The Blacklist is a Must See
Who would you become if your entire world was taken away? That is how I sum up The Blacklist now, being a rabid fan, but that was not the impression I got from the previews. Wanted fugitive Raymond Reddington for an unknown reason turns himself in to help catch the most dangerous people he has crossed paths with in his decades-long criminal career. It seemed to be nothing more than a straightforward procedural with as many antagonists as they could dream up, the baddie-of-the-week format being an excuse to go on for years without having any real depth. The little twist of Red wanting to work only with one person, Elizabeth Keen, made it seem mildly interesting. Still, I only watched for James Spader as Reddington, but the pilot won me over and left me craving more. It turned out that Elizabeth was new to the job that day, someone Red waited for specifically, though she has no idea who he is.
"I believe I will always do whatever I feel I have to do to keep you alive."
I had no expectations for an intensely character-driven story of a man who lost everything, searching for redemption, for revenge, for connection, for the truth. But from the start, the series demonstrated potential to really explore characters and motivations, and it has not disappointed. Every episode reveals another small but significant piece of history or personality that I never imagined would be so ingrained and is another chance for Spader to be brilliant. He has this remarkable ability to make you feel what the character feels, to react so naturally it's as though it's not an act. Spader put his heart to work embodying this dangerous, complicated, and deeply scarred man, and as a result has turned in a number of unforgettable performances. He has imbued Red with such dimension and depth, making him endlessly interesting and sympathetic.
"This is gonna be a gas."
I have never been more happy to be wrong about a show. The Blacklist is not a guilty pleasure. There's not an ounce of guilt or embarrassment that comes from it. It's an incredible pleasure to see James Spader back on television in an intricate, exciting, and moving series. He is not hamming it up or delighting in evil. He's having fun bringing a fantastic character to life and making him feel like a real person. I love how we have been allowed to get so close to Red so quickly without knowing much at all about him, except that he is the Concierge of Crime, he's a sharp dresser, he detests those who prey "on the weak and the innocent," and he lost someone so dear that the damage was too great. It shattered who he was and remade him into who he is, broken pieces that don't fit together right. When the puzzle is complete, I don't know what the picture will look like, and that's why I am absolutely in love with this show. It is attempting to put those pieces where they belong and doing so at a perfect pace.
Liz: "I have a life, people who care about me. But you...this is all you have."
Red: "I have you."
Yet some have complained it's too slow. I can only imagine it's those who hate serials and need every answer at the end of every episode, leaving nothing to discover, no secrets to build tension and intrigue. Sorry, but the characters I love most are developed over time and have a part of themselves they try to hide or desperately want to share with those who get close, for example. The mystery of who Red is to Elizabeth is the essence of the show in this first season. The beauty is in not knowing the whole story. What we have been given so far has been devastating precisely because it trickled out while we were bonding with the characters. If it was revealed all at once, nothing would have been earned. This is an episodic-serial hybrid and doesn't relegate relationships to the sidelines; they are at the center of everything. There are many criminals to catch, but the story that drives The Blacklist belongs to Red, the cases in service to our understanding of him and at least some likely part of his end game, not as merely a way to keep the audience entertained with a random guest every week. I can see at some point lessening screen time of blacklisters here and there to make more room for back stories of the supporting characters and giving them more to do, but for now the show firmly belongs to Red, Liz, with Tom stalking the perimeter.
"You need me. And you hate that about yourself, because it makes you vulnerable."
That is Red succinctly summed up by Liz in one beautifully shot and acted scene, which are frequent on The Blacklist. He is disarmed by Lizzy every time. I love that this hardened, jaded man who has undoubtedly committed countless unsavory acts over the years can't help but be vulnerable around her. When she confronts Red with personal questions, he'll go from confident and quippy to unsure and uncomfortable. When her words hit close to home, as they often do, he shows the damage he's kept hidden behind layers and years of cynicism and dark humor. His pervasive sadness is beautifully played, Spader showing emotions in subtle ways - slight facial tics, a catch in his throat, a change in breathing, tears in his eyes - as though he truly is experiencing these moments. If Red's lying about everything and Liz is only a means to an end, which I don't believe, those feelings were real for him, not a part of the deception that his life has depended on for so long. Though I don't have an exact handle on who Red really is yet, I'm certain that he's not the monster that Liz keeps insisting. He can be hurt by a harsh word from her. He will kill to protect her. In his actions, words, and loneliness he is shown to have a beating heart. Spader is astounding in the role, his own heart fully connecting with the story and audience. It is amazing to watch. I hope in the end Red finds the answers he needs.
"I raised my family in this house... I spend every day trying to forget what happened here."
Someone who was praising the show, albeit with a lot of complaints, said Red is a villain that we shouldn't be rooting for. "Villain" is not a label to throw around lightly. Red is far more complicated; if he wasn't then there would be nothing compelling about him. I also saw an article that I knew by the title would be simple-minded and annoying. I have been disciplined about not reading what I know will upset me after one comment sent me on a year-long journey to finish a multi-part post with thousands of words defending Fringe against the most insane troll I've ever come across. I've been relatively good since then, so why did I look? This article called The Blacklist torture porn, as if it's anything like Saw or the many others. I admit I really liked the first Saw for the creepiness of the story and the fantastic song that became the series running theme, but not the torture, which got more outrageous in the sequels. No one who has ever actually seen The Blacklist would dare to compare it against those movies. Of course, it's not about puppies and rainbows, but like any great drama, it shows all the shades of grey. "Sometimes good people do terribly bad things, and sometimes bad people do terribly good things."
"If you kill her, you better kill me. Or I'm going to kill you."
