Television

Berlin Is Still at It in 'The Blacklist'

Unlike weekly procedurals that wrap up everything with a bow, the knots tied in The Blacklist are entwined on frayed ribbon that runs the risk of falling apart.


The Blacklist

Airtime: Mondays, 10pm ET
Cast: James Spader, Megan Boone, Diego Klattenhoff, Donald Ressler and Harry Lennix
Subtitle: Season Two Premiere
Network: NBC
Creator: Jon Bokenkamp
Air date: 2014-09-22
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Someone is after Red (James Spader). Someone is always after Red. And so again, on 22 September, The Blacklist's Season Two launched into a wild gun battle between insurgents in Cameroon firing at an armored vehicle from a machine gun mounted in the back of jeep. Red lay on the floor, seeming the victim, finally, of his past and his arrogance.

But his arrogance iw just getting started. He actually wants to be found in order to discover who else is looking for him. After a couple of hellfire missiles, he accomplishes that mission and also torches three million dollars with the tip of a lit cigar. So much for the opening four minutes.

At the same time, Elizabeth (Megan Boone) is playing her version of Homeland’s Carrie Matheson, complete with underwear, gun, and wall of evidence. We soon learn that she’s been living in hotel rooms under a number of aliases, trying to stay out of Berlin’s (Peter Stormare) crosshairs.

Big Data

This episode isn’t about resolving anything for Keen. It's more about how our technical world has turned all of us into potential targets. Red explains early on that as much we complain about the NSA, we willingly we give our intimate details to “big data". This is all very top of mind for the audience, given Home Depot's recent security breach, which may have compromised some 56 million credit cards, only the latest in a number of similar hacking attacks.

And so The Blacklist, through “Lord Baltimore”, a tracker who uses big data to build profiles of people whom other people want found, explores the next existential threat to our technically reliant lifestyles. The show makes the point as data mining tools transform mundane ones and zeros on servers into targets on people’s heads. Israel’s Mossad are tge first data miners to get to Reddington; they take an unusual approach, making their tracking exceptionally visual, in the form of a tracking tool around Red’s neck.

To reinforce the image, several characters in the first bureau scene spout off about the deep web, data analytics, and data mining. Street cred is established. Throughout the episode, in a very unsettling way, dots are connected: tracking markers in ties, drugs people take, World War II documentaries we're watching on Netflix, subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal and Cat Fanatic.

Once any profile is built, searches bring together data that triangulates to the target. Enough circles and the center of the Venn Diagram gets pretty small. Given our current world, it may be fitting that The Blacklist centers on the tension we all feel about the access we want and what we must give up to get that access. It's an apt metaphor, as well, for a central character who is giving up so much for what we can only guess will be an uneasy peace.

Antifragile

To continue along the information superhighway, we also learn that human brains are as much information machines as computers, and equally susceptible to programming and bugs.

Brains as computers applies as much for the rather bifurcated “Lord Baltimore” as it does for self-medicating Detective Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff). The two characters face very different psychological disturbances and equally diverse forms of resilience. Baltimore’s alter ego, Rowan Mills (Krysten Ritter), and Ressler also represent different aspects of what Nassim Taleb calls “antifragile” in his book Antifragile. Some things, he argues, like brains and muscles, don't shatter under stress, but instead gain strength.

Perhaps this theory will be tested in the season to come, as Keen and Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) might manifest their antifragile natures.

Hurting Red

It turns out that the primary head targeted by Berlin and Baltimore belongs to Mary Louise Parker. She's not just a close Reddington associate but, we are informed, she's also his former wife. Parker's Naomi Highland has been living in protective custody for years, and neither her new husband nor friends have any clue about her past life until a US Marshall shows up in the kitchen, followed by bad guys who eventually abduct her.

This plot point reveals that Berlin isn’t only looking to harm Reddington directly, but to do so through the people he cares about. As Kahn so memorably put it in Star Trek II, Berlin wants to hurt Reddington and keep on hurting him.

Uncertainty

Unlike weekly procedurals that wrap up everything with a bow, the knots tied in The Blacklist are entwined on frayed ribbon that runs the risk of falling apart later in the season at the most inopportune times. Berlin is just revving his revenge engine and Naomi has barely revealed herself. And of course, there will be new associates to track, and killers to track down.

Among all the death and destruction, there is, on Monday, one moment of television cheer, complete with applause, Cooper returns from his convalescence to lead the team and relieve a couple of guest stars of future work. It's good to know a boss you trust has your back. That's a moment of comfort in an uncertain world.

One thing is for certain: the most disturbing scene in the episode involved Berlin’s reaction to increased expenses on his search for Highland. As a consultant, I fill out many expense reports. I hope none of my clients ever finds it necessary to slam my head into a porcelain clawfoot bathtub and nearly drown me to make their point. That would certainly test my antifragility.

8

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Essayist Brian Phillips is no staunch empiricist, nor does he want to shatter delusions or expose machinations. In Impossible Owls, he is content to remain in a wide-eyed and owl-ier place.

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