Our 30 Favorite Episodes of ‘NCIS’

Cote de Pablo, David McCallum, Michael Weatherly, Sean Murray, Mark Harmon in NCIS
Randy Tepper/CBS; Monty Brinton/CBS; Cliff Lipson/CBS

This is an excerpt from TV Guide Magazine’s Gibbs Forever Special Collector’s Edition, available for order online now at NCISMag.com and for purchase on newsstands nationwide.

With 19 seasons and over 420 episodes of Gibbs (Mark Harmon) & Co., how do you choose the best ones? You don’t have to. Below are the outstanding outings to argue over, share with friends and, best of all, rewatch!

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Tony Esparza/CBS

"My Other Left Foot" (Season 1, Episode 12)

Mark Harmon has always believed comedy sets NCIS apart from other procedurals. Ducky (David McCallum) autopsies a severed leg found by dumpster divers—kicking the show’s darkish humor into gear. McCallum said: “Ducky walks around the room with this leg, talking about his grandfather, art galleries and My Left Foot—nothing to do with the leg itself. After this long dissertation, Gibbs says, ‘Ducky, that’s a right foot.’”

CBS

"Dead Man Talking" (Season 1, Episode 19)

Start with a disemboweled corpse that Gibbs (Harmon) feels guilty about. Add sexy banter between agents Kate Todd (Sasha Alexander) and Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly). Give boss Gibbs an outburst. Ensure forensic scientist Abby (Pauley Perrette) waves her pigtails and provides key lab info that helps crack the case. Make sure there is a twist that no one sees coming. Top with a stakeout in which Tony teases probie McGee (Sean Murray) and of course references the classic Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez buddy comedy Stakeout (which McGee claims he never saw). Voilà: the first classic NCIS!

Tony Esparza/CBS via Getty Images

"Call of Silence" (Season 2, Episode 7)

In easily one of the most emotional episodes of NCIS, Oscar nominee Charles Durning plays a World War II vet and Medal of Honor recipient who claims he murdered a friend during a battle against the Japanese 60 years earlier. His character has just lost his wife and is suffering from survivor’s remorse. McGee cries, Kate cries, Gibbs and Tony are on the verge of tears. Durning, himself a vet decorated for valor, makes it easy to sympathize and respect the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation. Murray said: “This is one of my favorites. Charles was as amazing offscreen as he was on. A complete joy.”

Richard Cartwright/ CBS

"SWAK" (Season 2, Episode 22)

A letter is addressed to “NCIS Special Agent” and sealed with a kiss. So of course Tony assumes it’s for him. When he blows open the envelope, instead of finding a mash note, he disperses a white powder all over himself, and possibly everyone in the bullpen. Bioattack procedures are set in motion and humorous shower banter commences. But things get serious fast when they find out Tony is infected with a form of the plague. We’re pretty sure Tony isn’t going to actually die, but the then-still-familiar real-life drama of anthrax attacks, combined with Gibbs’ intense pursuit of answers to save his colleague, makes for one dramatic episode.

CBS via Getty Images

"Kill Ari Part 1" (Season 3, Episode 1)

Big cast changes started off the third season. Mossad butt-kicker Ziva David (Cote de Pablo) replaces felled agent Todd (who appears to her former team members as a ghost in this hour), starting an eight-season will-they-or-won’t-they romance with Tony. Lauren Holly (above, with Weatherly) also debuts as NCIS Director Jenny Shepard, who, coincidentally, was also Gibbs’ lover six years prior. And that started three seasons of will-they-or-won’t-they again. (They didn’t.)

CBS

"Bloodbath" (Season 3, Episode 21)

Imagine what it’s like to see the head ripped off a teddy bear. That’s how it feels when a maniac targets childlike Abby (one of the diabolical moves: attempting to poison her with cyanide). Suspects range from defen- dants in a trial in which Abby is testifying to an ex-boyfriend still obsessed with her. Perrette said: “It was one of the hardest episodes for me to do because Abby’s being stalked, and I’ve been hideously stalked in real life. I was afraid of how that was going to affect me—that’s like bringing my home life to work. I was scared in the beginning, but it ended up being really cathartic.”

Darren Michaels / CBS

"Hiatus Part 1" (Season 3, Episode 23)

“It’s a coma he doesn’t want to come out of,” observes the doctor treating Gibbs, unconscious after a terrorist blast. For a while, we kind of didn’t want him to either. The loner was reliving happy days of horseback rides and movie night with his wife and daughter before his pre-deployment promise “I will come back safe. I love you.” But horrible recollections intrude: their deaths, contemplating suicide, revenge on their killer, lying in a field hospital bed after an explosion during Desert Storm. (Turns out, his current doc is the same one who treated him then!) Gibbs awakens and doesn’t even recognize his close friend Ducky. Heartbreaking.

