Summary: A taut, fun outing that further establishes the odd connection between the main characters and further proves just who is in control in this situation.
If you have not seen this episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, do not continue reading!
As Reddington offers date and time of a train derailment that the FBI is unable to stop, despite being on-scene, the Dept. of Justice tells SAIC Cooper that there will be no deal with the criminal. They figure they have their man and that’s the end of it. Cooper is convinced the Blacklist is a worthwhile pursuit and brings Keen in to talk about the train wreck and how it relates to the next person on his list: a contract killer who takes out important targets under the guise of horrible accidents that kill many others in the process. Dubbed the Freelancer, Reddington lays out proof of his pattern and says that he can set up a meet with a contact in Montreal to find the whereabouts of the assassin and his next target.
In a Montreal restaurant, Keen and Reddington sit to dinner, awaiting the contact. As he tries to find out more about her personal life, she pushes him as to why she’s so important to him. Feeling an FBI trap to take him out as well, Reddington makes a bold escape from the restaurant, only to appear in the FBI surveillance van with information on the Freelancer’s target: a renowned advocate against the sex trafficking trade. Refusing to help further until he gets his deal, Cooper and the DOJ reluctantly agree, though they have no intention of finally granting Reddington immunity once they’ve made use of his knowledge. Now with two of his own hand-picked security force and being the only person to have seen the Freelancer in person, Reddington goes with Keen to offer protection for Floriana Campo, the advocate, at an event.
The Freelancer masquerades as a waiter and serves Campo poisoned wine. Reddington identifies him and the FBI give chase. The man breaks his leg trying to escape and is caught. A CIA officer, assigned by the DOJ to Reddington’s case, tortures the name of the Freelancer’s employer out of him: Reddington. In Campo’s hotel room, Reddington confronts the woman, and it’s revealed that she is actually the head of a massive global sex trade ring using her humanitarian efforts as a cover. Campo and Reddington have had dealings in the past, including a deal that she backed out on. Keen barges into the room as Campo succumbs to the effects of the poison. Reddington offers an antidote if Campo confesses, which she does. Keen injects her but it’s a ruse. Campo dies and her secrets are revealed to the world.
Reddington and Keen talk about how she’s going to address the secrets her husband has been keeping from her. She sees two options: turn him in for the forged passports and money he’s hiding or confront him about it. Reddington offers that she has a third option. Keen replaces the box of secrets below the floorboards of her house and has new carpet installed. Her husband, Tom, wakes and is released from the hospital, and she decides to keep up appearances to monitor him. Unable to sleep, she digs around in the pants Tom was wearing the night he was attacked and finds a flash drive. On it is a video interview with the adoption agency in which Tom recounts how she told him she didn’t want to have a biological child with so many needy children in the world, and how he loves her more for that. She’s now emotionally torn.
Toss the Silence of the Lambs comparisons out the window, as The Blacklist takes on its own identity in the relationship between Reddington and Keen. While the central mystery to this episode’s plot is better than that of the pilot episode, it still takes a backseat to the interplay between the leads. This chapter is still tautly paced through its majority, but there’s a lovely sequence where they slow everything down to just allow these two characters to exist with each other that proves the most fascinating part of the hour.
The scene, of course, is the sitdown in the restaurant in Montreal. Though they’ve had some fun pitter-pat between them in the episode up to this point, here’s a moment that allows everything to freeze and actors James Spader and Megan Boone to just exist and play in the world. From Keen’s, well, apropos profiling of Reddington on request — really, an FBI psychological profiler named Keen? A smidge on the nose, perhaps? — to the way they dance with their questions, saying as much in the deflections and silences as any of the words they are given. It’s a terrific showcase for both actors, and Spader in particular gets to relish the moments like the exquisite drinks his character orders. As fun as the overall pace of the series has been so far, this is a welcome diversion that helps to establish connection between these two characters and with the audience, while simultaneously still leaving us baffled as to how already deep really is their connection. It was an unexpected treat.
This was capped with a complimentary scene in the denouement where Reddington helps Keen make a decision in how she’s going to approach her husband, as well as a nice little tete-a-tete between Spader and guest star Isabella Rossellini. One wishes there was a bit more time spent with Rossellini’s character to really sell the injustice of her duplicity, but the renowned actress does strong work with what she’s given. Sex trafficking is fast becoming one of the largest travesties nations have to combat, and though we’re given a brief touch on its effect by the survivor’s speech introducing Campo at the event — and the reveal of one of Reddington’s handpicked guards to have been a victim, branded by the cartel in similar fashion as the young woman — it would’ve done more to touch on the depravity of the practice to tie the audience into the importance of the public face of Campo’s work. Though it’s clear Reddington is taking her out for their past interactions, it’s perhaps a bit too subtle that he’s also doing this for his friend and the terrible pain this women has inflicted on many. The punch doesn’t hit quite as hard as it could have.
Another strong turn comes from the first appearance of series regular Parminder Nagra as the CIA liaison now on Cooper’s team to keep watch over Reddington. Seeing her varied work over the years, particularly on ER, doesn’t make her effectiveness surprising. As the resident spook, the DNA of Keifer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer and Jessica Chastain’s Maya adds familiar color to the character, as well. Still, it will be interesting to see how she mixes with Spader and the dynamic the character brings to the now burgeoning team.
One of the aspects that really stands out about the episode is its structure and editing. The opening sequence intercutting the lie detection tests of both Keen and Reddington with the laying out of the request by Cooper (Harry Lennix) for Reddington’s deal to the DOJ was a terrific technical achievement, really establishing pace and tone while having to get through good chunks of exposition and set-up. The blackroom set for the government interactions makes its own interesting commentary, but Spader in all his Spaderiness chewing through the scene and punctuating various points with that laugh just leaves a sense of the series being fun. Without doubt, Reddington is perfectly in control of the entire situation to this point, and whether you appreciate his smarminess or not, there is something amusing in the way he is playing everything and making the FBI work for him, as he points out to Campo. That all translates to how the episode is built and unfolds and there are genuinely points where one has to smile at the whole endeavor. The concept of the Freelancer’s work, a Mr. Glass-style campaign to cause catastrophes in an attempt to mask his true objectives, is grist for the mill that one wishes there was more time to explore, as well. Another great example is the kinetic foot chase. While Steadicam is nothing new, the filter, format, and shot framing brought a new energy not quite seen on TV of recent. It was grimy and murky, recalling some of the cop dramas of the ’70s and added a flair that added to the fun experience. Overall, this is one gorgeous series.
It’s hard to know what to make of the emerging mystery of the life built around Elizabeth Keen. In the two episodes so far, things have been presented as “we know there’s a secret” more than clearly evident pieces of a puzzle. That makes for a simultaneously alluring and frustrating experience. On one hand, it plays to the inherent nature of the format; they have 22 hours to fill and are gonna stretch that mystery as far as they possibly can. On the other, it feels hard to glom on to this undercurrent because it reads like scant fragments with but loose stakes to really invest in yet. Ending the episode with the video interview of Tom only adds to this unease. It’s difficult to tell why we should care and just what an audience is going to get out of it. That built-in audience expectation and anticipation is a hard beast to contend with without compromising the integrity of the story to tell. At this early stage, the balance feels a bit off.
That said, this was an engaging hour and the series continues to hold promise moving forward. Reddington’s machinations make for a compelling concept for the audience to get behind, awaiting the time when Keen and the FBI start to catch on and the chess match really begins.