'The Blacklist': Can Viewers Trust Liz's Origin Story?

Megan Boone as Liz Keen in The Blacklist

[This article discusses major points of The Blacklist season 2 finale. There will be SPOILERS.]


"They can make anything look like the truth."

That was a line delivered by Agent Elizabeth Keen to Donald Ressler in the early part of The Blacklist season 2 finale, 'Tom Connolly.' It was intended to demonstrate just how ruthless and capable the Cabal is, and how the clandestine organization will stop at nothing to discredit and destroy those who would act against them. The line is specifically in reference to the predicament Liz finds herself in, after being framed for the murder of Senator Hawkins – the act of which took place during the season's penultimate episode, 'Karakurt.' But considering the finale delivers some tantalizing details regarding Liz's heretofore hidden early childhood – especially the fact that her mother was allegedly a KGB asset, as well as painful moment from the night her father died – the context of the line is also an apt one to describe the writers of the show.

In that case, the "they" in question would have to be the episode's co-writers, John Eisendrath and series creator Jon Bokenkamp. After all, they managed to weave quite the tapestry regarding Liz and Red's relationship, seemingly blowing up the idea that Raymond 'Red' Reddington, a.k.a. "The Concierge of Crime" is actually Liz's father. This was accomplished by feeding both the character and the audience a recovered memory wherein a very young Liz shoots her father while he is in the act of physically assaulting her mother, KGB asset Katrina Rostova. But how much of this is to be taken at face value, and how much of it is simply another fiction within the narrative that is simply supposed to "look like the truth"?

This is a common problem with shows that routinely like to trick the audience and its characters at the same time. There is a certain advantage to this particular storytelling ploy, as it allows every situation to feel suspenseful and potentially the moment where a massive reveal could happen. The downside is that it dilutes the moments when said reveals actually do occur, simply by virtue of the audience being acclimatized to not trusting certain information when it is handed to them.

James Spader as Reddington in The Blacklist
Even Red can't hide his skepticism.

Narratively, this makes sense; everyone on The Blacklist is, in one way or another, playing a version of a spy game. Secrets must be kept, and truths disguised. But at what point does this tendency to dole out important information in the form of half-truths and obscured visuals weaken the foundation of the narrative as a whole? How many times can we see a character be led down one path, only to find that the path isn't what we've been told it was before we stop taking any storyline at face value?

In a way, the partial reveal of Liz's origin feels a lot like how Harold Cooper was manipulated for the better part of the season – or at how when Cooper discovered he was not really sick, the Cabal simply wanted him to think he was. It felt like a precursor to Liz rounding the corner on her own forgotten history, only to find out she'd handed a pack of lies. And if we were to really look at the information handed to us by Liz's sudden recollection of having shot her father, it seems clear that not only has the audience been given but a small morsel of information, the information itself is sketchy at best.

For one thing, there's no actual reveal here. Faces are not seen, and Liz's memory offers almost zero context of the event, other than the shadowy figures meant to be her mother and father were arguing and it became physical. We also don't know enough about young Liz's background or her circumstances in the moment to fully understand why she would have shot her father (if that was really who she shot, but more on that in a moment), so there's reason enough to question whether or not this really happened – or happened as it was presented. You might say that a child saw her mother in danger and responded in a way that was meant to harm the aggressor, but unless we know more about Liz's background, the moment is rife with believability issues – both in terms of the moment potentially being a falsehood deliberately placed in Liz's manipulated memory and as a work of narrative fiction.

Megan Boone as Agent Keen in The Blacklist
This look sums up the trustworthiness of recent revelations on 'The Blacklist'

Moreover, the fact that the recalled memory offers few physical details, like, say, what Liz's mother and father looked like, is another sign that the memory isn't nearly as forthcoming as it seems to be. If Liz actually did shoot someone, it could have been anyone. It could have been her father, an intruder, or it could have been Red. It's also interesting that we don't see the man actually die, meaning we don't know the actual extent of the damage done, which could have massive implications either way. And Liz's remark that she understands why Red couldn't tell her the truth – that he was only trying to protect her – leads to an interesting and open-to-interpretation remark from Reddington. He first says he tried to be her sin-eater, but that he failed. He then goes on to say, "I never wanted you to be like me." There is a great deal of paternal connotation in that remark that seems to refute Lizzie's claim that she shot (and perhaps killed) her father.

This is an important juncture for the series. Messing with Harold Cooper for the better part of a season is one thing, but feeding your audience potentially false information regarding the series' main storyline is something else entirely. At a certain point, every show has to give the audience something concrete, something the audience can believe (not just believe in), something it knows to be true. So far, Liz's past feels more fluid and elusive than it should be. As Red tells a pack of investigative journalists, "The truth will out." This is in regard to the Cabal and the overarching storyline that group represents. But it also holds true for the characters' personal journeys, which the audience is asked to connect with on an emotional level.

Right now, we're well past the point of believing anything that a character on the show tells another character, and now the series has thrown in the always-questionable use of manipulated memories as another layer in its deception. 'Tom Connolly' revealed a great deal of information about Elizabeth Keen and her relationship with Red. But as is usually the case with The Blacklist, a second glance at the information suggests those revelations and the supposed truths contained within must all be taken with a grain of salt.


The Blacklist season 3 will begin in the fall of 2015 on NBC.

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