Why Television’s Most Popular Show Rehabilitated A Nazi

CREDIT: Cliff Lipson/CBS

This post discusses plot points for the most recent episode of NCIS.

I’ve seen Alyssa and other cultural critics take a lot of grief for analyzing pop culture. Supposedly, this stuff we spend so much time watching and listening to and participating in doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s just a way to pass the time.

Obviously, I don’t buy that. I think the stories we tell ourselves tell us a lot about ourselves.

But I think there’s plenty of evidence that the people who produce the popular culture we consume don’t always give it the thought they should. Take, for instance, what just happened on NCIS. The overarching story of the season so far has been Ziva’s departure and its effects on the team. Gibbs, especially, is shown taking her leaving fairly hard.

On Tuesday night, his dad introduced him to the Nazi who saved his life.

That’s right. The arc of the show this season has been “Jewish gal abandons Gibbs and team and Gibbs learns the Nazis weren’t all bad.” The weirdest moment of Tuesday’s episode had to be when Gibbs’ dad tried to comfort the Nazi by saying that, even though all the deaths he caused were still on him, he could take comfort in knowing that, because he had saved Gibbs’ father, Gibbs existed and look at all the good he’s doing in the world.

Of course, if the Nazis hadn’t set out to exterminate all the Jewish people they could get their hands on in Europe, Ari wouldn’t have killed Kate and Ziva wouldn’t have had to kill him. So what? We’re all who we are and where we are because history has played out how it has.

I don’t think that Gibbs’ success being owed to the kindness of a Nazi is actually as profound a revelation as the show seems to think it is.

But I am completely fascinated by it nonetheless. Let me reiterate: on a cheesy mainstream TV show that resists any attempt to find deeper meaning beyond “The U.S. has a Navy and Mark Harmon has beautiful eyes,” they’ve just chosen to give the main character a backstory that is “If not for a Nazi, he wouldn’t be here.”

We’re going to try to redeem Nazis now? Why is “but there were some good ones” a story we want to tell? Or that NCIS thinks people want to hear?

Let’s try to get at this from another angle. I have done a lot of research on the Confederacy and narratives surrounding the Confederacy. I’m really fascinated by how Confederates understood their great cultural project and then how their children and grandchildren and descendants beyond that came to understand said cultural project.

One thing that is incredibly interesting to me is that there is simply no argument about why the Confederacy fought the Civil War. For Confederates, it was about slavery. They believed they had the right to own slaves and, even if they didn’t, at the moment, own slaves (which was true in a great many cases, because slaves were expensive and young men fight wars), they aspired to own slaves. After the war, many of them adopted Nathan Bedford Forrest’s approach — slave-owning was no longer something one did and new times called for new ways — but, like Forrest, they felt no guilt for having owned slaves.

After the war, the United States relocated as many remains as possible of U.S. troops to federal cemeteries. Confederate troops were not, for the most part, put in federal cemeteries. If the wives and children of Confederate soldiers wanted to bury them in cemeteries, they had to either find where they’d fallen or dig them up out of trenches and identify their remains and either drag them home somehow or find a cemetery near where they’d died and stick them there.

The U.S. military had elaborate and standard protocols for how to properly bury Union soldiers. There was no such infrastructure for the CSA soldiers. Whatever story was going to be told about why these men died and whether their sacrifice was worth it had to be made up by the survivors. And the South made grand ceremony over it.

Now, here’s the important part. By and large, when other Confederates were called on to talk about why these men had died, they talked about “The Lost Cause.” They had simply died defending a way of life that has passed from the earth. But, when their sons got old enough to be the ones talking at these often yearly graveside gatherings, the sons talked about “states rights” or “brother against brother” or the men who were just defending their homeland from invaders — all the reasons we still tell each other the war was fought today.

And the old men, the actual Confederates, got pissed. They felt like their children (and later grandchildren) were embarrassed by them and thus were making up more palatable lies about why the war had been fought. “States rights” and “brother against brother” arguments for the cause of the war were incredibly painful to actual Confederates.

If you look at it from the perspective of the actual Confederates, you can see why it would be uncomfortable to hear your children and grandchildren discounting the real reason you fought and replacing it with reasons that you knew they think sound more noble. Their praise of motivations you didn’t have only reinforces the knowledge that the reasons you did had were terrible.

But if you look at it from the perspective of the children of Confederates, who were living under Reconstruction, the idea of their fathers going to war to protect them from that kind of Federal intrusion must have been incredibly seductive. “My dad was trying to save me from this” is more compelling than “my dad was trying to save his earning potential.”

And look at what the grandchildren of Confederates were facing–trying to find ways to do business with Northerners and establish ties with Northern industries–and you can see why a narrative of “The war was terrible, but we’re all brothers in the end, aren’t we?” was so attractive. And note how easily the “brother-against-brother” narrative lets white men of both regions just push black men right off the national stage.

So, the reframing of Confederate motivations tells us a lot more about the circumstances of the reframers than it does reveal some great truth about the Confederacy.

And I suspect the same is true when talking about Nazi Germany. So, why would we, 70 years after the fact, need a story about an American owing his life to a good Nazi? There are some echoes of the “brother against brother” narrative– Pa Gibbs tells Gibbs that “we were brothers up there”– and the Nazi “didn’t really believe in the cause, but he fought for other reasons” story — Pa Gibbs says the Nazi “wanted to remind himself of who he was. All he can see are the people he killed over ideas that weren’t his. He can’t forgive himself.”

Now, we’ve been using that “brother-against-brother” narrative, actively, for generations. I’m not surprised to see it pop back up here. But, if you look at the actual history of Nazi Germany, you know one of the interesting (and frightening) things about it is that the Nazis had buy-in from regular Germans. There weren’t a lot of Nazis who were killing people over ideas they hadn’t accepted as their own. And, in real life, most Nazis are dead, not sitting around being all introspective and regretful.

That’s why I think the meat of the story is right there. If we’re telling a story that’s not true of someone else, it’s because it rings true to us. Redeeming a Nazi is compelling to 18.98 million viewers because we want to know that the sorry old-fart white guy’s life, though devoted in part to a great evil, wasn’t a total waste.

This obviously isn’t because the United States suddenly loves Nazis. It’s because the fundamental question white people have in this country, but rarely admit out loud, is how to live with our historical legacy. Do we fantasize that the white people of the past were more like us than we realize and the ways they differ are really only charming and silly, like on Sleepy Hollow? Do we pretend that the perpetrators of evil were really its victims, like Hell on Wheels? Do we want to believe that some shared experience– like being in the military — binds us at a level beyond our other deep divisions and good can come of that, like NCIS is suggesting?

This is why I get so frustrated with the “it’s just a show” dismissal of good cultural criticism. All we are are sacks of flesh stuffed with guts and puss and boogers and blood. And yet, we tell stories. That’s what we do to stave off the horror of being a self-propelling bag of warm offal that will someday die. Talking about those stories and what they mean and what they tell us about who we are and how we live in the world isn’t a waste. It’s a way to know ourselves better.