[This is a review of The Blacklist season 2, episode 17. There will be SPOILERS.]
A mad scientist is cutting the tops of people's skulls off to inject them with an experimental gene therapy that includes jellyfish DNA. That's is the basic premise of 'The Longevity Initiative', an episode of The Blacklist that succeeds by going heavy on the outlandish procedural elements, and light on the show's slow-as-molasses mythology. It's the sort of propulsive episode in the series that, despite juggling several threads at once, manages to achieve a rare sense of cohesion - and shows exactly what the strengths of the series are. Besides, having Kevin Weisman on hand to deliver the scientific exposition is never a bad thing (more Kevin Weisman, basically).
There are a few things that regular viewers of the show know by now. For one, whenever an episode opens up with a produce truck full of bodies that have had the tops of their skulls removed, there's a good chance Red and the gang won't spend too much time dealing with clandestine groups secretly controlling the world and tiny music box-like objects discovered inside stuffed animals. Instead, there's a good chance the show will deliver something that it's actually gotten pretty good at delivering: a bizarre plot bordering on science fiction that somehow says more about Red than any episode dedicated to his still-opaque mission regarding the blacklist and Liz.
The episode moves swiftly. No sooner than a cop is killed after pulling over the man transporting said dome-less cadavers, than Red is in Lizzie's office; wishing her a happy birthday, giving her the lowdown on the case, and presenting her with a bottle of wine made from the grapes she picked with Sam when she was a little girl. The gesture is revealing in a way that The Blacklist capitalizes on too infrequently. With one simple gift and a small reminder of a time Liz has all but forgotten, Red establishes a connection between the two that feels more meaningful than any Alice in Wonderland-like trip through her manipulated memories.
For nearly two seasons, the show has been pushing Red's connection with Liz, with little advancement. It's always one step forward and two steps back. But here, Red's tokens – both the gift from her past, and the almost forced recollection of it – establish a subtle connection that feels more meaningful than any teasing of a history that may or may not have grander implications. It is also the sort of encounter that is easily placed on the backburner, so that more pressing concerns – like scientists cutting off the tops of people's heads and injecting them with jellyfish DNA – can be tackled in a surprisingly sober fashion.
Enter billionaire industrialist Roger Hobbs (Ralph Brown), who takes on the familiar role of a wealthy American capitalist obsessed with legacy – especially if it means he'll be around forever to see it. Like most morally compromised pseudo-villains on The Blacklist, Hobbs isn't that interesting as a character. In fact, he's not a character; he's a type. But what his presence offers, the doors he's able to open – or trap people like Harold Cooper behind – are far more meaningful here. For Red, Hobbs is some sort of insurance policy against the "dark cloud" that is approaching, but he and his mad scientist Julian Powell (Joshua Close) are also a one in a million chance to help Liz recover the memories that have been stolen from her. At least, that's what Red's discussion with Julian seems to suggest.
But Hobbs also represents the deal Cooper made with Tom Connolly, and the sway that Tom holds over the assistant director - with the intimation that his unwillingness to look the other way, when it comes to Hobbs will get him kicked out of the experimental trial keeping his brain tumor at bay. At the end of the episode, Red tells an infuriated Liz that compromises with people as powerful as Hobbs are for the greater good, as he will become a powerful ally when the proverbial you know what hits the fan. At the same time, Connolly's you know what eating grin suggests that Cooper's compromise is the only thing keeping him alive.
It is beyond trite that Dr. Powell's experiments are fueled by a desire to repair the damage done to his fiancée's brain, after he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed their car. It's also a tad unfulfilling that Powell shoots himself after confessing to Red his research has produced exactly bupkis. At least director Donald Thorin Jr. knew well enough to focus on the show's greatest asset – i.e., James Spader's face – when the action went down.
Speaking of action: while the episode was busy letting Red and Liz chase after a scientist on the verge of discovering nothing, Tom is reunited with the Major, who had intended to kill him just before the neo-Nazi's Tom betrayed back in Dresden take them both hostage. Questions of how they got into the country aside, the Germans manage to get some information out of Tom (or should it be Jacob, at this point?) that saves his life, while seemingly spelling doom for the Major. It's a bloody encounter that goes on for way too long and serves as an example of how this show's love of violence lacks any sense of greater implication behind it. However, it also puts Tom back at Liz's mercy (or is it the other way around?) at the end of the episode – so that's something, right?
'The Longevity Initiative' has the same problems that nearly ever episode of The Blacklist does. Still, with a greater focus on how the here and now of the procedural matters to the characters and their relationships with one another, it almost comes off as a breath of fresh air.
The Blacklist continues next Thursday with 'Vanessa Cruz' @9pm on NBC. Check out a preview below: