Popular Culture 20120803: Leroy Jethro Gibbs

(9 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

NCIS is really a good TeeVee program.  The writing is realistic, the characters well developed, and the mysteries usually pretty good, often with last minute twists.  Of all of the characters, Gibbs (played with aplomb by Mark Harmon) is by far the most complex.

This piece is not intended to be a history of the show, but rather my take on the personality of the character.  Various scenes that I remember may be used to illustrate my points, but once again this is more of a character analysis of Gibbs than a narrative of the program.

First and foremost, Gibbs is damaged goods.  He was always in trouble when he was a kid, often rescued by his father, Jackson (played by the wonderful Ralph Waite).  Some of these incidents are told in flashback, and the young Gibbs is played by Sean Harmon, Mark Harmon’s son by Pam Dawber.

Gibbs finally gets out of his little town in the coal country of Pennsylvania and joins the Marines.  Interestingly, at the train station where he awaiting his ride to his unit he meets The Girl, Shannon, who he eventually marries.  It was she that started him, at the station, to make rules for living.

The Marines were good for Gibbs and he excelled as a sniper.  After he and Shannon married, they had a daughter, Kelly.  Shannon and Kelly, along with the Marines, were Gibbs’s raison d’etre.  On a deployment to Iraq Shannon and Kelly were killed by a Mexican drug cartel boss because Shannon witnessed the boss murder a Marine.  Gibbs went berserk, considered suicide, and finally because of his grief was careless (or maybe had a death wish) and was seriously wounded.

After his recovery he left the Marines and became acquainted with NIS (Naval Investigative Service, later NCIS, Naval Criminal Investigative Service) Special Agent Mike Franks (played by Muse Watson) who was investigating the case.  I have sort of a connexion with Watson because he attended Berea College in Berea, KY, about ten miles south of my current residence.  Franks looked the other way and allowed Gibbs access to the file that identified the killer and his location in Mexico, and went after him.

Gibbs found the killer and, using his sniper skills, shot and killed him.  He actually murdered him, and it was premeditated.  Now we see just how damaged Gibbs is.  In trouble all his youth, and now out of the Marines that he loved, a widower with a dead daughter whom he adored, and now a murderer, he has to reconcile all of this with his huge sense of morality, not conventional morality, but his own.

His character is interesting precisely because of all of the inner conflict.  After he murdered his wife’s and child’s killer, he joined NIS as a member of Mike Franks’s team and became an extremely competent field agent.  At the same time, he entered several failed relationships with other women, three of whom he married and divorced.  One of his former wives married FBI agent Tobias Fornell (played by Joe Spano) with whom Gibbs frequently worked with.  Gibbs told Fornell that she would drain his bank account when she divorced him, and she did.  Fornell and Gibbs are actually the best of friends, their bond strengthened by their shared misery.  Fornell also has a little girl by Gibbs’s former wife, so there is a bit of a bond of a different sort betwixt them.

See, for all of his failings, Gibbs just loves children.  In many episodes he is somehow involved with children, and always interacts with them better than he does adults.  He once said words to the effect,

You know why I get along so well with children?  They do not have the guile to lie to you convincingly.

Actually, it is because kids remind him of his beloved Kelly.  He once told Abby when she gave him an Ipod that he only listens to five songs.  Later it was revealed that those five songs were from Kelly’s piano recitals that Shannon had taped and sent to him when he was on duty.  One was not from a recital, but a duet where he and Kelly were singing “Mockingbird”.

I am a sentimental sort, and this kind of character complexity has a tremendous appeal to me.  I guess that I am also complex, although I never murdered anyone or had my family killed but have done more than my fair share to inflict pain on those whom I love because of being selfish.  But this is about the fictional Gibbs, not a self analysis.

At work, and he is almost always at work, Gibbs is a no nonsense, hard driving, perfectionist boss (most of his team call him either “Boss” or just “Gibbs” with couple of exceptions).  He is a taskmaster, but is himself just as driven as he drives his staff.  He is quick to anger, but also quick to forgive.  He just will not tolerate incompetence, lazyness, or lack of vision.

