[This is a review of The Blacklist season 2, episode 20. There will be SPOILERS.]
At this point, it's beginning to feel like The Blacklist could drop the convention of using the names of blacklisters for its episodic titles. This week's 'Quon Zhang' features so little of the titular criminal that it's almost a misnomer for the episode to name an entire hour after him. But that's not a bad thing. As the season ramps up for the finale, the need to dedicate time to tracking down one of Red's leads has decidedly taken a backseat to more pressing concerns. Such as, Lizzie's mysterious past, what secrets Red is still withholding and why, and, naturally, what the Cabal is up to – or will be up to in 2017, now that the cat is more or less out of the bag on that one.
There's progress in both the series' overarching plotline and the stories of some of its main characters, and that's a welcome relief. After 42 episodes, The Blacklist has decided to move things forward. It's incremental, to say the least – the reveal of the Fulcrum and it being put to use seems to have made that little MacGuffin mostly a thing of the past – but for a series that has been so obstinate about exploring the possibilities of its own storyline, seeing the focus shift from an inanimate object to a clandestine group like the Cabal is reason enough to get excited. Apparently, when a show insists on setting the bar so low, it becomes exponentially easier to make minor adjustments in emphasis seem like much larger shifts in importance.
That's sort of the crux of 'Quon Zhang,' though, isn't it? The entire episode is dedicated to making small things seem like much larger revelations, so that the push to the finale can carry more dramatic weight. Last season, it was the threat of Berlin looming large over everything. This time around, it's the threat of the Cabal and their plans to initiate World War III in 2017 – why? Who knows? 2017 seems like as good a time as any, I guess. But it's difficult to get the audience to care about an event that may or may not happen several years into the future, so The Blacklist wisely shifts the focus to something more personal - something that might finally help make Red and Lizzie's relationship carry meaning beyond the mystery of whether or not he's her father.
And that's a good thing, because knowing will have more impact that the question of: is he or isn't he? The series is still playing coy, but it's also showing how Lizzie is making the choice to find out the truth. The advantage to this is that it not only strengthens Megan Boone's character - giving her a sense of agency in openly telling Red she's going to find out the truth with or without his help. (That is far removed from where she was just a season ago, and is nothing like her professional persona, wherein all she seems to do is ask questions she really should know the answers to.) It also strengthens the two other key relationships; namely, Lizzie and Red, and Lizzie and Tom.
Tom's been something of an outlier this season, as it seemed like the show was struggling with how to handle him, now that his relationship with Lizzie had been blown up, and his true identity was revealed. He's been shot, held hostage, and shipped off to Germany to hang out with some skinheads (by the way, it might not be a bad thing to have an episode center on Tom undergoing a laser removal procedure to get that tattoo off his neck). And now that he's back at Lizzie's side, it strangely feels like the right choice. Tom works far better as a sidekick than he ever did as a would-be villain. He gives Lizzie someone to talk to about Red and all the personal stuff that exists outside the FBI, and he is instrumental in helping her achieve her goal. It's a win-win for both characters.
The appeal of Tom helping Lizzie find out the truth about her past also makes Red's inflexibility a little easier to take. There's less of a feeling that Red is holding all the cards, and he can dole them out as the sees fit – which is frustrating, because he seems to really like holding onto each and every card. That's one of the things that is so troublesome about the Red character: he's been depicted as being too good at what he does. There's nothing wrong with having a character who exists in one extreme or another – especially in something like The Blacklist, which falls very much into the category of one (or more) genre – but for Red to become something more than a mere archetype, he's going to have to show another side of himself.
And in season 2, the show has come very close to doing just that. Red's chat with Lizzie in his secret apartment full of secrets goes a long way in showing how he cares for Lizzie by revealing some snippets about her past, like the fact that the woman in the photo was her mother, and that she was KGB (makes you wonder if NBC had planned a Blacklist-Allegiance crossover in the vein of Chicago Fire-Chicago P.D.). Red still refuses to go into detail as to why he was there that night, but at this point, we're dealing with incremental changes, and confirmation on Lizzie's mom is enough for this hour.
In the end, 'Quon Zhang' managed to deliver a hint of something new and (potentially) exciting on the horizon. The threat of the Cabal could prove to be a driving force behind the series' plot - one that could justify The Blacklist's desire to carry a more serialized story. So long as the show keeps pushing forward, and delivering details like it did with Agent Navabi tricking Kenneth Jasper, then it could be enough to maintain audience interest.
The Blacklist continues next Thursday with 'Karakurt' @9pm on NBC. Check out a preview below: