[This is a review of The Blacklist season 3, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
It might be strange to say that in its season 3 premiere, The Blacklist feels remarkably like a show ready to lighten up and have some fun with its admittedly goofy premise. The same statement might also be a tad perplexing, given that the James Spader-led series has demonstrated an innate ability to be incredibly silly and glib at times. And yet, the cavalier attitude that served the series so well on occasion was really only delivered by Spader – the rest of the time, the cast, and often the plotting, was as staid as funeral procession.
That tendency for self-seriousness is dramatically reduced in the season 3 premiere, 'The Troll Farmer.' It begins with the episode's title – a clever nod to the social media manipulator who happens to be one of the titular blacklisters – but that same winking sensibility continues on throughout the hour, suggesting a new tone for the series as it shifts gears (however temporarily), making its two leads fugitives and taking the storyline further outside its comfort zone than ever before.
The remarkable thing is: The alteration of circumstances alleviates some of the biggest problems that have marked The Blacklist from day one. With Liz and Red on the run from the FBI, the show is suddenly a propulsive thriller, one where Red's blacklist isn't driving the plot, but a tool to be used within it. The episode may be named after the Troll Farmer (although he doesn't like to be called that), but it's not about him. In the weeks leading up to the premiere, awareness of the episode's title suggested the series was having a bit of a laugh at its own expense, and in a way, that certainly seems to be the case. But what's interesting is how the shift in priorities pays off to make the series feel so much more entertaining.
Yes, there is still the overarching issue with the Cabal and the Director (David Strathairn), but for the most part it seems the differences are the result of a simple and necessary shift in priorities, not a rearrangement of the series overall. These shifts aren't subtle by any means – it wouldn't be The Blacklist if they were – but that only helps make the audience more aware their importance as the season gets underway.
The changes aren't relegated to Liz and Red, however. Even within the Cabal there seems to be some trouble a-brewin', which allows for the introduction of the mysterious Mr. Solomon – played by Edi Gathegi, who had a memorable turn as Jean Baptiste in the otherwise forgettable fifth season of Justified – who has his eyes set on Dembe, and uses his daughter and grandchild as a means of getting what he wants. Gathegi is such an intriguing presence it doesn't even matter that his introduction also grants the audience entrance into Dembe's personal life – one that vastly expands the idea of who the character is, relinquishing some of the stolid one-dimensionality of the character in exchange for a rote but still effective emotional payload. Kidnapping and poisoning babies is definitely in The Blacklist's wheelhouse, but here it's used to usher in a heretofore-unseen angle on a familiar individual, and the result is an unexpected level of interest.
It is clear from the get-go that the goal of the premiere is to take familiar characters, put them in new situations, and to see how they react. This is typical of most shows, not just procedurals, in the early part of a new season; it generates curiosity and a sense of significance before the narrative slides back into a more familiar formula. And while you can expect The Blacklist to return to the familiar confines of its routine, the differences here are enough that you hope it doesn't.
Of all the people who come out of Liz's fugitive status notably different, the one who benefits the most is Donald Ressler. For the past two seasons, Ressler has hovered somewhere between unsung and completely irrelevant. His occasional flirting with Liz and misadventures with prescription drugs notwithstanding, there simply wasn't enough for Donald to do. And now, with Harry Lennix's Harold Cooper sidelined for obvious reasons, Ressler's promotion to "first chair," as Red calls it, finally gives the character a sense of purpose. That purpose, then, is actually made interesting through Ressler's inner conflict regarding who he's chasing and why. The battle between lawman who sees the world in stark black-and-white, and the man who listens to his instincts from time to time is a familiar one, but it's use here is rather welcome, as it gives a character with too little on his plate a sudden heapin' helpin' of interest that feels long overdue.
Much of what transpires in 'The Troll Farmer' feels long overdue. In that sense, Liz's shift in hair color (again, however temporary) is more than just a response to her fugitive status; it's another sign of the series lightening up a bit and choosing to have fun with its characters and their particular situations. The mystery of Liz's past, the question of who her father is and what connection she really has with Red feels demonstrably less weighty here, and that's a good thing.
The series has so far lived and breathed on the dynamic between Liz and Red, and too often the two were kept apart by virtue of the show's episodic structure. That meant precious few minutes were spent each week teasing – but never resolving or moving past – a secret that became less interesting as the show progressed. In 'The Troll Farmer' Liz and Red have a common goal that turns the focus away from questions the series has been unwilling to answer directly, and instead gives the characters a means of interaction better suited to them both.
Liz and Red sitting on a couch, chatting about her mother, with little hint that Red is willfully withholding information may be the most refreshing thing this series has done in a very long time. There is a compelling relationship between the two of them, and the series is beginning to understand that connection doesn't require Red take on the role of gatekeeper. There is lightness to Red admitting he doesn't know what happened to Liz's mother – which, subsequently, opens the door for her possible introduction – that lets the series breathe.
Mysteries are great starting points, but after a while, if they're not solved, they can suffocate a narrative. It would seem, in the season premiere, The Blacklist has figured out how shift its priorities, to let some air in and simply things in a simple but exciting way.
The Blacklist continues next Thursday with 'Marvin Gerard' @9pm on NBC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: David Griesbrecht/NBC