Actress Cote de Pablo attends the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' 22nd Annual Hall of Fame Induction Gala at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 11, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
NCIS fans may have mixed feelings after Tuesday's episode.
Many will get what they have long wanted -- a passionate kiss between agents Ziva David and Tony DiNozzo - but it will come at a price, as last season's most-watched series (CBS, 8 p.m. ET/PT) says goodbye to the former Mossad operative and the actress who's played her for eight seasons, Cote de Pablo.
Michael Weatherly, who plays DiNozzo, says he and de Pablo didn't need to stretch too far to convey the feelings of their characters, as they parted on an airport tarmac halfway around the world, echoing the final scene of the classic film Casablanca.
"Her eyes were filled with emotion and tears, as were mine, for the whole evening," Weatherly says. "It was cathartic, to say the least."
Executive producer Gary Glasberg reconfigured the season's start into a two-parter after de Pablo's summer decision not to return. (De Pablo declined an interview request.) He wove Ziva's farewell, after Tony travels to Israel to find her, into the aftermath of a Season 10 cliffhanger that ended with NCIS team leader Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) aiming a sniper's rifle at friend and FBI agent Tobias Fornell (Joe Spano).
"I couldn't do it in one episode," Glasberg says, explaining why the character was absent in last week's season premiere. Tuesday's episode "delivers what you want from Gibbs and then you have this enormous story line of Tony and Ziva ... that hopefully leaves people having an understanding of what's driven Ziva, gets to the crux of their relationship and leaves them in an interesting place as well."
There are no plans for de Pablo to come back, but Glasberg doesn't rule out a return. "Ziva's not dead."
With Ziva gone, Tony, Gibbs and the other members of the NCIS investigative team, including McGee (Sean Murray), Abby (Pauley Perrette) and Ducky (David McCallum), will adjust as NCIS gets back to some more traditional episodes that feature the team using Twitter to help solve a case (Oct. 8); an emotional story involving Gibbs' mentor Mike Franks (Muse Watson) on Oct. 15; and a flashback look at Tony before he was a Baltimore detective (Oct. 22).
Ralph Waite and Robert Wagner will return as Gibbs' and Tony's fathers, respectively, and the search for the terrorist ringleader Parsa will continue, too.
Weatherly is interested in how Tony will respond to a squad room without Ziva and the corresponding emotional push-and-pull. (The characters kissed to maintain their undercover identity as a couple in an earlier episode.).
"What the departure of Ziva has done to this team is that it has strengthened the connections between all of us," Weatherly says. "Tony and McGee become much closer, and Tony and Gibbs have had some pretty deep discussions about moving on and moving ahead."
NCIS in November will introduce Bishop (Emily Wickersham), an NSA analyst who could become a regular character.
"My intention is not to replace Ziva, but I can introduce a character who is unique and quirky and fun, and hopefully people will embrace her and feel like she is a new element to this group and a new part of moving it forward," Glasberg says.
There could be plenty of time for a new character to develop, since the 11th-season crime drama, known for its heavy helping of humor, is still going strong, averaging 21.6 million viewers last season and topping 20 million with last week's premiere. The franchise, which also includes the popular NCIS: Los Angeles, might grow, too, with Glasberg and Harmon working on two spring NCIS episodes that could become the basis for a spinoff series set in New Orleans.
"New Orleans is basically a magnet for military personnel to come and blow off steam on leave. With having a good time comes trouble," Glasberg says. "It's a wonderful, colorful, quirky backdrop."