The Blacklist’s Frustrating Fall: Keen’s a Keeper, but Red Regresses

After killing off the dead wood and overhauling most characters, especially Keen and her wig, the show forgot its raison d’être: James Spader’s wonderful Red.

Virginia Sherwood/NBC

The solution seemed so easy. When I wrote about The Blacklist last spring, I noted that James Spader was single-handedly keeping the show together with his virtuoso turn as “concierge of crime” Raymond “Red” Reddington. Going forward, I suggested, the NBC drama needed to wipe the slate clean of the entire cast—including the female lead, rookie FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone)—and reboot with a group more worthy of sharing the screen with Spader. Keep Red at the center, retool everything around him, and let the show run wild.

The idea was such a no-brainer that The Blacklist did almost exactly that in the offseason—killing off some of the deadwood and overhauling most of the other characters not named Red, especially Keen. So why does Season 2—which just had its fall finale Monday night—feel like such a disappointment so far? Because in focusing on all those necessary fixes, producers lost sight of the show’s raison d'être: Spader. Two steps forward, two steps back.

It’s a frustrating turn of events for a series that seemed to be making all the right moves to right the ship. The Season 1 finale killed off the show’s weakest link (we’ve already forgotten about you, Parminder Nagra) and came tantalizingly close to offing another one (Tom, played by Ryan Eggold, Keen’s secretly sinister husband whom she is now keeping prisoner). Meanwhile, the drama has elevated its most vibrant FBI agent—Amir Arison’s computer whiz Aram is a cast regular—added another strong member of Keen’s team in Mozhan Marnò (as feisty Mossad liason Samar Navabi) and reduced its reliance on Diego Klattenhoff’s sullen Ressler, who didn’t seem up to his material last year. (The great Harry Lennix, playing FBI Counterterrorism Division director Harold Cooper, remains the odd man out; despite early talk of a mysterious “diagnosis,” the show seems unsure of what to do with his largely ineffectual character.) Yet the most impressive bit of Season 2 triage has been in rehabbing Boone’s Elizabeth Keen, who is now smart, tough and finally flashing the attitude and grit that caused Red to seek her out in the first place.

But then, much like the still-bumbling FBI team assigned to work with him, the show let Red slip through its fingers. Aside from Monday’s taut fall finale, Season 2’s episodes have been shockingly light on Spader. (It’s as if producers are in cahoots with the How to Get Away with Murder team, which often seems intent on sidelining the great Viola Davis as much as possible.) He’s been out of pocket for much of the biggest action this season, and Red’s major arc—the reemergence of his first wife, Naomi, whom he hadn’t seen in 20 years—was a surprising dramatic piffle. Why bother casting a superb actress like Mary-Louise Parker, more capable of matching wits with Spader than anyone else in the cast, and then give her nothing to do, aside from one scene in which she stabbed someone with a bone shank? Her Naomi was stuck in first gear, a colossal waste of her talents, especially on a show that in its freshman year featured some of the best supporting cast on television, including Jane Alexander and Alan Alda (who returned Monday night for one final poignant—and gory—appearance).

Given Parker’s muted presence, it’s little wonder that Red barely batted an eye at her abduction, even when Berlin—the now-dispatched big bad, played by Peter Stormare, who had been convinced that Red tortured and killed his daughter—sent tiny pieces of her back to him. I kept waiting for the big reveal about Naomi that would finally justify Parker’s casting, the same way you can often pinpoint the killer on a procedural by keeping your eye on the most seasoned guest actor, but none ever came. In the end, she just slinked away, just like the much-anticipated Revenge plot involving Emily’s mother died on the vine in Season 2.

And the show desperately needed the likes of Parker to throw Red off his game, to put a stop to his swagger. One of the fall’s most rewarding scenes involved Red marooned at the DMV, powerless in the face of the department’s soul-sucking bureaucracy as he waits 45 minutes for his number to be called. Spader’s slow burn and eye-rolling were a delight, and showed what a treat it can to see a Red who doesn’t always have the upper hand, especially as he became even more flustered during a return DMV visit: “The woman grading the written tests needs to shower!” Red, he’s just like us!

Spader, so intense and riveting last year as Red, has lost some of that unyielding relentlessness. His vocal presence in the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer was a reminder of just how menacing he can be, but we haven’t seen much of that Red this season. Instead, the show is substituting monologues for character growth. A character hasn’t been given this many monologues per episode since Kelsey Grammer recited page after page of them in Boss, and while Spader still makes a meal of Red’s elaborate yarns, they feel perfunctory. He still has tour de force moments—like this scene where Red watches home movies of his long-lost daughter, with a joy we didn’t know he was capable of, punctuated by his tragic reaction as they ended—but they’re much harder to come by. Last year, I was transfixed whenever Spader was onscreen. This year, I’m more worried about his tendency to tilt his head almost sideways when speaking with Keen. I hope Red has a good chiropractor on staff.

And while the show has upped its action this season—boasting thrilling, yet outrageous, sequences each week—its storylines have turned into headscratchers. One episode centered around unnecessary double and triple crosses, and given the extent that Red keeps tabs on her, it’s unlikely that Keen got away for four months with keeping Tom locked up while she pressed him for information about Berlin. (Still, it was a smart, sparing use of Tom, similar to what Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has done this season with its own bland-guy-turned-bad, Ward.) While the FBI team seems slightly more competent this year, the show still hasn’t explained what they do for Red that he can’t accomplish on his own.

The Blacklist does have one unqualified success this season: its extraordinary work in overhauling Keen. Unlike last year, when Red’s adoration of her seemed to come from left field, it’s more than warranted. Boone seemed in over her head for all of Keen’s big moments last year, but she’s up for all challenges this time around, like the episode where she goes undercover and opens herself up to a doctor who is manipulating emotionally vulnerable patients. When a concerned Ressler notes how much Keen has changed in the past year, what tradeoffs she’s now willing to make and rules she’ll ignore, it felt like an earned badge of honor for the character. Last week, she confidently escaped being held prisoner in what was made out to be a Bethesda hospital room, an action that seemed a complete 180 from any of her slack-jawed behavior last season. (The blessed retirement of her ghastly wig helped too, after Liz—hallelujah!—cut her hair in the first episode.) At long last, Keen’s a keeper.

Which makes Red’s regression this season all the more frustrating. Combine the Keen and company of this season with the Red of last year, and the show would be unstoppable. But this initial run of Season 2 episodes proves that the series still has a lot of heavy-lifting to be done.

Speaking to the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour in July, showrunner John Eisendrath said he wanted the fall eight-episode arc to build to a big reveal that will “earn the break that we’re taking.” While some loose ends were tied up (the “minds will be blown” promos weren’t kidding, given the episode’s body count), the hiatus feels less earned than required, so the show can recalibrate Red closer to the character we saw last year—and in flashes during Monday’s finale.

It’s the perfect time to do so. The Blacklist is now on hiatus until Feb. 1, when it will return in a post-Super Bowl episode before relocating to a much tougher time slot: Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET opposite Scandal. (Of course, those plans could change if Blacklist’s Monday night replacement, State of Affairs, doesn’t improve on its rocky pilot.)

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You’ve got two and a half months, Blacklist. Get Red back on track. Because this current version of him will be no match for the likes of Olivia Pope come February.