“The Artax Network (No. 41)” opens with a montage that embodies the worst and the best of the series. It begins with the hunky bad guy turned good guy Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold) getting frustrated trying to swaddle a baby as a few bars of Ray Lamontagne’s Part One: Homecoming plays in the background. This fades into Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) delivering a eulogy for the now departed Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone).
The Blacklist spent three years selling Boone’s Keen as a great heroine. Doing so involved some of the most transparently manipulative movements in the show, in which the writers decided not only to tell the audience what to feel, but why they should feel it. Cooper’s eulogy seemed determine to direct the audience in the same way.
Immediately after the eulogy, they cut to a scene of the pallbearers carrying her casket out of the church. The doors open in slow motion, and The Blacklist does three things that it does better than most television shows. First the soundtrack turns to The Faces’ “ooh la la” in what may or may not be an Easter egg:
Poor old granddad
I laughed at all his words
I thought he was a bitter man
He spoke of woman’s ways
They’ll trap you, then they use you
Before you even know
For love is blind and you’re far too kind
Don’t ever let it show.
Is Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader) dear old granddad? Is the mourned-over Keen trapping and using him before he even knows? Once again, where most shows use soundtracks as filler between conversation, The Blacklist uses them to create suspense and irony.
The other two things The Blacklist does very well are surprise viewers, and provide moments of comic relief. There’s a quick scene in which FBI special agent Aram Mojtabai (Amir Arison) rides in the back of one of the vehicles in the funeral procession and decides to take a few drags off of what looks to be a joint. Confronted by Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff), he replies with “Don’t judge, I’m just, I’m just super stressed out.” Riding shotgun, Samar Navabi (Mozhan Marnò) turns to take a drag off joint. Taking a hit, she leans her head back and says “I feel horrible,” to which, the disapproving Ressler answers, “Well, you should, it’s a funeral.”
The episode also includes an additional walk down Red’s emotional psyche; this time with a real person. Red’s visitation to Liz’s maternal grandfather Dom, played with one part Russian accent and two parts mumble by Brian Dennehy, comprises about half the episode’s air-time. This seems like a continuation of “Cape May” as Red and Dom exchange unpleasantries and potshots. Unfortunately, the audience is still no closer to knowing the relationship between Liz and Red, despite this interaction.
The plot of the episode deals with catching the eye in the sky that directed Mr. Solomon (Edi Gathegi) to Liz. Aram explains that the baddies could be using unused satellites for their network. I don’t know if there’s a Scotty (Montgomery “Scotty” Scott [James Doohan] from Star Trek) “explain how impossible it is to get done, then do it” trope, but there should be. It’s a mainstay of shows as varied as The Blacklist and Doctor Who. Aram does a fine job of explaining just how impossible it is to do what he’s going to do. The crime-solving part of the episode just seems like a game of connect the dots to get a photo characters for next year introduced: Famke Janssen (best known for playing Jane Grey in the original The X-Men trilogy).
Aram also plays a key part in going out to confront Red. In one of the more interesting exchanges, he tells Red that he’s in debt. Red, still in mid-wallow over the loss of Liz, tells him he doesn’t have the resources to repay the debt, only to have Red show up and say he’s ready to start repayment at the end of the episode.
The show seems to be resetting the deck. Aram has developed nicely from the timid geek tech guy to a far more complex and rounded figure. He also would fit the role of an agent for Red. He’s undeniably loyal and has an impressive skill set, or the producers could just be giving him some more depth so the audience will care if he is killed off. Either way, it’s clear his role in the series will change dramatically.
Two other characters seem to be put in play for a new story arc. First is US Marshall agent Cynthia Panabaker (Deirdre Lovejoy). The character was introduced as one of the series many deus ex machina, including turning up to save Liz from being captured and summarily executed by “The Cabal”. It turns out that she’s working with Janssen’s mysterious woman.
Navigating the loss of a major character requires skill. There are a lot of characters that seem able to fill the void left by Liz’s death. Both Amar and Samar have had a complicated relationship with Red, yet they seem more destined to be loyal and respected employees like Dembe (Hisham Tawfiq). I’m not sure either could hold up to being Red’s equal.
Several people introduced this year show some promise, but Lovejoy’s Panabaker seems up to replacing either Peter Kotsiopulos (David Strathairn) or Harry Lennix’s Harold Cooper. Right now, we’re not sure exactly whose side she’s on, and Cabal agent Laurel Hitchin (Christine Lahti) is still out there poised to do some sort of evil.
Transitioning after you’ve killed off one of your main characters challenges most writers. While Liz’s death was an absolute necessity, it still presents a challenge. Even when the transition is done well, it still may not succeed. David Greenwalt and Joss Whedon did a great transition from an Angel with Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) — who was killed in season four — to a mostly Cordelia-less season five. Even so, the series never made it to season six.