James Spader Runs the World in ‘The Blacklist’

“Everything about me is a lie.” That’s how Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader) describes himself early in The Blacklist. The funny thing is that, like so much of what Red says, we are inclined to believe it.

The pilot opens with Red walking into an FBI building to turn himself in. He is a former government operative who went rogue, selling information to the highest bidder for years. His criminal activities landed him on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, and he avoided capture because he’s that smart. All of which is to set up that now, Red’s not surrendering due to a sudden urge to clear his conscience. He’s looking to settle some scores.

To that end — as well as to endear him to viewers — Red doesn’t lie so much as he withholds. He is very straightforward about having prepared a list of reprehensible criminals on whom he wants to exact revenge, dubbing it The Blacklist. But just why he thinks working from within FBI custody is the best way to achieve his retaliation is unclear. What is clear, pretty much immediately, is the value of his intelligence for authorities looking to close cases. Red delivers proof that an international terrorist the FBI thought was dead is actually in the US and plans to set off a chemical weapon in DC. Let the cat and mouse game begin.

As that last phrase suggests, the show is prone to clichés. Foremost among them is that Red insists that he will only talk with one agent, rookie profiler Liz Keen (Megan Boone). Like Lecter and other odious masterminds before him, he has reasons for such a demand, reasons he won’t share for now. The fact that it is Liz’s first day on the job only adds to our feeling that we’ve seen this before. Add to that her tragic past and struggle with the idea of starting her own family. We meet her talking to her husband Tom (Ryan Eggold) about an appointment with an adoption agency that afternoon. In a bit of clunky dialogue the viewer suspects was meant to be funny, Liz actually says, “You know I’m not going to let this job come between us and our family.” Yeah, right. A few scenes later, her newfound entanglement with Red has made her miss the adoption appointment.

Already, our interest in The Blacklist depends on Red’s underlying motivations, even if or because we don’t know them. They’d better be intricate and compelling. Unspoken, they underlie the scenes between Red and Liz, obviously evoking those between Lecter and Clarice. Liz also seems a bit unbalanced, willing to stab Red in the neck when he pushes her too far, which brings to mind the possibility that she might reach the complex depths of another similar figure, Carrie on Homeland.

That these relationships set young women alongside men with more experience, or more brutal experience, makes them more traditional than new, but they also speak to current social and political anxieties, having to do with gender and sex, of course, but also with power and perception.

This relationship structures the plot specifics as well as such broad and sometimes obvious thematics. By the end of the pilot, it is clear that Red is playing a long game and Liz is key to his plans. An intriguing twist suggests her involvement in his scheme is more complicated than the setup suggests, but we knew that. Moreover, she may also be more complicated than Red anticipates, which might make the introduction of this so familiar dynamic more a point of departure than a retread. That will be helpful because, based on the first episode, The Blacklist‘s plot makes little sense. It involves Red kidnapping a general’s very young daughter and then using her as a bomb delivery mechanism: the elaborate maneuver is too unnecessarily risky to be the product of a supposed criminal mastermind.

The Blacklist also suffers from the same affliction that troubles so many so-called thrillers, which is to say, the bad guys seem to be operating with near omniscience while the FBI agents sometimes lack even basic common sense. After taking the little girl into protective custody, the dozen or so agents transporting her to safety drive onto a bridge where a team of workers claims there is a hazardous materials spill. This doesn’t raise any suspicions among the supposedly experienced agents until the guns come out. All the viewer can think is that every car in America has GPS these days, but the FBI can’t spot a fake traffic stop. Such missteps needn’t detour The Blacklist, however, as long as Red and Liz remain at odds and in league.

RATING 7 / 10