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NCIS - The Arizona - Review

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17.20 - "The Arizona”
Written by Gina Lucita Monreal
Directed by James Whitmore, Jr.
Reviewed by KathM

The quietly heartbreaking not-quite season finale of this season’s NCIS hit all of the right notes.

A veteran breaks into the home of Admiral Caplinger, who had once been the Commander of the Pacific Fleet and steals a Purple Heart. He’ll return it if the Admiral pulls some strings to get the veteran’s ashes interred on the U.S.S. Arizona , which was attacked by the Japanese and sunk in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Gibbs promises to get the Heart back, which belonged to their daughter. If not, Leon will have another made.

Problem: the admiral’s father, who was also an admiral and extremely fond of his granddaughter, hand-engraved a message on the back of the medal. He has since died and now the Purple Heart is completely irreplaceable. Strangely, Bishop and Gibbs find a note in the glass cabinet where the medal was kept in which the thief confesses and provides his current address in case NCIS might want to stop by. Which they do. And now the real story can begin.

Our thief is Joe Smith, 98-years-old but still able to break the dual-pane glass in the admiral’s front door.

Once settled in Interrogation with a root beer, he quickly dismisses Bishop and Torres out of hand when he quizzes them on their WWII knowledge and they fall short. So no, he won’t answer any questions for them. Only the “gray-haired leatherneck” is worthy of his time because he’s seen war! So Gibbs enters the room as Bishop and Torres slink away.

I was appalled that Torres didn’t know when Pearl Harbor was, but I’m willing to give Bishop a pass on not knowing how many died on the Arizona.

Joe freely admits to stealing the Purple Heart, and is more than happy to return is as soon as Admiral Caplinger puts something in writing which ensures that Joe can have his ashes interred on the U.S.S Arizona. Not a problem if you served on the Arizona, which was attacked and sunk in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But Joe has no proof he was there: he used his brother’s birth certificate to enlist because he was only 16 and couldn’t enlist as himself. Any record of a “Smith” on the Arizona is under his brother’s name and not his own. There’s no time to get through all of the red tape to clear up the problem, Joe insists. “I’m 98”, and the research could take months. Instead, he demands that the NCIS gang “use DNA” to find his connection to the battleship. As we know, there wasn’t DNA back then, at least from a sciencey standpoint. So Joe is going to have to convince them. Which he won’t, and won’t, and won’t, becoming increasingly furious at Gibbs’ attempts to get him to open up. But when he does, you can feel the dynamic between Joe and Gibbs shift and the story becomes even more personal for them both.

This is a beautiful episode. Emotion washes over you in waves, whether you’re frustrated with Joe Smith’s refusal to disclose anything without a root beer (in a bottle, no less!) to Gibbs’ salute as Joe’s ashes join his shipmates in the depths of Pearl Harbor on the Arizona.

Christopher Lloyd was brilliant: curmudgeonly and maybe a little unstable but in the end, he was just a man scared to remember. You’re a little annoyed with him at first, and maybe a little teary at the end. Joe was so sure that someone else could prove he was there so he wouldn’t have to, so he didn’t have to give voice to the horrors he’d seen. But Gibbs is able to get him to open up, as Gibbs is wont to do. He does what he’d do with his dad Jackson when Gibbs wanted him to talk about something; he gives Joe something to do while Gibbs talks to him. Gibbs seems to find a lot of his father in Joe; notice how he keeps fingering his bracelet throughout his light interrogation of Joe and I get the feeling that Jackson isn't far from his mind. I think he equates helping Joe with helping his dead father, who never really talked about the war. Sloane even says so, but Gibbs ignores her even as I think he knows she’s more than a little right. Which makes it all the more meaningful. Joe’s real reason for not providing any proof about being on the Arizona or wanting to talk about it are twofold: one; he doesn’t want to remember such a horrifying episode in his 16-year-old life and two; he is suffering from dementia, and there may not be much time for him to get his due and be buried with “his family" and may not be able to recall the details he needs as proof.

In my state, many elderly are dying from complications from the coronavirus almost daily, many in Veterans homes. Every time I hear about another death I feel like we’re losing a part of history and Joe’s monologue touched me more than it normally would. He was a sort of veteran Everyman to me, could be so many of the men and women left who served in WWII.

Joe dies before the Purple Heart is found, carefully placed in a vent in the Admiral’s house. It never left home. And he never finds out that there really was DNA that proved he had been on the Arizona: some bits of metal found in scars on his arm prove to be a match for pieces of the ship itself.

This was also a very thoughtful episode for Gibbs. By connecting with Joe, he was in a way coming to better understand who his father became, the man who had his own troubles he brought back with him from WWII. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Gibbs as close to tears as when Joe was reliving his time on the Arizona , except perhaps watching him unveil Joe’s name on the memorial and salute Joe’s urn as the divers make their way to the Arizona . It reminded me again why I’ve enjoyed watching Gibbs grow as a person over the years.

After Joe talks about his war experience he told Gibbs that he felt lighter and that if he shared how his own experiences Gibbs might feel lighter, too. I didn’t think Gibbs had really heard him until he asked McGee to sit down with him and listen as Gibbs told him the story of his time in Kuwait. “It took something from me,” he says. “It’s what war does.” I found this particularly moving because he and McGee have been through so much together, and it should be right that GIbbs shares that story with his friend.

Of the 335 surviving crew members of the U.S.S Arizona , only two remain. Both have requested private burials.

Fire Control Petty Officer Lauren F. Bruner, who died in September 2019, was the last survivor whose ashes were interred on the U.S.S Arizona .

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