Randy Tepper/CBS

"Cover Story" (Season 4, Episode 20)

McGee isn’t just an agent. He’s a published author! His crime book, Deep Six, has familiar-sounding characters like L.J. Tibbs and Pimmy Jalmer. A couple of murders pop up seemingly related to characters in a new story, but no one else besides his publisher has seen the manuscript. When McGee admits to the team that the characters are based on them, everyone gets protection (and Abby, above, ends up sleeping at a convent since she’s pals with the nuns on her bowling team). Mystery solved when the killer turns out to be a fan stealing McGee’s thrown-away typewriter ribbons. But the bigger mystery: Are McGee’s books any good?

Randy Tepper/CBS

"Chimera" (Season 5, Episode 6)

On NCIS’s 100th episode, Gibbs and team fly out to investigate a death on the USNS Chimera. The top-secret naval research ship is actually abandoned and now a ghost ship because of a possible viral outbreak. The creepy vessel makes for some good Halloween atmosphere, and the story turns into an unexpected, riveting thriller with Russian strike teams, stolen nuclear warheads and a Navy willing to cover everything up.

Michael Weatherly, Mark Harmon in NCIS
Monty Brinton/CBS

"Requiem" (Season 5, Episode 7)

This early Season 5 episode has one of the more entertaining action sequences from the whole series. Gibbs and a passenger are stuck underwater after avoiding vengeful kidnappers, and it’s Tony to the rescue. Weatherly loved his James Bond close-up: “We were in a tank where I got to dive 30 feet down and pull Mark and a woman playing his dead daughter’s best friend out of a car and kick the windshield in. I felt very Daniel Craig.”

Monty Brinton/CBS

"Heartland" (Season 6, Episode 4)

You might imagine that a man as steely and taciturn as Gibbs has some daddy issues, and you’d be right. A new case involves an injured Marine who is from Stillwater, Pennsylvania, Gibbs’ hometown. While investigating, Gibbs spends plenty of time with his estranged father, Jackson, whom viewers meet for the first time. Ralph Waite (above, with Harmon), best-known as another famous father, John Walton, plays the senior Gibbs. They haven’t spoken for 16 years, but they bond again over a car Gibbs was working on as a teenager that his dad has since finished. And, extra treat, in flashback we see when Gibbs met Shannon for the first time.

Ron P. Jaffe/CBS

"Knockout" (Season 6, Episode 18)

A pal’s disappearance and subsequent murder force Director Vance (Rocky Carroll) to revisit his past. Bad for him, but good for us—we were waiting for a Vance-centric plotline. When Vance “borrows” Ziva and McGee to work his own investigation without telling Gibbs, he starts digging into Vance’s past. We find out Vance used to be a boxer, and viewers get to see his wife Jackie and daughter Kayla for the first time. “This was the first time the show ever delved into his character,” Carroll said. “My mother was also in the hospital the week we shot it, so it was a very hectic time for me.”

CBS

"Truth or Consequences" (Season 7, Episode 1)

The season opener is another great team effort to rescue one of their own. At the end of Season 6, Ziva was kidnapped and now she’s believed dead. Tony can’t accept that. He finds evidence that she’s alive and comes up with a plan to get her back, but Tony and McGee end up getting captured. It’s up to Gibbs to come to the second rescue, for everyone. Said Weatherly: “That episode is really a primer on what NCIS is all about at that point. If you were a brand-new viewer, it unfolded and revealed all the characters and dynamics of the show, and it fired on all cylinders.”

Cliff Lipson/CBS via Getty Images

"A Man Walks Into a Bar…" (Season 8, Episode 14)

Sure, there was a murder to solve, but the best parts of this episode are the mandatory psych evaluations that Tony, McGee, Gibbs and Ziva have to go through, looking back on their own early days. Many of the flashbacks are bits from earlier episodes, including an unaired chat between Kate and Tony before her death that was rescued from the cutting-room floor. Turns out the psychologist, Dr. Rachel Cranston (Wendy Makkena), is Kate’s older sister. And Cranston will return to the NCIS team a few more times to help them through their often tough occupations. (And even help Gibbs!)

Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty Images

"Baltimore" (Season 8, Episode 22)

Weatherly admits it. He might have “overdone it with the sideburns and the hair dye” during the 10-years-ago flashback when Tony and Gibbs first meet. In present day, Tony’s old partner from the Baltimore Police Department is killed, and the investigation focuses on his past as a homicide detective, which was also when he first came face-to-face with Gibbs, who was working undercover. Back then, when Tony found out his partner was corrupt, he was on the verge of quitting the force, but Gibbs, impressed by his detective work, invited Tony to join NCIS instead.

