NCIS: Los Angeles S13E05 Review


Divided We Fall tells the rare story of the team failing catastrophically in their mission. Failure is not an outcome associated with the NCIS Office of Special Projects which makes this episode all the more interesting. There are plenty of occasions where missions go sideways - it's that unpredictability and intensity which often keeps the interest, however the outcome is usually positive. After all they rescued Mosley's son, even though all bar Kensi nearly lost their lives in the process. The team is not perfect and not infallible so to actually see them fail and the after effects of that failure, is a novelty. 

The episode begins with Callen and Sam approaching a woman (Laura Song) and urgently requesting she accompanies them to a safe house as she may be compromised. Meanwhile Kensi and Deeks pick up Laura's teenager daughter Lily and bring her to the boatshed, while Fatima and Rountree set up in the safe house to undertake surveillance. When Callen states that Kilbride will arrive in an hour, Laura's replies that until then, her life is in their hands.

"One hour later" and Kilbride walks in to a disaster zone. Laura is dead and Callen and Sam are sitting against the wall looking battered.  

The remainder of the episode takes place after another time jump. The team have been separated for 36 hours and are interviewed by the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) Inspector General Akhil Ali. This allows the team to fill in the events of that crucial hour from their own perspective, with each member overlapping with the former to provide a full narrative.  These interviews/flashbacks allow Laura to be developed as a rounded character and for empathy to be built as she engages with Sam and Callen on a personal level. She’s a mother who believes her daughter is better off without her, she was drawn into the world of espionage by Kilbride at the age of 17 and knows Hetty. She is strong, confident and defiant, adamant that even though she acknowledges every spy has their expiry date, she repeatedly ask for a gun, refuses to die while locked away in the panic room and selflessly sacrifices herself to save Fatima.  Her actions and words indicate that she'd rather fight for her freedom that be locked in and trapped, even if a few of her actions are odd with this - until Kilbride tells his tale... He concocted the story that Laura's cover was blown so he could (via the team)  secure her for interview to see if she had been turned by the Chinese and was now a double agent.  He found his answer when he saw her walking into the lobby with the ‘bad guys’, chastising them for failing to take out four agents. Kilbride confronts and kills her. 

This knowledge allows the episode to be seen in a different light upon a second viewing. Deeks states that Kilbride has many layers like an onion (and each one will make you cry), which is an apt reflection of Divided We Fall (although maybe not the crying element). This is an intricately constructed and multilayered case.  The one on one conversations Laura had with Callen and Sam now take on a different meaning. She knows Hetty and it can be implied she knows of her orphans and by extension, about Callen. By asking how long he’s known Hetty and relating that to her own story of being dragged into the game so young, she has aligned herself with him.  With Sam she speaks about her teenage daughter and the pair talk about parenting. She struggles with the mother/daughter relationship, believing Lily is better off without her and asks about Sam's daughter’s relationship with her mother. Did she know in advance that Sam’s wife was killed? 

Kilbride admitted to ONI Ali that Laura is the best operative he’s ever known and he kept the real reason away from the team for fear she would see through their charade. Laura Song now becomes a highly manipulative double agent, playing two experienced agents who had little chance of seeing through her facade, thanks to Kilbride.  The other takeaway here is Kilbride’s lack of trust - he clearly has no faith in the team. He acknowledges they are good but not the best (although he tells Lily they are the best, with Deeks naively believing him until Kensi bursts his bubble).  It almost picking up where Hetty left off in terms of manipulation and secret keeping, even picking Laura for a life of spy craft during her teenage years. Perhaps this explains his comments to Callen in the season opener (Subject 17), and in last season’s finale. 

The interviews reveal how events unfolded but also show how the agents perform their jobs. Sam and Callen are the epitome of professional, dedicated to protecting Laura. They repeatedly refuse her request for a gun, providing the ONI Inspector Ali with legitimate reasons for their decisions. When Ali challenges the only discrepancy in Sam and Callen’s story (whether Laura was drinking scotch or bourbon), Sam quite rightly questions if it really matters? It’s the newer and younger agents who’s behaviour during their surveillance is surprising. These scenes typically make personal conversations easy whilst maintaining observations, yet Rountree and Fatima spent most of their time NOT looking at the monitors. Instead they were on their cells and playing a magnet game. Thankfully these actions had no impact on events and they acted as expected when they temporarily rescued Laura.  With Fatima shot in the leg, Laura insists the agent reaches safety first, then closes the elevator hatch. This seemingly selfless act kept the agents safe and gives the appearance of her capture and death (a gunshot is heard shortly after). If  Sam or Callen had been injured and in the elevator, they would have insisted Laura was hauled through the hatch. Certainly Callen left Sam to fight off the attack while he moved Laura to safety,  although Sam did question why Callen abandoned him...(which was out of character).

Kensi and Deeks’ situation was much less intense, taking Lily to the boatshed to keep her safe, thus allowing for a touch of lightness and humour at times.  Again there is a personal element which builds empathy between Lily and the agents. She reveals her dad died when she was 11, something to which Kensi can relate. It is Deeks and his knack of understanding deep human emotions who suspects something is hinky. He tried to call Sam to say that Laura continued to be an operative after her dad died in a car crash.  Laura lost it when husband died but when she returned to work (to her cover job as an art dealer, in actuality as a spy),she became better. The scene cuts to Deeks’ interview and his heartfelt speech where he opened up on his thoughts of dying in line of duty and how people deal with trauma differently. If Kensi died, he didn’t think he could remain operational and raise an 11 year old. It made him question why Laura chose to do just that, enough to make him try and call Sam. 

Kilbride is indirectly responsible. It was his idea to withhold information from the agents and to lie about securing her in a safe house as her cover may be blown.  His plot inadvertently put the agents in danger, although he had no foresight that Laura’s allies would breach and rescue her. The Chinese extraction team were tipped off as they found sustained breach of the ONI safe house security systems and knew as soon as Laura walked through the door. Kilbride may not trust the team or have faith in their abilities but at least he tells ONI Inspector Ali that the report he writes will exonerate the team. The agents accept and admit responsibility for their failure and Laura’s death, and Kilbride witnesses their utter dejection when he calls them to ops for another case and they trudge up the stairs. When he pauses by the door to his office, observing them, he contemplates but still does not take the opportunity to reveal the truth.  The closing scene shows the final piece of the puzzle, which Kilbride withheld from Ali.  In Laura’s dying moments, she reveals that she’s the one who actually manipulated him since she was 17. She chose him as the perfect mark, a broken family man looking for a second chance. His killing her has some parallels to Hetty killing Akhos, as to a certain extent, both were parent figures, and Kilbride clearly thought of her with affection, having her photo in his portfolio case. This image of Kilbride as broken contrasts with the jovial comments Deeks and Kensi make at the start, about Kilbride having a son and what he would be like as a father, and recalls earlier episodes where he share with Sam that he has an estranged son.

The in-depth characterisation of the episode’s guests serve to engage the viewer and to build empathy, mostly though the connections and parallels made between Laura and the agents. The ONI inspector flirts with Fatima and clearly has a crush on her from her acting days, and deeply respecting her religious devotion.  He is given a trait of touching his tie when he’s nervous, an action he repeats numerous times throughout the various interviews. The familiarity between Fatima and Rountree now sees Fatima calling him ‘Tree’ and it is details such as these which help make this episode special.  It is dramatic and intense through the interweaving of the interrogation and action, mixing past and present. The understated acting and direction lends a seriousness and severity to the operation which only emphasises the feeling of helplessness and dejection the team feel afterwards.  Overall, the different style of storytelling adopted by writer Andrew Bartels and visualised by director Terence Nightingall, elevates this to not only the best so far in season 13, but one of the best episodes in the series to date.

A Virtual Scrawl

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