[This is a review of The Blacklist season 2, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
Outside of Berlin and his associates, there haven’t been too many outright villains for Liz and the FBI to chase down this season. It’s as though The Blacklist had been sifting through all the people who just barely qualified for membership, giving Keen and Ressler plenty of low hanging fruit to chase, while Reddington squared away his personal business. Both ‘Dr. James Covington‘ and ‘Dr. Linus Creel‘ had slightly sympathetic narratives – or at least reasons for their actions that could be seen as misguided attempts to do the right thing.
That is not the case with ‘The Front’, wherein an eco-terrorist named Maddox Beck (the most eco-terrorist-y name of all) is planning to synthesize an ancient strain of the plague to wipe out all of humanity. That’s a lofty goal, even for a villain, but the joy in the episode comes from the inordinate amount of logical hurdles that must be overcome in order for Maddox and his group of off-the-grid-living followers to even get their hands on the plague.
To begin with, it includes killing his wife and stealing a centuries-old painting to find a secret map painted onto it that is visible only through UV lighting. Okay, sure, almost all ancient paintings contain some sort of map or clue to hidden treasure or dangerous object because that’s how the world worked way back when. You couldn’t decorate your house without inadvertently embarking on some secret quest to uncover the secret history of the world. Isn’t that right, Dan Brown?
Naturally, Maddox manages to get his hands on the prize at the end of the puzzle – which, in this case, happens to be someone’s bones. Thanks to his state-of-the-art-but-totally-off-the-grid science lab, he whips up a new and improved strain of the plague. Maddox quickly enters phase two of his plan by sending his followers out into the world with the plague, in order to bring about the end of humankind. Then all he has to do is wait. The whole thing is utterly ridiculous and more than a little dumb. It’s like every Michael Crichton novel was dumped into a blender and reduced to its pulpy essence. The frothy result is Maddox Beck’s quest in ‘The Front’.
But it doesn’t really matter, because, for the first time in a few weeks, The Blacklist gets to face off against an actual villain. And not just some run-of-the-mill villain, mind you. Maddox Beck, along with his delusions of grandeur, is also a complete jerk. You know how you can tell he’s a complete jerk? Because he walks around wearing a scarf with a T-shirt in weather that looks to be in the high 60s to low 70s, that’s how.
Although it may seem counterintuitive – especially to this series – creating an utterly obnoxious antagonist is actually great for the episode. For one thing, after a few weeks of flirting with moral gray areas and Keen’s recently fluid sense of right and wrong, the series shifts back to a clear binary, one that’s so strong even Red is happy to get in on the action after Liz and Navabi wind up being exposed to the deadly illness. All of this makes for a fast-paced adventure that doesn’t feel so overstuffed with the sloppy, go-nowhere mythology the writers are so eager to work into every Red-centric scene at their disposal.
This is the closest The Blacklist has come to a genuine standalone episode this season and it works, for the most part. Sure, there’s still Red’s search for his daughter, which requires him to spend time at the DMV because that’s where the best tracker in the world happens to be employed, but even that has its pluses. Red’s been so concerned with the fate of his ex-wife this season that he hasn’t taken the time to deliver any of his patented Red-isms. It’s like the show forgot having James Spader interact with people (i.e., regular folk) is about the only consistently appealing thing the series has going for it. Seeing Spader’s reaction to sitting next to some kid at the DMV? Pure gold.
There’s plenty of mythology to come, as Red apparently gets a lead on his daughter, which causes Liz to have feelings for the first time in months, it seems. But, like what’s behind the door Liz has (apparently) hired a man the size of a small mountain to look after, it’s not even worth wondering what the importance of Reddington’s daughter really is. Maybe it will reveal more of Red’s history and his intentions with Liz. And maybe the series can move on to bigger and better stories that explore the character’s relationship with one another, rather than endlessly tease out a secret whose answer is as simple as yes or no.
Sure, maybe that will happen, but probably not anytime soon. Until then, The Blacklist should embrace its ridiculousness by doing more episodes like ‘The Front’.
The Blacklist continues next Monday with ‘The Mombasa Cartel’ @10pm on NBC. Check out a preview below: