An Overcrowded Episode Shows 'The Blacklist' Is Exhausted
"Natalie Luca (No. 184)" suffers from too many twists that don't compel viewers, and Red prepares himself for death -- or just practices for a poetry slam.
The BlacklistAirtime: Thursdays, 10pm
Cast: James Spader, Elizabeth Lail, Ryan Eggold, Megan Boone
Subtitle: Season 4, Episode 12 - "Natalie Luca (No. 184)"
Air date: 2016-02-02
Writers Noah Schechter and Jon Bokenkamp stuffed this week's episode of The Blacklist with too many moving parts. The episode's villain, Natalie Luca (Elizabeth Lail), carries a deadly virus that kills people within moments of being touched. She survives an outbreak, goes to a research company, and they treat her as a petri dish for a biological weapon. While there, she falls for a young intern, Malik Roumain (RJ Brown). After discovering she's the raw material for a biological weapon, the pair escape.
Roumain tries to isolate the enzyme that protects Luca to infect himself. To pay for the medical equipment, the two work as assassins. She pops up on Red's (James Spader) radar when she kills his accountant, and Red uses the FBI task force to find her. The FBI locates her house, causing her to kill again. She goes to a high stakes poker game and gets caught. The biological firm kidnaps her. Roumain tries to save her and dies trying. The FBI then captures all the players in the biological firm. All this is only the main plot.
In addition, Red recruits Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold) to flush out the person he believes may have been behind the murder of his accountant and the theft of his money. They visit another criminal, and fake his death to bait the original criminal they want to meet. A meeting is arranged, and Red comes in to confront the other guy.
As if that wasn't enough, Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) becomes deeply disappointed and says some snarky morally condescending things, which apparently is something she now does in every episode. Finally, agent Samar Navabi (Mozhan Marnò) discovers that agent Aram Mojtabai (Amir Arison) makes more money than she does. A fight ensues. Mojtabai does something absurdly chivalrous. Agent Navabi finds out. Confronts him, and seems to taunt his blind devotion to her.
Needless to say, there's a lot of telling, and not much showing going on in "Natalie Luca". For the most part, the rapid plotting of the episode distracts the audience enough to overlook many of the episode's absurdities and contrivances.
Two oddities stood out among the melee. With "Natalie Luca", the writers seemed to confuse sympathetic with justifiable. Rhetorically, Red slipped into several moments of poetic pontification, which were just as awkward and out of place as that last sentence.
Luca is a modern-day Typhoid Mary. The character's conceit -- being able to kill people instantly with a single touch -- can be written one of two ways. If written as a sociopath, her condition makes her a brilliant villain. She can kill with a simple brush of flesh. If written as a cursed individual, her condition dooms her to a life without physical contact. (A very similar dynamic played out between Charlotte "Chuck" Charles (Anna Friel) and Ned (Lee Pace), in Bryan Fuller's Pushing Daisies). Unfortunately, the writers do both. Instead of seeming complex and paradoxical, the two contradictions undermine each other.
While forced, the show offers a nice parallel in two scenes. Halfway through the episode, Roumain extends his hands to Luca. Her hand hovers over his and the two recite a poem.
"I take your hand in mine, and I pull you close, and I feel your breath against my skin, and I kiss you -- the two of us forever."
It may be contrived, but the moment does illustrates how doomed their love is. Near the end of the episode, Roumain gets shot. As he lies on the ground, they grab each other's hand and recite the same poem before he dies. Very touching, except for the part where she's killed several people in the episode just to secure money.
If the characters' backstory had been more developed and nuanced, they could have possibly found a better way to handle the contradiction. The easiest, and admittedly, most clichéd device they could've used would be to have her only kill criminals and steal their money. The same device was used in the series previous episode, involving an all-female gang of thieves. Instead, in one of the robberies, Luca kills two armored car security guards, only because she needed more money. The writers try to resolve this conflict by her expressing remorse after each kill. Unfortunately, feeling bad about killing doesn't mitigate the crime.
Schechter and Bokenkamp want us to believe that in the entire menu of life options given to Luca, she only had two choices: be a slave to a biological weapons concern or be a serial killer. It’s a shame, because Lail seems to be quite talented at conveying nuance in her performance. Near the end, when the FBI traps her, she calls out "Malik". Lail modulates her voice just enough to make it sound like the call of a desperate child. Just this slight change of pitch and modulation adds a layer of complexity to their relationship. Ultimately, her character seemed like a lost opportunity. If the writers culled out some of the plot twists and just concentrated on the villain, the episode would have been much better.
The second oddity was Red's descent into angst-filled ruminations on his own mortality. Red has always loved the sound of his own voice. For the most part, Spader has enough skill at treating syllables like dance steps to engage the audience. Occasionally, he goes off into liberal political rants, which may get tiring, but at least they're usually short. For the most part, however, Spader can invest the most clumsy and stressed metaphor with interest. Until this episode, at least, when Red's rants finally reached the slam poet level of self-involvement or linguistic contrivance.
It seems like all this may be leading The Blacklist to its conclusion. The series weathered a bad half season before, but this time, all the characters seem tired. Each character's intriguing quirk has devolved into an irritating flaw. There are five or six different relationships where the characters are constantly reprimanding and capitulating to others. It's starting to feel like a WWE feud that's gone on way too long. You can only have so many final score settling matches before the audience gives up on the idea of the score ever being settled.