[This is a review of The Blacklist season 2, episode 2. There will be SPOILERS]
Every so often an episode of The Blacklist features a clear objective, a series of twists that, even if they strain credulity somewhat, at least make sense in terms of motivation, and, most importantly, the stakes are high enough that the importance of the plot goes beyond whether or not Reddington will get his way. And in order to pull that off, someone has to get the drop on ol' Red, as Elizabeth manages to do here in 'Monarch Douglas Bank'.
And while the episode is, at heart, a fairly typical installment of The Blacklist, the variable that Red's ex-wife Naomi Highland (Mary-Louise Parker) becomes actually serves to make the normally unflappable Reddington a little more vulnerable. That goes a long way in making the events of an episode seem like they could possibly matter (even if they really don't in the grand scheme of things), and it helps create a more functional kind of motivation for the character when he's orchestrating the backhanded infiltration of a Polish bank with deep ties to global crime and terror, all to get his hands on a woman known as the Formula.
While the woman with a photographic memory who ostensibly serves as the bank's biological ledger – thereby eliminating any sort of paper trail – is the essence of what makes The Blacklist tick (i.e., clever in the most superficial way possible), it's astonishing how she might as well be an actual inanimate object. The Formula's status as a plot device is such that she's only seen giving Ressler and Keen any actual information once. And when Red shows up on a train car to whisk her away to parts unknown, so his medical-school-dropout-manicurist/mob doctor can repair a bullet wound Ressler patched with a product that only this show could somehow turn into a strangely violent cure-all, it is the last time we even see the Formula onscreen.
But that doesn't stop other characters from reading her like a book, as Red initially does against Berlin, and Elizabeth later does against Red. So, in the end, the Formula is a clever little plot device that never quite turns into an actual character, and is unfortunately used in the most perfunctory manner possible.
Still, 'Monarch Douglas Bank' has its moments. Despite the aggressive unpleasantness of Berlin taking pieces of her body and mailing them to Red, the show at least attempts to prove Naomi capable of handling herself – just not against a foe cunning enough to pretend to leave a room when he really didn't. But you have to give Naomi credit for jamming a chicken bone into the face of a henchman, as a means of (ultimately failed) escape.
As it should be, the majority of the episode's drama comes from Spader, but Stormare also manages to give his lines enough life that the tête-à-tête between the two near the end, illustrates just how much the addition of a colorful character can breathe some life into a fairly rote scene. It's not unlike they way Spader manages to give just enough of a pained expression during yet another routine headlight-lit prisoner-for-money exchange that the audience understands what Naomi might possibly mean to the man who claims to have no friends.
With Naomi safe, one wonders where the next sense of urgency will come from. Perhaps this will be the last we see of Berlin for a few episodes, so as to not wear out Stormare's welcome (as if that could happen). If that's the case, well, The Blacklist is always cooking up new plots, so temporarily pushing Berlin aside to make room for Ressler's nascent drug habit and a larger role for Samar Navabi (Mozan Marnó), the Mossad agent apparently in Red's employ, might yield some interesting results. If not, then the series could do worse than having James Spader face off against Peter Stormare some more.
The Blacklist continues next Monday with 'Dr. James Covington' @10pm on NBC. Check out a preview below: