Mark Harmon & ‘NCIS’ Bosses: Gibbs Isn’t Just a ‘Cowboy’ in Season 18

Mark Harmon NCIS Season 18 Preview
Monty Brinton/CBS

The Season 18 headline: “Gibbs unchained!”

Yes, NCIS big boss Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) will be bolder than ever when the military crime drama returns for its announced fall premiere. Not that the ex–Marine sniper has ever been afraid to let loose on lawbreakers. He’s fearless in raids. His restrained but pointed interrogations are legendary for eliciting confessions. Even his own Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agents tread lightly around him—especially when disobeying a dictum in his famous “rule book.”

The difference now is that the man who once ordered his team “Hug on your own time!” is getting in touch with those pesky things called feelings, which can be mighty motivators. “He’s still the cowboy we all know and love…but he’s no longer only the cowboy,” says executive producer Frank Cardea.

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How did we arrive at this Gibbs? For a start, the stoic leader took an unexpected, arduous emotional journey in Season 17. His heart was cracked open by two important relationships: His presumed-dead daughter figure, former agent Ziva David (Cote de Pablo), made a surprise return, and he became a buddy to kid next door Phineas (Jack Fisher). The two storylines collided tragically when the boy’s mom turned out to be a terrorist Gibbs had to shoot dead to save Ziva. “Those things tend to make people take stock of their lives,” says executive producer Steven D. Binder.

On top of that, in the April 14 hour that served as the season ender (COVID-19 precautions shut down production before the final few episodes could be shot), Gibbs’ encounter with a World War II vet led him to talk, for the first time, about his own combat experiences (“[Kuwait] took something from me”) to techy agent Timothy McGee (Sean Murray). Notes Harmon: “Sometimes someone else opening up about their experience makes it OK for that person to address their feelings. Once Gibbs gets to the truth, he doesn’t quit.”

Mark Harmon Christopher Lloyd NCIS Season 17 Finale

(Michael Yarish/CBS)

The actor traces his bottled-up character’s un-bottling back to the end of Season 16, when he divulged his deepest secret—that he’d killed the man responsible for murdering his wife and child—to his team and later to a therapist. With Dr. Grace Confalone (Laura San Giacomo), “Gibbs went into personal detail, and I’m not sure he’s done that before. His team only knows part of the story,” Harmon says. “Still, for Gibbs, that’s big progress.”

What with an evolving core character and—let’s face it—an evolving world, NCIS‘s producers are feeling the pressure to deliver big in the upcoming premiere, which CBS is hopeful will be ready to air as usual. “There’s been a lot of discussion. We want to get this right,” Cardea says.

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The next milestone will air in Season 18 and focus on Gibbs and Ducky.

No decision yet on what that opener will bring, but one firm goal going forward is to wrap up a mystery left dangling since Season 16. This unsolved crime seemed to crop up in a November episode when Gibbs disappeared for a few days after getting a text. According to Cardea, Gibbs’ explanations for his absence weren’t quite accurate: “Let’s just say he didn’t walk out in the middle of a case because it was sturgeon season or because Emily Fornell [the daughter of his good friend] left rehab. We are looking forward to paying this storyline off.”

Also, episodes on hold will resurface. One examines animal cruelty, and the milestone 400th reveals how Gibbs first came into the NCIS world and how he met its historian, longtime ally Donald “Ducky” Mallard (David McCallum).

Mark Harmon David McCallum NCIS Gibbs Ducky

(Patrick McElhenney/CBS)

As for the Gibbs of today, “as he grows more thoughtful about his choices and actions, that is going to make him more aware of his vulnerabilities,” Cardea says. “How he chooses to react to his new understanding of his weaknesses is another matter entirely.”

Gibbs unleashed, remember? After all, he may soften up, but he’ll never go soft on crime.

NCIS, Season 18, Fall 2020, CBS