The Blacklist: Season 3, Episode 12 - "The Vehm (No. 132)"
Last year, much of The Blacklist felt like 3 pounds of sausage in a 5 pound casing; hopefully, "The Vehm" is an aberration rather than an indication of rest of the season.
The BlacklistAirtime: Thursdays, 9pm
Cast: James Spader, Hisham Tawfiq, Diego Klattenhoff, Mozhan Marnò, Ryan Eggold, Megan Boone
Subtitle: Season 3, Episode 12 - "The Vehm (No. 132)"
Now, look, buddy, you’re not dealing with any dumb two-bit, trigger-pumping morons with low hairlines little piggy eyes and no conversation! We’re a couple of caring intelligent guys you’d probably really like if you met us socially. I don’t go around gratuitously shooting people and then brag about it in seedy space ranger bars. I go around gratuitously shooting people and agonize about it afterward with my girlfriend!
-- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1981
At one point in this week’s installment, the series protagonist Raymond "Red" Reddington (James Spader) was pining pensively on his life in crime to a soon-to-be murder victim, which immediately triggered my recollection of a scene from Douglas Adams’s classic TV mini-series adaptation of his radio play The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This isn’t a good thing. Now that the chapter on "the cabal" is closed, the show’s relapsed into a few of the bad habits that made last year so unwatchable.
First, in the absence of an overriding story arc, the series becomes very episodic. This presents a challenge to the writers. Unfortunately, the characters do not lend themselves well to a standard detective mystery plot. A mainstay of the device is to keep the viewer guessing about who the murderer is. Since the beginning of the show, creator Jon Bokenkamp has titled each episode with the name of that week’s criminal. So, except for a few clever cons and tricks, there’s no real who-done-it quality to the series. Second, part of the mystique of Red is that he’s close to omniscient. One of the devices the producers love to use is to have him be the invisible hand moving the chess pieces around. Thus, he rarely walks the viewer (or anyone else) through his thought process. Finally, the team Red works with are more foot soldiers than co-investigators. They are more than "get a lead, capture the guy, and bring him back" types rather than puzzle solver types.
In the absence of these common elements, the villains become the central draw of each episode. The problem is that there’s just a finite amount of criminally villainy to go around. This was noticeable last season when the bad guys kept getting more far-fetched. "The Vehm", a collection of sex offenders turned sadistic vigilantly eunuchs who shave their entire bodies, were this week’s evildoers. Unsurprisingly, this was one of the more graphic episodes of the season: it opened with a scene of a man having molten lead poured down his throat.
Another big issue is how Red is portrayed. So far this year, the writers and Spader have kept his odd eccentricities in check, limiting them to a few charming off-hand remarks that are organically shoehorned into the episode. At times, the writers seem to be enamored with the charismatic eccentricities of their main character. In addition to the murder scene referenced earlier, Red interrogates two money launderers, at one point forcing them to sing "Michael Row the Boat Ashore", an American roots song most famously covered by The Highwaymen in 1961. Fortunately, Red's ever-faithful bodyguard Dembe (Hisham Tawfiq) acts as the audience’s proxy, and advises Red that the silliness has gone on enough. The scene was a regression into last year. Red's eccentricities seemed weird exclusively for the sake of being weird.
The other consistent problem with the show is how it mishandles the character’s interpersonal relationships. Highest on the list is the on-again/off-again flirtation between Tom (Ryan Eggold) and Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). Now that Elizabeth is pregnant, Tom wants to fully insert himself back into her life. Perhaps the worst moment of the episode was when Tom announces that he has a say in what happens to the baby, which from a normal guy would seem like an only slightly stalker-like assertion. From a trained killer, conman, and spy, it crosses over in the realm of an overt threat.
On the other hand, special agent Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff) is once again partnered with the agent he fired as acting Borough Chief Samar Navabi (Mozhan Marnò). They have a caustic exchange about her getting re-hired. Unlike the Keens, there seems no chance of these two developing a romantic relationship.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Navabi and Aram Mojtabai (Amir Arison) has deteriorated into little more than the popular girl/love-struck computer nerd trope. Aram is one of the most underused characters in the series. He seems to sit around, only to pop up when needed to suggest some complex computer-related solution to whatever problem the team is working on. He has shown no problem taking initiative and does not seem too bound by conventional ethics. So, as a brainiac, he’s smart, decisive, and subversive. Socially, he is little more than a loyal puppy who just wants to be liked. Hopefully, the writers will bridge the two sides of Aram.
Even with all its flaws, this week's episode hasn't hit bottom like last season. Writing more than 20 hour-long episodes a year will put pressure on the most skilled writing staffs. Part of the problem is that all of the core players have interacted with each other so much, most what they do is either predictable or out of character.
Right now, six characters make up the core of the show: Red, Liz, Donald Ressler, Samar Navabi, Aram Mojtabai, and Tom Keen. At least two, but more likely three, needed to be retired by the beginning of next year.