Richard Cartwright/CBS

"Till Death Do Us Part" (Season 9, Episode 24)

Jamie Lee Curtis guest stars as a Pentagon profiler working on the case of a terrorist out to avenge the death of his son, who was killed while in the Navy. NCIS headquarters becomes a car-bomb target, and the explosion rocks the building with the team inside. At the end of this episode, there are unknown casualties. Except for Ducky, who has a heart attack when he hears the news.

Sonja Flemming/CBS

"Extreme Prejudice" (Season 10, Episode 1)

Right after a bombing that devastates headquarters, Gibbs, Abby and Vance are OK, McGee is hospitalized, and Ziva and Tony are trapped in the elevator. Alone. For hours. Ducky survives his heart attack, but it will be a while before he is reinstated full time. Meanwhile, Gibbs and Fornell lead the charge on tracking down terrorist Harper Dearing (Richard Schiff) after a “terminate with extreme prejudice” order from the president. Gibbs triumphs in hand-to-hand combat with Dearing (by stabbing him in self-defense!). A somber memorial to the bombing victims ends the episode.

Richard Cartwright/CBS

"Past, Present, and Future" (Season 11, Episode 2)

There would always be more terrorists for Gibbs to track down and more lives to save, but what really mattered here was that this was Ziva’s goodbye episode. After her father dies, Ziva is set on leaving her current life, and NCIS, behind. Tony has tracked her down in Israel, but he can’t convince her to come back with him. Nine seasons of “Tiva” ends with, finally, a kiss on an airport runway where Tony will get on a plane back to the States—without the woman he loves. (Wide-eyed NSA analyst Bishop, played by Emily Wickersham, later takes her spot on the team.)

Monty Brinton/CBS

"Honor Thy Father" (Season 11, Episode 24)

Ralph Waite, who played Gibbs’ father, died in February 2014, and the show paid tribute to his character, Jackson, in the season finale. Gibbs finds out about his father’s death, by stroke, and goes back home to Stillwater, Pennsylvania. Although Gibbs manages to fight off a killer who has tracked him back to his hometown, he spends most of his time reminiscing about his dad, and in one of the most touching character reveals, we find out Gibbs, as a child, built a small wooden boat with his dad that they named after his mother. And, of course, for the first six seasons of NCIS, Gibbs had been working on a boat named after Kelly, his beloved daughter.

Darren Michaels/CBS

"Twenty Klicks" (Season 12, Episode 1)

Gibbs as you’ve never seen him: an action hero deep in the Russian wilderness! His and McGee’s helicopter is shot down by a missile stolen by mercenaries while they’re escorting an NCIS system administrator home. The Russian embassy isn’t helping, and as killers track the grounded team near the Finnish border, Gibbs stays one step ahead with wit and grit. Highlights: a showdown with a snarling wolf, emergency first aid on a dying crew member (he compassionately tells her she’s “a hell of a pilot” as she’s fading) and Gibbs doubling back solo to take down the pursuers using his sniper skills.

Bill Inoshita/CBS

"Spinning Wheel" (Season 13, Episode 11)

This Ducky-centric episode from December 2015 delivers the goods. The medical examiner gets a call with news about a half brother, Nicholas, Ducky thought was long dead in a car accident. Ducky (Adam Campbell plays the 28-year-old version, above, with an 8-year-old Nicholas) had helped raise him as a son but lost contact after a custody battle between his dad and stepmother. A postal service scheme involving rare stamps that Ducky gets dragged into stirs up evidence that Nicholas might still be alive, though Ducky’s hopes are dashed more than once. But the team comes bearing gifts with more positive news. A Merry Christmas to us all!

Pauley Perrette, Emily Wickersham in NCIS
Monty Brinton/CBS

"Keep Going" (Season 14, Episode 13)

Sweet assistant medical examiner Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen) risks life—and all four limbs—to prevent a young man from committing suicide, when Jimmy crawls onto a ledge to join him. His father, a Navy captain, was recently killed in a hit-and-run. The installment takes place almost entirely on that ledge but is as thrilling as any car chase. When Jimmy shares some personal stories with the young man, we learn Jimmy has finally passed his medical exams and is now a doctor. Dietzen said: “The story is all about carrying on despite adversity, and that hit home. It was also a blast to film.”

Monty Brinton/CBS

"House Divided" (Season 15, Episode 1)

As cliffhanger resolutions go, this one was a doozy. Gibbs and McGee are still missing in Paraguay after two months, and Bishop (Emily Wickersham) leads Torres (Wilmer Valderrama) and Reeves (Duane Henry) in the hunt for their comrades, who, we find, are being tortured and peppered with questions about their actions in a deadly raid that, back home, Congress is also investigating. By the time the action runs out, the desperate duo are Stateside, and Gibbs is back to revisiting his demons. “Selfishly speaking, this is one of my favorite [episodes] because Bishop takes on the boss role,” Wickersham told us. “I like bringing out her authoritative side.”

