It is not without a certain amount of shame that I confess the following: I kind of like clip shows. I’m sort of a sucker for early-season nostalgia, and if nothing else, clip shows have that in spades.
This is not to say that I’m immune to the usual fan complaints, however. Clip shows tend to recycle largely random old clips with only a very thin plot thread connecting them. They’re often inserted awkwardly into the season with no warning, and thus fans feel cheated when they get only a small amount of generally subpar new material surrounded by a bunch of stuff they’ve already seen. (Clip shows fare especially poorly now because fans have access to all of that old material all the time.) But the biggest problem with clip shows is that they’re usually just lazy, with the people making the show having just as little interest in the episode as the fans.
This makes some sense given that the only reason clip shows exist in the first place is because some executive somewhere realized they were a good way to save money on production costs. But the same could be said about bottle shows, and as Community and Breaking Bad have recently shown, those can make for some terrific episodes. There’s no reason the same can’t be true of clip shows, and last week’s NCIS basically proves as much.
“A Man Walks Into a Bar…” is maybe more than anything else indicative of the supreme confidence NCIS is working with right now. This confidence is unusual enough in any series, let alone a series in its eighth season. Most shows by this point in their run are well into their decline stage. And when a show this old does a clip show, it usually doesn’t go over particularly well. (The Office used one towards the end of last season, for example, to disastrous results.) And “A Man Walks Into a Bar” definitely feels like an old show using a clip show. But the difference between this episode and so many other clip shows is that the writers clearly took the narrative connecting the clips seriously and selected the clips specifically for that narrative. That is to say, the episode is actually about something.
The episode’s conceit (all clip shows need a conceit) is that a psychiatrist has come into NCIS to examine our Elite Team of Crime-Solving Professionals. So far, so nothing–any clip show could start this way. But in an unlikely coincidence, the psychiatrist assigned to the unit also happens to be the sister of an NCIS character who was killed in the line of duty way back at the end of season three. This is what makes the episode work.
All clip shows are ostensibly about characterization. By looking at old clips, we see characters the way they used to be and–if executed decently–how they came to be the characters they are now in an abbreviated fashion. It’s part of the reason I like most clip shows, even the lazy ones. “A Man Walks Into a Bar” isn’t any different from most clip shows in this regard.
What sets the episode apart is the way it grounds all of this standard clip show stuff in the central tragedy of Kate’s death. Every clip and every intimation of character evolution is set against that backdrop. Additionally, in dealing with Kate’s death, the writers have taken the opportunity to clearly lay out and close out one of the show’s longest continuing storylines. Put all of this together and what you end up with is a clip show that acts as a kind of mythology episode, which is a pretty brilliant way to use a clip show.
Through the clips, the episode reconstructs the character of Kate. We see how she came to work at NCIS. We see what her relationships with the various characters were like. We see how those relationships evolved over time. We see the fairly shocking way she died. We see how all the characters reacted in the immediate aftermath of her death. We see how her killer was brought to justice. And finally we see how all the characters have dealt with her loss in the intervening years.
Kate’s character arc is essentially wrapped up through her sister, Rachel, who falls asleep in the NCIS office after she thinks everyone has gone home. Gibbs finds her and takes her back to his house, where he stands her in the exact spot her sister’s murderer was himself killed. And he tells her–and us–that this is what closure feels like. And it is.
But while the arc is closed out, the show itself of course goes on. The episode is acutely aware of this. While it fails to start any new plot threads, it takes the time to imbue the end of the episode with a certain sense of dread, hinting at some sort of vague, potentially internal threat to the team down road. The episode title is taken from the old riddle about a man walking into a bar and asking for a glass of water. The bartender pulls out a shotgun. The man thanks the bartender and leaves a tip. Turns out the man had the hiccups. Rachel tells Gibbs it’s all about reactions. Later, in her evaluation letter to Vance, she expresses concern that the team works too hard and suppresses too much. While it might be working for now, it might catch up to them in the end.
Interestingly, the threat that’s been hinted over the last few episodes is the rather meta notion that while the show goes on for now, it will come to an end at some point. Within the show itself, this plays out as concern on the part of various team members that the team has been together an awfully long time now and it really wouldn’t be surprising if people started moving on. The episode ends with a montage that–again, in a very vague sort of way–foreshadows what might be to come for the characters as the show continues or even after it ends. This foreshadowing doesn’t really have anything to do with plot, but is instead about character arcs, which is for the most part how serialization works on CBS-style procedurals. It just suggests how the characters might react to potential plot events in the future.
One of the effects of all of this is that it imbues all the standalone episodes that came before and will come after with a deeper seriousness, which is precisely what a good mythology episode in a serialized series should do. Bob Newhart’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted former medical examiner, for example, no longer seems like just a tragic story for a one-off guest star; now that character represents Ducky’s potential future. Gibbs’ gruff exterior is no longer just a character quirk; it’s a coping mechanism for the tragedies he’s lived through. And so on.
This subtext always existed, of course. But this episode grounds it in something specific. Most clip shows don’t work because they lack stakes. This one works because it actually raises them.
- I didn’t mention the case of the week once. This is because I have no recollection of what happened in the case of the week. I’m going to go ahead and say it doesn’t really matter in this instance.
- There’s an odd bit of product placement in this episode. What makes it odd is that it occurs during the fairly pivotal scene when Gibbs finds Rachel asleep on the floor. During their conversation, he lifts a Starbucks coffee mug to his mouth and the camera centers on it for a few seconds. Right in the middle of a conversation about Rachel’s dead sister. I normally don’t mind product placement, but this kind of took me out of the scene.
- For leisure, Abby apparently makes sandwiches for a shelter and drives for a food bank. She’s already the most popular character in history, show. You don’t need to try so hard.