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10 Best ‘NCIS’ Episodes, Ranked

For over 20 seasons, CBS hit series NCIS has followed the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, an organization dedicated to investigating crimes involving the US Navy. The series began in 2003 as a spin-off of JAG. Its success has led to not only its longevity, as its 21st season began in early 2024, and it has aired over 400 episodes, but also multiple spin-offs with more in the works, including prequel series NCIS: Origins. The franchise overall will hit the milestone of 1,000 episodes in 2024.

With hundreds of episodes behind it, NCIS has told a number of stories about crime in the Navy, from threats to the president to cases involving the team itself. The series’ best episodes all stand on different strengths, whether it’s the case being investigated or the high stakes for the team, but season premieres and finales often present the most intense episodes. But no matter where in the season they fell, the best episodes of NCIS span its 20 years, demonstrating why it’s lasted so long.

NCIS TV Show Poster


Created by
Donald P. Bellisario

First TV Show

Latest TV Show
NCIS: Hawaii

First Episode Air Date
September 23, 2003

david mccallum , sean murray , Mark Harmon , Brian Dietzen , Pauley Perrette , Rocky Carroll

Season 1, Episode 12

Image via CBS 

The team investigated when a dumpster diver found a Marine’s leg in a trash receptacle in “My Other Left Foot,” and an ankle pin traced back to its owner led to a private who had been dead for two years, but Ducky (David McCallum) suspected the leg had been cut off in the previous 24 hours. The episode also featured a brief guest appearance from Josh Holloway just months before he became known for playing Sawyer on Lost.

“My Other Left Foot” had a fascinating case with multiple twists as the team tried to determine whose leg they had and what really happened. But most notably, the episode was full of the dark humor the show has become known for. It was also a great episode for Ducky, as it provided good insight into his character, and presented DiNozzo and Kate’s opposing views on small towns—Kate found them peaceful, while DiNozzo’s view was less forgiving.

9 “The Bone Yard”

Season 2, Episode 4

Image via CBS 

After a civilian was killed in an apparent explosion on a Marine practice bombing range, Gibbs (Mark Harmon) and the team discovered what appeared to be a dumping ground for dead bodies in “The Bone Yard.” The case only got more complicated when the victim turned out to be an undercover FBI agent and Tobias Fornell (Joe Spano) revealed he was being framed by a local mob boss. Gibbs made a deal with them to clear Fornell’s name.

“The Bone Yard” was an interesting, somewhat convoluted case where things weren’t as they seemed, with a mole in the FBI and Fornell being framed. Some of the episode’s best moments came from Gibbs’ efforts to help Fornell, showing Gibbs’ integrity and loyalty. The episode also featured some fun moments between the characters, from their sparring matches with each other in the opening to Gibbs butting heads with others during their investigation, plus DiNozzo’s constant prodding at McGee.

8 “Yankee White”

Season 1, Episode 1

Image via CBS 

NCIS took over the investigation of the death of a Navy commander of an apparent stroke after he shared a meal with the president aboard Air Force One in the pilot episode “Yankee White,” forcing the plane to make an emergency landing. Although the commander’s death was initially thought to be an accident, the team suspected he had been caught up in a plot to assassinate the president. After the investigation, Gibbs recruits Caitlin “Kate” Todd (Sasha Alexander) for his team.

“Yankee White” was a great introduction to the world of NCIS, with one of its most compelling, high-stakes cases. The episode built on the characters who had been introduced previously in two episodes of JAG. This, as well as a lot of other elements that would become series staples, like Gibbs’ rules, make it a quintessential episode in the series and one which made the show stand out on its own, as opposed to living in the shadow of JAG.

7 “S.W.A.K.”

Season 2, Episode 22

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In “S.W.A.K.,” DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) opens an envelope containing a mysterious white powder; and with a lipstick imprint on the outside, the substance forces some of the team to quarantine while the others search for the person who mailed the envelope. Abby (Pauley Perrette) and Ducky find the powder was a strain of the plague genetically engineered to resist antibiotics, and blood tests revealed DiNozzo was the only one who had been infected.

The team moved from annoyance to fear in “S.W.A.K.,” as they realized what they thought was a harmless powder was really potentially lethal, significantly raising the stakes of the episode. But each distinct group was fun to watch, and Kate and DiNozzo were the best part of the episode. At first, their bickering in quarantine was fun, but things took a more serious turn when Kate lied about being infected to stay with DiNozzo as long as possible.

6 “Twilight”

Season 2, Episode 23

Sasha Alexander as Caitlin Todd in NCIS
Image via CBS

In “Twilight,” the Season 2 finale, DiNozzo returned to work after the events of “S.W.A.K.” Two sailors were found dead in a car, shot at close range, and the team realized the case had ties to a terrorist threatening Gibbs. The team raced to find him, but Gibbs wasn’t the only target. The shooter ultimately took out Kate after she protected Gibbs, ending the episode and season on a cliffhanger.

“Twilight” was a devastating episode, and it’s often considered one of the series’ best by fans. “There’s a chance one of us might die every time we walk through the door,” Kate said in its early minutes, hinting at what was to come for her. Her death was a huge shock which changed the show moving forward, and it was also a reminder that no one is truly safe in NCIS.

5 “Kill Ari”

Season 3, Episode 1

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The two-part Season 3 premiere, “Kill Ari,” opened where Season 2 left off, this time from shooter Ari’s (Rudolf Martin) perspective. In this episode, the team dealt with the aftermath of Kate being killed in the Season 2 finale, with each member imagining interacting with her in their own ways. As Ari targeted other members of the team, Gibbs became more determined to find him. Meanwhile, a new director was appointed to NCIS, one who had a history with Gibbs.

“Kill Ari” marked major changes for NCIS all around. It was one of the strongest episodes of the series, following up on one of the most shocking deaths of the series. Each character expressed their grief for Kate differently. Most notably, Gibbs became more subdued, and as DiNozzo put it, “He’s not Gibbs if he’s nice.” The episode was also notable for being the first to feature Ziva, who would become an NCIS fixture and fan favorite in subsequent seasons.

4 “She”

Season 16, Episode 13

Image via CBS

In “She,” a malnourished and disoriented nine-year-old girl was found hiding in a storage unit on a Marine base. Bishop suspected she had never seen the outside world before, and the team also thought she was the daughter of a Navy recruit who went missing a decade prior. The team also discovered Ziva (Cote de Pablo) was originally involved in the girl’s case, and more importantly, the episode revealed Ziva was really alive.

“She” told a great story, and it was a great callback to previous seasons and a young, newly hired Ziva. But the best part of the episode was the bombshell reveal that Ziva was not only alive but close by in the final minutes of the episode. It was a brilliant way to end the season and a great episode for fans who had long since given up hope for Ziva’s return.

3 “Truth or Consequences”

Season 7, Episode 1

Characters in NCIS Truth or Consequences
Image via CBS

In the Season 7 premiere, “Truth or Consequences,” the team was worried about Ziva after not having heard from her and searched for her, leading to DiNozzo and McGee being captured. They also began their search for her replacement. The episode is told through flashbacks, moving from DiNozzo and McGee (Sean Murray) being held to interviews with Ziva’s replacement and their work to find Ziva herself, and, ultimately revealing, their capture was all part of the plan.

“Truth or Consequences” was a great start to Season 7, full of great twists and turns and with the perfect balance of humor and tension. It was a wonderful episode for DiNozzo especially, which made for impressive work from Weatherly. DiNozzo showed his arrogance and sense of humor in captivity. But above all, it was fun to watch all the pieces come together, culminating in an action-packed final act.

2 “Keep Going”

Season 14, Episode 13

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In “Keep Going,” the NCIS team investigated after a hit-and-run, and Ryan (Spencer Trear Clark), the son of the victim, overcome with grief and guilt, later climbed on a building ledge intending to take his own life, until Palmer (Brian Dietzen) stepped in, and joined him, to stop him from jumping. Palmer worked to connect with the young man and talk him out of his plans, and in the meantime, the team searched for the suspect in the car accident.

The episode’s title took its name from words of wisdom from Ducky: “If you’re going through hell, keep going,” a great reminder for both the show’s characters and its audience, and a line Palmer later repeated to Ryan. The episode was a fan favorite, and understandably so, as it was a fantastic one for Palmer’s character but also for actor Dietzen, who delivered one of his best performances of his time on the series.

1 “Family First”

Season 13, Episode 24

Image via CBS 

In the Season 13 finale, “Family First,” DiNozzo learned Ziva was killed in a mortar attack, and the news left the whole team shocked and devastated. But there was some good yet shocking news, too, as he also found out Ziva had a young daughter, Talia, who survived, and he was her father. NCIS teamed up with the FBI and MI6 to track down an escaped British spy targeting current and former agents.

“Family First” was a great season finale and, even better, the perfect sendoff for DiNozzo, with a compelling story which impacted the whole team, as well as the series moving forward. The existence of Talia was a surprise, but it was nice to see DiNozzo step into his new role as her father. This paired with the character’s grief and anger over losing Ziva made for some of Weatherly’s best moments on the show.

All 21 seasons of NCIS can be streamed on Paramount+ in the U.S.

Watch on Paramount+

NEXT: ‘NCIS’: The Main Characters, Ranked by Likability

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