In Season 9, the writers/producers/editors of NCIS appear to be concentrating, successfully, on further developing the personalities of several team members, as has been done on occasion during prior seasons. At the end of Season 8, for example, Ziva's sensitivities and vulnerabilities were revealed in further depth during the search for and apprehension of the P2P Killer; the former Mossad assassin has become considerably less monolithic, and her interaction with the rescued children in this episodes resonates with warmth. Episode 9/3 offered more of McGee's back story: the viewer had learned that McGee has a sister in Season 4, but nothing else about McGee's family had been revealed until a sensitive case involved his grandmother. McGee's interactions with his grandmother both revealed an alienation from his father which had gone unmentioned previously and clarified Gibbs' place as a father figure for McGee – viewers already know that Gibbs has been, for years, a father figure for Tony. In 9/4, Abby discovers, to her great shock, that she was actually adopted; viewers get a more intimate portrait of this primarily happy-go-lucky, fey genius as Abby meets the brother who does not know that she is his sibling. When a shaken Abby then turns to Gibbs as she works through the knowledge that her late parents had concealed the fact of her adoption, yet another facet of Gibbs is definitively confirmed: while comforting the grieving Abby, Gibbs assures her that she does not have to face her confusion alone, specifically referring to the NCIS team as "family."
Fast-moving and intricate as the paired episodes may be, they serve more as a vehicle for character development than as a plot-driven story. [One notes that similar phenomenon has begun to occur frequently in the series spin-off "NCIS – Los Angeles," as the often tense, often comical story lines offer not only a shifting focus from character to character but also considerable deepening and broadening of those characters and of their interrelationships.] Gibbs' steely determination to ease the agony of Gabriele Flores' father, first at her assumed death and then at the possibility of her survival, resonates with subtlety, as does his interaction with the two orphaned girls who had been kidnapped and tortured by Islamic extremists in Afghanistan: viewers remember that Gibbs' own beloved daughter was murdered many years ago, but rather than shutting out fatherly emotion, Gibbs instead harnesses the impact of his own pain and loss into his driving energy as team leader, especially when someone stands in need of rescue. Gabriele's strength [and, to a certain extent, her physical appearance] in crisis reminds Gibbs of another strong and independent woman Marine from his past, one whose lingering imprint has probably contributed to Gibbs' appreciation of, and respect for, genuinely strong and independent women. The viewer already knows that Gibbs "cares" about individuals as well as about cases, but until Gibbs' MTAC interchange with Clayton Jarvis, new Secretary of the Navy, there has been little reason to believe that Jarvis feels the same way – another small deepening of character.
The developing portrait of Tony DiNozzo's character has undergone considerable clarification in the last couple of seasons, as the viewer sees him actually admit to the fears and insecurities which so often underlie his comedian's mask. Tony's interactions with Chaplain Burke set the scene for an unexpected glimpse into his spiritual side, as he carries on what he declares to be an extremely one-sided conversation with God, part of which Chaplain Burke inadvertently overhears; that conversation allows her to note, without preaching, that God is not necessarily declining to answer Tony. Instead of a "there, there" approach to spiritual counseling, Burke offers to face his fears with him when he feels ready to face them. One of those fears? Children. Tony's childhood featured abandonment of many sorts, even when his father was present, and he obviously worries about his own abilities as a father – the topic was introduced in Season 3 on his first undercover assignment with Ziva, as Tony bantered with one of his captors about there being "no little DiNozzos" in his future.
In addition to offering considerable more insight into the personalities of various team members, this two-part episode provides a provocative commentary by the use of comparison/contrast when illustrating the nature of patriotism: the Afghans who kill and torture even Afghani children to keep "the West" from exposing them to non-Islamic teachings manifest a deadly patriotism mutated into fanaticism. American Marines and NCIS members evince equally intense patriotism, but theirs focuses on freeing people rather than on forcing them along preordained paths. A related contrast is that between religions: things turn violent when Islam braids together theocracy and patriotism. In contrast, the episode demonstrates the quietly liberating approach to religion possible in a democracy, as Chaplain Burke ministers to the grieving, the bereft, and the fearful of every denomination, without condemnation.
Neither this episode nor the series as a whole offers quick solutions to, or resolution of, serious problems: Gibbs, Tony, Ziva, and McGee have been dealing with their damages for decades. Evil survives, and sometimes it wins – but episodes such as this show that good also survives, and it does often win, even when the battle stretches over half a lifetime and when those victories are hard-won. What gives this episode its power, even more than its direct illustration of, and commentary on, the tragedies of war for everyone involved, is its honesty about pain, loss, healing, damage, and the wounds with which real people must learn to live. No rose-colored glasses mar this episode – but neither does it succumb to darkness.