For each of the last two years, The Blacklist has faced huge obstacles going into its next season. Season three could’ve been about half as long, with one episode after another seeming to jump the shark. Season four, however, presents a far more challenging problem for creator Jon Bokenkamp. Last year’s central plot revolved around heroine Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) giving birth, dying, and coming back from the dead. Up until that point, one of the series greatest flaws was that all of the secondary players died with great regularity, but not only did the core group not die, but never suffered any consequences for their mistakes. Liz’s fake death turned what should’ve been a “what the what” moment into a “yadda, yadda, yadda” moment. This creates a far more problematic legacy for the show.
Suspense requires fear. There’s a moment in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which the hero, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), comes to test where he must take a leap of faith. It turns out that there is an invisible bridge he has to cross. The moment he puts his foot forward and takes a step, there’s genuine suspense. Once he lands on a bridge, the suspense is gone.
Once you kill off your main character, Elizabeth Keen, and bring her back to life, the audience can no longer trust the writers to ever kill off anyone. Again, the creators went back to the same playbook in the second episode, “Mato”, which ends with a montage of the lead anti-hero Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader) taking one of the series most captivating characters, Mr. Kaplan (Susan Blommaert) out to a deserted area to execute her for her betrayal. It was three minutes of near-perfect television, set to Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind”, one of the most perfectly melancholy ballads, with the lyric “just like an old-time movie” as a brilliant commentary on the tone of the confrontation. The entire scene gives the same feeling as the ending of The Maltese Falcon.
In some of his best work — and some of the best writing — of the series, we see Red dealing with rage, practicality, and a desperate desire to forgive Mr. Kaplan. Up until he fires the shot, the viewer hopes he’ll just exile his one confidante as punishment. He doesn’t. Mr. Kaplan falls. While it was a shame to see perhaps the series most intriguing character die, the moment may have been one of the highlights of the series. Then, of course, we see a hand gripping some leaves. Mr. Kaplan lives: yadda yadda. You can’t have suspense when any character that lasts more than ten episodes is Lazarus of Bethany.
Additionally, all of the personality quirks or character flaws of the characters are still there. So, not only is there no death, there’s no personal growth. Imagine if your best friend keeps on dating significant others that are cheap. The first time, you empathize and want to help. The second time, your sympathy may erode a little bit. By the tenth time, you want tell them to shut the hell up and stop dating cheapskates. Almost every character on the show is suffering from this malaise.
Chief among them is Elizabeth Keen. The series opened with Elizabeth Keen finding out that her husband, Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold), was a hired spy who was paid to seduce and marry her. She divorces him, saves his life, imprisons him, saves his life again, and ends up re-marrying him. It’s worth noting that through the entire series Tom Keen, at best, can be described as a severe moral relativist, and at worst, a stone cold psychopathic murderer. Liz has also been involved in a warped, to the point of being incestuous, relationship with Red. Red, like Tom, is another sociopathic killer. He’s already confessed to Liz that he was the one who hired Tom Keen to seduce her, as well as killing adoptive father Sam Milhoan (William Sadler). You’d think that either one of these on their own would be a deal breaker, but apparently not for Elizabeth Keen.
Additionally, there’s a slight tint of misogyny in how Keen is written. Both Tom and Red are written as two variants of the “bad boy” archetype: Tom, the uber-sexy, athletic fighter who broods, and drips testosterone, and Red, the charming, suave older man. Either way, the writers apparently are married to the idea that once Elizabeth gets buzzed when faced with male sexuality, her IQ dips 70 points.
The creators decided to mix things up a little bit and add a third sociopathic man to Liz’s life, Alexander Kirk (Ulrich Thomsen). At the end of last year, he kidnapped Liz, Tom, and their baby. Again, this is an awfully large burden to put on a relationship. Through most of the first two episodes, Liz is able to maintain her hatred and anger, only to again be overwhelmed by empathy, and decide he’s not as bad as she thought. It turns out he is. Peanuts creator Charles Schultz knew what he was doing by having Charlie Brown fall for Lucy holding the football only once a year. If it happened every week, Charlie would stop being a lovable, gullible romantic and turn into just a self-punishing masochistic idiot, aka Elizabeth Keen.
While clearly Liz is the most annoying character on the show, she’s not the only character who’s rapidly devolving into a caricature. It’s depressing because quite a few had some potential. The clichéd computer geek Aram Mojtabai (Amir Arison) had moments when he developed beyond being just a mild-mannered computer genius goofball. Sadly, those moments were short-lived. In season four, we’ve found out that he’s involved with a woman but, given the way the woman was introduced, and the clear contempt with which the writers have treated Aram, there’s an 85% chance he’s being played.
There were some brief flirtations between Aram and Samar Navabi (Mozhan Marnò), a former Mossad operative now working for the FBI. Like Aram, she had moments where the character seemed to blossom. In the first three episodes of season four, however, her main role has been reduced to being embittered with Elizabeth Keen, which undermines the main intent of the character. There never seemed to be a great deal of intimacy between the two characters. Navabi was introduced as a kind of useful and sexy psychopath, like Val Kilmer’s turn as Doc Holliday in Tombstone. The idea of her being emotionally wounded by Keen’s betrayal just doesn’t fit the character.
There are still several reasons to watch The Blacklist. The soundtrack’s playlist would rival the best alternative music stations in the country. This season, the series has included the aforementioned “If You Could Read My Mind”, Bob Cox’s great folk country piece “Drifting Home to You” (1959), Portico’s haunting “Where You Are (featuring Jono McCleery)”, and The Losers’ “This is a War”. Not only is the music great, it’s also superbly relevant to the storylines.
Additionally, James Spader’s turn as Red is still arresting. Few actors are as good at pompous condescending disinterest as Spader. His voice work as Ultron in Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron was the exception just for this reason. At the same time, he has the same aloof charm, likability, and bewilderment over human nature as Alan Shore in David E. Kelley’s series Boston Legal.
The soundtrack and Spader’s performance are keeping the series watchable. Unfortunately, when Red becomes as dull as the rest of the characters, the series will become unwatchable, no matter how good the music.