[This is a review of The Blacklist season 2, episode 11. SPOILERS ahead.]
Sometimes, whenever its story manages to get out of its own way, The Blacklist can be a surprisingly fun show. And for the most part, that's what's going on in 'Ruslan Denisov', an episode where the FBI sends two agents to Uzbekistan to secure the release of a CIA agent from the titular blacklister (played by Farhan Tahir); who, as it turns out, has a special relationship with Red.
The plot of 'Ruslan Denisov' is as outlandish as any on the series, with Liz and Ressler spending most of their time in an Uzbekistani hotel, the primary feature of which is an elevator with a false wall and a secret passageway (one has to wonder if that's on the brochure). Adding to the ludicrous nature of it all, when the agents aren't busy being abducted, they're walking around secret compounds where Denisov keeps the kidnapped executives of major corporations in small cages, while he negotiates a ransom, thereby financing his personal war against a tyrannical oil company called Anneca Oil.
Anneca Oil built two pipelines in Uzbekistan, one legal, and one illegal – both faulty. The first one was rife with problems, leaking all sorts of contaminants into the ground and the water, but primarily benzene, causing cancer and burns on those exposed to it – like the Anneca Oil executive who Denisov was keeping in a partially submerged cage, so that he could prove a point. The point being: Ruslan Denisov isn't so much a horrible criminal worthy of the FBI and CIA's attention; he's a "man of the people," trying to defend his country against a greedy American corporation. Or, if you follow the basic structure of the plot, he's the Uzbekistani Erin Brockovich.
As mentioned above, it's convoluted (secret passageways in hotel elevators tend to have that effect), but it works because the story stays focused on the here and now. Unlike the last two episodes, 'Ruslan Denisov' never tries to look too far into the future. Instead, the episode positions Red as simultaneously apologetic and manipulative, working to repair his relationship with Liz over the Ressler-like (i.e., useless) memory she uncovered during her run-in with Luther Braxton, while playing the FBI, CIA, and Uzbekistani military off one another in order to secure a huge payday from a French oil company looking to claim Anneca Oil's soon-to-be vacated spot.
Spader seems to be having a good time whenever Red is goading Liz. As a result, whenever Spader appears to be having a good time, the show becomes exponentially easier to watch. Spader can play grim and gritty with the best of them, but having him wander into rooms to shoot people is remarkably uninteresting when compared to seeing him engage in some greasy backhanded villain stuff.
Earlier in the episode, Liz - who tells Red she doesn't want to talk - meets his delivery of another blacklist file with typical derision. But he presses on, knowing he holds all the cards. It's a classic position of Red's, and one that often leads to too many problems for its own good. Here, though, as Spader lets the scene devolve into a childish game of daring Liz to ignore him, his juvenile antics act as a tonic after the dour, overwrought circumstances of the last two episodes. And the behavior continues after Liz and Ressler begin their negotiations in Uzbekistan, as it is soon revealed that Red has agreed to act as Denisov's representative in the discussions – a fact presented with radiant glee.
In fact, the only time Red threatens to turn into Grim Red is when the CIA nearly bungles the whole thing, getting the corrupt Commander Kushan (Shaun Toub) involved in a botched attempt to kill Denisov and secure the missing CIA agent. Naturally, Reddington is two steps ahead, and had Denisov and the agent moved prior to the meddling of unwanted outsiders. The move prompts Red to enlist the help of a self-flagellating politician who retained a complete file on all of Anneca Oil's shady dealings with his country.
Red, Liz, and Ressler leave Uzbekistan having completed their objectives. The CIA agent has been returned, Red has paved the way for the French oil company to insert itself into the equation, and he's even set Denisov up to become the leader that will make Uzbekistan great – after a few years in prison, of course.
But The Blacklist can't just have an episode where objectives are met and everyone goes home thinking they've made a difference. This time, after checking in briefly with the device that may or may not be the Fulcrum, Liz's shenanigans with Tom come back to bite her, as the disappearance of the harbormaster Tom murdered is being investigated by Det. Wilcox (Michael Kostroff, who apparently didn't land a part on The Walking Dead like the rest of the cast of The Wire). Since Liz managed to act as shady as possible and gave the harbormaster her business card, Wilcox is able to make short work of the missing person's case, turning it very quickly into a homicide thanks to Dante Nero's character folding like a cardboard box under the not-at-all intense questioning of the police.
For being a relatively lighthearted and semi-amusing affair, 'Ruslan Denisov' ends on an unexpected complication for Liz - one that might leave her with no choice but to once again seek a greater proximity to Red and his underhanded dealings. Either way, it's a wrinkle that could shake things up in an interesting fashion.
The Blacklist continues next Thursday with 'The Kenyon Family' @9pm on NBC. Check out a preview below: