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NCIS: LA - Season Eight - Review: "Time to Grow Up"

"Facing one's pain head-on and cauterizing the wounds - it's true bravery. Ignoring, denying, deluding ourselves just leads to more heartbreak." With these words to Callen, Hetty summarized the theme of NCIS: LA this season.

Once a procedural show hits six or seven seasons, it's very easy for the writing to grow stale or the storylines to seem repetitive. After all, how many different ways can you discover a dead body before the opening credits, crack a few jokes, and have the guilty party behind bars by the end of the hour?

The NCIS: Los Angeles writers have done a great job at avoiding these easy pitfalls by focusing on maturing their main characters over the last few seasons. Season eight in particular, which just ended this past spring, was all about dealing with heartbreaking loss and growing from it.

One major heartbreak that impacted not only the team on-screen but fans off-screen was the loss of Granger. Miguel Ferrer, the actor behind Granger for eight seasons, passed away this year and the show wrote him out in a way that honored and provided hope for his character. After a half-season of cryptic answers and mysterious motives - as Granger was always prone to do - along with a vague illness that had Hetty worried, he is stabbed and ends up in the hospital. At the end of an episode, Hetty goes to visit Granger in the hospital and is told that the man had simply awoken, taken out his IV, and left. Hetty finds a note in which Granger wishes her goodbye, and in typical Granger fashion, a cryptic line about “I have some unfinished business to take care of.”

Continuing in the theme of having to facing pain head-on, Kensi and Deeks face a near-loss when Ms. Badass Blye herself is seriously injured and fears she may be permanently confined to a wheelchair. While the entire injury storyline was conceived as a way to cover actress Daniela Ruah's pregnancy, it ended up being a great way to challenge the couple and force Deeks to face reality.

(Quick note: This show continues to be an excellent example of how to use actress’ pregnancies as an opportunity to move the plot forward instead of putting it on hold. Kensi's ill-fated mission in Afghanistan during season five was due to the actress' first pregnancy.)

It was particularly hard to watch Deeks' ever-present troublemaker grin dim as his interactions with Kensi during her recovery showed him that he may have to re-think his picture-perfect future. Fortunately, Kensi eventually made a full recovery, but for a while, Deeks was dealing with the realization that Kensi may not get better. Could the laid-back beach guy handle being married to a wife that requires assistance? The realization forced him to grow up, and by the end of the season his relationship and partnership with Kensi is stronger than ever, and he and Sam are now able to lean on one another for support instead of the older man questioning Deeks' maturity.

Callen's journey in season eight was all about family. He's forced to have an awkward face-to-face interrogation with his father in which he voices the realization that he doesn't know if his father will ever be truthful with him. Callen doesn't forgive his father for abandoning their family and isn't sure he ever will, but he finally finds some closure by understanding why he did it.

During his interactions with his father, Callen also learns he has a nephew! It will be interesting to explore that new piece added to the puzzle of Callen's life next season.

On the romance side of things, Callen has to finally face his feelings for Anna when she moves to Los Angeles at the beginning of the season. The couple decides they're finally going to give it a try and it's fun to see Callen happy and stable. Over the course of the season, he also finally moves into a "permanent" home and his father stays with him for a while. Speaking of growth, re-read that sentence and compare that to the Callen of a few seasons ago.

Eric and Nell got a little more time in this spotlight this season. With Kensi being out of commission for a while, "Give 'em hell, Nell" gets to go back out into the field, a place that Eric also spends an increasing amount of time.

While Eric has trouble dealing with the fact that he killed a man via drone in the beginning of the season - a drone strike he was ordered to carry out - he recognizes his own growth by openly remarking how he wouldn't have been nearly as comfortable in the field a year ago as he is now.

And as usual, we get a few key convos between the nerdy computer pair in which they tiptoe around their feelings for one another, but their interests aren't exactly hidden any longer.

Besides the theme of growth, the biggest plot-point that was carried throughout the entire first half of the season was the search for the mole within NCIS. I realize the whole "someone isn't what they seem" move is a classic dramatic technique for any work of fiction, but I can't be the only one who felt like we had already done this once or twenty times over the years.

At the beginning of the season, Hetty submits her resignation for a future date - taking one for the team as always while simultaneously expressing her faith that they will solve the case and save her job. It isn't until mid-season - that's 14 hours of TV - that the mole is revealed as Sabatino. Or is it? Sabatino claims he was simply playing along with the plan and he's not the actual bad guy. Apparently this storyline will never truly be over...

He and CIA buddy Balinski had decided to take down NCIS from within because of what they felt was their unnecessary interference in the Middle East a few years ago - you know, when the team ran over there with guns blazing to save Kensi from a psychotic terrorist.

Again, the mole plot felt like it dragged on, but at least we got some interesting twists out of it. Sullivan, aka Kensi's PT buddy, was CIA and in on the takedown the whole time... And also has it out for Kensi in particular because it turns out she's the one who put him in the wheelchair. Surprise! He kidnaps her and decides to do a little eye-for-eye punishment by taking a chainsaw to her leg. Fortunately, Deeks shows up in the nick of time to take him down.

Another shocking twist uncovered during the mole hunt? The reveal that Joelle, Callen's ex, is also CIA and allegedly had a family back home the whole time she was with Callen. ...Surprise?

It's fitting that the season starts with Callen and Sam having a conversation about their bucket lists - far-fetched dreams of things that would be nice to do before their eventual, far-off death. By the end of the season, the team has learned that bucket lists are a waste of time. If you want to do something, do it. You can't live in a world of eventualities because nothing is certain.

Sam gets the biggest dose of this reality when his wife Michelle is kidnapped and killed in the penultimate episode. While Sam and the rest of the team track down the terrorist responsible for her murder and see him die in the finale, the knowledge that he was not fast enough to save Michelle will surely eat away at Sam’s lovable demeanor in season nine and will echo throughout the rest of the show.

On the positive side, Densi finally got engaged! After teasing a beautiful, perfect, sunset-and-beach engagement for the entire season, Kensi just flat-out asks Deeks in the finale. Don't leave anything for the bucket list, it's time to face reality and jump in now.

NCIS: LA returns to CBS this fall for season nine.