'The Blacklist' Continues to Mistake Ambiguity for Complexity
First half, too clever by half; what The Blacklist hasn't achieved this season is far more impressive than it what it has.
Cast: James Spader, Ulrich Thomsen, Megan Boone
Subtitle: Season 4, Episode 8 - "Dr. Adrian Shaw (No.98): Conclusion"
Air date: 2016-11-11
Francis: Do you, Mattie?
Mattie: I love you.
Francis: Tell me properly, call me daddy.
Mattie: I love you daddy.
-- House of Cards (1990)
The BBC miniseries House of Cards featured one of the greatest villains of in television history: Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson), a character absent of any redeeming qualities. Almost every "bad guy" has some built-in sympathetic quality, but not Urquhart. Whatever link to humanity he may have had, he burnt, doused with water, and buried. The dialogue above is a conversation between Urquhart and his much younger mistress, Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker), whom he seduces not for pleasure but because he needs to ensure a connection with her. That scene helped the series as a whole achieve a level of greatness. The Blacklist has been flirting with the same sexual tension, but has fallen short for two key reasons.
The main promotional image for this season features an image of the series' two main characters -- Raymond 'Red' Reddington (James Spader) and FBI agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) -- striding together under the words, "Whose your daddy?" The promotional text refers to the season’s central arc: bad guy Alexander Kirk (Ulrich Thomsen) believes himself to be Keen’s biological father. Throughout the series, however, creator Jon Bokenkamp and his writers hinted numerous times that Red is in fact Keen's father.
The phrase "whose’s your daddy?" also has a built-in sexual reference. It represents an expression of power exchange when one person assumes paternal authority during sexual congress. This parallels an odd romantic interest between Red and Keen. The series as a whole has featured a few scenes that suggest Red and Keen are on the cusp of a romantic relationship (although very few this year). In part, the mechanics of the plot kept Red and Keen separated, but it's also likely that building this year's arc on Red's paternity makes introducing an incest angle unseemly at best, although it would be a fascinating twist on Red's sociopathic hedonism.
Which brings us to the other major difference between House of Cards and The Blacklist. The purity of Francis Urquhart's sociopathy generates his magnificence. At the core of Red's character, however, are contradictions. While he’s as ruthless as Urquhart, he isn't without charm and a good deal of generosity. He can do acts of both great selfishness and great sacrifice. Both seem to fit into his character; in part, it's this ambiguity that’s kept the series afloat for three years. Red may not be on par with Urquhart, but he's very compelling.
Unfortunately, the writers seem to be trying to use this template for some of the episode's other characters -- significant or not -- despite the fact that said characters would actually be far more interesting if they weren't so ambiguous. The season's plotline deals with a terminally ill Kirk (Ulrich Thomsen), whose only chance to extend his life is through a bone marrow transplant from a relative. Believing Keen to be his biological daughter, he sets about trying to get it from either Keen or Agnes, her infant daughter. To do that, he has no problem kidnapping both Keen and Agnes, and then just Agnes, and yet somehow, the writers keep trying to make him into a sympathetic father figure. This is where moral ambiguity slips into the territory of pure irritation. Just consider this simple moral dictate: men who kidnap their daughter and granddaughter forfeit their right to claim the love of either. More importantly, however, Kirk was always at his most interesting when written as man pathologically obsessed with revenge on Red.
A good parallel would be Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), the embittered, mentally unstable brother to Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul. Season two revealed the event that triggered his vast enmity toward his brother. The genius of the reveal was its simplicity: petty jealousy drove the character. It made the character far more relatable. Most people can kind of get his rage. Paradoxically, this ability to connect makes Chuck far more unlikable, while still interesting.
This same simplicity was there with Kirk. As a simple male cuckold -- consumed to the point of masochism by his hatred of Red -- Kirk was fascinating. The subplot of being terminally ill added to this, because it allowed the writers to illustrate the extent to which his hatred of Red controls his actions. The character is at his most compelling when he seems to understand how warped he's become, but chooses not to care because of just how much he hates Red. Adding the plotline about his paternal relationship with Keen just confuses everything. It actually distracts from the character. Not only does it seem unrealistic, but it makes his character come off as self-apologetic.
The writer's confusion of ambiguity with complexity gets magnified when slathered over the series' minor characters. At least Kirk is given the space to develop a complex personality. The minor characters aren't have that kind of time; when they deviate from a fixed norm, it just comes off as bad writing. Kirk's assistant Odette (Annapurna Sriram) epitomizes this. She gets introduced as a sultry Lady Macbeth, whispering in Kirk's ear and egging him on to be more viscous and ruthless. Which, in the context of the show, was a fascinating contrast to the sexual tension between Red and Keen. Significantly younger than Kirk, Odette shifts the power dynamic. In all of her interactions, she's the one in control, and the one directing Kirk. Extremely beautiful, the character seems more than willing to trade her youth and beauty for the wealth and power that Kirk can give her. Again, this is a perfect contrast with Red and Keen; throughout the series, Red has always been the dominant character. Which could also play into the reason that Red was able to seduce Kirk's wife in the first place.
It's a great credit to the writers that they were able to create such a complex and insightful dynamic with a character that has only a few minutes in each episode; thus, it's a far greater damnation that they completely screw it up at the end. Cornered and about to be taken in, Odette feels compelled to explain her true feelings. Once again, the writer slapped the viewer in the face with ambiguity, as she offers some touchy-feely, sensitive apology. This completely undermines the entirety of her character as developed through this season.
The Blacklist is quickly becoming the Sean Kemp of network dramas. It's not bad. In fact, although this season has a lot more sloppy and silly moments than last year, it's still better than standard television drama. Yet, it could be so much better than it is. Ultimately, however unfair such a conclusion might be, what it hasn't achieved this season has been far more impressive than it what it has.