SPOILER ALERT! NCIS wrapped its eighth season last night, and with it, the Port-to-Port killer arc that not only buried recurring favorite Mike Franks (Muse Watson) but also forced the appointment of a new SECNAV (Secretary of the Navy), who’s already given Tony an assignment to handle a leak at the agency. Executive producer Gary Glasberg, who wrote the episode, phoned us to break it down.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I can’t believe E.J. survived that finale. Was there ever talk of killing her off?
GARY GLASBERG: You mean between the second to last episode and the finale?
Well, at that part in the story or at the end of the finale when Cobb [guest star Kerr Smith] had his three hostages.
Historically, NCIS has been known to kill off some its women, and this was an instance where we had decided as a group that we didn’t want to do that. We knew there was lots of jeopardy to be had, and hopefully it worked out well.
E.J. said she was leaving her “post.” So she’s leaving NCIS for good, or just for now?
She’s giving up her post in Spain and most likely probably taking a leave of absence, if not more than that, and then we’ll have to see where things end up for her.
And Gibbs left the door open for her to return.
The beauty of the world of Don Bellisario, and something that I’ve learned just in the time that I’ve been working here, is it’s really helpful and beneficial to leave dangling threads. This show is extraordinarily good at picking up things that haven’t been touched in awhile and revisiting them when we feel it’s appropriate.
What was it that E.J. removed from her dead agent’s body on the autopsy table?
It’s intentionally mysterious. It’s a little microchip and it will absolutely be something that will come into play next season.
When did the writers get the idea for Operation Frankenstein?
We started to talk about it early to midway through the season, and we had a sense of where we wanted the season to go and how it was gonna wrap up. We knew that Vance was facing some significant issues after “Enemies Foreign” and “Enemies Domestic,” and we recognized that his relationship with the Secretary of the Navy is a complicated one, and this was an opportunity to connect them both to an operation that they were involved with that could explain some of the layers of their relationship and some of the decisions that they’ve had to make. Operation Frankenstein was a concept that Vance came up with. SECNAV thought it was worth following through on. They attempted the project, and in many ways it was successful. But there was this one aspect that even SECNAV lost control of because of the CIA’s involvement. And then at the end of this episode, SECNAV recognizes the flaws in the program, recognizes that a lot of the weight of what happened falls on his shoulders, thus the analogy to the pyramid. And then the decision ultimately is his to do the right thing and resign.
So who now knows that Frankenstein was Vance’s idea?
I would imagine that Gibbs is probably privy to how a lot of this unfolded, and in some ways, that will even the playing field between Vance and Gibbs a little bit as they move into next season. My goal is to have the team, as well as Gibbs and Vance, really have to work together as a unit a little more in season 9. And now there’s the complexity of adding our new SECNAV [guest star Matt Craven], and he will bring a whole new level of complex decision-making to the way our group has to function.
That’s interesting, because NCIS always seems to end seasons by tearing the team apart. You wanted to bring them together.
Yeah. It was a very conscious decision on our part this season because usually you’re right, it’s the other way around. We thought going into the ninth season of the show, and because it seems that audiences really respond when the group has to band together, that it would be a nice change to enter a season from that standpoint instead of breaking them up.
Will they be banding together against the new SECNAV, or what will their relationship be like with him?
He’s not an adversary, it’s just that he has a different approach to things and there’s information that he’s privy to that will drive us through a lot of season 9. Politics and Washington are gonna play a big part in this next season. It will give us the opportunity to see another side of NCIS that we haven’t focused on quite as much.
The new SECNAV said there’s an agent at NCIS selling top secret information, and he handed Tony a folder and told him to handle it. It’s a character that we’ve already met?
Yes. And that story line will probably pick up in the season opener. That’s definitely something that will impact the team. I’m not sure yet how long it will go on, but it will definitely have ramifications that we’ll follow through for awhile.
We saw Mike Franks’ funeral at the end of the episode. So Gibbs made his coffin?
If you go all the way back to the mid-January episode called “Recruited,” that’s when we started to see Gibbs start to build something new in the basement. Based on the letter that Gibbs had been holding to from Franks, the suggestion is that that’s the time when Franks wrote to him and told him about his illness, and knowing it was terminal, that’s when Gibbs started to do this for his friend.
Ah, I love that. Killing Franks off was something you had in your back pocket and could use for maximum impact on Gibbs whenever you wanted. Why was now the right time to pull the trigger?
It just felt right for us. It wasn’t an easy decision for us. We love Muse Watson, we love the character, their relationship is very special and unique. The interesting thing is, we were very happy with the way that “Swan Song” came out and the use of Franks as this voice that spoke to Gibbs internally. The opportunity is there for that conscience or voice to return again at some point. So I won’t say that is the last time that you’re gonna see Muse Watson. Although it would be used sparingly, it’s the kind of thing that could have tremendous impact on Gibbs when we see him.
We saw Ray get the text message “Kort in Tel Aviv. Handle ASAP.” What are we supposed to take away from that?
Well, it’s supposed to leave you thinking, not only about the relationship of Ray Cruz to his fellow CIA agent Kort and what his assignment is, but also the fact that Kort is in Israel and how that relates to Ziva and her father. That’s something we’ll definitely return to, probably not in the season 9 premiere. Again, one of the highlights for me of working on this show is being able to plant new seeds and revisit them as the new season progresses.
Is there anything else from the finale you want to make sure fans picked up on?
I have a feeling that the diehard fans are gonna really enjoy the fact that Jimmy Palmer is engaged. There has never been an NCIS wedding, and that might be something fun that we can take advantage of later on.
As soon as he said he was engaged, I was worried he was going to die in that elevator.
No! Jimmy Palmer is an important part of this team, and we’re happy to have him.
I almost wish that elevator ride had been longer because I liked that suspense: You knew Cobb was going to do something, you just didn’t know when. Were you ever like, “I wish they had more floors to go so we could drag that out more.”
[Laughs] You know what’s funny, we actually talk about those elevator rides quite a bit. The reason that very often Tony or Gibbs will stop the elevator is because we just enjoy being in there. We take advantage of lengthy elevator rides as often as we can. Unfortunately the building isn’t 50 floors tall, or we’d be able to do that.
On the flip side of that, you had Cobb just walk into the hotel room and suddenly surrender. That must have been a great moment to write knowing fans would be like, “Wait, what just happened?”
I wanted it to be very unexpected and to take [the characters] by surprise as well. There’s a nice little moment where they hesitate because they can’t even wrap their heads around the idea that he’s walked in the way he has. So there’s a built-in pause that happens before they reach for their weapons that was just a nice little touch that the actors decided to do that I was really happy with.
We also saw a nice little moment between Abby and McGee when he was worried about her safety. Was does that mean for them? Is that forward movement?
They have a history together and an emotional connection, and I’m anxious to see what the new season might bring for the two of them. We’ll see as we go along and hopefully have some fun.
And Ziva and Ray left it that they’re still together. Sort of.
Yeah. Ziva and Ray are a little open-ended at the moment. There isn’t any closure to it. We’ll have to see where it leads, but I think he was pretty clear that he has a job to do at the moment, and that’s gonna be the primary focus for him.
Going back to the Tony origins episode, he mentioned that he’d just gotten engaged to a woman named Wendy in 2001 Baltimore. Will we find out what happened there?
I would say that there might be an opportunity in season 9 for us to learn more about what happened between Tony and Wendy.
Last question: Is there any chance for some kind of Navy SEAL episode next season inspired by the bin Laden takedown?
Look, anything specific to the Navy falls under NCIS jurisdiction. So whether we’re talking about the SEALS or any kind of Navy or Marine-related covert operation, it absolutely falls into our hands. So it’s definitely something to think about.