The Blacklist
This is a Must See
Season 1, Episodes 1 - 8 Impressions


James Spader | © NBCUniversal Television

"I believe I will always do whatever I feel I have to do to keep you alive."
—Red to Liz

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 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 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.


  1. Bravo on a perfectly written article about not only The Blacklist which took me by surprise as well (and I, too, only gave it a chance because of James Spader) but about the brilliance that IS James Spader. The writing on this show is so brilliant, but a show with good writing will only take you so far if you don't have the actors to convey that brilliance on screen and Spader, in my opinion, has never been better than he is as Reddington. And I could not possibly agree more that his performance in this show is Emmy-worthy, and if Cranston beats him out because Breaking Bad is over now & they want to be sure to acknowledge him with the Emmy nod as they won't be able to in the future - - well, I just have no words for that. Admittedly, I don't watch Breaking Bad, I've heard RAVE reviews over Cranston's performance each year, and I'm certainly not saying that he's not Emmy material but, sorry to every other actor in a drama series this year - it's belongs in Spader's hands.

  2. Cool! thanks it worked :)

  3. You're welcome. I hope the headphones are good. :)

  4. Thank you so much for your comment, and I'm sorry for not replying sooner. The end of the year was ridiculously busy. I got sidetracked with decorating, shopping, and baking for Christmas, raiding the overstuffed basement for things to sell on eBay, and making Blacklist gifs. If you haven't been to Tumblr, the 30 Day Blacklist Challenge is terrific fun, and so far I've published here (Days 1-5 and Days 6-10). I didn't even know it was going on for more than a week because of all I was try to get done and have been desperately trying to catch up.

    Unfotunately, I have no doubt that Cranston will win for the final epsiodes of Breaking Bad, another terrific show with powerful performances. It's one of the few series that ended how it should have. He will be recognized for that, as he has been previously. I would at least hope that Spader gets nominated for this first season, though. I agree that writing can only get you so far. The great thing about The Blacklist is that its big draw is eminently likeable. Spader is one of those few people that makes me forget I'm watching a performance. When he's given the material, he is astonishing, like on the masterpiece that was Boston Legal. The Blacklist certainly lives up to his talent and can only get better as it gets even deeper into the story. I can hardly believe how deep it is already. Anslo Garrick and Anslo Garrick Conclusion could not have been better.  

  5. Wow....apparently I win the award for Worst Responder Ever as I am just NOW seeing your response above from 22 days ago!?! Good Lord.... this is pathetic ESPECIALLY considering how much I love to talk The Blacklist (and all things Spader) especially with people like yourself who are just as enthusiastic about the show and as appreciative of the brilliance it delivers on so many levels.... lol.... we both predicted Cranston got the Globe..... meh, whatcha gonna do ya know? It'll be Spader's next year... ;) I really couldn't give unbiased opinion on who was more deserving as I didn't watch Breaking Bad so I was just going off of the fact that I think Spader's the best thing since..... electricity? Internet?

    I must say, I really love your blog - I'm not really a regular to any Blacklist blogs as far as article reading, with the exception of yours b/c in addition to agreeing with me on just about everything Blacklist (lol) I love well-written, intelligent, and entertaining writing and you've got the chops.

    I did end up participating in the 30 Day Challenge, but had to do most in large chunks due to being so behind already and all the reasons you mentioned as well with holiday craziness, etc.., They're all on The Blacklist page on The TV Times if you're ever bored and need to kill like 2 hours lol.

    Regarding this: "The great thing about The Blacklist is that its big draw is eminently likeable. Spader is one of those few people that makes me forget I'm watching a performance. When he's given the material, he is astonishing, like on the masterpiece that was Boston Legal. The Blacklist certainly lives up to his talent and can only get better as it gets even deeper into the story. I can hardly believe how deep it is already. Anslo Garrick and Anslo Garrick Conclusion could not have been better." from your response above -- I could not possibly agree with you more on all accounts. The Garrick episodes were just UNREAL, I couldn't believe how emotionally invested I was in them and how shocking and deep they were.

    Anyhow - - I look forward to more discussions with you, and definitely in a more timely fashion on my part next time, I promise!!

    (Oh, not for nothing, I own a graphic design company and designed my next tattoo being done in 6 days... I've posted it here.... my love for Spader is only outdone by my love for Nikki Sixx/Tommy Lee from Motley Crue, so I decided to design a tattoo in "ode" to my 3 favorite men on the planet & thought you'd appreciate the icon in the middle ;) (The stars represent Tommy Lee, the number "6" - obviously Nikki Sixx but also my daughter's birthdate, and - - -well -- - the final touch you'll recognize immediately... hehe...

    (Hey, who do YOU think is the Mole? I've though Malik most of the season but I'm curious your opinion, especially given the end of the most recent episode.....)

    --Baby Z - The TV Times


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