“I’m Ahab, and if you want to go after my whales you have to play by my rules.”
James Spader (Boston Legal) is The Blacklist. If you don’t like him, there’s no point in giving the show a chance. His character, Raymond “Red” Reddington, is the driving force behind everything that happens and no matter how many other characters get involved, his character’s machinations always play below the surface.
It’s Elizabeth “Liz” or “Lizzie” Keen’s (Megan Boone, Law and Order: Los Angeles) first day on the job. But it’s not just any job, and it’s not going to be a typical first day. She’s recently graduated from Quantico and is poised to be an entry-level profiler for the FBI. As she’s getting ready for her work, she’s blissfully unaware of what’s happening at FBI headquarters. One of the country’s most wanted men, Raymond “Red” Reddington, has just walked in the front door and surrendered. He has intel he’s willing to share on one non-negotiable condition…he’ll only talk to Elizabeth. For the past two decades, Reddington, once a federal agent himself, has been a fugitive. But he’s hardly been lying idle. Instead, he’s been crafting relationships and gathering intel from every side of every moral line you could think to draw. So when he turns himself in, it sets things in motion and raises questions only he can shed light on.
The pilot episode does a fantastic job setting up not just what we need to know for the foundation of the show, but also for the entire first season. The entire premise of the show boils down to The Blacklist — specifically what it is and who’s on it. The Blacklist is Red’s creation…a list of criminals whom Red has been tracking for various reasons. Many of these are people not even on the FBI’s radar, let alone any other government agencies’, but their danger to society at large is always indisputable once brought to light. This first season is driven by four questions:
1) Why Elizabeth Keen?
2) Who’s on The Blacklist?
3) Why did Red surrender?
4) Why now?
The surface is always just that. It’s important not to rely on what you see; instead, you must remember there’s always another layer to everything that’s happening. Very early on, Red says something along the lines of “Let me put your mind at ease. I’m never telling you everything.” Those aren’t merely the words of a man in need of a snarky comeback. They are a message for the audience. We always have to remember the answers are revealed in their own time.
What works about this season and the series as a whole is James Spader as Red. He inhabits the role with an effortless charm, managing to walk the line between charisma and danger with enviable ease. He plays Red as someone the audience understands is going to be impossible to truly know. Everything he says or does must be taken with a leap of faith as to the outcome. Spader’s the best actor in the cast and tied with the overall concept as my favorite thing about the show.
The next best thing is the amazing guest stars the show has been able to procure. The caliber of the actors usually playing a member of the List is second to none and provides even more depth to Spader’s character, showing us the quality of people he’s been associating with during his criminal days. From Isabella Rossellini (The Accidental Husband) to Alan Alda (Crimes and Misdemeanors) to Dianne Wiest (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) and more, The Blacklist has showcased some of Hollywood’s finest and I can only hope season two doesn’t suffer a dip in quality.
As far as the rest of the cast goes, they get better as the season goes along, without a doubt. As the foil for Red, the character of Elizabeth Keen is the next most crucial role. The only thing I’ve seen Megan Boone in before now is 2009’s My Bloody Valentine 3D and I was more centered on Jensen Ackles’ performance than I was noticing her. That’s a good thing, as it means I have a clean slate for my impression and can imagine her as Elizabeth Keen and only her. She definitely takes a few episodes to fit the role, as her responses seem to be a bit off in terms of emotionalism and believability at first. It’s only as Liz begins to accept the situation she finds herself in that Boone’s acting reads as committed.
Now there are a few things which work less well. For starters, why is it every show dealing with a government agency must show their protagonists using government resources for their own gain? I’m supposed to want to imagine these are the types of people defending our country and way of life and showing them literally putting the needs of the one ahead of the needs of the many is getting old. Also, Elizabeth is given way too much latitude. Yes, Red wants to work only with her but come on. Are you telling me our electronic surveillance is not advanced enough to make sure everything she and Red say to each other is somehow monitored? She’s a junior agent, mainly treated as though she runs the task force and it can relegate the actual senior agents to the backburner. It’s a missed opportunity to add a layer to the show, wherein Elizabeth must also struggle with feeling more of a sense of tug-of-war than she does.
If I had to choose one thing I have real difficulty putting aside in favor of simply enjoying the show, it’s definitely the relationship between Lizzie and her husband Tom (Ryan Eggold, 90210). These are either the two most well-adjusted people on the planet or the writers were having a very hard time adding even more tension to an already suspenseful show. So they decided Lizzie and Tom should just go ahead and really not react, let alone overreact, to any of the myriad things which happen to them — things which warrant reactions and, in fact, for some of them there is no such thing as an overreaction — like, say, being beaten into a coma! Things like that deserve more than a “we’ll get through this.” That whole arc felt wobbly to me, as though there was worry it would receive too much gravitas when the Red/Liz relationship is supposed to be doing the heavy lifting on that front. I have a truly hard time accepting where it ended.
