[This is a review of The Blacklist season 2, episode 6. There will be SPOILERS]
Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington may be the “Concierge of Crime,” but he’s also someone who believes an individual should live and die based on his or her principles. After all, Reddington is nothing if not an extremely principled person. And while it’s great that Red occasionally stands for something more than making money or destroying his enemies, there’s only so much about him that The Blacklist can attempt to transform into proper antihero material before the viewer has to cry foul.
That’s not to say Red’s efforts to take a stand against poachers in ‘The Mombasa Cartel’ is something of a misguided effort. Instead, it’s more like, no matter how impassioned James Spader makes Red seem during his many (many) speeches about defending wildlife, it still reads like one of the writers is summarizing a magazine article they recently read and Spader’s simply reciting what he hears verbatim. The only thing believable about the whole thing is how incredibly disingenuous it all feels.
This is a series that routinely operates in an unsettling gray area where horrific things happen to people with little in the way of explanation or justification beyond, “well, it’ll keep the characters busy for an hour or so.” In seeing Red become an advocate for anything calls to mind an episode late in season 1, where women were being abducted, induced into a coma, and forced to bear children that were not their own. There was little examination done with regard to the victims; they were little more than accessories to a story that, as the episode wore on, gradually became less and less important than the secrets of the Keen-Reddington relationship.
In other words, while the conceit of the episode’s plot may be a worthy one, deserving of everyone’s attention, The Blacklist’s sudden sincerity and adoption of it rings completely false.
It’s nice to see ‘The Mombassa Cartel’ operating almost entirely as a standalone – with the exception of Red staging a meeting with his daughter Zoe (Scottie Thompson) and Keen finally revealing what’s behind door number one – but the episode is so shoddily edited and assembled, the hour is even more incomprehensible than usual.
The early misdirection concerning members of the titular cartel doesn’t work at all; it only serves to obfuscate what was plainly obvious the moment Peter Fonda’s name appeared onscreen. Perhaps playing by the old rule of “recognizable name = the guy who did it” was the point. But then the efforts to make Fonda’s introduction – held inexplicably in a bar with live music blaring in the background – seem like a strange one-and-done scene were little more than a waste of time (which isn’t necessarily something The Blacklist is afraid of doing).
The interplay between Keen and Red about the alias he’s devised for her is tepid at best. It so clearly attempts to hold the audience’s hand, to direct them to what she’s been hiding these last few weeks that the seams don’t just wind up showing, they practically come apart before your very eyes. Unlike last week’s enjoyably fast-paced and relatively straightforward ‘The Front’, this episode spends more time and energy distracting itself than it does telling a coherent story. By the time Ressler’s drug addiction C plot comes into play (when he slams his thumb in a car door and gets a prescription for the painkillers he’s dependent on), there’s really no clear indication of what the episode wanted to be about. And, look, there’s a certain amount of justification in skipping over the exposition in order to make a point, but going from an on-the-job thumb smashing to walking out of an Alaskan pharmacy with a prescription goes well beyond the concept of yadda-yadda-ing the inconsequential details; there’s an entire scene missing that is needed to demonstrate Ressler’s urgency and his state of mind.
Yes, the character is incredibly hollow and the show doesn’t care much about developing him, but if the third act is going to hinge on Ressler being hunted in the Alaskan wilderness by an anti-poacher group tied to Fonda's character - all while playing up his addictions - then there should be something beyond Keen handing him his prescription, then sitting with him in silence. That’s not poignancy; that’s an undercooked subplot being served as part of the main course.
Naturally, things drift more toward Red’s handling of the situation, which comes down to him killing Fonda after an inane discussion about supply and demand and how it factors into Fonda’s character’s involvement with aiding poachers, while being one of the world’s leading animal rights activists. The exchange about Dembe and all that he’s overcome and achieved (to basically become Red’s right-hand man) feels more trite than anything else – a thinly-veiled request for a pat on the back that ends with Fonda’s character being shot dead.
Of course, everything comes down to the last minute of the episode, in which Liz finally reveals she has Tom shackled in the basement of some secure location. It’s unclear what Tom’s return to the narrative will bring, but now that he’s shown his face, at least the story can move forward and hopefully find something interesting in his and Liz’s radically altered power dynamic.
The Blacklist continues next Monday with ‘The Scimitar’ @10pm on NBC. Check out a preview below: