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NCIS: Gibbs Rules

The Show

Leroy Jethro Gibbs is a fictional character, played by the actor Mark Harmon, and is the backbone of the American TV series “NCIS”. The TV show started in 2003 (as a spin off from another TV series “JAG”) and has continued for 12 seasons to 2015. With viewers numbering in excess of 20 million is has proved to be very popular, with two spin-off shows: “NCIS Los Angeles” and “NCIS New Orleans”.

The Character

Gibbs is an ex-gunnery sergeant from the US Marine Corps, now a key team commander for the Navy Criminal Investigative Service (a Federal Agency). He is named after his Father’s best friend and business partner (Leroy Jethro “LJ” Moore), is known as Leroy to his family and childhood friends, Jethro only to his closest adult friends and Gibbs (or “Boss”) to everyone else. He has a strong work ethic with a fierce degree of loyalty to the Corps, NCIS and his team (treating them more like his “kids”). He is a private individual, has been married 4 times and is the strong silent type – leading another character in the show to refer to him as a “functional mute.” Mark Harmon says he was attracted to the character “by (his) flaws. He has lousy taste in women. He’s addicted to coffee.”

The Personality

Disciplined, organized and demanding, his performance is exceptional creating awe from his team and a certain amount of “free-rein” given by his superiors. He is respected, has a no-nonsense approach to all things in life and dislikes technology (using members of the team to deal with it) and prefers people to “Give it to me in English”. There is a preference for things to be in clear and unambiguous disliking phrases like “maybe”, “perhaps”, “assuming”, “I think” etc. and using sarcasm like “Ya think?” He gives a trademark “head slap” to members of the team who perform poorly, get sidetracked or to refocus them. When asked why, his response was: “A slap to the face would be humiliating. Back of the head is a wake-up call.”

His stoic personality is enhanced by an effective steely gaze and cold silence – referred to by another character as having the ability to “cool a room by five degrees”. However, he is warm and kind hearted with anything he does being carried out with the noblest of motives in mind. Impatient with bureaucracy he is not adverse to ignore, bend or even break rules if necessary for the “right” results, even sometimes to permit “street justice”. Gibbs lost his first wife and only daughter when killed by a drug cartel and he exacts his own revenge by assassinating the killer.

Outside of work he lives a simple (almost austere) lifestyle, seemingly supported with his only luxuries of steak and bourbon. With an additional off grid cabin in the woods he drives a Ford F-250 pick up truck and has a reconditioned 1971 Dodge Challenger. He thinks and relaxes by woodworking, using only hand tools (no power tools), primarily to make boats. He is also fluent in Russian and can use sign language. Many think his personal rules come from his work or the marines but they originate from his first wife. When he first met her she said to him “Everyone needs a code they can live by.” After they were married he started writing his own code and now keeps these rules in a small tin at home.

The Rules

The fact is some of these rules have shared numbers, some rules and their numbers are missing (yet to be revealed) and some have been revealed but not their number. The producers say the doubling up of some of the rules was intentional although many believe they are the result of continuity errors (at least in the earlier shows), which may be explained in later episodes, as some have been. However, it does go to show it is a living breathing set of rules, with changes being made as required by the circumstances. Perhaps Gibbs is human after all – or maybe the scriptwriters are!

Rule 1: Never screw over your partner.

From Season 4, episode 14 “Blowback”. This rule is likely to be from Gibbs’ Marine days where the Corps motto of Semper Fidelis (always faithful) comes into play and where they are likely to work in pairs, particularly as a sniper team. This rule is also shared with another Rule No. 1: “Never let suspects stay together” - from Season 1, episode 1 “Yankee White”. This rule has been broken a few times and is likely to come from his NCIS work, see rule 2 below.

Rule 2: Always wear gloves at a crime scene.

From Season 1, episode 1 “Yankee White” and is unlikely to be a personal rule of Gibbs but one from his NCIS work. Gibbs’ first boss at NCIS was character Mike Franks who told Gibbs that he didn’t need dozens of rules but just the three golden ones. The speculation is this could account for 2 sets of rules with 1 set having NCIS connections and why there may be (or are) 2 rules for each of the first three rules! The producers have said they have yet to reveal the double up on rule 2.

Rule 3: Never be unreachable.

From Season 3, episode 13 “Deception”, however Gibbs has been known to intentionally break this rule on numerous occasions. This rule is also shared with another Rule No. 3: “Don't believe what you're told. Double check”, from Season 1, episode 1 “Yankee White”. This second rule No.3 is likely to be for his NCIS work, see Rule 2 above.

Rule 4: The best way to keep a secret? Keep it to yourself. Second best? Tell one other person - if you must. There is no third best.

From Season 4, episode 14 “Blowback”.

Rule 5: You don't waste good.

From Season 8, episode 22 “Baltimore”.

Rule 6: Never say you're sorry. It's a sign of weakness.

This rule is mentioned numerous times throughout the show, but is first “numbered” in Season 7, episode 12 “Flesh and Blood”. The rule is very similar to the phrase: “Never apologize, mister, it's a sign of weakness,” used by actor John Wayne in the 1949 film “She wore a yellow ribbon.” This is referred to in a later episode when another character in the show says he believes Gibbs got this rule from “the Duke himself”. Although this is the most often quoted rule, it is also the rule most often broken by Gibbs (over half a dozen times). In Season 4, episode 16 “Smoked” he even adds a caveat to the rule explaining “an apology isn't a sign of weakness if it's between friends.”