To sum it all up, yes, there are some tropes of the spy genre I wish didn’t make it into The Blacklist and a relationship I don’t quite get. However, I am fascinated by the character of Red and equally enamored by Spader’s portrayal, and so am usually able to push everything aside in order to simply enjoy the ride. I recommend this. However, I’m serious when I say if you’re not a Spader fan, stay away. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The Blacklist: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) offers up 22 episodes, spread across five discs:
* “Pilot” — When Red Reddington surrenders to the FBI, it sets into motion events which will drastically change lives.
* “The Freelancer” — The freelancer is an assassin who has a new target — one of Elizabeth’s heroes — a humanitarian worker whose life is devoted to ending the sex slave trade.
* “Wujing” — One of Red’s former associates, a known Chinese spy, is next up on the list; Liz must go undercover as an encryption specialist.
* “The Stewmaker” — A man known as The Stewmaker has a unique set of skills — namely an ability to make bodies disappear, leaving only the trophy he takes from each body he disposes of.
* “The Courier” — Red and the team have a difficult time tracing a messenger known as The Courier when his appearance is unknown.
* “Gina Zanetakos” — A beautiful woman with terrorist ties is next up on the list; however, Liz’s attention is diverted when she takes Tom into the black site for questioning.
* “Frederick Barnes” — A man triggers a chemical attack on the subway and it turns out the motive is more personal than terrorist.
* “General Ludd” — A terrorist group who call themselves General Ludd plan an attack against the country’s financial sector, namely Wall Street.
* “Anslo Garrick” — This time it’s Red who is the hunted when someone on his Blacklist turns hunter.
* “Anslo Garrick: Conclusion” — There’s a mole in the FBI.
* “The Good Samaritan” — Red focuses on finding the mole at the FBI while Liz tackles a past case involving a criminal who has returned to his foul deeds.
* “The Alchemist” — The alchemist is a truly dangerous name from the list because he transforms DNA in order to free criminals, leaving innocent people behind to take the fall.
* “The Cyprus Agency” — A string of infant abductions lead the team to an adoption agency with overseas ties.
* “Madeline Pratt” — When a nuclear security threat arises, an old flame of Red’s is at the heart of the case. When she double-crosses Red, the game takes another turn.
* “The Judge” — There’s a myth within the legal system that once all options have been exhausted, the final pleas have been heard and rejected, inmates can plead their case before The Judge. If The Judge believes a wrong has been committed, it becomes a case of an eye for an eye.
* “Mako Tanida” — A Japanese prison break leads to a confrontation between Agent Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff, Homeland) and someone from his past.
* “Ivan” — A Russian cyber terrorist is blamed when a valuable cyber defense prototype is stolen; however, things are not what they appear.
* “Milton Bobbitt” — What would convince ordinary people to take the life of someone they’ve never met? Especially if taking that person’s life means their own ends as well?
* “The Pavlovich Brothers” — A germ warfare expert is extracted from China but kidnapped before she arrives at the safe house in the United States, prompting Red and the team to try and locate her before the Chinese do.
* “The Kingmaker” — When a man in Prague is accused of murder, Red believes the man is being framed and that the person responsible is The Kingmaker, who has helped some of the most powerful politicians gain that power. Now he’s on American soil about to do the same thing.
* “Berlin” — The two-part season finale begins with Liz turning in her resignation, prompting Red’s detainment by the FBI since his agreement has become nullified. But a plane crash soon changes everything and puts the team’s lives in jeopardy.
* “Berlin: Conclusion” — New secrets are revealed as season-long arcs are tackled with an ending that truly leaves everything up in the air for next season.
In terms of the technical specifications, The Blacklist: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) is a beautiful set. My only issue is the occasional shaky cam or oddly angled shot. Otherwise, the 1.78:1/1080p transfer shines, holding its levels very well, a tough job at times when so much of the series relies on the shadows. The audio is an expected DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track and also, as expected, performs very well…with one exception. The theme song, for the few brief seconds it airs, is unbalanced. It plays obnoxiously loud and is jarring.
The special features are interesting, especially the inclusion of Blu-ray only features. I can’t remember the last time I had that option. To begin, we have a pair of commentary tracks, but as they don’t feature the cast they’re more informative than entertaining. Next up is “Beyond the Blacklist,” an option for every episode which gives a bit of backstory. There are two BTS featurettes which focus on the pilot and the season overall, respectively. “Character Dossiers,” which highlight Red, Liz, Tom, Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff, Homeland), Assistant Director Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix, Man of Steel), CIA Agent Meera Malik (Parminder Nagra, E.R.) and tech support Aram Mojtabai (Amir Arison, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit), are also included and contain corresponding interviews with the actors. Then comes “Rogues’ Gallery,” which delves deeper into the actors behind the people we know are on The Blacklist. Finally, we have Digital Ultraviolet copies of the season, always appreciated.
The Blacklist may as well be retitled “The Raymond Reddington Show.” The Blacklist is a creation devised by Reddington, and he is undoubtedly the driving force behind the entire show. He is the puppetmaster to the pawns. For me, he’s worth watching the show for and his performance negates most of the quibbles I have about other aspects.