For almost 20 years, Mark Harmon has been the face of NCIS, the long-running CBS procedural series. Last night, in a move that stunned many members of the audience, Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs decided it was time to bid a fond farewell to his friends and coworkers. In the episode, titled "Great Wide Open," Gibbs and Special Agent Timothy McGee (Sean Murray) were sent to Alaska to do what they have done hundreds of times: solve a case, catch a killer. In the end of the episode, though, Gibbs decided it was time for a change of scenery, and informed the team that he would be staying behind in Alaska indefinitely.
Harmon had opted for a reduced role this year, and fans who were particularly plugged in to entertainment news had an inkling he was preparing to leave the show. The when and how of it, though, remained somewhat shocking.
"As an executive producer and dear friend, Mark continues to be an integral part of the fabric of the show," said showrunner Steven D. Binder in a statement circulated to the trades. In the statement, he also hinted that a return is possible, if Harmon wants to do it. "Our north star has always been staying true to our characters, and that truth has always guided the stories we tell and where those characters go. So, regarding the future of Gibbs, as long-time fans of the show may have noticed over the years...never count Leroy Jethro Gibbs out."
While the move might feel somewhat abrupt to some, the writers did their best to tie it into the character's personal mythology and history on the series. Gibbs told McGee that he felt a sense of peace in the Alaskan wilderness that he had not felt since the death of his wife and daughter. Admitting he wasn't ready to let that feeling go, he told his partner that he couldn't have asked for anyone better to watch his back for all these years.
Originally a spinoff of the military legal drama JAG, NCIS has ballooned into a brand of its own, with three spinoffs so far. While one of them, NCIS: New Orleans, concluded earlier this year, it was replaced on the schedule almost immediately by NCIS: Hawaii, which debuted last month. As with any long-running series, NCIS has had its share of cast turnover, but Harmon's Gibbs has always been the rock audiences could depend on to keep the tone and direction of the show stable.
Last season, there were signs that perhaps Gibbs's time on the series was winding down. At one point he was suspended for using excessive force on a particularly repulsive suspect, and then the season finale featured an explosion which almost killed the character.