Rule 7: Always be specific when you lie.

From Season 1, episode 23 “Reveille”.

Rule 8: Never take anything for granted.

From Season 3, episode 10 “Probie” – the rule is also stated as: “Never assume” in Season 9, episode 21 “Rekindled”.

Rule 9: Never go anywhere without a knife.

From Season 1 episode 13 “One Shot, One Kill” – the rule also has some variations mentioned in the show, such as: "never leave home without a knife", "always carry a knife" etc. This phrase can be found in the 1903 book “The Riddle of the Sands” by Erskine Childers and is explained with the supporting comment “It was his seaman’s idea of efficiency”. It seems carrying a knife has been commonplace for sailors (since at least the 1800’s) and so is no surprise for a Marine to use this rule.

Rule 10: Never get personally involved in a case.

From Season 7, episode 21 “Obsession”, and Gibbs admits this is the rule he has most trouble with. In a later episode this rule is also referred to as the “number one rule in Washington politics”.

Rule 11: When the job is done, walk away.

From Season 6, episode 24 “Semper Fidelis”. In the book “Hidden Language Codes” by R. Neville Johnston this is described as: “the gift called “Duty Done. To leave people to marshal their own resources is an act of kindness.”

Rule 12: Never date a co-worker.

From Season 1, episode 15 “Enigma”. This has happened once before and it’s possible the rule was instigated as a result of Gibbs’ romantic relationship with the character Jenny Shepard (a previous probationary agent of his and a future NCIS Director).

Rule 13: Never, ever involve lawyers.

From Season 6, episode 7 “Collateral Damage”. According to another character, Gibbs has 6 other rules involving lawyers but, “You only need to know number 13; it's the umbrella one.” Gibbs has however broken this rule at least once before, to help an ex-mother-in-law.

Rule 14: Bend the line, don't break it.

From Season 11, episode 4 “Anonymous was a Woman”.

Rule 15: Always work as a team.

From Season 5, episode 5 “Leap of Faith”.

Rule 16: If someone thinks they have the upper hand, break it.

From Season 8, episode 24 “Pyramid”.

Rule 18: It's better to seek forgiveness than ask permission.

From Season 3, episode 4 “Silver War”.

Rule 20: Always look under.

From Season 12, episode 17 “The Artful Dodger”.

Rule 22: Never ever bother Gibbs in interrogation.

From Season 4, episode 10 “Smoked”.

Rule 23: Never mess with a Marine's coffee if you want to live.

From Season 2, episode 9 “Forced Entry”.

Rule 27: There are two ways to follow someone. First way, they never notice you. Second way, they only notice you.

From Season 7, episode 15 “Jack Knife”.

Rule 35: Always watch the watchers.

From Season 8, episode 22 “Baltimore”.

Rule 36: If you feel like you are being played, you probably are.

From Season 9, episode 1 “Nature of the Beast”.

Rule 38: Your case, your lead.

From Season 6, episode 16 “Bounce”.

Rule 39: There is no such thing as coincidence.

From Season 7, episode 21 “Obsession” – in a later episode another character quotes their own version of this as “Rule 39A there is no such thing as a small world”.

Rule 40: If it seems like someone is out to get you, they are.

From Season 7, episode 22 “Borderland”.

Rule 42: Never accept an apology from someone who just sucker punched you.

From Season 9, episode 16 “Psych Out”.

Rule 44: First things first, hide the women and children.

From Season 7, episode 23 “Patriot Down”.

Rule 45: Clean up the mess that you make.

From season 7, episode 24 “Rule Fifty-One” – the rule is also stated as “Never leave behind loose ends” in Season 3, episode 24 “Hiatus Part 2”.

Rule 51: Sometimes you're wrong.

From season 7, episode 24 “Rule Fifty-One” when it is written on the back of the card with Rule 13 on it, kept in the small tin at Gibbs’ home.

Rule 62: Always give people space when they get off an elevator.

From Season 11, episode 13 “Double Back”.

Rule 69: Never trust a woman who doesn't trust her man.

From Season 9, episode 7 “Devil’s Triangle”.

Unstated Rules

Rule 70

From Season 12, episode 5 “The San Dominick”, when the character McGee sits in Gibbs’ chair and Gibbs says “Really? Rule 70 McGee”. This suggests the rule might be something like “Never sit in Gibbs’s chair.”

Unnumbered Rules

A: Don't work the system when you can work the people.

From Season 1, episode 2 “Hung out to Dry”.

B: (In my country, on my team, working my cases, my people) Don't bypass the chain of command.

From Season 3, episode 5 “Switch”.

C: Never marry a woman that eats more than you do.

From Season 2, episode 9 “Forced Entry”.

D: If you want to find something, you follow it.

From Season 6, episode 15 “Deliverance”.

E: You do what you have to for family.

Referred to as the "Unsoken Rule", from Season 8, episode 1 “Spider and the Fly”.

Untraced Rules

We have encountered references to two other rules, mentioned on varying websites, but haven’t managed to trace them to any specific NCIS episode.

One: Don't stop checking and rechecking evidence until you are satisfied.

Two: Never second guess yourself in a relationship and life.

Can you shed any light on their origins?

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