His closest friend and colleague is the medical examiner, Dr. Donald Mallard (brilliantly played by the brilliant Scottish actor David McCallum).  The creator of the series, Donald Bellisario, has a fetish for name games.  This one is of course a play on the Disney character Donald Duck, and Gibbs usually calls him “Ducky” and is the only one who can call him “Duck” without raising Dr. Mallard’s ire.  Dr. Mallard is one of the only staff that addresses him as “Jethro”.  The two of them go back a long time, since Gibbs was new at NIS.  Even though they are extremely close, Gibbs has kept things from him, like Shannon and Kelly.

His next closest relationship is with the quirky, Goth forensic scientist Abigail “Abby” Sciuto (played wonderfully by the very attractive Pauley Perrette).  I must say that I have sort of a connexion with her as well, because for quite some time I lived in Metarie, LA whence her character is supposed to hail.  Perrette was actually born in New Orleans, so she plays the character well.  In the program, she is Gibbs’s favorite, probably because she reminds him of Kelly in a way.  He will often kiss her, and she often kisses him as well.  Not carnal ones, but chaste ones that still convey a huge emotional interdependence.  He usually calls her “Abs” and she always calls him “Gibbs”.

Gibbs is chauvinist.  He treats the females on his team differently than the males for the most part.  Whilst he is often somewhat gruff with the females, especially when they mess up, he is much more reserved with them for the most part.  His former team member, Caitlin Todd (Kate, played by Sasha Alexander, character killed early in the series) and Ziva David (played by Cote de Pablo) who replaced Kate get a bit more of the kid glove treatment than the men.

His relationship with Anthony DiNozzo (played well by Michael Weatherly), his senior field agent, is sort of paternal.  He is particularly stern with Tony, most likely because he looks at him as both a son and his eventual replacement.  Gibbs is prone to slap him on the back of the head to show his disapproval of Tony’s actions, and Tony has come to think of that as a gesture of affection, much like when he kisses Abby.

The same thing sort of goes with his relationship with the geek of the team, Timothy McGee (played by Sean Murray).  Interestingly, he is Donald Bellisario’s stepson.  Bellisario love nepotism, but Murry does a very good job and is a likable character.  Gibbs is a bit less aggressive with McGee than with DiNozzo, mostly because Gibbs is a good enough leader to recognize that different people have different leadership needs.

The same thing happened to me when I was a laboratory manager.  I had one fellow that was on my team who really needed to be abused, verbally (gently).  I had second thoughts about how I had treated him in the past and decided to be less harsh with him.  A couple of days later he flat out asked me what he had done to anger me.  When I told him that he had not, he responded that he thought that he must have offended me because I was not talking with him like I had previously.  So, I reverted to my previous treatment of him and all was well.

Gibbs has a problem with authority.  He often clashes with his superiors about how cases should be handled, and they know from experience that he is usually right and give him lots of leeway in conducting his investigations.  This is why he was not made Director when Jenny Shepard (played well by Lauren Holly) was murdered.  She once told someone that Gibbs was more effective than she was it handling politicians and other people who interfere, and when she was asked why he was not Director, she said, “He shoots them”.

Gibbs and Jenny had a sexual relationship back when they were both field agents in Europe, and it was awkward for both of them when she was named Director.  But they did work well together, but still had a strong emotional bond that was often evident.  That may be when he formulated his rule about not becoming involved with coworkers.

Speaking of rules, remember that Shannon started him doing that.  There are a plethora of them, and it seems that the producers of the program intentionally try to confuse us about which rule number means what.  We know the rules themselves, at least the most often used ones, but even after watching hundreds of hours of the program I can not associate a given rule with its number.  As I said, this may be intentional.  Someone compiled a partial list of them here

Such an elaborate set of rules are characteristic of someone with obsessive compulsive disorder.  Gibbs is very rigid and has to have things done just so.  He gets angry when his rules are not followed and expects every team member to abide by them.  However, sometimes even he violates them for as a means to an end.

