Summary: An hour that rarely takes a breath, even in its quiet[er] moments, kicks off the second season in explosive fashion.
If you have not seen this episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, do not continue reading!
With Berlin discovered but escaped, he still poses a threat to both Raymond Reddington and Elizabeth Keen, having hired a number of high-caliber assassins to take Reddington down. Meeting with an African despot he’d crossed paths with previously, Red learns that an assassin known as Lord Baltimore is one of those on the hunt. Keen, meanwhile, has taken to hiding herself, though somewhat in plain sight. Giving up her home, as well as filing for legal annulment from believed-dead “Tom,” she shuffles from hotel to hotel and hides herself in hoodies on the street to avoid being detected by Berlin’s men. Reddington brings Baltimore’s name to her, and Aram reveals that Baltimore’s methods involve significant digital data mining to track his targets. They discover a breach at a large data firm, and track a substantial deposit in the IRA account of Rowan Mills, one of the employees.
Keen and Ressler investigate and find a young woman who has no clue a to what is going on. Mills receives a voicemail warning her not to talk to the FBI and turns it over to the task force. Aram is able to track the source of the message to an apartment that is rented in Rowan Mills name. Keen and Ressler search the apartment and find various pictures of Mills. They confront her and she reveals that she had a twin sister who was molested by an uncle when she was younger yet no one in the family believed her. After a troubled childhood, the sister left the family and eventually ended up with a private security firm and was killed in Afghanistan. They confirm this with Mills’ mother, and Ressler checks with the security firm, who reveal that the sister’s body was never recovered. Rowan is at the apartment looking through her sister’s things when a man working for Berlin enters. He plays a song on a record and it triggers a switch in personalities; Rowan Mills is Lord Baltimore.
After staring over the pieces, Aram realizes that Red isn’t one to use things that would leave a digital trail that Baltimore would use to track him down, so he’s not likely the target. Red, meanwhile, continues to search for why Berlin is after him. He visits the recovering Agent Harold Cooper, who is no longer in charge of the Reddington task force, offering a gift and trying to persuade him to finish their crusade. As Red checks into a hotel, he is captured in a violent raid by an agent with the Israeli Mossad, but he’s rescued quickly by the FBI. Keen calls to tell him he’s not the target, but that someone connected to him his past is, a woman named Naomi Hyland. Red reveals that she was his wife and is now in witness protection.
Ressler returns to the Mills’ mother’s home and discovers the body of one of the sister’s being kept in a freezer. U.S. marshals arrive at Naomi’s home to take her into protective custody, and Keen soon arrives. Mills/Baltimore and Berlin’s man show up with a small task force, take the marshals out and raid the house, stunning Keen with a TASER. They are able to capture Naomi. Keen shoots Berlin’s man before he is able to kill Naomi’s new husband/boyfriend and stumbles to the street. She sees Mills trying to flee the scene, and tackles her. At the Post Office, the task force realize that Nora Mills is Lord Baltimore and that the dead sister is actually Rowan. Nora’s childhood trauma and wartime experience seems to have manifested itself into dissociative identity disorder, and one of the identities created was that of her own sister whom Nora killed. Berlin’s man reveals that the song, which she associated with the molestation, is the trigger. Meanwhile, Naomi is delivered to Berlin, who takes a picture of her. Keen gets her annulment but decides to keep the last name because “Tom Keen” was never a real person to take something from her. She decides to stop her hiding and, feeling free, cuts her hair. Ressler, quietly suffering from his fiancee’s murder by throwing himself into work, denies the help of the bureau-mandated shrink and is determined to go it alone. And Cooper returns to lead the task force, though he’s revealed to have some kind of diagnosis that threatens to cut his life short.
Berlin sends a package to Red that recalls his horrific origin story told last season: he had worked for the KGB and they had him imprisoned for trying to help his daughter escape prison after she was discovered to have had an affair with a “dissident” trying to break up the then-Soviet Union. As punishment, the KGB would periodically mail pieces of his daughter to him in jail until they returned all of her. It all started with a pocketwatch that contained a picture of his daughter, curiously the same image that Red took out of the Stewmaker’s collection of images of his victims. In Berlin’s package is a pocketwatch with the Polaroid image of Naomi he took earlier. There is also a box with Naomi’s severed finger. Berlin informs Red that he’s going to return her to him just as was Berlin’s daughter.
Now, this was just an exhilarating hour of television. A fun ride from start to finish, and the fruits of a show that confidently found itself by the end of its first season and can enjoy relishing what it is.
