“NCIS” recap: The team says goodbye to Ducky (and David McCallum) in tribute episode

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Brian "Jimmy Palmer" Dietzen penned the farewell episode, which featured a top-secret, fan-favorite return.

<p>Michael Yarish/CBS</p> Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen) and Jessica Knight (Katrina Law) in NCIS

Michael Yarish/CBS

Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen) and Jessica Knight (Katrina Law) in NCIS

David McCallum was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on Sept. 19, 1933. He died on Sept. 25, 2023, just days after turning 90. And on Monday, the costars to the role he played for 20 years, bid him farewell in an episode that summoned laughter and tears in equal measure, both onscreen and off.

“The Stories We Leave Behind” opens with a cheerful Jimmy Palmer (Brien Dietzen, who also wrote this outstanding episode) entering Ducky’s home with two cups of coffee. He greets Ducky’s corgi, Solo, and keeps up a running commentary about the classical music in the air and the art on the walls as he opens the curtains to let morning sunlight stream into the bedroom of his mentor and friend.

“Dr. Mallard,” he calls to the unmoving form on the bed. Then the smile slides off his face. “Ducky?”

His chosen profession involves death on a daily basis, but Dr. Palmer has to steel himself before he can touch Ducky’s hand to confirm what he already knows. Ducky is cold. Gone.

Jimmy bends to rest his hand on the side of Ducky’s face before sinking to the bed, curling his fingers around Ducky’s hand as the Bach plays on.

After the credits, the tributes are already pouring into the Big Orange room, including an envelope from Naktok Bay, Alaska, with a polaroid of McGee (Sean Murray), Ducky, and the sender, Gibbs.

All the spin-off offices are represented: magnolias from New Orleans, roses from L.A., golden wattles from Sydney, plumerias from Hawai'i, and cherry blossoms from the Far East office, where Knight’s (Katrina Law) father is stationed.

Vance (Rocky Carroll) reminds the somber crew that our loved ones die a second death when their stories stop being told. So we'll spend the next hour solving a crime, but we're really here for the team’s stories about Ducky.

Palmer, feeling guilty that he didn’t visit Ducky the night before his death when he called to discuss an old case, stands alone in the office of the NCIS historian. What was once an unwelcoming, rundown space is now bursting with books, mugs, memorabilia, and photos of the team over the years.

As Palmer takes it in, he recalls arriving at a Gibbs/DiNozzo/Ziva crime scene on the back of Ducky’s ATV before he’s interrupted by an angry teenager wanting to know why Ducky hasn’t called her back.

She’s Serena Zawadski (Olivia Sanabia), and Ducky performed the autopsy on her father after he was killed in Afghanistan in 2013. She contacted Ducky when Allan Berger (David Starzyk), a city councilman running for Senate, started publically calling out her father as a deserter who was found shot to death in an Afghan brothel with heroin in his system. Not only is it incredibly upsetting, but the bad press is making it tough for Serena to apply to colleges.

Ducky promised to help clear her father’s name, but Kasie (Diona Reasonover) finds that his autopsy of Daniel Zawadski is pretty much all redacted.

Alden Parker (Gary Cole) and Vance reach out to Berger, who promises to stop mentioning Zawadski by name to score political points. Berger's family owns BergTel Technology, and Zawadski was his bodyguard in Kabul when BergTel was rebuilding the power grid there. After the interview, Vance comments on Berger's twitchy reaction to the idea of Ducky’s full autopsy turning up. Suspicious!

As the team gets to work solving Ducky’s final case, we’re treated to a number of memories: Ducky and Palmer on the run in the wilderness, bickering over who should hold the firearm. Ducky treating McGee for poison ivy all over. (Palmer knew and never told.) Ducky learning that Gibbs lost Shannon and Kelly, and Gibbs apologizing to his friend for the omission. Ducky examining the body of Vance’s old friend Tyler Owens, who may or may not have switched identities with Vance decades ago.

“He provided a little glue to keep us all together,” Vance says.

<p>Michael Yarish/CBS</p> The NCIS team in the wake of Ducky's death

Michael Yarish/CBS

The NCIS team in the wake of Ducky's death

At Ducky’s home, Palmer walks Knight through some of Ducky’s favorite mementos, including a photo of his mother, his motorcycle helmet, and the heirloom model of a Mallard train that used to be on display in the lab.

After forcing himself to use past tense to refer to Ducky, Palmer grabs his detailed case journals so the team can go through them looking for Zawadski’s entry. The meticulously organized Ducky, who didn’t even have a junk drawer, left a cryptic final entry: “Our answer lies with the team, however cluttered it might be.” Where's the clutter, Duck?

Serena arrives with a voicemail from an old Navy pal of her dad’s telling her that Berger’s got it all wrong. McGee traces the call to one of the eight working payphones left in D.C., where he and Torres (Wilmer Valderrama) find an unhoused vet named Jonesy (James Landry Hébert), who was tight with Zawadski in Afghanistan. At NCIS HQ, Jonesy gratefully accepts a sandwich but isn’t forthcoming about his memories about his buddy.

