[This is a review of The Blacklist season 1 finale. There will be SPOILERS.]
Here is a tip for television shows: When your finale is partially built around the mystery of who a never-before-seen character is, don’t cast a recognizable face like Peter Stormare and then surround him with a group of actors distinguishable only for having a certain Eastern Bloc quality to them. For anyone watching the opening credits of The Blacklist season 1 finale, the second Stormare’s name appeared the gig was pretty much up, and all semblance of suspense ostensibly vanished. But perhaps that’s just as well as, in forming the origin of Berlin, the writers opted to simply echo the legend of Keyser Söze to the point it felt like NBC had suddenly begun re-broadcasting The Usual Suspects halfway through ‘Berlin: Conclusion.’
That is essentially in keeping with the series’ strangely coy way of doing things: Surprises are telegraphed well in advance, while seemingly important story elements remain obscure and formless. Larger mysteries and conspiracies are merely hinted at, and remain free from the kind of detail that would actually force the show to do anything noteworthy with them beyond stringing viewers along with the promise of significance later on. In that regard, the title ‘Berlin: Conclusion’ is something of a misnomer, as there is really no sense of conclusion in the finale, but rather a series of familiar beats that serve to hastily re-establish the vaguely threatened status quo, while also introducing a new super-villain that will apparently give Elizabeth Keen and the surviving members of the Reddington task force something to focus on when the show makes the jump to Thursday nights in the fall.
Much of the episode is actually concerned with the FBI’s attempt to properly identify Berlin amongst the Russian gangsters onboard the plane that crash-landed at the end of last’s week’s offering. Several of them are rounded up and questioned by Ressler, affording some details of the harrowing moments before the crash when the hooded stranger was shackled to a guard, who subsequently had his hand cut off. To its credit, the confusion surrounding Berlin’s identity affords the plot an opportunity to put several characters into the field, allowing the episode a chance to use the “nobody is safe” tactic by having Malik get her throat slashed while chasing a lanky Russian suspect through a disco, and then having Cooper nearly garroted to death by the same guy. Malik’s death is more or less glossed over – unless you count Elizabeth staring at her fallen comrade’s picture and offhandedly mentioning she had two kids – while it appears that Cooper will be back next season, since he gives Ressler the “everything’s gonna be okay” thumb twitch from his hospital bed.
Meanwhile, ‘Berlin: Conclusion’ treats its Reddington story line with the same sort of hazy regard it has from the beginning. Red once more finds himself in custody and about to be “disappeared,” since the powers that be really mean it this time. Before he can be shipped off to some secret facility, Alan Alda shows up and the two share a brief, but fuzzy chat about the indistinct group Alda works for before arranging for Red’s convenient escape from his prisoner transfer. That segues into a scene where a Russian official comes home to find Reddington already in his house, holding the man’s dog in a way that implies a threat, while he goes on and on about a piece of fruit with the kind of enthusiasm that is only eclipsed by Kramer’s devotion to the Mackinaw peaches. This type of scene has become so commonplace on The Blacklist that Reddington’s home invasions are nearly indistinguishable from one another – the only thing that changes are the implements through which he leverages the information he seeks.
That tired sentiment is carried forth when Red corners the man he was led to believe is Berlin. It is the sort of moment that Spader typically shines in – and he’s definitely good here – but the laziness of the writing overshadows any effort on behalf of the talent. Red questions the man and receives a mouthful of spit in the face, to which he responds by shooting his captive in the hand and then the hip, describing why it hurts so much to get shot in those places – because apparently the idea of being shot isn’t nearly enough detail to go on. The man finally admits his problems with Red stem from an incident in Beirut back in 2010, to which Red briefly recalls those heady days of four years ago, but refrains from offering up any kind of detail as to what actually went down.
Again, The Blacklist falls back on the crutch of characters telling one another about the importance of their own backstory without actually showing why any of it means anything. If these stories are phenomenal enough to make people like Reddington legendary, it might be of some benefit if the writers established a foundation of examples that actually carried some weight. Until then, Red’s renown will continue to feel like it was generated through the kind of gossip that fills the halls of your average high school – which would certainly be a more distinct angle than the one the show is currently implementing.
With all the chasing of false leads and discussions of fruit, ‘Berlin: Conclusion’ has just enough time for Tom to show up and get shot repeatedly by Elizabeth before whispering in her ear that her father is alive. That opens up the door for Tom’s convenient disappearance, and a perfunctory get-together between Liz and Reddington where she basically lets go of the fact that he killed her adoptive father. Their meeting not only hints at the next season where Berlin will be the primary target, but it also gives Red the chance to tell Liz he knows without a shadow of a doubt that her father died in the fire that still haunts her.
The season ends with Red peeling back his shirt just enough to expose the scars on his back, suggesting Elizabeth’s father figuratively perished in the blaze and has since transformed into a much different person. It winds up being the kind of move that feels monumental for a moment, but is essentially a non-reveal. The only way this would mean anything was if the information was disclosed to Elizabeth directly, and the series was forced to do something with her having that knowledge. Instead, The Blacklist has chosen to go for the same low-risk formula it has utilized all season, and will apparently continue to use in season 2.
The Blacklist will return to NBC on Thursday nights in the fall of 2014.