Who Takes Over as Team Leader in the First ‘NCIS’ Without Gibbs? (RECAP)

Gary Cole, Sean Murray, Katrina Law, Wilmer Valderrama in NCIS
Spoiler Alert
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Face the Strange

Season 19 • Episode 5

[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for NCIS Season 19 Episode 5 “Face the Strange.”]

NCIS fans have to “Face the Strange,” to borrow the episode’s title, as they enter a world in which Gibbs (Mark Harmon) is gone fishin’ and the team must move forward knowing he’s not coming back. (But Harmon continues to lead the opening credits, so not everything is changing, at least right now.) So who’s going to be in charge moving forward? It probably isn’t too much of a surprise.

But first, a quick recap of the case: a petty officer is found in the woods, poisoned, and then his body explodes after it’s been loaded into the NCIS van. Though they initially think he might have been a suicide bomber, it turns out that he and his partner were just hacking the lottery. He’d also hacked medical records for a mafia kingpin, who was targeting the stenographer in his case. The petty officer was just the guinea pig, and the bomb had been attached to his pacemaker. Such is the case for the stenographer, but Dr. Palmer (Brian Dietzen) removes it in time.

Despite that explosive investigation, the focus, especially for Torres (Wilmer Valderrama), is very much on the state of the team going forward. Could they have kept Gibbs from leaving? Who’s going to be team leader? “Face the Strange” confronts those issues head-on.

Missing Gibbs

Sure, Gibbs was suspended, but they’d assumed he’d come back — and Torres isn’t handling the fact that he isn’t too well. “How could you leave Gibbs behind?” Torres asks McGee (Sean Murray). “I didn’t leave him behind. He wanted to stay,” McGee tells him. “He seemed happy.” Happy meaning? “It felt kind of private,” McGee continues (and we love that, given his and Gibbs’ long history) but does offer, “I think he probably hasn’t been this OK in a long time.”

Vance (Rocky Carroll) is also the target of Torres’ ire. Gibbs moved on, the director says. “And you let it happen,” Torres argues. “I know that Gibbs is a father figure to the team, and it’s hard when a father leaves, especially perhaps for you,” Vance says, which does not go over well.

Brian Dietzen as Palmer in NCIS

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Torres isn’t the only one hurting after Gibbs’ departure. For Palmer, however, he’s just the latest in a string of people who have left this year, including his wife (who died of COVID) and Bishop. That’s why he’s upset about losing the old NCIS van and so eager for Ducky (David McCallum) to return permanently. (“It’d be different, which would be different,” Palmer says of Gary Cole’s Parker possibly taking over as team leader.) But Ducky knows it’s time for him to retake his rightful place as NCIS historian. “Yesterday is over, sad as that may seem, but change is the essence of life,” he says. Palmer knows that, but “this feels like a death.”

Ducky misses Gibbs, too, but he’s not dead, and from what he hears, “it sounds as if he’s starting to live life again, possibly for the first time since losing his family. If that is the case, I don’t mourn his departure, I’m grateful for it. Our pain is a small price to pay for his peace.” It’s a great moment considering Palmer didn’t get a farewell moment with Gibbs like almost everyone else did in “Great Wide Open.”

Who Will Lead the Team?

To the agents’ surprise, Vance has offered the job of team leader to Parker, who turned it down. The director ropes him into helping with the case, even as Parker complains about missing a Simon & Garfunkel reunion concert for most of the day. Knight (Katrina Law) doesn’t seem to have a problem, given that she never actually worked with Gibbs, and points out that Parker is experienced and a solid agent. But Gibbs’ desk isn’t even cold yet, Torres protests.

Wilmer Valderrama as Torres in NCIS

Cliff Lipson/CBS

He thinks McGee should take over, and Vance does say he “did more than consider” the other agent for the job, refusing to reveal any more. And it seems that Parker is Gibbs’ choice after making an impression on him in Alaska. (Honestly? Could it have been any other way? The new team leader has to have Gibbs’ approval.)

So why did McGee turn down the offer to be the team leader? He claims that the “job wasn’t what I thought it would be — not nearly as fun, hours were even worse, don’t get to go out in the field as much, plus there’s all that paperwork.” But Parker doesn’t buy that, nor does Torres, who was listening at the bathroom door to their conversation. When McGee calls him on that eavesdropping, Torres tells him not to change the subject. “What subject, that I don’t want to be team leader because I’m not Gibbs?” McGee asks. “No, you’re not Gibbs, but you’re Timothy freakin’ McGee,” Torres argues. “You’re a cyber ninja. When people shoot you, you keep on coming.”

But that gets to the heart of the matter. “Yeah, except it was Gibbs who shot me, twice,” McGee reminds Torres. “He put two bullets through me, and you know what, it saved my life. Hurt like hell getting shot but I can’t imagine what it felt like pulling that trigger. Who could do that? Could I do that?”

Sean Murray as McGee in NCIS

Cliff Lipson/CBS

As Torres sees it, the fact that he’s asking that question is why he should be leader. But “I don’t want to be the guy that can pull that trigger, OK?” McGee says. “If there’s anything I learned from Gibbs, it’s that this job is all-consuming. It completely consumes you. You know what the guy had to do to escape? He had to go to Alaska. I got a family, Nick, that can’t be me.” That’s something Torres can respect, and it’s something the audience needs to hear to understand why McGee’s not taking over.

So does that mean Parker is? He basically does the job in this episode, leading the task force on the case due to his knowledge of parts of it. Then, near the end of the episode, Vance calls him out on the fact that there isn’t a Simon & Garfunkel reunion tour. “I just wanted to see what a regular day around here was like, and I was told it might spook the locals if they thought I had plans to stay. Wasn’t my idea, actually,” Parker explains. He says he’ll take the identity of that person to his grave, but come on, it had to be Gibbs’ idea. So is he taking the job? Yes, and he knows that “Gibbs was a lucky man,” he tells Knight as the newest members of the team watch McGee and Torres from the stairs.

And with that, the episode ends with “Changes” by David Bowie playing. Things certainly have changed at NCIS. What did you think of the first episode without Gibbs? Was it too strange for you to keep watching? Did Parker win you over? Let us know in the comments below.

NCIS, Mondays, 9/8c, CBS