I love The Blacklist because it is a story of an emotionally tortured man seeking some combination of redemption and revenge. He's seeking solace. I love it because I like charismatic. I like dangerous. I like complicated. I like when evil isn't comfortable and safe in custody. I like people being tested and going against their nature when they are desperate. I smile when a criminal takes out another criminal because he can't stand what they are. I love even getting to know some of the blacklisters, who are not always simply psychopaths but may have been dealt a tragic hand. Even so, most have been irredeemable, and this is where Red sometimes comes in and takes them out without hesitation, like a child trafficker who hurt Dembe, which I hope will be a story that gets explored in the future. It seems they might, going by the interview Jon Bokenkamp retweeted: Red's in Danger! The Blacklist Bosses Tease Two-Parter and Answer Burning Questions
"Every cause has more than one effect."
There is one death that will haunt Red, though. That of his friend, Sam. It was a terrible moment and a perfectly tense scene for Spader and William Sadler. Red was simultaneously selfish and selfless, protecting his own secret about Liz and ending Sam's suffering from terminal cancer. If I forget everything else, this will be the scene that stays with me. Red is not less redeemable because of it, as someone put it. He's even more sympathetic to me now. It was in the way it was done without malice, with tremendous heartbreak, stroking Sam's hair when it was over, kissing him on the forehead. Red has been through a lot, most of which we don't know yet, and will go through a lot more before it's all done, including more hatred than ever from Liz if she finds out about her father. This is one of those rare series that feels significant to me because of how it is dealing with a character's grief and daring to get too close, to linger on the pain.
"A farmer comes home one day to find that everything that gives meaning to his life...is gone. Crops are burned, animals slaughtered...bodies and broken pieces of his life strewn about."
And there have been only eight episodes. I almost never fall so hard for a show so quickly. I love how it keeps its secrets close to the chest, teasing us with little tastes, and then hitting hard with something so significant while still holding back on just about all of the details for later. I have a feeling whenever anyone asks that I will always bring up a few particular significant scenes that were masterfully crafted and revealing of Red's motivations. In "The Stewmaker," he tells a chilling tale of a farmer who had everything taken from him. I don't know if that's what happened to Stanley Cornish to turn him into a cleaner, but I know there was a bit of Red in there. He wasn't just telling a story. He was revealing a part of himself. And he was so angry it was scary. His mind, like Stanley's, had been knotted. He had left destruction in his wake. If that didn't immediately convince you that something tragic had happened to Red, he then opened the Stewmaker's "horrifying" album of death, flipped to December 1990, and removed a picture of a young girl. It wasn't a random picture. He knew what he was looking for and when it had happened. A few minutes later, Matt Corby's Made of Stone playing over another scene, we see Red alone, taking that picture out of his left breast pocket to look at it with what felt like, in those fleeting seconds, the longing of loss not dulled by time. And then we wondered if he was a grieving father.
"Someone who's willing to burn the world down to protect the one person he cares about...that's a man I understand."
In episode seven, "Frederick Barnes," we have our answer. But the girl in Red's memory seems to be different from the one in the photo. Did he have two daughters? Is one still alive? Is it Liz? Who is the woman in ViCAP Red has been searching for, who would have been 7 the year Cornish disposed of the girl in the photo? The music at the end of this episode, the third movement of Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, is about parent grieving over a child who died, but the piece could have been chosen for the feeling of loss of that permeates it rather than the exact meaning behind it. Even after "General Ludd," I was still left wondering. Red was indirect and didn't quite admit anything. It has been hinted that Red could be Liz's father since the beginning. He's happy just being around her. His care for her when she was incapacitated was so gentle. But nothing has been simple. The height chart on the wall of Red's home stopped at three years old, and Liz was given to her adoptive father at four. I only have one memory from around that age and it may not even be real, but if Red was her father, she might have a memory of his face or voice or mannerisms, at least a familiarity or deja vu. But he is a complete stranger to Liz, or she is burying feelings she can't make sense of. If he's not related, maybe he knew her real father and is now protecting her because he feels he owes a debt. Maybe he inadvertently made Liz an orphan in retaliation for his own family. The writers are weaving a complicated, compelling story and the reveal in full may not be exactly what any of us thought.
Liz: I feel like I'm drowning. Like I don't what's real or who I can trust."
Red: "You can trust me."
You can trust me when I tell you that The Blacklist is worth watching. I've been addicted to Doctor Who, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and Supernatural. And I may have never stopped talking about the Whedonverse and Spader's own Boston Legal if I shared my opinions back when new episodes were airing. As much as I loved all those shows, Fringe is the one that took up most of my blogging time, because it needed fans to try to save it, which we did. I wrote about it so much it must have looked like I needed professional help. Yet this season there are three (!) new shows worthy of my fansanity. It's happened with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Almost Human, both of which I was anticipating for months. But I never saw The Blacklist coming; it's one of those truly special series. Even if something horrible happened and it were cancelled after the latest episode, it would continue to be a favorite of all-time. And if it continues on for years, eventually all of the incredibly powerful scenes Spader has really are going to crush me. As always, words don't do him justice. You just have to watch. There's a reason he has Emmys, and he should get them for The Blacklist. If he doesn't, if he's passed over every year like John Noble was for Fringe, then I am going to throw some industrial strength tantrums.
"Did you really think there was a distance you could cover, or a hole deep enough that you could hide in? There is nowhere in this world that I cannot reach you, Red."
The ninth episode, "Anslo Garrick, Part 1" airs tonight. Then there will be only one more before the agonizingly long winter break. That should be enough time for anyone who has missed this show to catch up. For more listy goodness, please read my Blacklist posts here, Secrets 1/5 (and four others linked from there), and Reinbeast Expanded.