‘NCIS’: How Long Did It Take to Get Cote de Pablo to Return as Ziva?

When Ziva David (Cote de Pablo) appeared at the top of the steps to Gibbs’ (Mark Harmon) basement in the season 16 finale of NCIS last spring, millions of cries of “I knew it” rang out in front of TVs, computer screens, iPads and wherever else the show was being watched. 

Turns out the NCIS showrunners knew about de Pablo’s return for about a year, having planted the seed when Eleanor Bishop (Emily Wickersham) uncovered Ziva’s note that confirmed she was alive but in hiding for her family’s safety. 

How did ‘NCIS’ crack the case to bring back Ziva?

Cote de Pablo as Ziva David on 'NCIS.'
Cote de Pablo as Ziva David on NCIS. | Cliff Lipson/CBS via Getty Images

De Pablo left the show in 2013, frustrating many a fan. And while the actress didn’t say so at the time, she was frustrated with the quality of the scripts.

For her, they were making Ziva too passive. However, she said if the writers came up with a compelling storyline, she might be persuaded to return.  Lo and behold, they have. Showrunners Steven D. Binder and Frank Cardea told CarterMatt the ball got rolling in the episode “She,” which aired last February. 

Cardea – The latter quarter of last year … We started talking about that story where Bishop picked up an old Ziva case.

Binder – Does Ziva make an appearance there? We just started talking about it. We lit the fuse. It was a long fuse, and eventually it led to what you saw.

That opened up discussions with de Pablo, who, happily for NCIS, didn’t want to make a one-and-done reappearance. She wanted Ziva’s return to mean something, so she agreed to a multi-episode arc. She’s appearing in the first two episodes, then two more episodes in the back half of the season. 

How will the rest of Ziva’s return play out? 

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We saw in the season premiere of season 17 that Ziva has changed a great deal since we last saw her, and not in ways that are conducive to being a secret agent — especially an ex-agent trying to stay undercover for the sake of her daughter. She suffers from a variation of post-traumatic stress disorder and takes anxiety medication, but the risk there is it makes her less alert. 

She’s also less apt to listen to Harmon’s Gibbs, who is still processing her reappearance while ducking bullets immediately after their reunion. He objects to her refusing any NCIS assistance, and she accuses him of leaving her for dead. 

The CarterMatt interviewer asks Cardea and Binder how that conflict will be handled. They said: 

Cardea – We address that, certainly, within the first two episodes.

Binder – We’re going to address those things. That is the question, how you presented it. It’s not something incidental; it is a core feature.

What about Tony and Tali?

We saw both Tony (Michael Weatherly) and Tali in flashback scenes in the “previously on NCIS” recap at the top of the premiere, and both were mentioned in the new episode. Although it remains a mystery whether we will see one or both of them in the latter two episodes in which Ziva will appear. Weatherly has said he would like to reappear on NCIS, although freeing him from his Bull schedule could prove tricky. 

Of the future Ziva episodes, Binder said: “We do have it all planned out — not everything is written just yet. One thing I’ll say, and this is coming more as a parent than a showrunner, is that there’s no force out there that is going to keep a parent from their child.”

We can see that in the preview for Episode 2, which indicates that Ziva may have “turned bad” and NCIS agents are directed to arrest her on sight. We have a funny feeling that’s now how Ziva’s story will ultimately play out.