[This article may contain SPOILERS for The Blacklist.]
For nearly two seasons, audiences have been asked to ponder whether or not James Spader’s Raymond “Red” Reddington is in fact the father of Megan Boone’s FBI Profiler, Elizabeth Keen. It has also been left to ponder what something called the Fulcrum is, and what it has to do with a clandestine organization that may or may not surreptitiously run the world. These are intriguing questions for anyone who has enjoyed The Blacklist, NBC’s violent crime thriller with a twist.
But after nearly two seasons of teasing, and going back and forth over the same questions, it’s time to move past asking questions; it’s time to see what the story the show is hinting at is really about. But because the series is still locked in the increasingly tired 22-episode per season format, there is already a more interesting show being presented when the series forgets those larger mysteries and goes all-in on its procedural elements. So, that being said, if The Blacklist isn’t going to move forward with its mythology and use it to transform the story into something more propulsive, compelling, and willing to explore the ramifications of those questions, it might be best to ditch it altogether.
As much evidence as there is that the series has a mythology akin to something like, say, The X-Files, the truth of the matter is, the two mythologies differ by way of one important distinction. While The X-Files revolved around the potential discovery of a global (and perhaps, intergalactic) conspiracy, one that either is or is not being conducted behind the scenes of the United State’s government, The Blacklist essentially revolves around one man withholding information from someone who may or may not be his daughter. That’s like putting the Cigarette Smoking Man front and center of The X-Files universe, while constantly intimating that Scully may in fact be the fruit of his cancer-ridden loins.
You may be pondering that concept and thinking to yourself, “Well, that actually doesn’t sound so bad,” and it doesn’t; but what would make this scenario work is the level of change the unholy alliance of Scully and the Cigarette Smoking Man could potentially bring about. That would require Scully to be let in on the enigmatic world that her ashtray-smelling paterfamilias is a part of. If not, then the whole thing isn’t nearly as compelling. That’s because withholding information prevents the series from moving forward into more intriguing territory. It keeps it locked in a holding pattern that refuses to reveal what’s at stake.
Another key difference between The X-Files and The Blacklist is: Mulder and Scully (differing levels of skepticism aside) are operating at the same level of knowledge, as they confront the series’ central question. They are both more or less in the dark, united in a quest for the truth (because, it’s out there, dammit), and that makes the amount information – or truth – that they do not know a part of the intrigue. This allows for the mythology of the series to also focus heavily on the personal relationship between Mulder and Scully; it creates a sense of familiarity, a sense of shorthand, and a sense of compassion that makes subsequent episodes – Monster of the Week or mythology heavy – more emotionally gripping and meaningful. There are genuine feelings at stake, feelings that the audience can parse through the character’s open interactions.
The same is only partially true of The Blacklist. The mythology heavy episodes have created the beginnings of a solid relationship between Red and Liz. But because the series has teased that there is something more, the audience – much like the series – is left dipping their toe in what could be a deep and rewarding emotional bond between the two. The audience needs to know where they stand with regard to the characters’ connection. Not knowing keeps the emotional connection in the shallow end of the relationship pool, even when the series keeps insisting it will plunge into its depths.
Much of this has to do with the kind of sagacious character the audience has been condition to view Red as being. It has been alluded to that Red is in possession of some information that could change everything for him and for Liz (and possibly the FBI and the world, if you think about it). After all, episode after episode, Red is seen raining down deus ex machinas in the form of former associates and Evil Facebook friends (that’s a thing, right?) who basically prove him right nearly 100 percent of the time. It also makes him capable of overcoming nearly any obstacle in his way.
So, it is safe to assume that Red knows everything that characters like Liz, Ressler, and Cooper need or want to know, but is unwilling to share the truth with them. The problem is: keeping the information locked away in Reddington’s inimitable brain creates a power vacuum that ostensibly prevents the storyline from moving forward. The question, then, is why? Suspense? As Kurt Vonnegut once said about writing short stories, “To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.” Replace “readers” with viewers and “pages” with episodes” and you have a terrific argument against The Blacklist‘s current brand of storytelling.
Sure, writing a short story from beginning to end and keeping a television show on the air for five, six, maybe seven seasons are two very different animals, but the idea still rings true. Besides, withholding information that is not only crucial to the primary relationship, but could also make a sometimes-fun series far more engaging and entertaining, overlooks the one facet of television writing that too many series are guilty of overlooking: every storyline should ostensibly be saying, “yes, and…”
Essentially, stop stalling and tell your story already. There are consequences to whether or not Liz is Red’s daughter. There are consequences to finding out what the cabal of scary old white people plans to do with the world. Let’s explore those consequences instead of constantly asking, “what’s really going on?” and then inevitably reworking the parameters of what that means.
Venturing past the answers to its most burning questions is where The Blacklist should be going. There is an intriguing story there, but if it continues to take one step forward, and two steps back, it should just ditch the mythology altogether, because when the show goes heavy on the procedural, it can be a lot of fun.
This season alone has seen a handful of episodes that prove this point. Episodes like ‘Ruslan Denisov,’ ‘The Kenyon Family,’ ‘The Deer Hunter,’ and ‘The Longevity Initiative.’ These are hours in which The Blacklist proudly flies its freak flag, sending FBI agents to Uzbekistan where elevators have false walls leading to secret passageways, and Liz and Ressler find themselves in the middle of a Central Asian version of Erin Brockovich. Or how about ‘The Kenyon Family’ where a backwoods cult boots its preteen males into the woods like hillbilly Spartans, unwittingly forging agents of group’s demise in a crucible that was meant to kill them. The list goes on, and actually gets weirder when Amanda Plummer becomes a Hannibal–esque serial killer, putting the actress one deranged murderer away from earning the Jeremy Davies Award for Television Excellence.
Aside from the wonderfully outlandish plotlines, these episodes have one thing in common: they are propulsive. They tell a complete story from beginning to end. Yes, there are bits of the larger conspiracy and hints of the secrets Red is keeping thrown in like so many bar snacks at happy hour, but that’s the thing about these procedure-heavy episodes: they keep the audience engaged; they keep them at the bar ordering cheap drinks and having fun for a prescribed amount of time. The mythology is more like going all-in on a bender. Viewers might think the promise of a big reveal is what lures them back for another go-round with Reddington and the FBI team he has wrapped around his little finger – but really, the way the show keeps repeatedly treading over the same questions again and again, it’s more akin to thinking “hair of the dog” will cure your wicked hangover – you’re just plying your brain with alcohol to keep from dealing with the pain of your choices.
And that’s the choice The Blacklist faces: endure the hangover and embrace what’s on the other side, or focus on slinging dollar well drinks week after week, since it’s pretty good at doing that.
The argument isn’t that The Blacklist‘s mythology isn’t worth watching; it’s that the way the mythology is being handled makes that part of the show tedious, and it makes the piecemeal reveals – that are often reversed, mind you – equally tedious. There is a story here, one that The Blacklist clearly wants to tell, and one that the audience clearly wants to see. So why not tell the story? Is it the fear that revealing everything will be like firing its one magic bullet, leaving Raymond Reddington with nothing but an empty chamber?
Well, that may very well be the case, but that’s the risk of storytelling. And the longer The Blacklist holds on to its secrets, the more evident it will become that this series started a gunfight, but forgot to bring extra ammunition. If it’s not – and there is something on the other side of Red’s secret – well, then it’s time to find out. But if that’s not something the show it willing to do, then it should abandon the larger storyline and become a straight procedural, because that’s something the show actually does well, and there’s no reason it can do so in perpetuity.
The Blacklist airs Thursdays @9pm on NBC.