[Spoiler Alert: Don't read this story if you don't want to know Ziva's fate!]
NCIS fans have long memories. They fondly recall the scene back in Season 4 when Ziva David, then still a visiting Mossad agent, announced to Tony DiNozzo, "I will kill you 18 different ways with this paper clip." So when the woman who so engagingly played Ziva for eight seasons, Cote de Pablo, announced she was leaving the series, grief-stricken devotees sent paper clips to CBS in protest. But even that couldn't keep Ziva attached.
"On a September day in New York, I'm looking out my balcony, and I still miss my family," says de Pablo, thinking about not being on the Los Angeles set in the fall for the first time since 2005. "But they're with me all the time, every day, and that won't change." De Pablo is speaking with TV Guide Magazine exclusively after her abrupt decision not to renew her contract just prior to the start of production on Season 11 (which kicks off Tuesday at 8/7c on CBS).
As for the fan outpouring, she says, "I was incredibly moved by the blind support people had without ever getting reasons as to why I left. People trusted that what I was doing was what I needed to do, and that's unconditional love from people who don't even know me. That's been the most beautiful thing out of this process."
The love de Pablo felt from fans is being returned in a farewell hour that airs Oct. 1 and is easily the most anticipated episode in the history of TV's top-rated drama. It will finally provide some clarity to the long-simmering feelings between Ziva and Michael Weatherly's Tony DiNozzo. "As far as the 'Tiva' fans, they'll get a resolution they've awaited for years," she says. "There is a level of confession. And if it takes a big change like this to stir things up, it's all for the better. I'm a fan of the show!"
Such mixed feelings may only deepen the mystery of why de Pablo left. Clearly, there was a last-minute impasse no one wants to discuss, beyond the network's insistence that money wasn't a factor. "As far as my decision to leave, that's a personal thing, and I'd rather leave it at that," she says. "The idea of leaving was not something I toyed around with for a long time. It was an overwhelmingly hard thing — at times terrifying."
She has no grand scheme for doing a sitcom or movies. "Leaving NCIS was not planned, so there is no plan. If I were panicking now, it would defeat the purpose. I need to get really excited about something, because for eight years I was really excited about this character. I don't want to start anything unless it's like that."
Bittersweet is the word she inevitably uses to describe how it felt to wrap up her storyline at the -beginning of Season 11. "Did I want to leave under those circumstances? That's another story," she says. "But I'm not of the belief that you just take off and leave fans hanging. A lot of people don't get the privilege of going back to a set and being able to say goodbye to people. I left under my terms, and that was wonderful."
The final shoot was "a beautiful day — a quiet, intimate set," she says. "I'm horrible at saying goodbyes, because I've been saying goodbyes ever since I left my country [Chile] when I was 10, so even though I did not utter the word goodbye, I was able to hug them and let them know how much I loved them. And that's all that matters."
"We wanted to give her the most graceful, emotional payoff we could," says exec producer Gary Glasberg. "It was a pretty magical moment. Cote took it and ran with it, and the emotion you'll see on screen is very real."
Ziva's most intimate moments were with Tony, and de Pablo enthuses over "getting to close things off with my partner in crime, Michael. My first scene ever in the bullpen was with Michael, and my goodbye scene was with Michael. I feel like that was a beautiful way of ending — for now, certainly — a beautiful chapter between these two."
Did she say "for now"? Although you get the feeling any reprise would be years in the future, de Pablo has a surprisingly hopeful, never-say-never answer when asked if she could ever return for a cameo or something bigger. "The greatest thing about this last episode is that Ziva doesn't die," she says. "As long as a character doesn't die, the character can always come back. Not that it would actually matter, because we bring back characters from the dead all the time on NCIS!"
Notice her use of the present tense and the word we. De Pablo may be almost as reluctant to let go of Ziva as all those paper-clip wielders are.
(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS.)