Summary: A brisk, efficient pilot kicks off a solid conspiracy procedural.
If you have not seen this episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, do not continue reading!
One of the FBI’s most wanted men, Raymond Reddington, strolls into the bureau headquarters in D.C. and turns himself in. He has information on a crime about to be perpetrated by a Serbian terrorist believed by the bureau to be dead. When the Serbian is recognized by facial ident software coming through the airport very much alive, the Special Agent in Charge listens to Reddington’s demands to help catch the criminal, which includes working exclusively with Elizabeth Keen, a profiler on her first day on the job. Reddington knows quite a bit about Keen, which convinces her and the SAIC to acquiesce to Reddington’s plan. The Serbian plans to kidnap the daughter of a general responsible for destroying a chemical weapons factory that then poisoned the Serbian’s family. He will use that daughter to set off a dirty bomb in a public place.
Keen gets to the girl first but loses her in a daring raid by the Serbian’s forces. Now aware of Keen, the Serbian attacks her husband in their home, gravely wounding him. Keen notes a stamp on the man’s hand and deduces the attack will take place at a zoo. Reddington briefly escapes custody to meet with the Serbian, revealing that he is behind the ploy, though the FBI is unaware. Using a tracker placed in Reddington, which he removes and gives to the Serbian, the FBI track down the criminal and he is killed. Keen finds the daughter and a bomb in her backpack. Reddington calls in a shady bomb tech to disable to bomb, who then runs off with the bomb as payment. During their interactions, Reddington plants seeds that Keen’s husband, with whom she’s trying to adopt a baby, is not what he appears to be.
Following the ordeal, Reddington offers to provide information on a number of the world’s dangerous criminals, his “blacklist,” in order to commute sentence and work with Keen. At home, Keen discovers a hidden box of cash, passports, and a gun, all belonging to her husband. She confronts Reddington to find out what he knows about the man.
The best thing going for The Blacklist is its pace. Deftly filmed by feature director Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smoking Aces, The A-Team, The Grey), the pilot is zippy from the get-go, immediately immersing you in both the danger and the complete control of main antagonist Raymond Reddington. The plot of the pilot is rather rote, made all the more so by the fact that it was the catnip laid out by Reddington to place him exactly where he wants to be, in custody and working with Lizzy Keane. It’s not a complex mystery, which actually turns out to be a blessing. There is a large, overarcing conspiracy at play, but they don’t deluge the audience with it right from the start. It’s a shrewd move meant to entice without overwhelming, yet there’s enough meat here to leave the audience with some questions and willingness to return.
Reddington is the perfect kind of villain in this day and age of information brokering, secrets, and national security. That he somewhat approximates Edward Snowden, in the broadest sense, is timely and proves to be a strong selling point for the series. He is a puppetmaster, though, and never once do you feel that he is out of control. That could prove to be both boon and burden to the series, depending on how they work and play out his machinations. That he knows so much about Keane played quite compellingly on-screen, but it was also a bit frustrating in that it felt like an expository gimmick. In a sense, it’s like the tech guru you admire for his brilliance but can’t stand for his smugness. James Spader thoroughly owns the part in the way only Spader can. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Spader yet one can never deny that he is fascinating. This part is certainly more fitting than his last TV stint as Robert California on the 8th season of The Office, as it slathers the scenery in the most savory of sauces for the actor.
The true star of the hour is Megan Boone, who has been around for a bit but whom I was not very aware. From her first moment on-screen, opening her arresting blue eyes of which even a Kryptonian would be jealous on the day, she drew all focus. It’s unfortunate that Keen is left sort of a blank slate by the writing in this opening salvo — though they do quite a bit of exposition to establish her backstory — because Boone invests her with so much life. It leads to an odd paradox where she feels both fully-formed and yet not a solid character. There isn’t a moment not to believe Boone’s performance, though. A particular standout was the establishment of Keen’s relationship with her husband in their late-on-the-morning scramble to get out the door. All tribute to the writing, Carnahan’s work, and the editing, but mostly to terrific and believable interplay between Boone and screen hubby Ryan Eggold. This did wonders to build the moment later on when Keen comes home to find that the adoption agency approved them only to find Tom tied up and tortured. Every beat where Lizzy tries to connect with his husband as this criminal threatens them — and then acts on it — was splendidly invested. Same goes with the tiny moments between Boone and Delphina Belle as the general’s young daughter as they built a connection between them.
Many will likely note the similarities in the relationship between Keen and Reddington to that of Thomas Harris’ Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lecter. This was something clearly evident in the trailers promoting the show since last spring, and the show coyly doesn’t deny that lineage. In addition to the obvious, that make the point that Keen is from Baltimore, a nod to Hannibal’s haunting grounds. It’s all very much a touchstone for the audience, a sort of shorthand that actually plays to the show’s advantage. Yet, the particulars of Keen’s and Reddington’s relationship are actually quite different. Where the Starling-Lecter relationship was built on psychological manipulation that become obsession, Red knows tangible things about the people closest to Keen that somehow plays into his larger plans. Keen is a means to an end who will likely become more than Red bargained for, and that’s a very different flavor palate to play with than their behind-the-scenes inspiration.
It’s hard to be substantially wowed by the specific plot of this episode. It’s constructed fairly straightforward and meant to provide a taste, to the FBI in the story as much as to the audience. Keen and Reddington have a fun little dance putting the “pieces” together in front of the other agents — Spader nails this scene — but it never feels as though they are cracking some involving mystery. Keen figuring out that the zoo was the intended target of the bombing because of the logo stamp on the hand of the Serbian (Jamie Jackson) was also too convenient and lazy writing. Yet, the pace carries you through the story, giving it a stronger importance. Carnahan does a fantastic job on the raid setpiece, recalling similar scenes in movies like Mission Impossible 3 and Patriot Games, and not feeling constrained by a TV budget to do so. The agency of both Spader and Boone creates an urgency that also gives everything more weight, attaching significance to the dangling plot threads that will be picked up throughout the season and series.
One can’t quite tell how well the procedural aspect — catching a criminal on the list each week — is going to play, but the relationship between Keen and Reddington as they crack into and/or reveal a conspiracy makes for a captivating new series. If they can maintain the taut rhythm and unfold these two characters in ways that match the strengths of their actors, this has a strong possibility of becoming the next of one of those great event shows.