Fans knew Mark Harmon, who portrayed Leroy Jethro Gibbs for 18 seasons, wanted to leave the show. Those headlines dominated entertainment news in the summer of 2021. So with the departure, a foregone but heartbreaking conclusion. All that was left was to see how and why Gibbs left.
Writers called this special NCIS episode “Great Wide Open.” It aired Oct. 11. And users of IMDB, the massive online entertainment database, collectively graded the episode with a 9.0 on a 1-to10 scale. For context, most NCIS episodes register in the high 7’s. Only a handful in 19 seasons have achieved a 9.0 or higher. So this one was special.
To refresh your memory, here’s the plot summary CBS teased for its Gibbs-centric NCIS hour: “Gibbs and McGee head to Alaska while the team works at home to uncover the conspiracy behind the serial killer.”
Yes, there was a case. Lemere, the serial killer/hitman, already had killed himself. He’d taunted Gibbs enough to make the special agent in charge question his life choices. The last question to answer was who hired Lemere. The story arc stretched back to season 18, when NCIS added Pam Dawber, as Harmon’s real-life wife, as a journalist investigating whether there was a connection between a series of murders. And in the season 18 finale, someone planted a bomb in Gibbs’ boat. The boat blew up as Gibbs cruised across a lake. Agents found him in the first episode of season 19.
So let’s get back to why this episode was so special. Gibbs and McGee booked a trip to Alaska so they could ask questions about a copper mine. In flashbacks, Gibbs told each of his long-time friends and co-workers goodbye. Also during the episode, Gibbs had a chance to say goodbye to several characters, all in flashback. He first met with Vance, then Ducky. Torres and Gibbs talked as Torres drove him to the airport. Each time, Gibbs, the character not known for mushiness, told the men how special they were to him.
Vance even helped him with logistics, although the FBI wanted to arrest Gibbs. It seems the FBI was irritated that Gibbs left Alden Parker (Gary Cole) on the side of the road in an earlier episode and drove away. So there was a warrant for Gibbs’ arrest. It didn’t matter. Gibbs wasn’t running away. He called Parker and told him where he was. So Parker also flew to Alaska. But he refused to arrest Gibbs, a move that got him fired.
Then came the final goodbye. Gibbs and McGee (Sean Murray) went fly fishing. Gibbs, the father figure, taught McGee how to cast. He explained it’s all about finding a rhythm.
“It’s about progression,” Gibbs told McGee, “not perfection.” That’s probably a Gibbs ruler, whether he wrote it down or maintained it in his head.
It was a touching moment with enormous meaning to Gibbs. Years ago, he and his dad Jackson (Ralph Waite) enjoyed the same experience. They vowed to go to a quiet spot on a river and fish each summer. But they only did it once. Jackson died a decade ago, but the two did reconcile.
Gibbs then told McGee he was staying in Alaska. He wanted to wake up every morning and enjoy the serenity of living in this remote fishing village thousands of miles away from home.
“This sense of peace, I haven’t had this since Shannon and Kelly died,” Gibbs told McGee, referencing his wife and daughter, who died years ago. McGee tried to talk Gibbs out of his decision. Then the two long-time friends hugged each other. And Gibbs told McGee he loved him.
McGee climbed aboard the small plane to fly home. And Gibbs tossed his line again, as he waited for a fish to nibble on the bait. He smiled because he knew he made the right decision. The agents occasionally dropped Gibbs’ name in conversation. But Harmon hasn’t been seen since the episode.