I never was able to elaborate a set of rules for my own behavior, and perhaps I should have.  I might have saved a lot a people a lot of grief if I had not “winged it” during periods of temptation, too often to which I yielded with all to many disastrous results.  I never really sat down and formulated them.

See, Gibbs and I are almost polar opposites.  This may be why I am so attracted to and intrigued with this character.  Let us look at a bit of psychological speculation.

According to the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, I am idealistan .  My personality traits include, more than anything else, wanting harmony within a group, whether it is a couple or a workgroup.

Gibbs seems to be more of a guardian.  They tend to be very practical and have good organization skills.

I will not bore you with the details, but please read the links so that you can see where I am going.  This is important for the entire discussion.  Gibbs and I differ just in degree.  Whilst I am not sure that I believe everything that I understand about the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, both Gibbs and I have others’ best interest in mind and tend to be cooperative.  We differ in how we implement it, but the goals are similar.

The bottom line is that Gibbs is one of the most intriguing characters in recent TeeVee.  Fiercely loyal, he expects that loyalty back or he will not have much to do with anyone.  He is a very loving person, but since his wife and daughter were killed, he tries to find other channels for the love that exists within, and it is slowly driving him mad.  No one can take their place, and he subconsciously knows that.  Thus the three subsequent failed marriages and other relationships.  The only things that he can love now, without fear of loss, is NCIS and his team members, and it took him a long time to learn to trust them.

Like me, he loves deeply when he does love, but takes a long time to decide whether he can trust.  He has been so wrong, so many times in the past, that it takes a lot for him to learn to trust.  So have I.  Unlike my former incarnation, he never seems to have betrayed anyone.  That is a bit hard to swallow, because I think that everyone has their own selfishness get the better of them from time to time.

I know that this is only a character in a TeeVee show, but over the years the development has been one of the best specimens of character development in that medium.  Gibbs is deceptively simple, with his rules.  They hide a very complex and almost dysfunctional person who, without his work, his woodworking, and his Bourbon would certainly be quite mad.

My life is not full at present because I miss work.  Obviously I miss the money, but I miss making things happen.  I was an excellent manager and even better leader of people when I was in charge of things, and my team always succeeded.  In October I have the opportunity to file a motion to seal the disorderly conduct conviction from 2006 and hope to find not only gainful, but fulfilling employment soon thereafter.  This has been a real ordeal.  I do not do woodworking much, but my release is writing.

Since I first logged on to Daily Kos on 20060105 (before all of the trouble started), I have posted 750 pieces.  Some were flops, most were well accepted, and a few were really noted well in comments and recommendations.  Like Gibbs sanding with grain for relaxation, I write, sometimes against the grain, for relaxation and release.  I am not one to write and go away, either, because since that date I have posted 28267 comments.  I am in all the way.

Ironically, since I live in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, I do not drink Bourbon.  I do use it as a spice for a special Christmas treat that is a family legacy, but I can not remember the last time that I even sipped it.  If I want to sip spirits, a good Scotch is my favorite, room temperature with a glass of water on the side.

I know that this a quite different from may of my Popular Culture posts, but I was watching the two seminal installments of NCIS today, “Hiatus I” and “Hiatus II”.  Those two delve deeply into Gibbs’s psyche, and it got me to think about my own.  Any NCIS related comments are welcome, as well as comments about your favorite characters in any TeeVee show.

Oh, one last thing.  Donald Bellisario actually had a best friend named Leroy Jethro Gibbs.  I told you that he had a name fetish!

I have an appointment for a haircut just after I publish, so will be late to join in comments.  Hopefully, I shall be very late to join in comments.

Warmest regards,

Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith

Crossposted at

The Stars Hollow Gazette,

Daily Kos, and



  1. a silly personality analysis for a fictional character?

    Warmest regards,


  2. I appreciate it.

    Warmest regards,


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