It was rough enough for the fans of NCIS to lose Kate Todd by having Ari Haswari snipe her at the end of Season 2. So, starting Season 3 off by showing Kate's murder from Ari's POV is a little rougher. But the two episodes that start off Season 3 of NCIS--the two part "Kill Ari" episodes--really bring up a subject in this series that hadn't been fully fleshed out. Obviously, these two episodes allow the regular characters to come to grips with the loss of Kate--the irony of Kate's ghost talking to Ducky and Ducky not talking back to the ghost, the overall story of how the survivors all see Kate. McGee seeing a superwoman, Abby seeing Elvira, Tony being Tony in seeing Kate (That schoolgirl outfit), and Gibbs seeing Kate as he last saw her--with a hole between her eyes. Just as obviously, "Kill Ari" allows for the introduction of Cote De Pablo's Ziva David, the Mossad/Masada agent liased to NCIS in the wake of Kate's death and Lauren Holly's Jenny Sheppard--Gibbs' former partner/lover who rose beyond working the field to the NCIS director's job.
But my observation after a couple of viewings of this box set is that the underlying story of the season is the revelations about the history of Leroy Jethro Gibbs. For much of the first two seasons, Mark Harmon's "tough, no-nonsense investigator" (To quote the liner notes on the set) has always had an understated sense of humor that has allowed him to smile quitely at the office interaction between the members of the team while presenting his harder face. But that exterior begins to crack in the "Kill Ari" episodes; the mystery surrounding Jethro's background begins to unfold as Ari murders Kate, then takes his shot at Abby and captures Dr. Mallard. This is what starts leading Jethro to being close to Ziva--maybe no one notices, but because of the information that she uncovered about Jethro and fed to her half-brother Ari, Officer David feels partially responsible for Kate's murder.
Through Season 3, we start getting clues to who Jethro is and what he keeps from everyone--the flask that we see at the end of "Under Covers", his continued attraction towards redheads (It certainly is no coincidence that Holly/Sheppard is a redhead), and the subtleties of his relationship with Ziva--forged in an oddly shared tragedy. Of course, much of all that goes on in the season comes to a head in the "Hiatus" two-parter at the end of the season. We find out why Gibbs is what he is, how many of his actions have prepared DiNozzo for running the team and prepped Tim for being an agent; and how the discoveries affect his relationship with Dr. Mallard and Director Sheppard.
As always since this series started, the performances are stunning. Mark Harmon continues to embody the toughness and instincts of Jethro, but also had to be very nuanced as Gibbs' painful history comes out.
Michael Weatherly's Tony DiNozzo continued being the second coming of David Addison (my usual Moonlighting aside), but Tony had to face growing up and being a decision-maker/leader ("Bait"), and had a difficulty through this season that he hadn't had in the previous two--ZIVA.
Cote De Pablo flipped the dynamic of the team. As Ziva, Cote brought a much more formidable presence to the squad. In the first two seasons, Tony could get Kate off-balance with his remarks and his stunts, offending her Catholic schoolgirl sensibilities. In the third season, Ziva--partially because of her background, partially because it was just HER--was able to get Tony off his feed more than he thought possible. An example of this--aside from her driving, or her mangling of slang--came up in "Probie", when she was able to get Tony to reveal why he was receiving calls from a sperm bank. De Pablo was able to affect a very cool and very canny customer in Ziva. Many viewers are always going to miss Sasha Alexander, but Cote is a wonderful fit.
Sean Murray's Tim McGee is still a wonderful work in progress; the nerd-boy field agent who continues to get tortured by DiNozzo in a big-brother/little-brother fashion. He still seems over his head at times, eager to please Gibbs (Or at least keep Jethro from popping him one in the back of the head--isn't it funny how The Head Slap has become one of the show's many trademarks?). Plus, there's whatever seems to be going on in his private life, whether or not it's with Abby.
Of course, what can be said about Pauley? Perrette is a scene-stealing wonder on screen, especially in Abby's lab when she's mainlining the "Kaff-Pow" or getting Bert to do what he does (Her stuffed hippo--YEAH, THAT ONE). Plus, we get surprised by Abby's ability with duct tape ("Frame Up") and her temper in general ("Bloodbath").
David McCallum's Dr. Mallard continues to be the second coming of Jonathan Quayle Higgins, though not as prissy as Robin Masters' major domo. Ducky continues to tell his stories while working his was through the cadavers. Plus, we get another visit from Nina Foch as Ducky's mom late in the season, getting a surreal moment when she's visiting the NCIS HQ.
Many people thought the introduction of Jenny Sheppard as fluff. Given the underlying story of the season, Lauren Holly's character was actually needed. Jenny became an insight to Gibbs' relationship issues and why he stays operating as an investigator--basically, she knows certain things about Jethro that his squad aren't privvy to--though as it turns out, she doesn't know the whole story (Until "Hiatus").
The good guest shots in this set have to start with Sasha Alexander, and her completion of the Catlin Todd storyline. Her ghost appearing in various forms to the team members was striking (Of course, her schoolgirl outfit in Tony's vision was typical Tony). Rudolf Martin's Ari Haswari was brilliant--slick, dangerous, deceptive and unstable. I found myself regretting Ari's storyline being completed--he could have been Wo Fat to Gibbs' McGarrett (Hawaii Five-O reference). It's always fun when Jessica Steen drops in to trade remarks with Weatherly as Paula Cassidy. Michael Bellisario's turn as Abby's lab assistant is a comical and dangerous turn. Finally, we can't forget Muse Watson's introduction in the "Hiatus" episodes as Gibbs' mentor when he joined NIS, Mike Franks. Franks' amusement at the changes--the female director in particular--are tempered by his having to fill in many of the blanks for Gibbs when Jethro is recovering from amnesia.
Ultimately, the season of change that is NCIS Season 3 is a storytelling wonder--full of the humor and action that has been the staple of the series since it's beginning, but also the undercurrent of melancholy that permeates this season. The loss of Kate really becomes the latest in a series of painful losses for Gibbs--but we never realize it until the end of the season.