There Are a Lot of Loose Ends to Tie-up in Season 4 of ‘The Blacklist’

There's potential for The Blacklist to get back to greatness. It has all the raw materials.

For this week at least, The Blacklist got back to doing what The Blacklist does best. “The Thrushes” had all the elements — good and bad — of a standard episode. On the plus side, Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader) is back to his savant/chess-master self. The writers, Daniel Knauf and Dave Metzger, walk the viewer through a maze-like plot. While a few of the surprise twists and dead leads seem kind of obvious in retrospect they, and director Terrence O’Hara, keep things moving fast enough that the viewer buys into the episode. A charismatic lead and an engaging plot are the minimum requirements for almost any crime/espionage drama.

There are two areas in which The Blacklist generally operates well above the norm. First, the soundtrack is exceptional. This week features alternative heavy rock “Fire on the Mountain (I-II-III)” by Wand, the 1985 synthpop classic “Dead Man’s Party” by Oingo Boingo, the slow, angst-laden contemporary alt pop “Treehouse” by Oquoa, the slow, angst-laden contemporary folk pop “He Haunts Me” by Extreme Music, and the 1969 classic ballad “One” by Harry Nilsson.

The other area in which The Blacklist performs well is in its quirky minor characters, to which it owes a huge debt to The Simpsons. The Simpsons, on the air since 1989. Over the years, more than 100 reccurring characters have popped in out of the series’ story lines. From the superficial but funny Comic Book Guy and Disco Stu (Hank Azaria), to celebrity voice Sideshow Bob (Kelsey Grammer), to regular characters like Charles Montgomery Burns (Hank Azari) and Milhouse Van Houten (Pamela Hayden). The series has stayed on the air so long because it’s created a virtual universe for its characters. While The Blacklist is limited by having to cast live action actors to play their quirky characters, they’ve done a great job of writing and casting almost cartoonish characters to pop in and out of episodes.

Two such quirky characters show up in this episode. United States Marshal Cynthia Panabaker (Deirdre Lovejoy) appears with for a tête-à-tête with Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix). Panabaker uses a lot of rural colloquialisms to make points; think of a cross between Kathy Bates’s Libby Holden in Primary Colors and Tommy Lee Jones’s Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive. It allows the writers the chance to give other characters besides Red some snappy dialogue. In discussing a strategy to catch the episode’s villains, Panabaker states, “OK Harold, let them run out some line. But you best keep your thumb tight on the drag or you’re likely to find a bird’s nest on your reel, you understand”, to which Harold replies, “Not a word, absolute gibberish.”

Panabaker has only popped up in a few episodes. If creator Jon Bokenkamp ever decides to reshuffle the deck, she’d be an interesting person to fold into the central ensemble cast.

This episode also saw the introduction of another one of Red’s quirky assistants. Chester (Daniel Stewart Sherman) shows up to run Red’s completely analog war room, and is given only a few seconds of the viewer’s attention. In his scene, they’re using a slide projector for an ad-hoc PowerPoint demonstration. One of the slides gets stuck and he fumbles around to get it working. It’s only a few seconds of comic relief, but lightens what’s basically an extended exposition scene.

On the negative side, the show has two female leads who are in constant irreconcilable conflict. One is absolutely devoted to all things “Red”, following his lead like a little puppy. The show has hinted at a budding romantic relationship between the two, which, while deeply warped due to Red’s mentoring/paternal relationship with her, does add interest to the series. The other lead is Red’s nemesis. She’s deeply mistrustful of Reddington, sees through the charm and rationalizations for the criminal monster that he is. Unfortunately, these two leads are the same character: Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone).

The writers at least seem to have some idea of Keen’s schizophrenic personality. In this episode, she gets introduced acting as a passive aggressive whining brat to Reddington, only to find out that she was just acting to fool Alexander Kirk (Ulrich Thomsen). A little later, she confesses that she was just playing as if she forgave Red, to convince Kirk that she was against him. All of this leads up to the end of the episode, in which she asserts that she and Tom (Ryan Eggold) are severing their relationship with Red; Red simply acknowledges her and walks away.

This moment represents the complete asymmetry of their relationship. What to Liz is a dramatic stand against a man for whom she has great and very contradictory feelings, Red has already predicted. Her rebellion was one of hundreds of factors that he predicted, considered, and came to terms with.

Which brings up what has become a relatively new flaw to the show this year: predictability. It turns out that Elise (Annie Heise) was a spy. Now, the romance between Aram Mojtabai (Amir Arison) and Samar Navabi (Mozhan Marnò) can get back on track. For the last ten or so episodes, Bokenkamp’s plot twists have come with a TomTom navigator. Since Elise’s introduction, I was certain she was a spy.

The Blacklist bounced back well. With two episodes to go until the midpoint, there are finally a lot of loose ends to be tied up. There’s potential for The Blacklist to get back to greatness. It has all the raw materials: an extremely charismatic anti-hero lead, several compelling secondary characters, and a huge universe of re-occurring characters. In a way, the central flaw of the Lizzy character is the central flaw of the show. What was at one point a kind of titillating and slightly salacious shade of gray has become an obscene muddle of drab. Both Liz and Bokenkamp need to pick a side.

RATING 7 / 10
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