[This is a review of The Blacklist season 2, episode 14. There will be SPOILERS.]
Every now and then, The Blacklist will hit that sweet spot where the show's innate preposterousness, mordant sense of humor, and the sheer charisma of James Spader converge to make the kind of episode the series should attempt more often. It is the kind of episode where the narrative is focused primarily on the action at hand, not on a series of mysteries that will seemingly never develop past their initial cryptic issuance. And without the burden of supporting clearly undeveloped plotlines or the show's unnecessarily byzantine mythology, the episode becomes lighter and swifter, which makes all the difference.
'T. Earl King VI' is as ridiculous an episode as the name of its titular blacklister would suggest. At its heart it’s a story about the fierce, bizarre class structure infecting the oddly posh criminal underworld that Reddington is a part of. The King family, run by Jeffrey DeMunn's patriarch (who has seen better days after his last encounter with Red) and his two bickering sons, Tyler and Francis, manage an elite auction that's like Christies for the black market, dabbling in everything from stolen art, to yellowcake uranium, to human lives. And, as an added bonus that winds up having an ironic twist, Tyler and Francis use the auction to compete for the family fortune, where the loser must play a version of Russian roulette.
The whole scenario is silly and convoluted: two factors made exponentially greater when Red is placed in a glass box along with several other mostly nameless individuals, to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. But from the title down, the episode refrains from becoming weighed down by the show's usual sense of self-importance. Instead, 'T. Earl King VI' just takes the absurdity and runs with it, resulting in a surprisingly entertaining episode that puts Spader center stage and lets the plot unfold around him.
For much of the hour, Red is placed exactly where he needs to be: in the action. But he remains mostly inactive. Red's not running around with a shotgun, blasting giant-sized prisoners or whoever else happens to get in his way. Instead, he's doing what he does best: observing and reacting to those around him. Red's sardonic commentary on anything and everything he sees is far more valuable than any physical action the character could ever undertake. His time in the box with the King family tailor is possibly the most entertaining conversation The Blacklist has had since it returned from hiatus – and the tailor doesn't even utter a single word.
And for whatever reason, this episode just seems to get that the power of Spader's performance lies in his being allowed to comment on what he sees. After Madeline Pratt (the great, and sadly underused Jennifer Ehle) sets Red up, he's placed in the perfect position to do just that. By effectively cutting off Red's ability to do anything he wants, whenever he wants to do it, the character becomes ten times more effective in terms of the level of entertainment he's able to deliver. The added bonus of this scenario is that Liz then becomes a far more effective component, too, as she's then asked to facilitate the majority of the action.
Here, that dynamic works as well as it ever has, as Liz manages to infiltrate the King family's auction by going undercover and maintaining the subterfuge long enough to lose out on buying Red to Yabari. It's a foregone conclusion that Liz will manage to save Red and together they will bring down the Kings, but what's noteworthy about the episode is how organically it all seems to unfold.
Much of that has to do with how focused the episode is on the task at hand. Rather than have Liz, Ressler, and Navabi working a case while Red is elsewhere, digging into the show's mythology, the action is centered on a single event, populated by the series' two most important characters. That concentration on Liz and Red's adventures in the underworld leads to a darkly comic climax, in which Red dispatches DeMunn's King in a game of chance. It also allows the wet-eyed conversation between Liz and Red to carry some actual weight. It may not completely ring true, considering it's a complete reversal of Liz's anti-Red stance that's she's maintained for the last few episodes. Still, the benefit of having the characters talking again outweighs the rather abrupt reversal in attitude.
The concentration of 'T. Earl King VI' even helps the two other major threads in the episode feel like legitimate storylines, instead of distractions from the main plot. While Cooper realizes he's gotten in bed with the devil, by allowing Tom Connolly (Reed Birney, a.k.a. the third cast member of House of Cards to show up on The Blacklist) to do him a favor, the other Tom (the one played by Ryan Eggold) winds up becoming a neo-Nazi, thanks to the shady temp agency he works for that's headed up by none other than Lance Henriksen.
It's doubtful that the next installment of the series will be able to maintain such a level of focus, or that it will afford Spader as many opportunities for unusual line reads. But then again, that just makes a one-off like 'T. Earl King VI' stand out even more.
The Blacklist continues next Thursday with 'The Major' @9/8c on NBC. Check out a preview below: