[This is a review of The Blacklist season 3, episode 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
Before season 3 kicked off, the producers of The Blacklist mentioned how the series would take on more of a serialized approach to its storytelling. The show has always had an overarching narrative, which has been both the driving focus of series, as well as one of the primary selling points for viewers. But that narrative – the mystery of Liz and Red's relationship, etc. – was told largely in the margins of each episode. That is to say, seemingly important bits of information would be revealed in the final minutes (or, in most cases, seconds) of the hour, and then remain largely undeveloped in the next episode, as that hour would be largely focused on the next blacklister. As the series went on, there were times when the storyline would become more serialized – the battle against Ron Perlman's Luther Braxton is a good example – and it was a sign that The Blacklist might be ready to shed its dependence on villain-of-the-week scenarios, to better focus its storytelling endeavors on the actual story at hand.
By blowing up Liz's position at the FBI, and making her a fugitive along with Reddington, the series did itself one of the biggest favors a successful television series can do: It made the conscious effort to improve itself, and to fiddle with an admittedly successful formula for the sake of telling a better story – or, at least, telling its story better. The series is only two episodes into season 3, so it is still early enough the show's apparent commitment to a more serialized format can be aborted or prove merely an aspect of this season's opening salvo, but between last week's 'The Troll Farmer' and now, 'Marvin Gerard' (featuring the man, the myth, the star of Hackers and Academy Award-winner, Fisher Stevens) The Blacklist's change of pace has felt refreshing.
For one thing, putting Liz and Red on the same page means more time is spent each hour with Red – which is really the reason people are watching this show, right? But that dynamic has also flipped the script on the series itself in a way that changes how the titular blacklisters are being used. What once was a derivative find 'em and catch 'em format has been readjusted to see those people on Red's list be turned into an asset, one that is used to a specific end: clear the (relatively) good name of Elizabeth Keen. It's in keeping with how the dynamic of the series has changed – in that Liz and Red are on the run, so, naturally, they would use the blacklisters to ensure they remain out of FBI's custody – but that slight change makes the introduction of people like the Troll Farmer or Marvin Gerard slightly less predictable.
While Red and Liz are holed up in a greasy diner – with a killer pecan pie and secret elevator leading to a hidden basement (because, come on, this is The Blacklist and the writers love them some tricked-out elevators) – their attempt to pull a Dog Day Afternoon is really a surreptitious plot by Red to get his lawyer (Gerard) out of prison. The whole Gerard scenario is the type of ridiculous-but-fun stuff the show excels at, but then it kills the vibe by throwing in some heavy-handed details meant to elicit such a specific emotional response from the audience it just feels gross. Red lays on a sympathetic story about why Gerard is in prison – and later reveals details of his child's suicide – while Liz kicks an abusive dirtbag's ribs in (literally), after he makes a move for her gun. Liz is later disturbed by how said dirtbag's wife looked at her when she tried to help, and ends up asking Red how he deals with people being so afraid of him.
These details are intended to give depth to characters and afford their situation some sense of gravity. Gerard's is just backstory, so it can mostly be forgiven for its attempts to paint him in such a specific light. Liz, however, is a different story. Given the events of the past few episodes, the character is understandably concerned whether or not she can live with herself, now that she's on the other side of things. And the excessively violent way she reacts to a relatively small threat admittedly has her worried she's traveling down a slippery slope.
This is a case where the intent of the message is clear, but the method of its delivery is sloppy. Liz was already participating in a hostage situation to save her own hide; kicking an abusive husband in the ribs and then having feelings about how his wife looked at her came off as unnecessary hand holding, all of which is made worse by the fact that the guy's status as an abusive dirtbag lessens the impact of her actions. The payoff was in Red's patented longwinded response anyway – this time a funny little ditty about being a sea captain – so wouldn't it have been more meaningful if Liz's question had been in reference to taking a group of innocent people hostage, not the unexpected result of kicking an abusive jerk in the ribs?
Despite those few overwritten elements, 'Marvin Gerard' proves to be a largely successful outing and follow-up to last week's premiere. Diego Klattenhoff has certainly seen the benefits of the season's shake-up, as Ressler (once known as Agent Worthless in these parts) proves he's at his best when given the chance to go rogue. Actually, it's just nice to see the character given the chance to do anything, which he does in his own prickly way that is surprisingly entertaining.
The series still leans heavily on introducing surprises in the final seconds of the episode, but given that the more serialized narrative means Tom/Jacob stands a greater chance of influencing the story in the next installment, such a return to form isn't necessarily a negative. Like other aspects of the series, this custom might also find itself improved by the show's desire to flip the script.
The Blacklist continues next Thursday with 'Eli Matchett' @9pm on NBC. Check out a preview below:
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