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CBS’ “NCIS” is in its 10th season — there have been cast changes (albeit very, very few), extended, season-long plot lines and a sublime balance between character development and typical “crime procedural” stories. It’s understandable that now, 10 years later, the basic crime-solving elements are no longer quite as interesting as they once were. However, where NCIS has always outclassed its competitors is in its characters and their interactions — and in that area, the latest episode excelled.

The episode began, as usual, with the murder of a petty officer (a non-comissioned officer in the Navy). Quite frankly, this storyline offered next to nothing: It wasn’t very well developed, and felt like a generic plot inserted to fill time. That’s not to say that it didn’t provide any entertaining moments; a sleazy millionaire flirting with a completely uninterested Abbey (Pauley Perrette) was  one of the funniest interactions of the night. However, on the whole it clearly wasn’t the point of the episode.

The real focus was on Gibbs (Mark Harmon), his father, Jackson Gibbs (Ralph Waite), and his father’s former best friend, a new character introduced named Leroy Jethro, or LJ (Gibbs is named after him), played by Billy Dee Williams. It’s always exciting to catch a glimpse of the personal life of the stony-faced protagonist and this usually results in heart wrenching episodes. This week was no exception.

Jackson and LJ apparently haven’t spoken in years, and Gibbs explains that one day his father and LJ fought, resulting in LJ leaving without so much as a goodbye to Gibbs. The reason why is shrouded in mystery for much of the episode, until later it’s revealed that Jackson’s wife, who had cancer, killed herself (a fact previously unknown to viewers), and that she had confided her intentions to LJ, who neither prevented it nor told Jackson.

This was perhaps one of the most heartbreaking moments in recent NCIS history. Waite’s performance was incredible — he seemed so genuinely heartbroken and angry at his friends perceived betrayal, and his quiet declaration that “she had time left Jethro, and I wanted every minute of it. He cheated us. We deserved to have that time with her” was such an emotional moment that it was difficult to keep watching. This type of speech could have easily been overdone, but Waite walked the line impeccably without crossing over into an over-the-top performance.

This storyline was not without its faults, however. Gibbs’ line during the attempted reunion of LJ and Jackson of “all of us have one thing in common. We all loved the same woman” is heard as almost comical. Something about its placement within the scene was so off-kilter that it disrupted the performances of Waite and Williams — a first for the usually impeccable Harmon. He quickly recovered his usual attitude though, quipping “you’re not getting any younger. Figure it out,” but the moment was gone. The ending of the episode recovered from this blunder somewhat with LJ and Jackson finally expressing forgiveness and taking a trip down memory lane by returning to their hometown together. However, the episode never quite regained the emotional intensity it had before Harmon’s gaffe.

Even that blunder couldn’t override the emotional impact, however. At times, the episode seemed all over the place, running the gamut from the crime plot -line to issues of segregation. But nothing could ruin the unerring performances that Waite and Williams put forth this episode and, considering their skillfull interactions, it’s likely fans will be seeing them again soon.

Howard is a member of the class of 2013.

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