetty and her children, what has or will now happen to Finn, the teenage boy Callen himself found with ‘potential’? Like last week, Mother sets up further questions about the future of Hetty at NCIS. For two weeks now, after always projecting an image of confidence to the world, she is full of self-doubt, in front of Callen at least. This is further compounded by Special Prosecutor Rogers (whose presence in Ops remains a mystery), but his superior interrogation techniques secured him the information he needs to bring down Henrietta Lange.

An episode exploring Hetty’s past and her orphans is long overdue. Several have been introduced in the past - Lauren Hunter, Grace Stevens and now Ahkos Laos. Hunter was cold and calculating, and Grace placed herself in danger by becoming intimate with villains. The aspect of the violent life to which Hetty introduced them, indoctrinated them has stifled their emotional development. Maybe Hetty has misread what children want? All Callen and Ahkos wanted was the love, protection and nurture of a mother.

This was an excellent episode, written by Eric Christian Olsen and Babar Peerzada and directed by Dennis Smith. Mother is intelligent, dark, moving and thought-provoking, both for the characters and the viewers, and stylishly shot and edited. NCIS: Los Angeles needs more episodes like these and hopefully Olsen will pen more episodes in the future.

On a side note, there were 12 minutes from this episode to trim it down to 42 minutes - I sincerely hope there will be a writer’s/director’s version on the S11 DVD.

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