NCIS: Los Angeles S12E11 Review - Russia Russia Russia


Russia Russia Russia is Kensi actor Daniela Ruah’s directorial debut and she has been handed a meaty script to which she has more than done justice.  Showrunner Scott Gemmill penned the episode and as he did for Chris O’Donnell’s debut as director (S4E17 Wanted), it is a character centred episode which still feels like a team effort.  Episodes focused on one of the original field agents are always a cut above others.  The characters are why viewers tune in each week - the cases are frequently the backdrop to how they interact with each other and react to various situations, whether individually or as a team.  

This time the focus is on Callen, which is apparent from the outset. The cold open features Callen staring out to sea, and making repeated calls to a disconnected cell phone. He then realises he’s being tailed and attempts to confront the anonymous SUV.  When this moves straight to a vastly reduced opening credit sequence without the theme music (last done in season 10 premier To Live & Die in Mexico), it’s an affirmation this will be a fully packed episode. Daniela places her creative mark right from the ouset with a series of close ups of Callen’s face whist making the call.  It’s the type of shot not usually employed by the show’s directors, although it was reminiscent to Burned (S01E23), when Callen was on a public phone to Eugene Keelson. The shot, together the following wide angle view of Callen alone on the vast beach, emphasises the deeply emotional and personal aspect, the pain and frustration when the call remains unanswered, and how alone he is. He can only be trying to reach Anna Kolcheck although this is not referenced at all. The ‘previously in NCIS Los Angeles’ clips point back to the season premier, The Bear, serving as a reminder of the defecting Russian captain, the destruction of their plane and of Zasha, the young woman the team paid for information.  The scene has been well and truly set.   

Russia has been a long time enemy of the US and it has been referenced countless times on the show that the cold war is heating up again, and of course those pesky Russians frequently make appearances as allies (Arkady) and enemies (Pavel Volkov). The moment the showrunners decided Callen’s father was a former KGB officer who worked for the CIA, and that Callen’s full name was Grisha Aleksandrovich Nikolaev, it has been on the cards that at some point, he would be accused of being a Russian asset, a double agent. His Russian background was touched on in S09E16 Warrior of Peace but never followed through until now.  Callen does have a number of Russia connections, both familial and professional, having worked in Russia and the Ukraine during his time at the CIA (and DEA, S01E07 Pushback). When he visits Oleg Barinov - one of the Russian airmen from The Bear - at the National Counterterrorism Center , he is detained by jobsworth DOJ Special Agent Carlson (introduced in S12E08 Love Kills), and accused of being a Russian asset.

There is no reason for this visit and Callen did not alert his team of his whereabouts. Even Sam was in the dark and of course Callen fails to ask for assistance once detained. He even challenges Deeks for intervening , his reaction was almost disappointment, asking him ‘what are you doing here?’ Even  after Deeks had secured his release, Callen turning himself back in. The events do not particularly make sense and when viewed in hindsight, maybe Callen’s original goal was to manipulate defector Kapitan Gonchgarov into a specific situation he had orchestrated. The interrogation scene between Agent Carlson and Callen is again well directed. He is unfazed by the accusations and of course toys with her, particularly with references to conspiracy theories and fan fiction Traitor. There is a lovely symmetry to the scene when he mimics Carlson’s body language, leaning forwards when she does and leaning back in his chair after she does the same, the framing making it clear that Carlson does not have the upper hand. There is also a great use of music during the scene, much more subtle than usual, with pauses to provide emphasis with the questions and answers. This starkly contrasts with Deeks’ overt use of music to mask his conversation with Callen, when he enters the room. 

Deeks is also allowed some fun and brings some lightness to a serious episode. Firstly he’s undercover as a lawyer, reeling off acronyms and speaking fast enough to confuse and frustrate Carlson.  He’s also sweet-talked by Kensi into approaching Anatoli Kirkin to ask him to assist in an interesting piece of ‘theatre’. Scenes with Kirkin are always fun, albeit in a bit of an obsessive and OTT manner. This time the theatrics involve Callen pretending he is the Russian spy he’s accused of being, with Kirkin torturing and killing people on Callen’s behalf. Deeks has the fantastic job of smashing down a hammer and yelling in pretend pain, while Callen talks to Gonchgarov in the interrogation room. Many of Kirkin’s appearances have been for comedic value, he has rarely been allowed to show the ruthlessness of the Russian criminal underworld in which he used to reside. Here he switches between his new passion as a fashion designer and torturer. He reverts to type in his final scenes with Deeks, who elicited Kirkin’s help in return for modelling his entire clothing range.  Kensi enjoys watching her husband play dress up way more than she should! 

Another returning character is Retired Admiral Kilbride, stepping in to advise the team of Callen’s detainment and Hetty’s covert operation.  Kilbride brings his usual sarcastic - verging on the insulting - comments and the team revelled in referring to Kilbride’s own harebrained operation involving a dead body (S11E03 Hail Mary). Hetty’s absences are now the norm and finally her mission this season is revealed - she’s trying to smoke out a Russian mole who’s infiltrated the upper echelons of US intelligence, but that plan has gone askew and now Callen, one of her prize protégés has been accused of being a double agent.  Her operation is revealed with Kilbride telling Sam and Kensi filling in Fatima, cutting between each pair to further the story.

Gonchgarov eventually gives up a phone number and so the team set up a sting which goes disastrously wrong. In a rarity for the COVID struck season 12, the agents are together in the same location; Deeks as a busker, Kensi a new mother, Callen as janitor and Sam is fishing. The banter on comms is on top form with lots of ribbing and in Ops, even Kilbride makes comments about the ‘selfie generation’.   The fun quickly degenerates as the ‘selfie’ taker passes her cell phone to the Gonchgarov to take her photo. As she leaves, Deeks recognises her as Zasha Gagarin, the Russian socialite from The Bear, who discards her two sets of gloves and phone into a bin. The Kapitan has been poisoned and Zasha escapes a busy Malibu pier, which the team believed they had locked down. Agent Carlson is fuming, still accusing Callen of being a double agent, but willing to work with him to find Zasha. 

The episode is a slow burner, moving from a solo Callen who speaks with Barinov with no real purpose, to a fast-paced and intense team operation, but it is the reveal in the final scene which is the kicker. Zasha, who Callen and Sam stated was in the wind, arrives in a back alley where she is accosted by a hooded Callen, his arm across her throat, asking her why she killed Gonchgarov as it was never part of the plan. She is genuinely scared of Callen, who threatens to kill her if she double crosses him. This brings into question the operation he concocted earlier and possibly his motive for visiting the National Counterterrorism Center. How much was deliberate? Which elements did he set in motion? Did Callen know the Kapitan had the phone number all along?  Callen has the right pedigree for a double agent as pointed out by both Carlson, who presented Callen with photos of his father, Anna and Arkady, and Deeks, who pointed out to Callen that it was a lot of Russian connections.  Deeks’ comment that they’ve finally caught Callen now takes on another meaning. The most likely explanation is that he is working on Hetty’s orders, but is clearly on a solo undercover mission which may put him at odds with the team at a later date. It is highly doubtful Callen has turned traitor.

The undercover aspect of the show was key to earlier seasons and has been missed over recent years. It would make sense that as season 12 continues with its serialisation, this will play out for several more episodes. It would be fascinating if this continued until the finale or further as Callen would have to flit between patriotic NCIS agent and bantering with Sam, and being a menacing Russian asset.

Russia Russia Russia is the best episode of the season to date. The writing and directing are tight and the actors have revelled in a great script and supported Dani with excellent performances. Hetty’s absence is coming into play, although Nell is again AWOL and it seems only the viewers have noticed. Eric has quietly departed ops and Rountree has a plausible excuse for his absenteeism. The reduction in main characters enables the focus to remain on Callen and the original agents, resulting in a feeling like the NCISLA of old. Despite the serious aspects and the topical nod to Russian’s and poison, there is a playfulness between the team which is not always present due to the developing dynamics with the new characters, again feeling like the old NCISLA.  The episodes which follow and explore Callen’s double agent role have a hard act to follow.

Personal Note -  I wrote a fan fiction story about Callen being accused of a Russian spy in 2015.  Give it a read by clicking on the link. Traitor

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