[This is a review of The Blacklist season 2, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]
The biggest question stemming from the post-Super Bowl XLIX episode of The Blacklist is: Why does the show even bother with cliffhangers if the promo for the following week is just going to obliterate any tension the narrative managed to generate with such an abrupt ending?
Yes, it's true, this series is never really about what's happening at the moment; it's only about the possibility of what could happen next week and the week after that. But moving from a missile striking the blacksite prison currently occupied by Reddington, Keen, and this week's special guest star, Ron Perlman, to a promo essentially telling the audience what happened puts a serious damper on what was a surprisingly engaging, if slightly uneven midseason premiere.
Much of 'Luther Braxton' plays out as close to real time as this show tends to get. The usual enormous gaps in time – where international flights and interstate travel happen in the blink of an eye – have been reduced to a few minutes here and there, meaning the audience probably just missed out on Red telling a few stories about Minsk or Helsinki or how the three-toed sloth came to move at such a leisurely pace as a way of describing some aspect about himself. Thankfully, even at its faster pace, the episode still treats viewers to a vague story about Belgrade, wherein Red gets to say, "Ah, Belgrade. Boy, things got nasty in Belgrade," and later segues into a story about fish that learned to thrive in the darkness but became hideous as a result. It's not particularly great television, but it is undeniably The Blacklist - and, if nothing else, the show has learned how to turn vague allusions to "bloody" events and the arbitrary reference of a foreign city into guaranteed gut busters.
Those are some fairly low-level conventions the show seems to throw in just to keep things lively – and considering the amount of bloodshed during this particular hour, the occasional shift in tone is actually appreciated. But seeing as how this is the first episode since November 2014, The Blacklist would be remiss if it didn't also break out some of the series' more advanced in-house conventions, like failing to deliver on answers to Agent Keen's real relationship with Red, and demonstrating for the umpteenth time how useless Agent Ressler is.
To its credit, though, 'Luther Braxton' stands out thanks to its relentless pacing. The episode is essentially one long prison break that, despite beginning with the tired concept of someone deliberately being caught to facilitate his breaking into prison (i.e., Red), moves briskly from scene to scene, setting up some notable set pieces along the way, like Braxton's brazen escape from his cell, and Red's shotgun-toting stroll through the compound as he searches for Liz.
Although the moments featuring Perlman and Spader in all their nefarious glory are great, they don't necessarily add up to a complete episode. In typical Blacklist fashion, the sequences feel too disconnected from one another – despite taking place in the very same location – to allow for any real sense of rising tension. Red and Braxton are only allowed a single conversation over the phone before the former makes like Rambo, kills all the bad guys, and wounds the titular Blacklister in the process. For an episode that more or less had its pacing under control, it couldn't have barreled through the last five minutes any faster if its head was on fire.
But for all the same ol' same ol' the episode brought to the big (after) game, there were some potentially compelling developments involving the dubious-sounding Fulcrum and the clandestine organization whose secrets it apparently holds. Now that Alan Alda's Fitch is dead, he's been replaced by David Strathairn, as the series' face of the illuminati-like group out for Red's blood. More interesting, however, is how vulnerable the revelation that the Fulcrum is not in Red's possession leaves him, and how that information ostensibly puts the concierge of crime on the defensive.
Just like questions of Liz's relationship to Red (and now the Fulcrum, apparently), it's hard to say just where this development will take the series. It could be a shot in the arm creatively for The Blacklist to have Red in a position where he isn't the guy with all the answers, where he can't move about the globe freely, and get away with whatever he wants. It could be what the series needs right now to stretch its legs and show what it looks like when Red is on the run. Maybe that's where the season is headed with this episode's emphasis on the clandestine group pulling the government's strings.
And then again maybe it's not. But wherever things are headed, at least NBC wasn't ready and waiting with a promo to answer that question seconds after it'd been asked.
The Blacklist continues Thursday, February 5 with 'Luther Braxton: Conclusion' @10pm on NBC. You can check out the offending promo for next week's episode below: