[This is a review of The Blacklist season 2, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
For a series alleging to have a complex mythology and intricate storyline involving two of its primary characters, The Blacklist certainly favors formula over everything else. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as its particular James Spader-led formula helped dig NBC out of a ratings slide so epic it finished fifth in sweeps – behind Univision – almost a year ago. But when it comes to the narrative and addressing certain shake-ups that occurred during the previous season's finale, the formula in question only leads to a reinstatement of the status quo.
And so, in its season 2 premiere, The Blacklist moves away from questions of Raymond 'Red' Reddington's true motives, and towards getting things at the FBI black site back in order, so that more names can be checked off the titular blacklist.
Sure, there's a hint of change in the air, but it's really only the lingering vapors of aftermath. With the exception of a few mournful nods toward the departed Agent Malik, the smoke has mostly cleared on the Berlin incident. The black site is being run by interim director Martin (Jason Butler Harner), whose position is so tenuous, he hardly has any interaction with anyone outside of telling yet another overly concerned government official that Reddington refuses to talk to anyone but Agent Keen – which is essentially the gist of every scene Henry Lennix's Harold Cooper had last season.
In truth, aside from the fact that Megan Boone appears to no longer be wearing a wig, 'Lord Baltimore' largely favors the comfortable familiarity of formula over the nominal concerns of progression.
To that end, The Blacklist shows remarkable resilience in getting back to the kind of stasis point where temporary characters can weave in and out at an alarming rate. For fans of the show, that means setting things up with a snappy opening scene in which Spader turns seemingly unsavory odds against Reddington into yet another full course meal of scenery chewing. Spader is obviously adept at commanding a scene as Reddington, but even though there's no clear reason why (other than contractual obligations), the show continues to use him as a side dish, rather than the main course. As such, almost everything else winds up being pushed around the episodic plate, as everyone waits for another helping of Reddington.
That is certainly the case here, but what's interesting about 'Lord Baltimore' is how the show attempts to address the dearth of interest in the non-Red portions of the episode by filling them with familiar (enough) faces, like Krysten Ritter, Peter Stormare, and Mary-Louise Parker. It's not all that different from last season's revolving door of single-serving talent, but with the three recognizable guest stars in a single episode, The Blacklist is starting to feel a little like the 2014 version of The Love Boat.
For his part, Stormare has been around since the season 1 finale, and his distinctive presence continues to be a benefit to the series. He provides the proceedings with a tangible distraction from the episodic avoidance of what's really going on regarding Red's secrets. At this point, it's unclear how long Berlin will remain a thorn in Red's side, but one hopes it will be a while, as the focus that is gained from his behind-the-scenes machinations, has been more fulfilling than the usual three minute hint of Red's relationship to Elizabeth that is typically tacked on to the end of an episode.
The same goes for Mary-Louise Parker, who (surprise!) turns out to be Red's wife from 20 years ago. Although we know next to nothing about Naomi Highland, other than she likes to have friends over for a little white wine, her abduction by Berlin acts as another necessary layer to insulate the narrative from questions the show clearly isn't ready to answer. By giving Red and Elizabeth the goal of finding Naomi before Berlin runs out of body parts to place in suspiciously ornate boxes, The Backlist effectively places everything else on the back burner.
In essence, the Berlin and Naomi plots are natural extensions of the criminal-of-the-week format the show will likely continue to utilize until NBC turns the lights out – in other words, for a very long time. Neither plot requires much in the way of tending to and can easily be held in place for an entire season. What's surprising is that by layering them into the episodic narrative, ostensibly as distractions, Berlin and Naomi prove the show can be about something more than questions about Red.
What once would have been an episode focused primarily on the inevitable apprehension of Krysten Ritter's assassin with dissociative identity disorder - and then lightly seasoned with a montage of Red staring at a picture of Elizabeth (or vice versa) - has been channeled into Red staring at a message from Berlin, prominently featuring the (allegedly) amputated finger of his ex-wife. The additional characters are essentially a patch job, but for now they're good enough to make sure things continue running smoothly.
Overall, it was a rather mechanical opening for season 2, one that favored adherence to the show's formula and a return to the status quo over any significant expansion of storyline. By the end, Cooper is back in charge and (minus Malik) the black site group is smiling and laughing in the way semi-familiar office drones do as they prepare to tackle yet another perfunctory day at the office.
In the end, The Blacklist is sort of like being that office drone: The work is steady, there's really no end in sight, and from one day to the next, you can always expect the expected will happen.
The Blacklist continues next Monday with 'Monarch Douglas Bank' @10pm on NBC. Check out a preview below: