After two weeks of soy lecithin, maltodextrin, modified corn starch, and torula yeast, The Blacklist has finally got back to meat of the series. Lots of shootouts, action, and main character Raymond “Red” Reddington, (James Spader) being his charming, supercilious, and sociopathic self. The episode opens with new blacklister Susan Hargrave (Famke Janssen) walking through a collection of corpses and blood splatter to find a note from “R” asking for a meeting.
The main point of “Susan Hargrave (No. 18)” was to start the post-Keen era of The Blacklist. The episode’s plot is another baroque and convoluted collection of false leads and double crosses that lead in the end to a confrontation, all of which leads to the Red and Hargrave meeting. Director Andrew McCarthy paces the action fast enough and the writers include the needed quota of Red quips, “I once spent part of a summer in Bermuda. The island, certainly not the shorts,” and “God, that door was slow. I was hoping for a more dramatic entrance,” to keep the viewer’s mind engaged and entertained. Like always, there were a great many elements of the episode that couldn’t stand more than a few seconds of attention.
While the series was able to gain its action mojo, it’s still plagued by uneven character development. It is not all bad. The writers are very good at crafting complicated, endearing sociopaths like Red. The casting department does an equal good job of getting first-rate actors to play them. Both Spader and Janssen hit the nail on the head, with Janssen playing the role of crime lord Hargrave as an older femme fatale.
While not as overtly sexualized as Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity or Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell in Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, Janssen does play off her sexuality. Having her dress in a short tight red dress and offering plenty shots of her long legs, her sex appeal will certainly be part of her character. In a way, she seems like an agglomeration of Red’s unflappability and intelligence and Tom Keen’s (Ryan Eggold) laid back but confident seduction ability. While Janssen seems like an excellent addition to the cast, the other members of the ensemble radically and unexpectedly devolved.
Before she was knocked off the show, Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) served as the series worst-written character. She seemed to exist only as Red’s personal mood ring, while all of the other characters seemed more deeply, but narrowly drawn. I’m starting to think other than Red, the writers just may not be any good at writing characters.
Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) takes over Keen’s role as the wildly fluctuating character. He bounces from vigilante badass to sympathetic father figure scene to scene. In both scenes, he comes off as slightly more secure than Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) from Mike Judge’s Office Space.
Tom Keen has always been the series second most confusing character. Apparently, the show’s writers think that the actor’s looks, physique, and the catnip underpants means the audience will forgive him anything. In this season alone, he’s morphed from sociopath to heartthrob. At the beginning of the season, he killed a man who he befriended just to advance his myopic agenda. Now, he’s giving older brother advice to Aram Mojtabai (Amir Arison).
Aram has been the series most frustrating character. Over the last three or four weeks, Aram’s gone from timid computer jockey to super-bad confident badass. He has stood up to the Cabal and Red and walled away to tell about it. Yet in this episode, he’s written like he has a 13-year-old’s understanding of relationships and sexuality. Both the actor and the character deserve to be treated far better than they were in this episode.
Throughout the year, it’s become clear that The Blacklist needed a major shake-up. The series does not work with stand-alone episodes. It needs a story arc. The first half of the year — exonerating Liz — was significant enough to hold the viewer’s interest. The second part felt oddly stretched. Hopefully, these random moments of atypical behavior sets up some of the back-up characters to come in and replace Liz. Replacing Liz is a very difficult move. She has dominated the show, but she always was the lesser half of the pair. If they could get someone more equal, the show could improve.
A few sites are reporting that NBC is planning a spin-off series featuring Ryan Eggold, Famke Janssen, and Mr. Solomon (Edi Gathegi). The idea of reprising Liz and Red except reversing gender roles is intriguing. Maybe out of the long shadow cast by Red, the characters will bloom.