Palmer, meanwhile, is keeping himself busy by obsessively cleaning Kasie’s lab, which is home to a big black floral arrangement that has a skull design tucked in the middle. Aww, Abby!

We see a flashback to Ducky reminding Palmer, “If you’re going through hell, keep going” (from one of my favorite episodes of the series!), as well as Ducky hanging Palmer’s drawings and leaving him in charge of the lab.

Palmer quietly admits he doesn’t want to be in autopsy right now, lamenting the time, the hours, the stories he and Ducky shared. But did he ever tell Ducky how he really felt about him? “Why do we do that? Why do we hold back on telling people every day how much they mean to us?”

Kasie assures him that Ducky knew; Palmer showed him over and over with his actions. Then she takes the opportunity to tell Palmer that she loves him.

The conversation prepares Palmer to talk to Jonesy, and after flashbacks of Ducky talking to the dead, Jonesy confides that Berger was involved in heroin smuggling in Kabul, and Zawadski went off base looking for evidence. He never came back, and Berger tore the page out of the logbook where Zawadski had signed out, threatening Jonesy with harm if he spoke up.

It’s enough to bring Berger in for questioning, and Parker and Vance frantically keep him occupied while the team tears through Ducky’s meticulous files looking for actual evidence. Thankfully McGee realizes the answer actually lies behind the team, and one of the framed photos swings open to reveal Ducky’s junk drawer.

Just as Berger starts to threaten NCIS’ funding (classy, dude), McGee hands Parker a file with evidence that Zawadski’s body was moved hours after his death, and the only evidence of drugs were heroin byproducts on his clothes. Berger, who was accepting bribes from the smugglers, used his family’s influence to cover up his former bodyguard's murder. A cleaned-up Jonesy delivers the coup de grâce with the ripped-out logbook accusation.

In short order, Berger’s on ZNN announcing that he’s suspending his Senate campaign, Zawadski’s dishonorable discharge is reversed, and Ducky's recommendation in the days before his death landed Serena tuition assistance from the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation. (Also, wouldn’t she be getting retroactive military benefits?)

In the final minutes of the episode, the team gathers in autopsy before Ducky’s funeral. Palmer says his eulogy was easy to prepare, and we have one final flashback to Ducky’s advice after Palmer lost his wife and was struggling with Gibbs’ exit from NCIS. Ducky reminds him that change is sad, but it’s also the essence of life. “I don’t mourn his departure. I’m grateful for it. Our pain is a small price to pay for his peace.”

If you weren't weeping at this point, you're made of sterner stuff than I. (Of course, I was also a crying mess in the first 75 seconds. You're good at this, Dietzen.)

The team shares a laugh over how much Ducky liked to talk, and then they all leave the lab so Palmer can collect himself.

But he’s not alone for long.

“Autopsy gremlin!” a familiar voice says, and Palmer turns to greet Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly). Let's hear it for Tony (and the NCIS showrunners) for the surprise return!! DiNozzo says he wouldn’t have missed this for the world, and he even picked up a bowtie for Palmer on his way through Heathrow.

The son of Anthony DiNozzo Sr. has no problem tying it for Palmer, putting on a Ducky accent to tell a charming, slightly rambling story as he does. Then he reminds Jimmy that it’s not just the stories we leave behind, but it's the lives we touch while we’re here.

“He had a good friend in you,” DiNozzo says. And just as the entire audience is about to drown in tears, McGee comes back to hustle them out. DiNozzo calls him McHurry and hassles him about the movie selection the night before, which gets us back into familiar NCIS territory.

As the NCIS theme plays softly, Palmer takes one last look around autopsy and shuts off the light, ready to share his memories of the friend he lost but will never forget.

Stray shots

  • Tony! DiNozzo’s been gone since the end of season 13 in 2016, but how perfect to have him back in these final minutes. I love knowing that Uncle Tony stayed with the McGees the night before. Would I have loved to also see the return of Mark Harmon or Cote de Pablo or Pauley Perrette in an episode that's so personal for the actors who worked with McCallum? Of course! But Tony carried the torch for the OG team.

  • How perfect that Palmer and his daughter adopted Solo! Incidentally, the corgi's totally named after Napoleon Solo, the Robert Vaughn character who appeared opposite McCallum’s Illya Kuryakin in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., right?

  • If you weren’t fast enough with the pause button, the quartet of photos on Ducky’s office wall shows the season 1 cast of Gibbs, Abby, McGee, Ducky, Tony, and Kate (Sasha Alexander). Another is sans Kate but includes Palmer, Ziva, and Vance, and the remaining two are of the current crew. (Sorry, Bishop!)

  • The Mallard train is back where it belongs in Ducky’s lab. We viewers will mourn Ducky’s departure, but we're grateful for the hours we got to spend with him. Sincere thanks to Brian Dietzen for such a moving, well-crafted tribute episode.

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