The Blacklist: Season 3, Episode 7 - "Zal Bin Hasaan"

Anthony Merino

Mozhan Marnò’s turn as Samar Navabi stands out among an outstanding ensemble cast; now, if only Jon Bokenkamp can figure out what the hell to do with Elizabeth Keen.

The Blacklist

Airtime: Thursday, 9pm
Cast: Mozhan Marnò, Megan Boone, James Spader
Subtitle: Season 3, Episode 7 - "Zal Bin Hasaan"
Network: NBC
Air Date: 2015-11-12
"Nobody can get the truth out of me because even I don't know what it is. I keep myself in a constant state of utter confusion."

-- Colonel Samuel Flagg (Edward Winter) M.A.S.H.

The CBS comedy M*A*S*H ran for 11 seasons and 256 episodes. Three somewhat unique aspects of the show drove this longevity. First, instead of being centered on a single character, it had four to five featured characters every season. Only two main characters spanned all 11 years; Captain Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce (Alan Alda) and Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Loretta Swit). The cast included fellow malcontents Captain "Trapper John" McIntyre (Wayne Rodgers) and Captain B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell). There were also two "bad" guys: Frank Burns (Larry Linville) and Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers). Finally, the camp commanders included Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) and Colonel Sherman Tecumseh Potter (Harry Morgan).

Second, with the exception of Pierce and Houlihan, the rest of these primary characters were replaced at some point in the series. This was also one of the key factors to the longevity of any drama. Law & Order, which ran for 20 seasons, had more than 25 actors switch in and out of its six main roles. All three shows, The Blacklist, M*A*S*H, and Law & Order included an extended collection of auxiliary characters. These were well-written characters that would only show up in a few episodes. These characters, too wildly eccentric to stand up to being a background character, were great when used judiciously. The archetype of this kind of character was M*A*S*H’s fanatical CIA agent Colonel Samuel Flagg. He only showed up in seven episodes, but when he did, he was terrific.

The Blacklist’s creator, Jon Bokenkamp, fully leverages not only the core of his exceptional ensemble cast, but has included a small universe of guest characters who are eccentric almost to the point of lunacy. They are tremendously entertaining whenever they make an appearance. In last week’s review, I talked about how his recycling of villains was crucial to keeping the show fresh. In this week’s episode, "Zal Bin Hasaan" demonstrates how having a full palette of compelling characters, both major and minor, can keep a series vibrant well into its third season.

The episode concentrated on Mossad agent, Samar Navabi’s (Mozhan Marnò) backstory. She is an Iranian-born Baloch, an ethnic minority in Iran. After her family is killed by the Iranian regime, Mossad, the Israeli CIA, recruits her. She has been a fascinating character throughout the series. Her character has more personal investment in her job than the others. While the rest of the team is all well intentioned and motivated, they seem more motivated by abstractions like justice or patriotism; Marnò plays Navabi as being driven by blood vengeance. She is as smart and dangerous as anyone on the team, but she’s kind of an outsider.

In many ways Navabi’s a contemporary small screen version of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in John Ford’s 1956 classic The Searchers. For those unfamiliar with the movie and its importance, the final episode of Breaking Bad uses it as a touchstone. Creator Vince Gilligan stated: "A lot of astute viewers who know their film history are going to say, 'It's the ending to The Searchers'".

Martin Scorsese described Ethan Edwards in a review of The Searchers for The Hollywood Reporter as:

…genuinely scary. His obsessiveness, his absolute hatred of Comanches and all Native Americans and his loneliness set him apart from any other characters Wayne played and, really, from most protagonists in American movies... Ethan Edwards as brought to life by Wayne and Ford is a cousin to Melville's Ahab on one hand and his Bartleby on the other -- driven to the point of madness and absolutely alone. And neither director nor actor cuts corners with Ethan's race hatred.

Admittedly, comparing this performance with Mozhan Marnò’s may be a bit of an overstatement. But in this episode, her character becomes more fully developed, and the subtexts written for and portrayed by the character are highlighted. She finds out that Shanin (Sammy Shiek), the brother she believed to be dead by the hands of terrorist Zal Bin Hasaan, is still alive. This is the first of several melodramatic reveals that run through the episode, all of which are well-written and beautifully acted by Marnò. Since her introduction, she has demonstrated a sense of emotional detachment, as if she’s watching her life unfold before her in a theatre. This motivation pops up in all of her responses and reactions in the episode, no matter how outlandish they are.

Most of the series' other lead characters have their great moments. As is well know, Raymond "Red" Reddington (James Spader), loves the sound of his own voice. Toward the end of the episode, his Blacklister provides him the opportunity to gloat in the guise of pontificating on the mysteries of life. In this case, Red starts by detailing the legend of Zāl, a legendary Persian king raised and protected by a bird. Then when asked what he wanted by the baddie, he throws in a quip, "Well, another spin of the bottle in Melanie Rietchman’s basement, but I’ll settle for you". Bokenkamp litters the series with these great opportunities for James Spader to play Red as equal parts aloof and cool. A few times, they get side tracked on political rants, which tend to be preachy. Luckily those moments are few and far between.

Many of the secondary characters also had their moments. We’re treated to a fight between the archetypal bad boy Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold) and the archetypal clean-cut, Boy Scout FBI Agent Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff). Dembe (Hisham Tawfiq) gets to show the full extent of his toughness. Baddie Karakurt (Michael Massee) opines on the nature of love and regret while being tortured by Tom. Even Matthias Solomon (Edi Gathegi) did a little bit to get his charming, unflappable, psychopathic groove back.

Finally, Reddington has a posse of bizarre associates who pop in and out to assist. This episode featured an unnamed character that comes out of a bathroom wearing a clear faceguard stating, "The way he’s signing, he could be Ethel Merman for all I care. He’s ready for you", then immediately collapses in chair and takes a hit of oxygen. This character is just one of Reddington’s talented, but socially awkward minions, with the most notable being his personal clean-up person Mr. Kaplan (Susan Blommaert) and Glen Carter (Clark Middleton), an irritating but talented tracker. Like M*A*S*H’s Flagg, all of these characters are used sparingly, but to great effect.

The biggest frustration this year has been the development or lack of development of Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). Through a good deal of the series her identity has been to serve as a foil for either Tom or Red. M*A*S*H also provides a bit of hope in this regard. Loretta Swit’s character "Hot Lips" started out as a single note cartoon, the evil and hypocritical vixen, but throughour the series, she developed a far greater depth of character. Hopefully, the same will happen for Boone’s Keen. There could even a positive to her lack of definition. She could go full bore evil and do something like kill Tom in cold blood, or she could dedicate her life to good, and the audience could buy either development. Both provide some very tantalizing possibilities. Hopefully, Bokenkamp has something in the works.





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