“He’s dangerous, amoral, he pathologically flaunts authority. He’s reckless to the point of suicidal. But all of this … everything we’ve done. None of it would have been possible if it weren’t for him.”
Him, of course is James Spader as the enigmatic Raymond “Red” Reddington. The show is NBC’s breakout hit The Blacklist, created by first-time show-runner Jon Bokenkamp. Bokenkamp is truly a newcomer to the business. He has literally only a couple of very minor writing credits to his name. Perhaps that’s why The Blacklist is able to contain quite a few of the cliché elements running through television today and still feel like one of the freshest shows in a long while. Or maybe it’s really Spader.
“It’s called the blacklist. That sounds so exciting!”
Spader plays Reddington. He’s a guy who’s been #4 on the FBI’s most wanted list for over 20 years. He’s both a master criminal and spy. He’s sold secrets to foreign governments and made a worldwide reputation for himself as the “Concierge of Crime”. Needless to say, he’s been elusive and would make the career of anyone who could bring him down. No one’s going to get that chance. Suddenly and without warning, he waltzes into FBI headquarters and turns himself in with the kind of casual calmness that you or I might have checking out at the local grocery store. He professes to have intimate knowledge of a huge crime about to occur. He’ll share that knowledge and his exclusive list of master criminals that the FBI doesn’t even know exists (the titular blacklist) in exchange for immunity. And he’ll only deal with Agent Liz Keene, played by Megan Boone.
If you think the FBI is surprised, image how Liz Keene feels. It’s her first day on the job. She’s living a normal life by all appearances. She’s happily married to Tom Keene (Eggold), and they’re working to adopt their first child. What could be more mundane? She has no idea who Reddington is or any knowledge of his world. That is until the helicopters and squad cars show up on her front porch as she leaves for that first day of work. He’s been waiting for her, but no one seems to know why. There isn’t going to be much time to ponder any of these questions. She’s going to hit the ground running, suddenly the central figure in a black ops task force put together to deal with Reddington’s list.
The head of the task force is FBI Assistant Director Harold Cooper, played with an uncertain but firm authority by Harry Lennix. Cooper is a go-getter, and while he’s skeptical of Reddington’s motives, he’s all about the lives the information is going to save.
The closest thing to a partner for Liz is Agent Donald Ressler, played by Diego Klattenhoff. Ressler is the typical no-nonsense agent who resents the attention Liz is getting. He’s a hard-working agent who doesn’t respect her because she hasn’t paid any dues. Of course, he learns to respect her as the season develops, and this evolution of both his character and their relationship is a fresh change from the kinds of cardboard characters who don’t evolve much over a season … or even a long-running series. Ressler learns deep personal loss during the season and will become harder, more willing to cross those legal lines by the end of the season.
Every one of these kinds of teams needs that tech-wizard guy. You know the kind. He/she can hack into anyone’s system and knows all that catchy geek lingo that makes them sound cool to the others. In The Blacklist that role falls to Aram Mojtabai, played by Amir Arison. He’s not the typical geek guy on this show. Yeah, he’s got the ridiculous/unbelievable skills, but he’s not the eccentric, socially awkward character that usually dominates this position. In fact, he looks and acts the most like a straight-laced FBI guy of anyone on the show. Just another area the series manages to give us stuff we’ve seen a million times before but with just enough unique elements to make it new.
The latest member of the task force is Alina Park, played by Laura Sohn. She reminds me a lot of Cote’s character in NCIS. She has a relatively unknown background and is good with tech as well. This season she kind of learns the lesson of getting into bed with Red.
Of course, the standout performance here is James Spader. Red isn’t unlike the lawyer he played on Boston Legal and The Practice. He’s got that same cocksure attitude and a rather offbeat, irreverent sense of humor. The real difference is that Red is not a good guy at all. He may be helping save lives here, but there’s never any doubt that he’s serving his own agenda throughout. He’s also eager to be close to Liz, and we know there’s more to their connection than meets the eye. He’s also a brutally violent man. He kills without flinching and with very little provocation. He’s the kind of character who could not have existed on television before the likes of Tony Soprano or Vic Mackie. Spader pulls this complicated personality off flawlessly. He’s like that car wreck. You just can’t keep from looking. The character and performance are powerfully compelling. Once you do look, it’s near impossible to look away. He can keep your attention during even the most ordinary of tasks. Perhaps it’s our own survival instinct. In real life, he’s the kind of guy you can’t afford to take your attention from for even a second. Some of the character was based on real-life FBI wanted criminal Whitey Bolger. Along with Spader, you just can’t ignore the performance of Hisham Tawfiq as Dembe, Red’s personal assistant. The two actors have developed some of the best chemistry on television, and the character is so much the emotional center. Without Dembe, Red is just another vicious killer. Dembe serves as the man’s conscience.
Each week the team is introduced to another person on Reddington’s blacklist. The episode titles refer to the name of the criminal and a number which corresponds to their place on the list. The criminals are the kind of people who keep other criminals in business, usually providing a vital service to the underworld. Reddington knows these people through his own 20-year criminal activities. They’re so good at their jobs that most of the time the law doesn’t even know a crime was committed, let alone who committed it. High-tech erasers, assassins, genetic manipulation, explosives and terrorists.
“Things have changed.”
A lot has happened in seven years. The seventh season introduced us to Liz’s supposed mother, Katarina Rostova, played by Laila Robins. Liz found herself in the middle, and when she hears her mother’s story takes sides against Red with a very powerful enemy and starts a war she didn’t realize would cost so many lives. When COVID hit that year and the show had to close up production, they were in the middle of one episode with two more to close out the season. They did something rather unique. They could do nothing about the final two episodes except what every series did. They pushed it into the next season. But the half-finished episode was another story. Rather than wait and finish it when they could return, pushing it also to the next season, they animated the remaining un-shot scenes. It’s pretty much like video game animation and cut-scenes from a game. But still the finale of that season starts here with the complete eighth season.
Brian Dennehy passed away between the end of production and its resumption. His character of Dom was pretty much a crucial part of the end of this arc, so the part was recast. He spends most of the episode in a coma, so it’s less of a loss, but I have to wonder what the character was intended to do had Dennehy survived. It’s a huge loss for the show and for the entertainment industry at large. It was a touching final part for the legendary actor.
Once the Rostova story was somewhat concluded with an opening two-part episode, the new story takes hold. Now Liz is completely against Red and makes several attempts on his life, nearly killing Ressler with a bomb in a hospital room. The formula changes now. Liz is on the run and either trying to kill Red or taking down his network or stealing his resources. She builds a team of her own, but the body count continues to get out of control. Now the task force is after her. Not as many blacklist names this season, and those that are worked are because they involve the war.
The season ends with the greatest cache of answers we’ve ever gotten. That’s primarily because Boone is leaving the show, so Liz won’t be around to hear them in the future. Showrunner Jon Bokenkamp is also leaving, so expect a huge change in the format of the show in Season 9.
This season has a touching moment. Actor Clark Middleton, who played Gary aka Jellybean, passed last year of West Nile Virus. They decided to have Gary die in the same way. They pretty much dedicate an entire episode to his memory with Red needing to get Huey Lewis to appear at his wake and claim Gary was the source of his inspiration for his songs. Lewis appears, and it’s quite a humorous and heartfelt episode. Middleton will be missed as one of Red’s most annoying but lovable characters.
You get all 22 episodes on five discs. There are deleted scenes, a gag reel, and a goodbye for Liz. This is the first time we did not get the show on Blu-ray to review, and that’s a shame. The series sports a rather high-end production value that is completely lost on DVD, particularly on discs with five episodes. As much as I’ve come to love this show, I believe the next season won’t be able to carry it much longer, and the end is absolutely in sight. “Let’s talk about the end, because that’s where we are.”