Even at its worst, The Blacklist never seemed lazy. Until now.
The BlacklistAirtime: Thursdays, 10pm
Cast: James Spader, Megan Boone, Susan Blommaert, Ulrich Thomsen
Subtitle: Season 4, Episode 4 - "Gaia"
Air date: 2016-10-13
Up to this week, The Blacklist's nadir was the second half of season two, but this week’s installment, "Gaia", has set a new low bar for the series. (The credited writer was Peter Noah; he's also credited as a consulting producer.) Even at its worst, the series never came across as lazy. Until now. On almost every level -- choice of villain, plot, dialogue, and visual effects -- the episode came off as at best generic and the product of a boilerplate, and at worst, insulting to its loyal fans.
The episode begins a graphic scene of an unidentified man pulling a bloody four-inch wad of cotton out of his nose. Then he goes and kills a chubby mechanic at a party. No explanation is given, which makes sense in retrospect, as during the rest of the episode, not only did I know what was happening, I knew what was going to happen. The opening title flashes and we get a scene where titular character Raymond "Red" Reddington (James Spader) explains to Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) who this week's baddy is going to be: eco-terrorist Gaia (Louis Cancelmi). The eco-terrorist trope is becoming a fairly good canary for a series nearing its narrative death.
Red's effete, gratuitous storytelling encourages the watchability of the scene, at least until the end of the episode, where the audience realizes that a third of the plot line could have been avoided. Red only provides the code name "Gaia", refusing to tell Liz how he's connected to series current archenemy Alexander Kirk (Ulrich Thomsen). It turns out that Kirk's doctor, Dr. Sebastian Reifler (Matt Servitto) is also treating Gaia's son, Skyler Ayers (Silas Pereira-Olsen). Now, if Red knows the patient list of Dr. Reifler, then he certainly knows Gaia's name is Owen Ayers. So why not just tell Liz? Apparently, because the writer needed to fill a few minutes by having the team figure out Gaia's identity.
This becomes a repeated theme, except the laziness is evident as the scene is playing out. These make for three of the series, let alone the episode's, weakest moments. The first comes when the team figures out that Ayers is acting as an inspector to gain access to Stone Park nuclear plant in Westchester, New York. On hearing the news, leader Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) dispatches his two most bad-ass agents -- Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff) and Samar Navabi (Mozhan Marnò) -- to Westchester to intercept him, at which point viewers throughout the country no doubt ask "Why didn"t he just tell the local police?" The answer: lazy writing.
To be fair, when Ressler and Navabi show up, they chase down said bad guy when he gets into a pick-up truck and speeds off, with Ressler and Navabi in hot pursuit. This provokes two questions. First, why was there a truck parked right outside the door? Second, how do Ressler and Navabi get back to their car, which I assume is in the parking lot, and then get within 30 seconds of the fleeing eco-terrorist in less than 15 seconds? Lazy writing.
The scene ends with three local police cutting off Gaia's escape. He tries to reverse out, only to be stopped by Ressler and Navabi. Now at this point, the episode's only poking the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. Then, all of the cars stop, and Ressler and Navabi get out, only to have Gaia ram two of the police cars, breaking the blockade and escaping. No shot is fired. Never mind that an episode minute earlier, these same two FBI agents were able to use their transporter beam to get to the parking lot, and now can't be bothered to walk ten feet to get back into their car and pursue him. The scene ends up being the equivalent of writer Noah pouring a bucket of ice water on the viewer's ability to suspend disbelief and yelling, "Wake up!"
After the bad guy escapes, the team works out Gaia's evil plan, which is to coordinate an accident at the plant with a supermoon. This is an event that happens every 18 years, in which the moon is full while it's at its closest point to Earth (perigee), which we’re told is happening in two hours. Why is this discovery so convenient? Lazy writing.
The whole subplot ends with the show's resident tech geek, Aram Mojtabai (Amir Arison), hacking into Gaia's helicopter, trying to figure out how to disable it. Copper tells him to just stop the routers. Mojtabai hesitates, so Copper leans in and does it himself. The moment does provoke an interesting argument as to which is worse: the fact that in The Blacklist universe, nuclear plants are so exposed that a lone helicopter can cause them to break, or that a clever guy with a computer can hack into the computer system of a privately owned helicopter?
The whole plot ends with a shot of people running, and a helicopter falling below a tree line, allowing me just enough time to think, "Man, they aren't going to try to pull off 'the explosion behind a tree line' cheap special effect?" before we see an explosion behind the tree line.
A lot of other stuff happens in the episode. There are three romantic subplots that are warped at various levels. The most conventional is between Navabi and Mojtabai. In the end, the two non-lovers have a passive-aggressive slap fight over who disapproves of the other more. What was a promising potential romance between the smoking hot athletic femme fatale and the exotically handsome, fit nerd, has devolved into the two fighting like pubescent children. This not only undermines the validity of their romance, but the likability of each character.
The second one is the series revisits the potential relationship between Liz and Red. While exceedingly creepy -- Red is either Liz's father or Liz's mother's adulterous lover -- the relationship makes a kind of sense. Red is a sociopath; Liz is an idiot. Physically, they're in the same range, and at least a pseudo-incestuous relationship would give the series some kind of edge.
Finally, there's a developing hostage/rape scenario between Mrs. Kaplan (Susan Blommaert) and the creepy guy who found her in the wood. She's taken back to a cabin that apparently has no lighting. There are scenes of her being fed and nursed, which end with her waking up and finding herself chained to a bed.
Every series deserves a mulligan at least once a season. Even the best shows have bad moments. The Blacklist, however, can't survive too many more episodes like this one. The only redeeming quality of the show is when it’s viewed through a societal context: it lays waste to the illusion of the American meritocracy. There are talented and intelligent English, film and theatre majors stuck handing out Happy Meals through windows, and the person who put together this cornucopia of bad television together is getting paid for it.