NCIS has generally been known to go for big, explosive two-parters during November sweeps. But this season, TV's most-watched drama wanted to go a little deeper.
In last week's episode, Gibbs (Mark Harmon) & Co.'s investigation of a Navy lietenant's murder implicated Joe Westcott (guest star Brad Beyer), a Marine who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after having lost many of his men during an ambush overseas. Since the show had already built a season-long theme of "fallen heroes," the story fit naturally.
"We've been talking to the Navy and the Marines about doing a PTSD story for a long time," executive producer Gary Glasberg tells TVGuide.com. "It's a delicate subject matter, and a really important subject matter. We wanted to make sure that we did it properly and handled it properly. So there was a tremendous amount of research that went into this story, and I'm really proud of it."
The research was also intense for Beyer, who says he spent days watching and studying interviews with soldiers impacted by PTSD. "The one thing that stood out in my head is a lot of these guys that come back, you don't necessarily know what's wrong with them. It can be really subtle," Beyer says. "These guys are always reliving it. They can't decipher between memory and what's going on in the present. I did the best I could to bring a sort of heightened sense to the confusion."
Indeed, in the first hour, Westcott discovers that the attack he believes he and his friend suffered was all in his head. Instead of being the victim, he was actually the aggressor. Believing he recognized someone who led the ambush that killed his men, Westcott gave pursuit and initiated the skirmish that ultimately got his friend killed. That realization forces Westcott to finally seek help.
However, in the closing moments of last week's episode, it's revealed that the man Westcott attacked perhaps was involved in the ambush on Westcott's unit.
"Within the hallucinations and not being able to determine what's real from memory, there is some actual, real truth," Beyer says. "By picking apart the situation to see what was real, they can get to the bottom of what actually happened. It just confirms that he's not absolutely crazy, that he's not dreaming up all these things."
But that doesn't take away from that fact that Westcott is suffering and in need of help. The question remains: Does he have a support system that will allow him to seek treatment? "His family and his relationships with his brother and his father are very complex," Beyer says. "His father was an ex-Marine. These people aren't really great with outwardly showing their emotion and their affection. When his father finds out there's something wrong, he doesn't know how to handle it. The first thing he does is become judgmental instead of sitting down and saying, 'Son, what's the matter?' It's a big hindrance, and that's part of the hurdle that he's got to overcome to get better."
Losties? Trekkies? Which TV show has the best fans? Vote now!
Enter Gibbs, a fellow former Marine who perhaps knows better how to help. "They bond over the fact that they have been in combat at different points in their lives and understand the trauma and the responsibility and all the things that go along with it," Glasberg says. "Gibbs recognizes what this kid is going through, and decides to sort of take him under his wing."
Adds Beyer: "Gibbs' willingness to help Westcott and stand by him through all the craziness allows him to come to terms with everything, get the help that he needs, and clear the air. Gibbs sees something in Westcott that he recognizes in himself."
Will that bond provide opportunities for Westcott to return to the show down the line? Beyer says it's possible, but either way, he's happy to have been able to share this story with viewers. (NCIS stars Mark Harmon and Pauley Perrette will also appear in a public service announcement about PTSD at the end of the episode.)
Check out photos of the NCIS cast
"The thing with guys suffering from PTSD is that it's a work in progress," Beyer says. "They're constantly working on it and receiving help and treatment. The guys who served in World War II and Korea, there was no diagnosis for it. It was just kind of untreated.
"I'm really, really pleased from the positive response that we've received from people in the medical fields and the military fields," Beyer continues. "They're seeing it as a really honest and positive portrayal. So I feel validated by that. I really wanted to bring as much honesty to the role as I could. I think it worked, so I'm very, very proud of it."
NCIS airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on CBS.