'NCIS' Boss on Writing Out Michael Weatherly: "I'm Not in it for the Shock Value"

Showrunner Gary Glasberg talks with THR about the emotional final stretch for Tony DiNozzo and how that compares to a broadcast season that has featured the deaths of so many major characters.
Sonja Flemming/CBS

In less than a month, CBS' NCIS will say its final farewell to Michael Weatherly and his Tony DiNozzo.

And while the final few episodes of the season promise surprise returns (Cote de Pablo?) and possibly some serious and fatal injuries to those close to the procedural's central team, showrunner Gary Glasberg wants viewers to know that he's not interested in shocking them with a deadly exit for the fan-favorite character.

With a broadcast season that has seen so many characters shockingly killed off (Fox's Sleepy Hollow whacked female lead Nichole Beharie; The CW's Arrow did the same to Katie Cassidy's Laurel; and ABC's Castle could see Stana Katic's Kate meet the Grim Reaper), Glasberg talks with THR about penning a fitting exit for his star of 13 years and how TV's death spree impacted his approach.

How much notice did you have when constructing the season that Michael Weatherly would be leaving?

We've been talking about this for a long time; from the beginning of the season. I had a sense of what Michael was planning on doing and his intent for this to be his last season of the show and I told him very early on when we started to have conversations right away that this had to be handled in a way that we all felt was appropriate. We started talking story and arcing things out through the season and layering in bits and pieces and cookies and things along the way at the beginning of season 13. I'm grateful for that because it's given us time to think about how we were going to handle this and work with the rest of the writing staff. Scott Williams and I wrote the finale together. We talked this through with the studio and network and it afforded us time to work through it.

How will the final few episodes of the season set the stage for Weatherly's exit?

We set up a story line in Tuesday's episode with an escaped former British agent who has been in prison and gets out. That storyline starts the ball rolling and it blossoms into something that ultimately connects to Tony come our finale and he finds himself at a bit of a crossroads and has some some decisions to make. There's a tremendous amount of action and emotion that happens in between but ultimately it connects to him. We're pleased with the way that it seems to be coming together.

Will any familiar faces return? Could Cote de Pablo's Ziva come back?

The relationship that Tony has with Ziva absolutely has an impact on his reason to depart at the end of the season. Ziva is a huge part of who Tony is and at the at the end of the day, that comes into play. You'll have to wait and see how it unfolds but it's a part of the big story.

How would you describe Weatherly's final scene as Tony?

It's really emotional. A few days ago we filmed his last scene with Pauley Perrette and it was really touching. Every day has been extraordinary. He his last scene with Gibbs (Mark Harmon) in Gibbs' basement, that was a really lovely moment and surprised us all. We're trying to give each character their due and send Tony DiNozzo off appropriately. People should prepare for some real emotion and a bit of a roller-coaster ride. There's fun and action but the last act — the last 15 minutes — are really touching.

As a showrunner, how do you approach losing a beloved actor and character? Does the new blood coming with Sarah Clarke and Duane Henry help extend how long the show may go on?

Michael Weatherly has been an enormous part of NCIS from Day 1. I can't replace Michael Weatherly. But what I can do is continue to move forward and come up with new characters, stories and find new ways to let remaining cast evolve, come up with new, exciting things and perspectives for us to continue to dig into and peel back the layers. It's not easy to say goodbye. He's a huge part of this but we have to stay focused on what's next. We just got a two-season pickup and the goal is to let the show evolve. When you look at other long-running shows — M*A*S*H and ER — those casts evolved as well and new characters were brought in and you try and experiment and you know you have the foundation and chemistry that's working and you continue to build on that.

You've killed off a fair number of characters on NCIS — Sasha Alexander in season two for example. How has your approach to writing characters out and potentially killing them off changed over time especially as death on TV has become so commonplace?

With every character, it's different. There are storylines where you kill someone off and storylines where you let them ride off into sunset and storylines with emotional romantic resonance. Every character is different and you have to look at the character, the fans and the audience and say, "What do we owe to the audience? What is going to resonate the most in people saying goodbye to this character?" And we try to deliver on that as best we can.

Some people close to the team will be seriously and potentially fatally injured in the final few episodes of the season. Without saying too much, should fans worry if Tony will be killed off?

He plays a tremendous part in this last episode so to necessarily think that I'm killing him off may not be the case. I urge people to go along for the ride. I think they'll be pleased with what he does and what we offer.

This broadcast season has seen a large number of women and LGBT characters killed off. What kind of discussions do you have when debating how to write out a lead — including whether or not you kill them off?

You have a responsibility to the show to really think it through from every angle. That's something that we've done with Michael's character: How can we best present a storyline that handles this appropriately? Tony DiNozzo wouldn't leave his NCIS family unless something really significant was presented to him. That's one of the things that we've been talking about for months and ultimately landed on in order to make this work. Again, you have to look at the character, the way they fit in with the rest of the group and try to really come up with something that's organic and logical for why the character would depart.

How cognizant are you when it comes to killing off women and LGBT characters? How do you think the Bury Your Gays trope, post-The 100, will impact the decision about whether to kill off women and minorities? Will other writers think twice about killing LGBT characters off vs. writing them out?

That's way outside of what I'm thinking about at the moment. I'm so focused on giving a fair departure to Tony DiNozzo. I'm thrilled and honored that both NCIS and NCIS: New Orleans got GLAAD nominations this year.

Killing off characters has long been a device used to shock viewers and draw ratings. Given how frequently this is happening, is it still as valuable a tool as it once was?

You have to look at the show and storyline and look for what's appropriate in the moment. We know in this instance that we want to make sure that Michael's departure and Tony's departure is emotionally satisfying to everyone. I'm not in it for the shock value. I want to deliver to the audience everything that they've earned for last 13 years. So am I approaching it from the standpoint of who can I kill off? Absolutely not. Are there others along the way that we've done that with? Of course. But specific to this, this is really about delivering the best finale for Tony DiNozzo that we can.

NCIS airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS. How do you think Tony's journey will end?

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