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'NCIS': Cote de Pablo, producers address tense Ziva-Gibbs reunion in Season 17 premiere

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Spoiler alert: This story contains significant details from Tuesday's season premiere of CBS drama "NCIS."

When Ziva David made her surprise return in May's "NCIS" season finale, she was there to warn Gibbs that his life was in danger. By the end of Tuesday's Season 17 opener, she's pointing a gun at her former boss.

How's that for a happy reunion?

A story with life-and-death stakes for someone dear to the former Mossad agent, who was working undercover but thought by many to be dead, was the only satisfactory explanation for the resurfacing of Ziva, says Cote de Pablo, who played the character for eight seasons before leaving TV's most-watched show in 2013.

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"I remember telling the writers that they couldn't take this character out of her undercover mission unless it's for Tali, her daughter; Tony (DiNozzo, a former NCIS colleague and the child's father); or Gibbs," de Pablo says. "You need to put Gibbs in danger to justify her coming back."

For Ziva and Gibbs (Mark Harmon), who seemed happily gobsmacked at his former agent's surprise appearance, pleasantries will have to wait, as the two almost immediately are taking gunfire in Gibbs' basement and must escape via a secret exit.

Despite Ziva's objections, Gibbs insists on joining her on her mission to find a mystery woman named Sahar who is seeking revenge and "knows the way to get to Ziva is through the people she loves," de Pablo says.

Sahar is "like a ghost. She was involved in some early operations with Ziva's (half-)brother Ari. This relationship was professional and she lost a lot during that and blames Ziva for what happened," de Pablo says. "So, she becomes this horrible nightmare for Ziva and a real threat to Tali," who has been in Tony's care since his final episode in 2016. (Michael Weatherly, who played Tony, now stars in CBS' "Bull.")

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As the story unfolds – de Pablo returns in the next episode and two more episodes later this season – it will explain Ziva's undercover work and long absence and tie into the character's beginnings on "NCIS."

Sahar "represents something that hearkens back to the initial appearances of Ziva on the show, the full mythology of Ziva and her relationship with Gibbs, what crucible it was formed in," executive producer Steven Binder says. "We wanted the story line to be something that was mythical and tied into the lore of the show."

And while the premiere's story line will expand to reveal a connected terrorist threat in the next episode, "We always bring it back to Ziva and Sahar and the (show's) mythology," he says. "We've tried to make this story come full circle."

Ellie Bishop (Emily Wickersham), the special agent who succeeded Ziva at NCIS, knew she was alive, but other colleagues are shocked by that news, which is revealed to some in a comedy of errors in the autopsy room.

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"The trick of the show is we're deadly serious, but we're also trying to make you smile and laugh," Binder says.

Ziva and Gibbs are preoccupied with finding Sahar without getting killed in the process, but there's time for tensions to erupt. Over time, each has changed and Ziva, now a parent whose anxiety medication has hallucinatory effects, is a different person, and her perception of her relationship with father-figure Gibbs has changed, de Pablo says.

"She's a great agent, but she is not operating at peak capacity, which was what made me interested in coming back. I didn't want to play the hero version of this. I wanted people to see that these five years have not been easy," de Pablo says.

Ziva also feels that Gibbs abandoned her by not moving mountains to find her body after reports she died in a mortar attack in Israel.

NCIS special agent Ellie Bishop (Emily Wickersham), left, the one team member who knew Ziva was alive before her reappearance, meets the former Mossad agent in the Oct. 1 episode of CBS' 'NCIS.'
NCIS special agent Ellie Bishop (Emily Wickersham), left, the one team member who knew Ziva was alive before her reappearance, meets the former Mossad agent in the Oct. 1 episode of CBS' 'NCIS.'

The actress could relate to that, remembering her mother saying she would never stop looking for her if she disappeared. "I could justify being upset or let down or betrayed," she says.

The show will examine why Gibbs' team didn't turn over every stone to find the former agent, executive producer Frank Cardea says.

By the episode's end, Ziva and Gibbs have a falling out when they capture Sahar. Gibbs wants to arrest her but Ziva wants to kill her, pointing a gun at Gibbs because he won't let her have her way.

The bold action reflects both Ziva's wanting to eliminate any possible threat to Tali and her strategic smarts.

"She's making split(-second) decisions to take advantage of a situation that is right there in front of her. In this particular moment, that may be the best way to convince somebody that she will do whatever she needs to get her daughter," de Pablo says.

Although it's hard to imagine Ziva shooting Gibbs, Binder says the NCIS team leader should be aware of her motivation.

"Would you want to get between a baby bear and Mama Grizzly?" Binder asks. "Right there, Ziva is Mama Grizzly and Gibbs makes the mistake of stepping between her and her cub."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'NCIS' Ziva-Gibbs premiere reunion explained by Cote David, producers