One of the curious aspects of The Blacklist last season was the episodic/procedural aspect it approached the material with initially. It made a degree of sense, given that the basis for Reddington working with the FBI was a list of people. That naturally allowed a new target week-to-week. Yet, as the season stretched on and the serialized plot threads as to who was hunting Red and the mysteries of Tom came to the fore of the show, the episodic structure felt incongruous to the story being told. Towards the end of the season, the various targets on the list each week came to be embroiled in the overarching plot in such a fashion that the list premise seemed to have outlived its usefulness. No doubt there will be a return to it this season, but this opening hour is all about the big picture and best for it.
Frankly, I was a bit surprised to see Berlin back so quickly. Usually, with this kind of development, a “Big Bad” will escape and remain tucked away for a long while as a series spins through all manner of extending plot before getting the chance to go right at the main culprit again. (To some degree, Tom’s disappearing body in last season’s finale sets up that trope, as well.) Yet, the show wastes no time with him continuing his campaign to take Reddington out. The deviousness of his plot, though, makes one wonder why he didn’t come at Red with this approach from the beginning. That’s a bit of a perplexing question, but moving slightly to the left and looking at it, it reveals further complexity to Berlin’s plans. This is but another layer, and there are likely to be many more. It’s something that can keep the show fed with material for a long while, but more important, something to continue to entice the audience. Just when we think we know so much about Red, there’s much more to learn, and Berlin’s plans fall accordingly.
Perhaps the scariest thought of the hour is realizing the intent of Berlin’s latest plot. At it’s bare essence, this is Code of Hammurabi, eye-for-an-eye justice in Berlin’s mind. Yet, that begs the question if Berlin believes that Red was directly behind the terrible fate that befell his daughter. It’s been postulated, and probably more likely than the thought of Red being a barbarous menace, that Red was somehow involved in the events that led to Berlin’s daughter’s forbidden relationship and its discovery. (Some have even guessed that Red might have been the one involved with her.) To him, returning Naomi to Red in pieces is only fitting, and it establishes a much more immediate clock to work with this season for Red and the task force to accomplish their goals.
Though we haven’t spent much time with her yet, Mary-Louise Parker is a perfect addition to the series as Naomi. While I hesitate to say you know what you’re going to get when you cast Parker, there is an expectation and gravitas she brings that not only fits the series but offers so much credence and history to Red’s past life that we still know relatively little about. It’s inherent in her presence, but even more so in her ability. She’s frequently likeable, even when her character is not, but above all Parker’s bread-and-butter is in giving an honest performance. Though she’s thrust into somewhat of a damsel-in-distress situation here, you can’t help but be excited to see something far more nuanced, both in her interactions with Peter Stormare’s Berlin and her eventual dealings with James Spader. That I’m foaming at the mouth to experience.
Spader, of course, is firing on all cylinders from the first moments we see him on-screen during the disturbing and awing chase scene in the jeep with the children. This really does seem like a part he relishes, and there’s not a moment you don’t feel he’s Red and that there has been some time that’s past for him here. He’s on a mission and there’s not a single lagtime to anything he does. That spirit informs the entire hour and nothing feels extraneous as a result. Megan Boone is right there, step for step, and finally feels like she’s taking control of what’s going on in Liz’s life rather than reacting to it. She feels just as haunted and experienced as Spader’s Red — not in the extent but in the effect on the character and in Boone’s performance — and it feels like it frees up both character and actress. Finally ditching the bane of the distracting wig from last season also, oddly, seems to help. There’s a moment at the end of the episode where Keen does a bit of a minor dance at Cooper’s return to the fold that feels like an empowering breath. I look forward to seeing what she brings this year.
Everyone feels lived in, including both Harry Lennix’s Cooper and Diego Klattenhoff’s Ressler, and it helps to both ground the series and make everything more tangible for the audience. Consequence lives and breathes here, and it’s a testament to the actors that they’ve created that perceptible but transparent tone and feel. That actually serves to up the stakes for everyone and everything involved. It’s also why you can buy and get a thrill out of helicopter vividly attacking a hotel to distract Red and Dembe as men come to capture him. Guest star Krysten Ritter turns in an impressive performance that, truthfully, was a bit surprising. While she’s certainly done some darker things like Breaking Bad, the Veronica Mars and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 vet seems like the furthest you would get from a cold, capable assassin. Yet, she’s thoroughly believable in command of both her little squad and the sniper rifle she takes out the marshals with, on top of the flips in personality, whether there’s an honest base in legitimate human psychology there or not.
Premieres and finales are usually allotted a bit more money in the production schedule in a season to do some bigger things. The aforementioned helicopter attack, the explosions in Africa. These aren’t likely to appear every week, but they’re perfectly placed to instill both the sense of danger but also a confidence in the material. With some resolutions to story threads from last season, there would always be a concern over plot to continue the series. It’s very clear with the number of threads we are handed here to unspool over the season, that there is little cause for concern. The hour is a killer opening to a new season, and more important, it actually leaves one more excited for what’s ahead this year out than last year did. That’s a job well done.