'NCIS' Bosses Say Ziva's Story Goes 'Full Circle' in Season 17: It Is an Emotional 'Bookend' (Exclusive)

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With Cote de Pablo back in the NCIS fold, the anticipation for the new season is high. 

"There was so much excitement during our last episode, just having Cote come back," executive producer Frank Cardea tells ET of de Pablo's epic surprise return in the season 16 finale. "It was great for everybody to see her and we pulled off a surprise we were hoping to pull off, so that invigorated us." 

In the season opener, titled "Out of the Darkness," de Pablo's Ziva David cryptically warns Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) that he is in danger, prompting him to question why she remained underground for the last several years while allowing him and key members of the NCIS team believe she was dead. The intense season 17 trailer reveals the former colleagues running away from explosions and surprise attacks, as they run from a dangerous woman named Zahar, who has deep connections to Ziva's past. De Pablo is currently slated to appear in five episodes. (To hear what de Pablo had to say about returning as Ziva after a five-year absence, read the actress' ET interview.)

For Cardea and fellow executive producer Steven D. Binder, the upcoming season of NCIS marks a historic achievement for the long-running CBS procedural. The series will reach the rare 400-episode milestone toward the end of the season. For the co-showrunners, the series' longevity is due largely to Harmon. 

"We still pinch ourselves every day that we have this fan base that continues to follow the show. that we've done as well in season 16 as the show did in seasons five or six," Cardea says. "It's something that we are very grateful for and do not take for granted. A lot of it is a great testament to Mark Harmon. He is the leader of this family and he takes that responsibility very seriously."

Binder echoed the sentiment, adding, "Everything flows down from Mark in that he sets the tone and we follow and encourage and live the kind of workplace that he set for us." Ahead of Tuesday's premiere, ET spoke with Cardea and Binder about welcoming de Pablo back into the fold, if they've had discussions with Michael Weatherly about a cameo ("We like surprises") and the repercussions of Ziva's resurrection. 

ET: Before we get into the upcoming season, I want to ask you about pulling off Cote de Pablo's surprise return in the finale. How early in the process did you know there was going to be a real chance Cote would be back for a significant amount of time?

Frank Cardea: We had a couple of months head start. We approached Cote about maybe five episodes before the end of the season and started talking to her about it. We had a couple of meetings and it all went well.

Steven D. Binder: Cote, the staff, Frank and I, we were all in agreement that we didn't want to have Cote first and the story second. The story needed to be something that merited the return of this character and wasn't just a cheap publicity shot. We, as a staff, spent quite a bit of time trying to find a story that fit. We wanted it to be full. We wanted to use the show's DNA, something that touched on Cote's entire run on the show -- from the circumstances of her first arriving on the show to things that happened with the character throughout the show. We wanted to use that as the raw material. We had one final meeting with Cote where we discussed these things and whether it was something that she was interested in, and you know the answer to that. It was story first, Cote second.

The character of Ziva David has had an interesting history on NCIS. A few years ago, it was presumed Ziva had died in a mortar blast, which we now obviously know isn't true. Before the decision was made to resurrect the character, did you always believe Ziva was alive all this time? 

Binder: This is coming from me as a TV consumer and not a TV producer: If I don't see the body exploded in front of me, they're not necessarily dead. 

Cardea: When Cote left the show, it was a conscious decision not to show the body, not to have DNA proof, just to keep that door open for the future. We didn't know it would be that far in the future at that time. The time seemed right for us and, I think, for Cote, and it all worked out.

Can you set the table for the season 17 premiere?

Binder: A lot of time has gone by. Things have changed about how Ziva feels about her former life, about the people in her former life. She's got a lot of issues that need to be resolved that may or may not necessarily get resolved in the way you'd expect. And, it's a procedural show but it's always about the characters and about the emotions of the characters. 

Cardea: And likewise, while she was gone, the person closest to her, Gibbs, has changed a lot too. They explore a lot of that in the first couple of episodes.

How has Ziva and Gibbs' relationship shifted or evolved over these last few years?

Binder: I have a daughter and imagine if I hadn't spoken to my daughter in five years and then, there she was. There would be some profound things to have to work out between us as a result of whatever reason caused the absence, and the absence itself. If you think of it in terms of that dynamic, you have a father who hasn't seen his daughter in five years under a circumstance that's less than ideal. And suddenly, they're thrust together. It's not necessarily, "Hey, Dad, how are you doing? It's been a while. We should have lunch." They've been forced back together again.

Cardea: As you can tell by the teasers we've run, they're in serious jeopardy. A lot of this plays out against the backdrop of great tension and jeopardy.

Binder: Family therapy with bin Laden on your a**.

NCIS
CBS

In the trailer, Ziva mentions there is a woman, Zahar, who is after her. What can you say about this character and her looming presence?

Binder: It's a name you haven't heard before, so that's new. But the world in which Zahar has moved and the relevancy of that world to Ziva is not new. It goes back almost to the beginning.

With Ziva back in the fold, a lot of old emotions and feelings resurface with members of the NCIS team, most notably McGee (Sean Murray), Vance (Rocky Carroll) and Ducky (David McCallum). How does the rest of the team feel about her reemergence?

Cardea: For McGee, she was like a sister to him, and we explore that relationship in the first and second episodes. He is profoundly moved when he finds out she's alive.

Binder: And that Bishop (Emily Wickersham), his other little sister, knew and didn't tell him.

Cardea: Bishop had a hint at the end of last season that Ziva might be alive. The fact that she kept that from everybody is played out. All the emotions are explored.

Binder: When you're constructing these episodes, we always want to tell a story. But there were so many elements. How could you not address that in an episode? Bishop knew and McGee is going to find out she knew. Did Gibbs know? Did Jimmy (Brian Dietzen) know? It's a very complicated square of feelings and emotions that everyone has with everyone. That's played out in the backdrop of both the episodes.

Cote is back for a handful of episodes this season. Is the door open where she could appear in more episodes this season? Has that been something you've had conversations about?

Binder: I will say that, because we're in the middle of the season and moving fast, all of these things are planned out far in advance. So, our plan right now is our plan. We've always been a show that thinks quickly on our feet and adapts to change, so I can't give you anything definitive except that we've planned ahead and yet we're also very nimble. If the opportunity presents itself, which it often does in this show...

Many times we're cruising to the last four episodes and creating our world because things have changed and we're changing what we're doing. We have a plan right now and it could change. Or it may not. We'll see how the reception is and what our writers come up with if... watching [these episodes] sparks new ideas. But, we're a fluid, nimble show for sure.

With Cote's arrival, naturally, the character of Tony DiNozzo is going to be brought up. Are you looking to address what happened there? Have you talked to Michael Weatherly about possibly making a cameo?

Cardea: Not to dodge your question, but we were pretty successful keeping Cote's appearance last year a secret. We like surprises -- and I'm not saying one way or the other. It's still a little bit off, but it's nothing that we really want to comment on right now.

Was there a lingering question with Ziva that was at the top of your list that you knew you had to answer this season?

Binder: When she left, she left a child behind -- and she left that child with Tony. So there are definitely questions there. Where has she been? Who knows what?

Cardea: Something that Steve said earlier, a lot of the story we tell goes all the way back to the very beginning of Ziva. We're going back to that history.

Are you looking at Ziva's journey this season as a full-circle moment?

Binder: Yes, as a matter of fact. There will be a very large full circle when all is said and done. It will be emotionally obvious. It will be for a lot of characters, not just Ziva. There's a big bookend here. When you see the B-side, you will know instantly what the A-side was.

What else can you preview for the upcoming season?

Cardea: Some of our other characters are going to go find out new things about each other, certainly Kasie (Diona Reasonover), who is the newest member of our cast. We also advance the relationships amongst our existing characters.

Binder: We're keeping our eye on Bishop and Torres (Wilmer Valderrama). We've gone down this path once before and if we go down it again, we want to make sure that it's worth going down. But we're definitely spending a lot of time thinking about it. We also hope to have some surprises in store for you. We had a season finale that set the bar high. We're working hard to try and top ourselves.

Because the finale was such an amazing surprise for fans, how are you going to top it?

Binder: I think we got it. 

Cardea: Another big milestone for us will be towards the end of our season. We're going to hit episode 400, which is rarefied air for a network show. It's truly rarefied air. 

You'll be planning something special for the milestone?

Binder: There isn't a lot of trail in front of us to take inspiration from on this subject. I think there are only six primetime shows that have ever done this. Not that I'm counting.

NCIS returns Tuesday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

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