[This is a review of The Blacklist season 1, episode 10. There will be SPOILERS.]
Since the series premiere, The Blacklist has predominantly sustained itself on its two primary attributes: the magnetism of James Spader's performance and its desire to continually build mystery after mystery, and then reveal them (or not), just to keep the audience guessing. For the most part, that combination seems to be working for the show, in terms of garnering viewers, but the persistent use of surprises and reveals (or non-reveals) has left the show's narrative dealing with a bit of an identity crisis: it's as though the series is testing various potential mythologies before actually making any of them concrete and forcing the show down one path or another.
After several weeks of fairly simple, mostly rote villains enduring the haughty wrath of Raymond 'Red' Reddington, it began to look as though he'd finally walked into a situation his many, many underworld contacts and vast array of associates simply couldn't help him out of. That is: Red was tucked away in his DARPA-crafted lockbox with a grievously injured Ressler, while the dreadful visage of Anslo Garrick (Ritchie Coster) skulked about outside, threatening to execute whomever he thought might coax the master criminal out into the open. Last week's 'Anslo Garrick, Part 1' ended rather abruptly, leaving the audience to conclude Red's associate Dembe (Hisham Tawtiq) had been the next one to eat a bullet. But 'Part 2' picks up immediately afterward, revealing Dembe to still alive and well, thanks mostly to the intervention of Elizabeth and Aram, who had just managed to get the Post Office's communications back online before being taken prisoner and then used as the ultimate tool force a mano a mano between Red and Anslo.
The surprise of the episode, however, doesn't come from Anslo taking Red to an abandoned church somewhere in the city, instead of killing him immediately; rather, the surprise comes from the man who stayed Anslo's eager hand. After having a doctor ply the captive with a drug intended to increase Red's sensation of pain, and then notching a big fat zero when it came to procuring information through torture, Anslo turns his captive over to none other than Alan Alda – who, as you might guess, brings along all sorts of additional mysteries and questions regarding Red and the criminal underworld from whence he came.
As you're also likely to guess, Alda's character and Red share a lengthy and complicated backstory that will surely be revealed in the coming weeks – only to reveal that that mystery is itself shrouded in all sorts of seemingly unanswerable questions as well. But until then, having Alda show up and tell Red that the criminal sect they both belong to is well aware of his alliance with the FBI feels like step in the right direction. What's more, Alda mentions how even though they could have killed him at any time, Red's alive because of what he has. Naturally, the show doesn't go into specifics, but according to Alda, "we know what will happen to it if you turn up dead."
There's a great deal of suspense built-up around what's in Red's possession, and why a cabal of criminals would let him hang out with the FBI for fear that killing him would result in something happening to "it." And then all of that gets washed away when Alda basically shrugs, leaves the room, and lets Anslo seek his revenge. So whatever Red has either isn't really that important and Alda's character just wanted to let everybody know he's a step ahead of the guy who's a step ahead of everyone else, or he knew Red would do what he always does to Anslo, and "beat him" – in this case, for the last time.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth spends her day in search of Red and Anslo, which at one point requires her to commandeer the Mercedes of the most willing civilian in the United States, as he drives with the kind of skill and determination the world hasn't seen since Jason Statham stopped making The Transporter movies. But Lizzie's storyline is mostly wrapped up in finding out her house is under surveillance, and then working with Red's cleaner (that's cleaner in the Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction or Point of No Return sense, not guy who steams your carpet sense) to dispose of the guy she killed after finding out. The episode ends with Red telling Elizabeth over the phone that he's not her father, and that she shouldn't trust her husband. And considering the aggrieved look on Red's face, there's likely more to both of those statements than he's letting on.
To a certain extent, the mixture of vagueness and surprise that came with Alda's appearance is part and parcel to the kind of storytelling that The Blacklist is clearly so fond of. It's intent on building a larger world by stacking mystery upon mystery and then having everyone guess as to what the next big reveal is going to be. But until the show starts pinning down a few answers, the continual build-up of questions shrouded in a thick fog of ambiguity – it doesn't get more vague than a newly introduced character saying, "we know what will happen to it," without a single hint as who or what he's referring to – is going to start feeling like nobody's willing to take the reigns in the writing room. Sure, it's a long season and we're less than halfway done, but it's not outrageous to think the show might be showing more of a solid foundation at this point.
And as it heads into a brief break – returning next month – this show finds itself in much the same position as Revolution was in when it hit the midseason mark. At this point, one must simply hope that The Blacklist will come back with a renewed sense of where this is all going and, more importantly, an answer as to why it is going there in the first place.
The Blacklist will return January 13 @10pm on NBC.