[This is a review of The Blacklist season 3, episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
Remember when, The Blacklist was about Raymond 'Red' Reddington and Elizabeth Keen crossing names off of Red's super-secret blacklist, and the mystery of their relationship was a constant source of intrigue/frustration? All series evolve as time passes, so it's understandable this particular show would tweak some of its more basic concepts in order to free up certain storylines, like it did at the start of season 3 (to the show's overall benefit), and like it does with 'Zal Bin Hasaan,' who is one of Red's blacklisters, but one that apparently every government knows about. The curious thing about Hasaan, though, is that while Red has him marked down on the list, nobody knows who he is, much less that he's actually Navabi's supposedly dead brother.
Admittedly, there is some intrigue in this development, which takes a supporting character like Navabi and uses her emotional stakes to drive the episode's storyline. The shifting focus makes for a more propulsive and slightly less preposterous episode than last week's cryogenic fiasco. But in their effort to tie up as many loose threads as possible, and give Navabi the spotlight for the better part of an hour The Blacklist writer's room forgets – a for the third week in a row, mind you – that Elizabeth Keen is an actual character on this show. Not only does the episode ignore Liz and only occasionally focus on her looking sad, tired, and otherwise bored, but it also seems to have forgotten how to make a fugitive story intriguing. Maybe it's because Liz's status as a fugitive has gone on for so long, but at this point the show seems about as interested in making the audience care that Liz is on the run as it does in giving Megan Boone something to do other than follow Red around.
The good news is, it seems like the fugitive Liz storyline is coming to a head, so when The Blacklist returns from fall break, perhaps it can return to the same old status quo or create something new to lose interest in seven weeks into its run. The bad news is, the show has let the once ripe fruit of Liz and Red on the run from the FBI and The Cabal wither on the vine. So, as the significance of the main characters' threads wane, so too does the significance of nearly every other thread the show is tracking.
That is no more evident than in the alpha male posturing of Ressler and The Director in the FBI black site. After being ordered to play nice with one another by Christine Lahti, the two continue to be at one another's throats. Generally, this would be cause for some increased tension, but the diluted nature of the series these last few weeks has imbued these ancillary storylines with all the vigor and intrigue of a nap-loving knitting circle. Their back-and-forth consists mostly of The Director denying various accusations rather than doing something about them, and then forcing Mr. Soloman to swallow a fishhook as a way of proving the two aren't part of the same clandestine organization.
The fishhook thing is about as Blacklist-y as things get on this show, but it highlights another major flaw in these past few episodes. Mr. Soloman is a great villain and Edi Gathegi plays him like he's genuinely having a good time being there. The energy in Gathegi's performance turns an encounter between Mr. Soloman and Ressler over some wonton soup into one of the episode's most intriguing moments. Soloman is like Cesar Millan to Ressler's overly assertive attack dog, calmly letting him bark, knowing, in this instance at least, there will be no bite to follow. Interplay like that is what's missing between The Director and FBI agents, which not only makes those sequences feel unnecessarily leaden, it also stresses how underused Gathegi has been this season.
But underusing its characters seems to be The Blacklist's thing as of late. This is highlighted by Tom's arrival at Cooper's house with Karakurt in the trunk of his car. The whole sequence uses Tom appropriately. He's the story's other good-hearted thug with feelings for Liz, and he knows how to lay the smack down when it comes time to do so. Last week's misadventures in a fight club wind up being paid off here with a simple visual gag of Tom in his bloody clothes just chatting with Cooper on his front porch, then saying he wouldn't object to a cup of coffee. It's such a perfect use of Tom that you want to put it on repeat and have it playing in the writers' room every time Tom's story is broken down for the week.
Karakurt's attempted suicide by soy-based soap aside, Tom's actions seem to have improved Liz's chances of ditching her fugitive status. The only real problem with Tom going out of his way to nab the Russian assassin is it fails to answer one lingering question: Why wasn't this Liz's storyline?
Let's consider that over the past few weeks Liz has been responsible for getting Dembe some tea, reading a spreadsheet, and taking a nap on Red's plane. This is between bouts of standing next to or behind Red while he regales someone with a story from his past or poaches one of their bellinis, all in an effort to clear Liz's name. Tom is doing everything in his power to clear Liz's name, too. The same goes for Cooper and even Aram. The only person not actively handling the clearing of Liz's name is Liz. The whole underground fight club thing is definitely suited to Tom's character traits, but a tailor-made storyline (even one that is as fun as it is here) does little to justify the marginalization of, you know, the series' second most important character.
Hopefully, next week will resolve the fugitive Liz plot, and the series will remember that Elizabeth Keen can do things other than stand around in the background, while others solve her problems for her.
The Blacklist continues next Thursday with 'Kings of the Highway' @9pm on NBC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Peter Kramer & Virginia Sherwood/NBC