Fight Club had eight rules. Moses made do with 10. But on NCIS, Special Agent Gibbs (Mark Harmon) has 50 tenets he lives by. Hold on...one incoming! And it's a biggie: The May 25 season finale, "Rule 51," marks the first time an NCIS episode has been so directly themed around one of "Gibbs' rules." Naturally, the nature of the 51st rule is being about as closely guarded as Area 51. But executive producer Shane Brennan is willing to rule on some expectations.The title rule won’t be the only one revealed. “The fans are about to learn three rules in one episode,” Brennan says. “And at the end, they’ll see Gibbs compose one. He makes a difficult choice, and sees there’s something so unexpected he hasn’t got a rule for it, so he articulates one and adds it to the list. It’s a very, very poignant moment, pertinent to the rules, that will tug at the heartstrings.”
Fan sites have long catalogued the known rules, which range from “Never let suspects sit together,” as revealed in the first episode, to two that have been unveiled just this month: “Never get involved personally on a case” and “If it seems like someone is out to get you, they are.” Rule #12 is the one most often invoked by anti-Tiva partisans: “Never date a coworker.” (Which may or may not be a corollary to “Never date a lumberjack”—a personal rule that Gibbs’ late wife, Shannon, spoke of in the classic flashback episode “Heartland,” a sort of rules origin story.)
When three are revealed on the season finale, that will be the first time that many have been spoken in one hour since episode 1. It’s been known for a while that Gibbs has about 50 rules—that’s what he told Ziva in the “Silver War” episode—but over the course of seven seasons, fewer than half of those have been publicly parceled out.
Gibbs’ rules provoke an almost geekish intrigue among NCIS die-hards, but Brennan says they strike a chord by exaggerating an everyday human trait. “We may not think of it this way, but we all live by rules—little sayings we come up with or that get drilled into us as kids or handed down by grandparents, which we refer to when we’re struggling with something. People have them printed out on their doors or refrigerators. We all do it differently. It’s just that Gibbs has gone to the trouble of numbering his.”
Viewers can only guess at the nature of the new rule from the few hints Brennan lays out about the choice Gibbs has to make. “Gibbs realizes that his team are in absolute danger, and that he holds the key. And he has to make a choice that is the toughest of his personal life and of his career. The dilemma Gibbs faces is that if he makes a certain choice, someone’s gonna die. If he chooses to go in a different direction, then his life is changed forever. But in the great Gibbs tradition, Gibbs is no pushover. Gibbs has plans."
The composing of rule 51 is a climax to the season finale, but not the climax. “If they think that’s the surprise, it’s not," Brennan says. "Anyone who watches the show gets it—they know they have to watch the last 30 seconds of the last episode of the season.” The cliffhanger this year is "not violent. But the anticipation of violence, and grief, and hurt, it’s astonishing. I mean, the audience will go, 'Oh my God, they’re not going to do that.' The last 20, maybe 30 seconds of season 7 will have people talking all over the summer. And it’s very personal."
If last year’s finale focused chiefly on Tony and Ziva, this season’s final arc has put its lead player squarely back in the spotlight. "Mark Harmon is without a doubt one of the finest actors I’ve ever worked with. He has an intuitive sense that is always surprising. You don’t give Gibbs lines. It’s just there. Harmon has this ability for people to understand what he’s thinking, to understand his actions, without us having to write pages of dialogue. It’s partly the creation of the character, and it’s the way Mark actually interprets the character. And what we give him in these last two episodes is as challenging material as he’s ever had, without a doubt.” But if Gibbs seems to be in a heart-of-darkness blind alley, don’t expect him to venture so far into the dark that he alienates fans. “The audience are going to love Gibbs more for finding out what he finds out, and for watching him make these tough decisions," Brennan says.
Have you ever wondered if there’s a list of all Gibbs’ rules to date? We’ve got it—not including the three we’re about to find out in the finale, of course. If you notice a doubling up on the numbering in a couple of instances, hardcore fans have long wondered about that—and we’ve got the solution to that mystery, straight from NCIS central. Here’s the list to date:
Rule #1: Never let suspects sit together. (Yankee White: episode 1)
Rule #1: Never screw over your partner. (Blowback: episode 84)
Rule #2: Always wear gloves at a crime scene. (Yankee White: episode 1)
Rule #3: Never believe what you are told. (Yankee White: episode 1)
Rule #3: Never be unreachable. (Deception: episode 58)
Rule #4: Best way to keep a secret is to keep it to yourself. Second best way is to tell one other person if you must. There is no third best. (Blowback: episode 84)
Rule #6: Never say you’re sorry. (Flesh and Blood: episode 150)
Rule #7: Always be specific when you lie. (Reveille: episode 23)
Rule #8: Never take anything for granted. (Probie: episode 56)
Rule #9: Never go anywhere without a knife. (One Shot, One Kill: episode 13; Missing: episode 20; Probie: episode 56)
Rule #10: Never get involved personally on a case. (Obsession: episode 159)
Rule #11: Walk away when the job’s done. (Semper Fidelis: episode 137)
Rule #12: Never date a co-worker. (Enigma: episode 15)
Rule #13: Never involve lawyers. (Collateral Damage: episode 119)
Rule #15: Always work as a team. (Leap of Faith: episode 99)
Rule #18: It's better to seek forgiveness than ask permission. (Silver War: episode 51)
Rule #22: Never, ever bother Gibbs in Interrogation. (Smoked: episode 80)
Rule #23: Never mess with a Marine's coffee if you want to live. (Forced Entry: episode 33)
Rule #27: There are two ways to follow someone. First way, they never notice you. Second way, they only notice you. (Jack Knife: episode 153)
Rule #38: Your case, your lead. (Bounce: episode 129)
Rule #39: There is no such thing as coincidence. (Obsession: episode 159)
Rule #40: If it seems like someone is out to get you, they are. (Borderland: episode 160)
So: Why are there two No. 1s, and two No. 3s? Aficionados have wondered if, worst case scenario, those were continuity errors, or, giving the writers the benefit of the doubt, if Gibbs’ list was simply meant to be malleable.
The answer is: neither. Here is Brennan’s long-awaited and surprising explanation for that minor puzzle:
“Gibbs lives his life by a set of rules that took root from the first day he met Shannon. Over time, Gibbs added to the rules. When he joined NIS, Mike Franks told him he didn't need dozens of different rules to be an agent... just three 'golden rules.' And this is why we have double ups on rules #1 and #3. Three of them are Gibbs' rules; three of them are Mike Franks’ rules. We are still to reveal the double-up on rule #2. And it's up to the fans to guess which of the rules were Mike Franks’ three golden rules and which were Gibbs'.”
At the rate these bones are thrown out to the fans, NCIS had better run even longer than Law & Order, right?