‘NCIS’ Showrunner Breaks Down Season 21 Finale: Is Knight Leaving the Show?

Steven D. Binder tells TheWrap about filming Katrina Law’s underwater scenes, plus how he plans to resolve the mystery of Parker’s friend Lily in Season 22

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Gary Cole, Katrina Law and Wilmer Valderrama in "NICS." (Robert Voets/CBS)

Note: This story contains spoilers from the “NCIS” Season 21 finale.

“NCIS” wrapped up Season 21 with a high-stakes murder investigation, an underwater rescue mission and one of its agents accepting a new job on the opposite coast.

Episode 10, “Reef Madness,” followed the team’s investigation of the murder of three victims whose bodies were found aboard an old Navy ship that was set to be turned into an artificial reef. The start of the episode also featured Vance (Rocky Carroll) offering Jessica Knight (Katrina Law) a job as chief of a new NCIS REACT (Regional Enforcement Action Capabilities Team), which would have her leave her current team and potentially move away.

The investigation led Knight and Parker (Gary Cole) back to the ship on their own, where they end up trapped in the engine room, with Parker injured, after a suspect pursuit went wrong. The tense twist set the stage for a heroic moment for Knight as she swam in freezing waters in an attempt to find help to save herself and Parker before it was too late for them both.

By the end of the episode, the rest of the team solved the murder and rescued both Knight and Parker — who gave viewers a peek at his childhood while injured thanks to him having a hallucination featuring his childhood friend Lily. After her hero spotlight, Knight gave Vance an enthusiastic yes to his job offer, leaving a devastated Jimmy (Brian Dietzen) watching his girlfriend agree to the life-changing position from a distance — and Katrina Law’s future on the show in question.

“NCIS” coshowrunner Steven D. Binder said that the new job was a long time coming for Knight, teasing that audiences will be “pleased” with what happens next.

“What that means is [expect] surprises you’ll have to guess at,” Binder told TheWrap of the finale cliffhanger.

With a long summer hiatus ahead for “NCIS” fans, Binder broke down Knight’s big underwater moment, the future of her relationship with Jimmy and exploring “unusual pairings” within the team in Season 22.

TheWrap: The show has hinted at potential big changes for Jessica Knight when her father visited, but this new job opportunity took everyone by surprise. Why have her face this decision to potentially leave the team?

Binder: There’s this understanding of emotions driving the story. So either she’s happily in a relationship with Jimmy for the rest of their lives until the show ends, or they’re not. And if they’re not, what’s that look like? And we thought something larger would have to come along to set that wheel in motion.

I’ll use a good example of Michael Weatherly, Tony DiNozzo. When he left the show, that’s when we brought Ziva’s character — who we presume was dead — revealed she was not and brought in a child. Because we thought, what really would lead a character like that to leave the show in a way that you couldn’t fault them for, necessarily? Because you don’t want people yelling at your character for leaving the show.

So likewise, what could really break these two [Knight and Jimmy] up — though you still might fault someone here for choosing their work over family, so to speak — but let someone think, “time for me to move on.” This was a thing that Jess had been coveting for a while and it fell into her lap.

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Rocky Carroll and Katrina Law in “NCIS.” (Robert Voets/CBS)

At the end of the episode, Jessica accepts the job as the new REACT chief, meaning she’s leaving the team and potentially moving to the West Coast. What does this mean for Jessica, and Katrina Law’s future on the show?

Well, we hope it means good things for Jessica’s future for sure. As for Katrina’s future, you know, we like to keep the audience guessing, and surprise them. So I think what that means is surprises you’ll have to guess at?

So is Katrina leaving the show?

I will say that we strive to please, and the audience will be pleased.

Jimmy doesn’t have the best reaction to the news. He lashes out at Jessica while recalling all the people he’s said goodbye to in his life. While he regrets his meltdown, he looks pretty devastated when she takes the job. Could they make long distance work, or are they broken up for good?

They’re both mature people. Jimmy has his moments on the deck of the boat where he kind of lashes out at Knight… But even though he gets upset and lashes out at her, clearly, this whole thing opened up something larger that’s been brewing for him in their relationship. This isn’t just an instance of something happening and then them reacting to it and regretting their actions.

But I would say, even if they come to terms and handle the situation like adults, just because he’s wounded and sad doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t hurt breaking up. It’s hard to do… So I think whatever is going to happen is going to hurt. Whether it’s a long-distance relationship or breaking up [for good], it’s going to be tough anyway.

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Katrina Law and Gary Cole in “NCIS.” (Robert Voets/CBS)

Things got pretty stressful for Parker and Jessica after getting locked in the ship and Parker’s injury. But it leads to Knight’s heroic moment when she swims in freezing cold water to save herself and Parker. How was it to translate that scene from what was written on the page?

It’s tough to really do underwater stunts like that… A major motion picture [would spend] $100 million on a sequence like that, and we didn’t have millions and millions of dollars. We had like a day or two to do it, but I think we did a really good job of getting the intent of what was on the page.

We obviously would have liked to shoot more underwater, but there wasn’t the screen time for it, to be honest. But we got a taste of it. I think the audience will get what is happening there, and that she is risking her life in a terribly frightening way… Going underwater and swimming in the dark to a place [she doesn’t know], with a guy who’s about to pass out holding the safety rope? That’s a lot of fun.

In his delirium, Parker hallucinates a little girl named Lily, who we find out is a childhood friend of Parker’s. What are you excited to explore from Parker’s backstory in Season 22?

This is one of the rare instances where we introduce something that we have an idea of where it’s going [from the start]. I’m a big fan of putting these concepts out there and letting our really great writing staff [follow it from there]. It’s like a little hook and they hook on to it.

But this is not one of those times. This is one of those times where the backstory was thought of first and we had to wait for the right moment to put it in an episode. This seemed like a natural fit. [Writer Scott Williams] is great at stuff like this, and I think he’ll be the one to pay it off [next season]. So keep an eye on scripts credited to Scott Williams.

A shortened Season 21 seems to have led to some impressively creative episodes — the Texas visit with Nick riding the horse to chase a suspect was a special highlight. How was it to craft a season with less than half the usual episode order for NCIS?

Now like most things, these things have their challenges and then also their benefits. It was challenging because we really didn’t have the time to create any sort of runners that ran through the episodes, or develop any any sort of character storylines to slow roll over the course of the 20 to 24 episodes…

But [it was] also liberating because now you don’t have to spend your mental resources on that, you can just really focus on interesting, good stories, which has always been the bread and butter of this show. Good, standalone stories that you can dive into with characters that you like — so it was helpful in that regard. And I finally had some bandwidth to write one, so that was fun for me too.

I had always wanted to do an alien episode. So I got to do that with a great team, Aurorae Khoo and Gina Gold. They came to me and they said, “That guy testifying before Congress about the UFO… what if he turned up dead?” And I said, “That’s interesting.”

So do aliens exist in the “NCIS” world?

I personally think they absolutely exist in the world. Whether or not they’re visiting us is an open question, or whether or not they’re going to let us know they’re visiting us. But I’m pro-alien, and I think probably most of the audience is too.

Season 22 brings the show back to a regular series order. Have you started thinking about where the show goes from here?

One of the things we want to focus on this next coming season is unusual and fun pairings. We’ve done that in the past to some degree… but people we don’t normally get to see together… We really want to shake things up.

And then the other thing I want to do is, haven’t come up with a catchphrase for it yet. But when an actor says “my character wouldn’t do that.” That’s the thing you hear all the time.

We want to come up with things that our characters wouldn’t do and put them in situations where they are going to do that, because the situations are so extreme and they have to do things they wouldn’t normally do. I want to make that a North Star for the writers next season, because it’ll be something interesting to watch and puts the pedal to the metal on some of these character psyches.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

All episodes of NCIS are now streaming on Paramount+. The show will return for Season 22 this fall.

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