Patrick Wymore/CBS

"Skeleton Crew" (Season 15, Episode 4)

Welcome to Washington, Sloane! New forensic psychologist Jack Sloane (Maria Bello) storms in during a hurricane that causes a citywide blackout, when the crew is trying to get to the bottom of a stabbing and kidnapping during a murder-mystery dinner. The episode begins with some nice repartee between Gibbs and Sloane, pointing the way toward what fans knew would be an interesting bond. “It’s the first episode I shot,” Bello said. “Mark and I played and worked a lot. He is truly captain of the ship, and I’m proud to be his mate!”

Bill Inoshita/CBS

"Fake It ’Til You Make It" (Season 15, Episode 5)

Duane Henry gets his episode at last! Reeves is shown attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting when a fellow member is abducted right in front of him after leaving the church where the meeting was held. The team all pitch in to solve this one, including Jack (above), who builds a profile of the suspected kidnapper. It’s another twisty tale where each NCIS agent helps move the mystery along. And Reeves, for the first time, opens up to the team about going to AA. Henry said: “We see Reeves at his most vulnerable here and how addiction can affect those around us.”

Sonja Flemming/CBS

"Daughters" (Season 16, Episode 24)

The Season 16 finale is a real corker. “Were you having a conversation with our dead ex-wife?” Fornell (Joe Spano, above) asks a clearly rattled Gibbs, who was being visited by a familiar ghost, Diane, imploring him to find out who drugged her and Fornell’s daughter, Emily, among other requests that wreak havoc on Gibbs’ conscience. The case is a necessary indictment of the opioid plague, but that’s not what fans came away with. For the NCIS faithful, “Daughters” was all about the fade-out. The ghost of Diane had just left when a real specter of another kind crept into the house, warning Gibbs of dangers ahead, to which he whispered, with recognition, “Ziva?”

Monty Brinton/CBS

"Blarney" (Season 17, Episode 19)

This St. Patrick’s Day–themed episode suggests that a bit of the blarney can undo the plans of some not-too-swift diamond thieves. Jimmy and Kasie (Diona Reasonover) are held hostage at a local diner Gibbs frequents while the NCIS team investigates the burglars’ activities and their unique way of hiding the jewels. The big problem for the bad guys: Gibbs knows all about their plans, and when he gets word to Jimmy and Kasie, the pair figure out the perfect way to test the robbers’ intestinal fortitude.

Michael Yarish/CBS

"The Arizona" (Season 17, Episode 20)

The stirring Season 17 finale features Christopher Lloyd (above)as a Navy vet desperate to be buried with his fellow Pearl Harbor survivors. When Gibbs pushes the 95-year-old to recall his experience, Lloyd’s astonishing retelling of the events on that fateful day in December 1941 is unforgettable, matched by Harmon’s glassy-eyed expression. The exchange later triggers some strikingly un-Gibbs-like confessions to McGee about how Kuwait changed him: “You come home, and you’re like half a person.” The episode, a fitting honor to those who serve, was dedicated to Pearl Harbor victims and the first responders battling against COVID-19.

Sonja Flemming/CBS

"Everything Starts Somewhere" (Season 18, Episode 2)

The writers gave an interesting name to the 400th episode of the series’ phenomenal run. But as the title suggests, this hour does flash back to a pivotal moment for Gibbs and his longtime compatriot Ducky. A new mystery reminds the men of when they were kidnapped and beaten by the notorious Jonny Zucado in 1980 (Mark Harmon’s son Sean and Campbell returned to play the young Gibbs and Ducky, respectively). Old bitterness and new evidence lead to a solved case, as Gibbs (with a little help) comes to see the great value of his supportive work family.

Cliff Lipson/CBS

"Great Wide Open" (Season 19, Episode 4)

Our eyes started watering the moment Gibbs said “Helluva boat” at an old tub docked in Alaska—was he considering staying? Then flashbacks began, and we just knew. It was in Gibbs’ goodbyes and poignant handshakes. When Vance handed Gibbs a SAT phone…and he dumped his old flip phone into a cup of coffee. It was in his statement to Ducky: “You are a great friend. I appreciate you more than you know.” By the time he told McGee, “I could not have hoped for anyone better to watch my back for the past 18 years than you, Tim,” we were inconsolable. All the feelings Gibbs would usually suppress came out. Finally, the man was at peace, and it was exquisite.