[This is a review of The Blacklist season 3, episode 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
After a few weeks of noticeably streamlined and engaging storytelling, The Blacklist has worked its way back to a familiar routine of giving its villains the lion's share of the plot, while Red and Liz are developed in the margins, if at all. To see the series revert back to this is not much of a surprise. After all, NBC wound up with an incredibly successful show based off of this particular formula. But it also speaks to the time-filling needs of a network television series and they can be a considerable impediment to the efficient telling of a serialized story. And in that lies the real conflict of The Blacklist season 3. It isn't Red and Liz against the Cabal; the show is at odds with its desire to tell a more focused and coherent story, and having to stretch that story over 22 hours.
For all intents and purposes, the episode fulfills the basic requirements of the series. It even makes use of the protagonists' current circumstances, as a means of introducing and justifying the episode's villain. But that is all surface level stuff, covering up the fact that nothing of any real significance transpires throughout the hour. Instead, watching Red and Liz track down a wish-granting member of the blacklist feels less like they are pursuing a mysterious means to an end and more like a stalling tactic from the writers' room.
Perhaps that's why 'The Djinn' reads as a disappointing return to form for the series. The Blacklist spent the better part of two seasons teasing out Red's connection with Liz in a succession of sputtering starts and stops. Such fitful progression created a false sense of tension. It also made it seem as though The Blacklist had one idea and only one idea, and the thought of having to develop another was something the show would sincerely like to avoid. And so, in an effort to stay on one path, it stalled for time. It has been a major criticism of the series, one that was at least partially resolved by Liz's fugitive status and her time on the run with Red. Such focused storytelling was a promising way to begin season 3, but with these last two episodes, the newly developed sense of focus has begun to look increasingly like something the show will have to work it way back towards.
What's surprising about 'The Djinn' is the content isn't necessarily the problem. A lot of it is needlessly outlandish and doesn't make any sense whatsoever, but that's part of the appeal of the show. The Blacklist has never met a troubled familial relationship it can't turn grotesque. As such, the story of the Bakhash clan, and the forced sexual reassignment surgery of eldest son Nasir (who since became Nasim), is almost pedestrian as far as plots go. And at the same time, the show has never missed an opportunity to step up on its soapbox and let the audience know exactly what it's thinking. It's not enough to present a condemnable act when you can tell the audience precisely why the act in question is condemnable. And with James Spader as its mouthpiece why wouldn't it?
Instead, where 'The Djinn' slips up is in its disjointed structure. The episode simply has too many plot threads competing for time. The first two episodes of the season made full meals out of Red and Liz's attempts to evade capture and find some bargaining chip with the Cabal. This was supplemented by Ressler and Navabi's pursuit of the two and the almost casual appearance of a blacklister. It was simple, streamlined storytelling that progressed the plot.
Here, the episode not only has to contend with Liz, Red, and the FBI, but it also spends a considerable amount of time with Nasim and her father Bahram, not to mention the Djinn decoy Alice. As if that weren't enough, the episode also throws in Dembe's escape from Mr. Solomon's goons, and Mr. Vargas' deadly double cross. This is already more show than any episode of television can reasonably handle, and yet The Blacklist insists on inserting an astonishingly bad sequence in which Tom attempts to infiltrate a secret organization with an idiotic story about a watch.
Aside from Tom's plot getting off on completely the wrong foot, none of these threads are really that objectionable. In fact, most of them could be fairly interesting, inasmuch as The Blacklist can make such things interesting. And so, the question is not why have these plots at all but rather: why must they all be dealt with in the same episode?
This question takes on additional weight when you consider how much of the hour felt like the series was stalling, saving most of its story for later. If the season needs more time to let the main Red/Liz plot simmer, why not devote that time to developing these threads individually? Why not do a deep dive into Dembe's fight for survival or Tom's pursuit of Karakurt? Doling these threads out piecemeal in the same hour only makes the show feel more fragmented than usual. And compared to how entertaining the first two episodes of the season were, this most recent step feels distinctly like it's going in the wrong direction.
The Blacklist continues next Thursday with 'Arioch Cain' @9pm on NBC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Peter Kramer & Virginia Sherwood/NBC