[This is a review of The Blacklist season 3, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
TV writers love them some Darknet. It's the perfect sort of non-descript boogeyman through which almost any story can be funneled. Everything from the seemingly respectable House of Cards to the utterly ridiculous, elderly-frightening CSI: Cyber has used it at one time or another to facilitate some aspect of a story. Need a place to do some shady business dealings and maybe meet a black hat hacker to further the public's fear of computer criminals? The Darknet's your place. Need to hire a killer, but find placing an ad in the personals section of the local newspaper too passé amongst today's smartphone-loving audience? The Darknet, man, just go to the Darknet. It's not just a manifestation of a technophobe's worst nightmare; it's also the best kind of writer's Spackle with which to fill in the peskiest of plot holes.
And yet, the Darknet is perfectly at home on a show like The Blacklist. In fact, if you'd never heard of the Darknet before, you might be inclined to believe it was conceived in the show's writers' room. Because both the idea of the Darknet and its use in the world of fictionalized television programs are so appropriate for a series that once spent the better part of a season searching for a device called The Fulcrum – which turned out to basically be a PowerPoint presentation – having it play a major role in 'Arioch Cain' is no surprise at all. In fact, the show actually succeeds in making the Darknet the episode's primary antagonist, mostly by filling the margins of an admittedly fast-paced and action-packed episode with non-descript players.
Those players, like a bearded assassin who crafts his own bullets in his kitchen like a hipster would beer, a prototypical petulant computer geek spouting off about creating true democracy, or a cherubic teenager overjoyed at the thought of another human being's death, make the episode work by doing the opposite of what last week's bloated, bloviating, antagonist-focused episode did to essentially stall out. In other words: 'Arioch Cain' never loses sight of the fact that The Blacklist is most successful when Red and Liz are the show's focal point.
There can be ancillary threads, like Tom making new friends with Asher Sutton (Peter Vack) – a.k.a. the guy least likely to have ever been in an underground fighting ring, much less emerged victorious – or Ressler testifying in front of Christine Lahti about denying the CIA access to the FBI's investigation into Keen and Reddington. The Tom stuff is still mostly laughable, but the purpose of it serves the overall plot enough to make it just silly rather than annoying, and besides, it keeps Cooper from wasting away in a cubicle. But Ressler's thread, and the threat of David Strathairn's The Director being brought into the black site at the request of the government, helps to shrink the plot down a bit, make it more manageable, so the hazard that the Cabal represents remains close at hand and can therefore be a more engaging part of the show. Perhaps most effective, though, is the return of Dembe, who loves participating in an eleventh-hour save so much he won't let being shot at close range by Mr. Vargas spoil his enjoyment of mowing down Soloman's goons in an airplane hanger.
These ancillary threads are mostly successful because they are working towards the same goal. Last week, much of what was going on felt as though the threads were working at cross-purposes, or were so disconnected from one another they didn't successfully create a cohesive whole. Again, last week's episode wasn't necessarily a failure of content; it was one of structure and of The Backlist not knowing when to say when.
Here, though, 'Arioch Cain' plays with episodic structure in a fun, if not exactly fascinating way. The opening, wherein Liz is pretending to be dead is, like the Darknet, a plot device familiar to anyone who watches even a small amount of television. But it gets the story going, and even though there is absolutely no tension with regard to what Liz's fate will be, the episode makes good use out of the viewer's curiosity and desire to connect the dots from that opening to 12 hours earlier. It's a simplification; one that The Blacklist should be aware by now results in stronger, more focused, and entertaining episodes.
When the show is bursting at the seams – like it was last week – elements that might otherwise go overlooked suddenly appear as if begging to be put under the microscope. Red's inane, one-dimensional speech about intolerance being a perfect example. Here, however, even though, for the second week in a row, the show discovers its ostensible villain is living deep in the black heart of suburbia, the preposterousness of the situation at least facilitates an end to the episode's storyline.
That doesn't change the fact that The Blacklist remains as hilariously glib about the actions of its characters as ever. It even goes so far as to offer one parting shot of Darknet Blair – the apple-cheeked teen who is revealed to be the titular blacklister – sitting on the couch, while her father smiles as though a child contracting a murder on the Internet is just one of those silly inconveniences you have to deal with as a parent. Kids these days. Sure, Blair was trying to get revenge for her mother's death in an act of domestic terrorism, but attempted murder, for any reason, should almost certainly be a groundable offense. It's at least bad enough for dad to change the Wi-Fi password, right? Apparently, in the world of The Blacklist, a daughter may contract a hit via a chat room, but she'll never lose her father's love.
Everything here is outlandish and impossibly slick, right down to the anticlimax of Liz's emotional appeal to Blair and Mr. Vargas' blink-and-you'll-miss-it demise. And yet, it's all perfectly befitting a mostly successful and mostly entertaining episode of this show.
The Blacklist continues next Thursday with 'Sir Crispin Crandall' (which sounds like the name of a British puffed rice-themed Beatles cover band) @9pm on NBC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: David Giesbrecht/NBC