If there's anything you thought you could count on with NCIS, it's that the show wouldn't send its principal characters into their annual summer hiatus peacefully. Never in 10 previous seasons did the series finish without at least some cliffhanger elements in play. But there won't be any loose ends or jangled nerves at the close of May 13's finale, which honors the late actor Ralph Waite and sends his character, Jackson Gibbs, to his final resting place. That calm will also allow the series' team of investigators to catch their breath over the summer for once.
"It goes out on an emotional note," instead of a suspenseful one, showrunner Gary Glasberg confirms, sitting in his Los Angeles office with his cowriter on the finale, Gina Lucita Monreal, and leading man Mark Harmon. "Season 11 has been anything but traditional, and what appealed to me was the idea of closing it properly, on solid ground, and not feeling like we were dangling carrots and playing games in any way.
"This is life and death," he continues, "and real characters, and people dealing with real things. But I don't necessarily see it as a downer."
That phrase, real characters, may be, by definition, an oxymoron, but not to the millions of viewers who consider the fictional folks on NCIS to be family. The clan took an off-screen hit in February with the unexpected death of Waite, the Waltons patriarch who played papa to Harmon's Leroy Jethro Gibbs in occasional appearances since being introduced in 2008. The producers had already written out one major character this season — Ziva, who exited in the second episode, due to actress Cote de Pablo's decision to leave — and it wasn't a given they'd want to devote a storyline to explaining another loss. Yet, symmetrically, if hardly by design, the season has ended up being bookended by beautiful fare thee wells.
"I got a call from Liam, Ralph's son," Harmon says, remembering the suddenness of February's news. "I ran into a group of writers and Gary up here and then made an announcement to the crew" — which had still-fresh memories of working with Waite on his final episode, "Better Angels," broadcast in November. "And then, right away, you say, 'How do we honor this?' Do you put an 'In memoriam' at the end of the next episode? Do you go back and put it on the crawl of 'Better Angels,' if that had to be the farewell?"
Quickly, they decided Waite deserved more than a featured rerun or nominal dedication, even if that meant putting off an homage for three months. The storyline that was tentatively planned for the finale — Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) goes to Marseille — was bumped up a week to the penultimate slot (May 6) to accommodate a tribute to Waite. Now the concluding episode hinges on Gibbs learning of his father's death and feeling torn between staying on a case and going home for funeral preparations. NCIS Director Leon Vance (Rocky Carroll), who lost his wife a year ago, urges him away from D.C. and toward Stillwater. The episode will contain brief footage of Waite from previous episodes, along with newly shot flashbacks showing the two as young father and son.
Monreal wrote Waite's swan song, "Better Angels," and was subsequently drafted to work on this posthumous finale, since she had spent so much time with the actor last fall. "I knew coming in that I wanted to write a Jackson story," she says, "because, like probably all of America, I was in love with that character — this very vulnerable but strong being who is difficult and complex and wonderful."
Says Harmon, "Ralph loved Gina. He certainly had an eye for the ladies and beauty, but he also recognized her writing right off, and during 'Better Angels,' he talked about her to me. I said, 'She's a playwright.' And he knew that, from the words. I'll always remember the two of them sitting on the porch on location, just having a gay old time talking. He loved being here, and we loved having him." Off camera, there was no escaping that the 85-year-old was feeling his years. "You'd see little crinkles, little skips, little different things — nothing too bad," Harmon says. "But when someone said, 'Action,' and the camera got turned on, you'd better be bolted to the floor, because he was going to take you into the next county."
For more on NCIS, pick up this week's Finale Preview issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, May 1!