Inside ‘NCIS’ Episode 400: Gibbs & Ducky’s Meet-Cute, Personal Choices & More
One is a former Marine from small-town Pennsylvania who is a man of few words and many rules. The other is a charming, loquacious Brit, intuitive about what people need to hear and overgenerous with information they don’t (like how Zulus ward off evil and what makes barbershop music unique). So how on earth did NCIS boss Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) and medical examiner-turned-historian Donald “Ducky” Mallard (David McCallum) end up friends? NCIS‘s landmark 400th episode — airing November 24, a week after the Season 18 premiere — takes us back.
The 400th delivers everything we love about TV’s No. 1 entertainment series, which averaged 15.3 million viewers last season: bumpy, relatable work relationships, long and tangled character histories, surprising stories with flashes of humor and engrossing (sometimes gross) cases — including the one that crops up in the episode’s two time periods, late 2019, when Gibbs and Ducky reflect on their meeting, and 1980, when it happened.
It’s worth noting that this is no ordinary friendship. Not only have the men solved countless cases together, but they’ve helped each other survive kidnappings, the tragic deaths of colleagues, and even the plague.
“There’s a strong connection between them on an intellectual level. In the NCIS family, Gibbs is the father figure to the sometimes unruly team; Ducky is a wise uncle whom he can turn to for advice,” McCallum says. In Harmon’s view, Ducky acts as “a peer and a friend” to Gibbs.
We’ve seen flashbacks to the men’s younger selves before, but this is the first time we’ll see them together. The same guest actors return — Mark’s son Sean Harmon as Gibbs, Adam Campbell (Great News) as Ducky. McCallum recalls his counterpart asking for one word to describe the character: “I told him ‘enthusiasm — about everything. He’s positive and likes to solve problems, which is why he’s a pathologist.'”
The Ducky of 1980 has sworn off medicine, disenchanted. While serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Afghanistan, he volunteered to work in a refugee camp but found himself repeatedly treating a torture victim — one he eventually killed as an act of mercy. (See: Season 6’s “Broken Bird.”) Gibbs, only a few years into his stint with the Marines, is trying to decide whether to cement his relationship with girlfriend Shannon (Darby Stanchfield). Fans know she does become Mrs. Gibbs — and that he loses both the love of his life and their daughter in 1991, when a drug dealer assassinates them. But at this time, explains executive producer Frank Cardea, Gibbs and Ducky “are at crossroads in their lives. They [will] help each other find their life paths.”
Adds executive producer Steven D. Binder “Gibbs is someone who has trouble with relationships and is not the most social of people. That’s where Ducky comes into play. We get into a lot of Gibbs’ psychology.”
The fateful first encounter, in Washington, D.C., sounds like a meet-cute from a rom-com. “In England, they drive on the other side of the road. That confuses Ducky when he’s in America,” says Binder, who wrote the episode. Still, despite their vehicular incompatibility, “They like and are curious about each other.”
Soon enough, the men are working together to catch a thief — unsuccessfully, it later turns out. Gibbs isn’t an agent yet but gets involved via the NIS, the precursor to NCIS. Get ready for the ’80s version of familiar sets. You’ll see the origin of those glaring orange walls in the squad room, plus an “iconic piece of wardrobe,” per Cardea. Even better, you’ll see other characters! “Some will be very in-your-face and easy to identify. Some will be quick, so you’ve got to watch closely,” Binder says. “We wanted to gather as much of the show’s history as we could and put it in one episode and celebrate it.”
In the present-day story, Gibbs is not celebrating the fact that he and Ducky never got their man. “It’s always stuck in his craw,” Binder says. “He gets a chance to rectify it, maybe, if it ends well. That’s the plan.”
But his pal questions his methods. “Ducky is concerned about Gibbs’ obsession with one aspect of the case,” says McCallum. “When Gibbs gets a bee in his bonnet, he sometimes cuts people out. He can do things which aren’t logical and are sometimes unethical.”
Personal choices from the past also resurface, bringing Gibbs pain. “He’ll be asked, ‘Is it better to have loved and lost or never loved at all?'” Binder says. Fans won’t forget his answer in that moment — much like Harmon’s unforgettable moment meeting McCallum. It was for the 2003 JAG episode “Ice Queen,” which served as a back-door pilot for NCIS. “I can’t imagine I’m shaking the hand of Illya Kuryakin,” a starstruck Harmon said to the Man From U.N.C.L.E. legend. “To which David replied, ‘Good God, man, that was 40 years ago!'” Or, in NCIS terms, only about 1,000 more episodes. It could happen!
NCIS, Episode 400, Tuesday, November 24, 8/7c, CBS