[This is a review of The Blacklist season 3, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
Having to produce 22 episodes of content in a season is undoubtedly a daunting task. It's why so many cable networks opt for the 13-or-less route when producing a season of television. One of the reasons is the question: How does a series service its overarching plot in 22 segments, without stretching out the drama to the point it loses all of its tension? This is one of the major problems facing The Blacklist from season to season, and it's one that the show has made some efforts to address. But, at the end of the day, when you have more than 20 hours of television to produce, you take a shortcut – any shortcut – when you can find one.
And the easiest way to do that is by stepping into a heated conversation a show about global conspiracies and men called "The Concierge of Crime" has no real business stepping into. Sure, doing this can imbue an episode with that ripped-from-the-headlines feel, a method of storytelling that has fueled Law & Order (and several other shows) in all its many iterations for more than 25 years, but it also has the effect of making certain viewers scoff when something like, say, GMOs, becomes part of the episodes plot – a plot that is, more often than not, inconsequential at best.
To that end, 'Eli Matchett' is a classic episode of The Blacklist, in that its attention is largely diverted away from the overarching storyline, to something more immediate. This time, it means Red and Liz – who were last seen on a shipping container headed to Spain – turn around so they can be shipped to the most interesting location in all of television: Iowa. That's right, after two episodes of running from Ressler and the rest of the FBI, only to successfully escape in the most luxurious shipping container known to man, Red and Liz find themselves in corn country.
While Liz was sleeping or maybe playing a game on her phone, Red was apparently collecting information on an agricultural company called Verdiant, a company that not only manufactures GMOs, but also launders money for the Cabal. (Although it's pretty clear that what Red was really up to was finding out NBC didn't want to go to the trouble of creating a reasonable facsimile of Spain, so they settled on Iowa.) At any rate, Liz isn't too disappointed, since she's given the task of stealing a car, while Red finally notices that Dembe isn't around.
'Eli Matchett' is the kind of episode that screams "last-minute re-write" and because of that it feels particularly energetic and chaotic. Having Red and Liz end up in Iowa instead of Spain may have been the writers' plan all along, but if that's the case, the episode certainly didn't feel like it was. At any rate, there is a sense that the episode is scrambling right along with its characters, and the effect is ultimately entertaining, despite (or maybe because of) the ridiculousness of it all. If anything, The Blacklist has developed enough that it knows how to maneuver the irrelevant plot points around the bigger picture stuff, so that it's like replacing pieces of tile without tearing the whole floor up. In other words, it doesn't really matter if Red and Liz are going after dashing Spaniards in Majorca (or wherever) or embattled farmers in Iowa; the overall view remains the same.
That doesn't mean The Blacklist is free from clichés or everything makes sense – sometimes things just don't add up entirely. In this case, not only does the intrepid fugitives' location come as a surprise, but the speed with which agents Ressler and Navabi are on their tale is as well. Thankfully, as Red actually says, he and Liz are one step ahead. This is the sort of thing that you wouldn't expect the writers to feel was a necessary line of dialogue. The whole premise of the show is that Raymond 'Red' Reddington is always one step ahead of everyone, so having him literally assure the one person who should know by now is this show delivering its worst and making it hilarious. At any rate, Matchett's nefarious plan to spread a corn virus via aphids is ultimately undone by Ressler and Navabi, after Liz gives them a tip on the "real" suspect - but only after a not-at-all tense sequence in which she and Red watch a download progress bar while their pursuers creep ever closer.
So far this season, the doggedness of Ressler is at least somewhat interesting – in that Diego Klattenhoff finally has something to do on the series – but it is already threatening to become stale. Chances are Klattenhoff can get away with saying variations on "I'm just doing my job" for about two more weeks before he loses all credibility. Still, angry Ressler tackling a dude in a cornfield is more interesting than sad Ressler taking pills, so whatever works, Blacklist. The same can be said for Tom and Cooper. They've both been demoted in some respects, so to have them surreptitiously working on the Karakurt case gives them something to do other than get in the way of what's currently working.
It is somewhat surprising the show would have to implement a non-essential episode this early in the season, and it's a little disappointing, considering The Blacklist felt like it was on a roll with its first two episodes. On a positive note, despite all the various elements being tossed around 'Eli Matchett' managed to feel like a single, fluid episode that had a distinct beginning, middle, and end. It wasn't nearly as scattered and disjointed, as previous throwaway episodes of The Blacklist have been, so in terms of composition, at least the show continues to improve slightly - even while the storytelling gives way to familiar formulas.
The Blacklist continues next Thursday with 'The Djinn' @9pm on NBC. Check out a preview below:
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