The Blacklist: Season 3, Episode 5 - "Arioch Cian"
The Blacklist attempts to raise the stakes with a Donald Trump double-step that's both ineffective and offensive.
The BlacklistAirtime: Thursdays, 9 pm
Cast: James Spader, Megan Boone, Paul Reubens, Edi Gathegi
Subtitle: Season 3, Episode 5 - "Arioch Cian"
Air Date: 2015-10-29
“Oh, big, big mistake. Really huge. Didn't anyone ever tell you? There's one thing you never put in a trap. If you're smart, if you value your continued existence, if you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there is one thing you never, ever put in a trap.”
-- The Doctor, Doctor Who
In many ways, The Blacklist has been on the air long enough to face similar problems as the BBC sci-fi serial series Doctor Who: what constitutes a tangible, credible threat to the series protagonist? Like the good Doctor, every time Raymond 'Red' Reddington (James Spader) escapes a dire predicament, his aura of invincibility increases. Thus, midway through the third season, there are few scenarios in which the writers can position our hero where the audience feels he’s threatened. No threat, no suspense.
This dynamic applies, to a lesser extent, to his partner Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). We know that The Blacklist is, essentially, the story of Red and Lizzie. It would be shocking if either one were to die.. So, in the climax of this week’s episode, the audience knows that they’ll somehow extricate themselves from their situation when they are captured at the end of the episode. In “Arioch Cain”, director Alex Zakrzewski, creator Jon Bokenkamp, and writer Dawn DeNoon seem very aware of this dynamic, and unfortunately come up with an unseemly device that ratchets up the tension.
After they’re captured, Solomon (Edi Gathegi) orders his henchmen to drag Elizabeth Keen to a table. Then they proceed to hold her down. The implication is that he and his men are going to rape Keen as Red watches. It’s a rather shocking moment to have the prelude of a rape featured prominently in a prime time drama.
Zakrzewski, Bokenkamp, and DeNoon deal with the aforementioned risk and reward by writing a potential rape into the episode. The risks are several and fairly evident. First, it is highly inappropriate for a majority of the audience; it’s not a scene that most parents would want their kids to watch, never mind watch themselves. Second, it undermines the whole theme of the show. The Blacklist is essentially an escapist fantasy, a universe where absurdly beautiful men and women have adventures. Inserting rape into the framework is a bit too stark an intrusion of real life.
On the other hand, there were some benefits to using a pending rape as a plot device. First, it worked. It was the most uneasy moment in the series this year. Keen would still be alive, so it’s a plausible way of threatening her without sacrificing her character. The threat being real for a brief moment, the suspense was real.
Second, every great hero needs an equal and opposite villain. While it’s a lazy device, it’s a way to pitch Solomon against Reddington by starkly differentiating two similar characters. The two characters share several qualities: both are dashing and dapper dandies, psychotically disinterested in human life, and calm under pressure. Solomon’s latent sadism contrasts well against Red’s sociopathic Machiavellism. Red dispassionately kills people. Solomon enjoys the pain he authors.
Unfortunately, after risking the introduction of rape into the plot, the episode attempts to back away. Right before the situation is resolved, Solomon intervenes and indicates his intention isn’t to rape Keen, just kill her in a sadistic manner. During this monologue, he caresses her clothes with a knife. So -- Keen was never actually going to be raped. However, the knife play is way too sexualized -- making the scene creepier.
More importantly, the scene feels like a Donald Trump two-step. After using the threat of rape to challenge the audience, the producers immediately step back. The only thing worse than offensive television is television that looks to be offensive, and lacks the power of conviction to offend. For all its escapist flair, The Blacklist ought to be above such cheap tricks.