NCIS: Los Angeles S11E22 - Season Finale Review

In ‘Code of Conduct’, the NCIS Office of Special Projects is ordered to investigate when two SEALs accuse their Chief Petty Officer (Argento) of murdering an injured and unconscious prisoner.  Unsurprisingly, this is written and directed by Executive Producer and master of darkness Frank Military and as expected from both the synopsis and the episode creator, this was a serious forty-two minutes.  It also served as the season finale after filming was curtailed due to COVID-19 restrictions, and was originally scheduled to air on 19th April but was swapped with Murder of Crows (which aired last week instead).  The drama, intensity and high standard of writing, combined with the lack of caricatures and general silliness, was a stark contrast to the episodes of the previous two weeks and demonstrated how episodes should be.  Eric is thankfully all business and makes it clear very early on that no, he has not heard from Nell. Her presence is not even missed as Fatima takes a back seat from field work this week and instead slots seamlessly in ops, assisting Eric and supporting the team.  Also returning is Sam’s SEAL contact in the middle east is Senior Chief Wallace who meets them in Afghanistan, and is a recognisable face having assisted the team several times earlier in the season.  On an early side note, one of Argento’s SEAL team who eventually stopped his leader was familiar and after some digging, the actor also appeared eight years ago in S04E03 The Fifth Man (Astrid’s father).

The plot is something that has been seen before in NCISLA in various guises and interestingly, these have mostly been written by Frank Military who actually writes many of the episodes that involve the military and ones that take place overseas. Notably he wrote Vengeance (S3) in which the SEALs killed an Ensign after discovering he was a traitor, and also SEAL Hunter (S6), both of which are Sam centric episodes. There is very much a team feel to Code of Conduct and the investigation in LA is just as important as the action overseas, neatly running in parallel with one informing the other.  There is a welcome return to normality with the opening bull pen scene, albeit without the full team.  The banter between Sam and Callen has been rather off recently; in fact Sam has been dismissive and uninterested in Callen’s blossoming romance with Anna, a stark contrast to his firm encouragement of it and his ongoing challenge to get Callen to talk about his emotions. This week the banter is back to being relaxed and jovial, with lines about the domestication of Callen and a running joke about paperwork which includes FBI Agent Devin Rountree, who returned for some more ‘on-the-job’ experience.

Rountree is a curiosity. From his first appearance it was clear he had the ‘potential’ Sam (and Callen) were looking for but his subsequent appearances question what that potential actually is.  There was a lack of basic common sense when he sat in the stolen car and triggered a pressure sensor bomb (S11E19 Fortune Favours The Brave), which continues here where he gives chase to their witness in an Afghan market town, leading his colleagues in to an ambush. This is despite Sam warning him that for this mission they look before they leap and Callen calling him out at the end, that his running into the building wasn’t the smartest thing he’d ever seen. It’s reassuring he’s not particularly polished or there would be no sense in training him.  Callen goes on to say that they “run into a lot of buildings like that, we worry about what’s right before we worry about what’s safe”. On a basic level, Rountree is behaving in a similar way to the rest of the team, and Callen offers him a job with the Office of Special Projects. Earlier in the boatshed and later with Chief Wallace, Rountree demonstrated he is not afraid to speak up, even if his ideas are not always suitable. One of the SEALs refuses to give a statement against Argento if he’s the only one to make a stand, which means there is no case to pursue. Callen surprisingly allows Sam the choice of making the case go away by walking away and when his thoughts are interrupted by Rountree asking if the truth matters Sam instinctively reacts positively and they continue their investigations.  When things turn personal, Callen has been known to turn the other way and cross the line; he let Sam alone with Tahir in Revenge Deferred (S07E17), offered Hetty his gun to kill Dang in Goodbye Vietnam (S09E14) and ordered  Deeks and Kensi to remove evidence in Unleashed (S08E24). But Callen and the team never fail to pursue a case just because it is difficult and they often continue even when they’ve been specifically ordered not to, so his comment to Sam is questionable.

The lack of Hetty or anyone else in command in recent episodes shows how the team easily operates without anyone, but with a high profile investigation in Argento and the awareness he has connections in very high places requires a senior figure to guide the team. This allows for the return of Mac, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Sarah MacKenzie (JAG) who urges caution and underlines how serious the repercussions could be. Her authority is not challenged or questioned by the team and she looks very much at home when she appears in Mosley’s old office, sitting behind the desk. Kensi and Deeks run the investigation from LA, searching for the missing SEAL which allows Deeks has his own piece of action as when found SEAL Cole ‘captures’ him in neat move in his motel room. Mac makes the partners work hard to get the story out of the SEALs off the record before they can be offered immunity. At the same time in Afghanistan, the captured team has persuaded the witness to tell his story. There is a great use of screen time to create the narrative of Argento murdering the unconscious prisoner, told through the witness in Afghanistan and the two SEALs in LA. The storytelling is intercut between the three, recounting events in a linear structure using a combination of flashbacks and present time. This adds to the cohesion, emphasising the truth about Argento and creating an intensity within Afghanistan, where the team hear the story whilst held captive in the presence of the murdered man's distraught father.  This intensity increases when Argento and his SEAL team arrive and lay siege to the building.  With relentless gunfire, the problem as usual when characters are in danger, is how they will escape.  It is a combination of Sam’s saintly reputation as a former SEAL chief and the morality of the remaining SEALs that finally allows the American’s and the Afghan’s to escape unscathed and for Argento to be arrested by Sam. More SEALs testify and in a sequence that mirrors the recounting of the murder, each agent (Mac included) take sworn statements from the witnesses. The case should be watertight but much was made of Argento’s highly powerful connections and the possible repercussions.   

Although not the planned season finale, Code of Conduct was a great last minute fall back episode.  The episode is darker, more dramatic and intense than recent offerings and has a story arc that will potentially see the team’s careers and the Office of Special Projects in jeopardy. Once again, Frank Military confirms his position as one of NCIS: Los Angeles’ best writers and directors and Code of Conduct demonstrates a higher level of writing and acting to which each episode should aspire.   

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