Sometimes, the most important characters in a story are the minor ones. This week’s episode of NCIS focused on the death of a Navy officer in a car accident. But the secondary story, a subplot if you will, involved my favourite character on the show, Jimmy Palmer.
In the beginning, the majority of this character’s involvement had been as a punchline. Nicknamed “Autopsy Gremlin,” Jimmy joined the team as Ducky, the medical examiner’s assistant when he was an awkward, young man. He made bad jokes and often had trouble following his older boss’ stories and historical references.
Over the years, Jimmy finished medical school and became an actual doctor, taking over as the NCIS M.E. Viewers watched as he fell in love, got married, lost a child, became a father, and turned into the voice of reason and guidance for his co-workers. All while just a subplot within over 300 episodes.
And yet, some of my favourite stories of all time – and as a fan, I’ve watched all 18 seasons repeatedly – have Jimmy front and centre. There aren’t many. But they’re fabulous.
In “About Face,” Jimmy comes face-to-face with a killer. So this gentle soul injects himself into the investigation and winds up taking down a suspect with his car. He then defends his actions, saying that he “stayed in his car” as ordered.
In “Keep Going,” Jimmy breaks protocol by stepping out on the ledge of a building to help a young man contemplating suicide. In “Bears and Cub,” his father-in-law asks him to falsify his autopsy findings. Despite desperately wanting a relationship with the man, Jimmy acknowledged that the only true fathers he’s ever had are Gibbs and Ducky.
And now this past week, after focusing on pre-COVID storylines all season, the writers finally entered present day. And it wasn’t pretty.
NCIS’s most cheerful character had added two more titles to his résumé: widower and single father. His wife died of COVID months prior and he was drowning himself in work to avoid home and sleep.
At this point, there’s little that the NCIS writers could tell viewers that they haven’t already heard about the COVID experience. However, it was Jimmy’s story that shined a light on the plight of those left behind.
His M.E. job specifically requires him to separate himself from the trauma of death. But that’s not a healthy coping mechanism for his own life. And after making his Autopsy room available to the city coroner’s overflow of COVID bodies, he was literally reliving his own loss every day.
But, once again, Jimmy Palmer also had something to teach his friends. In talking to Jimmy, Gibbs was able to acknowledge he’d been stuck in the “anger” stage for years since his own family was killed. And if Jimmy moved on from his denial, Gibbs would help him move past the anger. Perhaps together.
NCIS is your typical formula drama with pretty actors and big names. But it’s the subplots, and the more minor characters, that continue to bring me back for more.