Summary: A compelling kidnap story putting a major character in real danger is somewhat undercut by the show’s trappings.
If you have not seen this episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, do not continue reading!
Cooper and Ressler continue to dig blindly (and secretly) into Keen’s investigation into her husband Tom, unsure of what she’s actually pursuing. She discovers a location name and date that appears to be of some importance, a date Tom later identifies as a weekend the two spent in the Boston area. Keen is due in court, regarding a witness’ testimony against a Mexican drug lord named Hector Lorca, a case she aided on while in New York. Reddington warns Keen that Lorca’s people have been in touch with him to secure documents on a whole new identity to help Lorca escape the country, warning her that he expects something to happen at the trial that we allow the kingpin to get away. At the courthouse, one of the jurors suffers a heart attack. Keen gets her witness into a secure location, but some of Lorca’s men kidnap and kill the witness. A man named Stanley Cornish, who is hired to chemically dispose of bodies and evidence, is given the witness and takes care of the body at a roadside hotel. The FBI uses eyewitness account of a white van leaving the courthouse to find security footage of an exchange with another car that is traced to the hotel. They discover that the hotel room has been scrubbed clean but for a hair from Cornish’s dog. Reddington contacts Keen and has her check the tub, confirming his suspicions that this was the work of Cornish, known in criminal circles as the Stewmaker for his methods. The FBI tries to squeeze Lorca for information on the Stewmaker, but he won’t budge.
As they attempt to transfer him at a small airport, Lorca’s men attack and free him, capturing Liz and giving her over to Cornish. Reddington keeps an appointment with Lorca to get him his papers and leverages the moment to find out information about Cornish and Keen. Lorca eventually offers up his contact and the FBI uses that to make a connection with Cornish. While the FBI go for Cornish’s house, Reddington takes the dog hair sample. He contacts Maryland animal control and has them transfer electronic tracking of Cornish’s dog to his phone to locate Keen. Cornish’s wife tells the FBI about his fishing cabin in the woods. At the cabin, Cornish prepares to torture Keen and dump her in a chemical vat. She tries humanizing herself to the man, using the time to get free of her restraints. She runs from the cabin, but drugs Cornish used on her cause he to fall limp in the woods and the man finds her. Returning to the cabin, Cornish is confronted by Reddington. Reddington eventually disposes of Cornish in the chemical vat as the FBI approaches the cabin. Keen is horrified by Reddington, and he takes a photo of one of Cornish’s victims, suggesting a personal connection to the man’s evil deeds. Back at home, Tom tries to smooth over their recent rough patch by booking a getaway for the two at the place they stayed in Boston. Looking at the brochure, Keen notes that the name of the hotel is the name of the location she found in her investigation.
The Blacklist is a bit of an oddity in that it’s a quality show that’s being somewhat undone by its format. (Okay, not that much of an oddity as that has happened a fair bit over the course of television history.) The show is wonderfully fast-paced, which gives an energy to the proceedings that makes it engaging to watch. Yet, like some of the best junk food, you’re often left with a moment’s elation followed by an unsatisfied feeling as you move on from it. Not to mention the empty calories that don’t provide much in the way of hearty nutrition.
Metaphors aside, a good case in point is the latest edition, “The Stewmaker.” A compelling premise and the possibility of a truly harrowing set-up are dashed in a rather quick resolution. This was a story that begged for a bit more breath but ran up against the confines of the procedural/episodic framework of the series. While not in any way advocating extended torture porn of the lead actress, it felt that just as we were succumbing to the intensity of the danger Agent Keen was in, Reddington was there to clean it up and usher in the end of the episode. It was an impressive display of Reddington’s intelligence and ability to locate the Stewmaker and save Liz so quickly, but this was a case where the pace undercut the effectiveness of the story being told.
Tom Noonan has built a solid career on playing creepy dysfunctionals with a penchant for murder. (In addition to being the original film Francis Dollarhyde in Michael Mann’s exceptional Red Dragon adaptation, Manhunter, he was single out for the screen type in his turn as the homicidal nemesis in The Last Action Hero.) When you see him on-screen, you have a fair indication of what to expect of the role. Yet, that doesn’t make it any less effective, and his precision and commitment to the part go a long way toward selling the danger of the situation Lizzie Keen finds herself in.
In a way, Noonan’s casting is visual shorthand for the audience, even if they aren’t familiar with is work. He exudes the disturbing feeling necessary for this chapter, and he helps for it to stand out in a now-common sea of similar plots seen on shows like Criminal Minds and Hannibal. Watching his preparation scene in the hotel room was exhilarating, as was every bit of the sequences at the cabin as he prepared to chemically boil Keen into oblivion.
It’s the kind of guest star performance worthy of the show’s lead antagonist. (Note should also be made of the yeoman’s work done by Clifton Collins, Jr., who wasn’t given much to do as drug kingpin Lorca, but made the most of it.) James Spader gives his most devious and intimate performance as Reddington yet and really makes the claim of this being his show. There is so much at work behind his eyes and in his measured movements and speech that it was intoxicating to watch throughout. Giving Reddington his own mystery to work in trying to locate Liz rather than consistently placing him as the mastermind was a needed move and one wishes we could’ve seen more of his brain power on display.
Though they got to Red at the cabin too quickly, we were given time to really relish in a superb monologue as Red dresses down, tries, and convicts Stanley Cornish, the Stewmaker, of his crimes. While it could easily have been guessed at the act break cutting to commercial just prior to that speech, the shock and impact of Red pushing Cornish into the vat was hardly diminished. Once again, we’re given a taste of Reddington’s motivation behind the blacklist as he pulls the picture of a young woman from Cornish’s trophy photo album. That coupled with his acceptance of Liz calling him a monster further buy us into the character to keep the blood pumping on the series.
Megan Boone does solid work throughout the episode as well, particularly in the moments that Keen tries to build a connection with the Stewmaker to humanize her to her captor. Her own emotional investment in the mystery behind Keen’s husband keeps the audience engaged as it [very] slowly unfolds. Another key moment is that where Keen breaks down in Ressler’s arms following her ordeal. It gives a strong character beat as she tried so stoutly to stand up to Cornish with her technique and now her humanity takes over. That it was with Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff), who is busy keeping critical tabs on her for their boss and so far has had a particular distaste for her, allowed for a human connection that will serve to deepen the cast and the show. Ressler also gets more fine character building in his quick thinking when Reddington exposes him to Lorca as an FBI agent. Everything to establish and build the supporting cast is a great asset to the series.
Again, the main drawback here is that keeping to the episodic/procedural structure — pursuing and/or capturing one member on the list each episode — didn’t allow a breathlessly intense story to properly live and take full advantage of itself. To be fair, it’s hard to say whether this was a story that could’ve stretched two episodes, but just as it got going, it was over. Hopefully, that’s something they will reconsider as they move forward. This is a good show that could be great, but it needs to trust its story rather than merely rely on its format.