The Blacklist (Season 1) – Review

Network: NBC
Showrunner(s): John Eisendrath
Air Date (US): 23rd September, 2013 – 21st May, 2014
No. Of Episodes: 22

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Cast


Main: James Spader, Megan Boone, Diego Klattenhoff, Ryan Eggold, Harry Lennix, Parminder Nagra

Guest: Amir Arison, Hisham Tawfiq, Jane Alexander, Alan Alda, Lance Reddick, Rachel Brosnahan, Dianne Wiest, Peter Stormare


Overview


Despite starting the show with some initial scepticism, I have watched The Blacklist turn into a gripping, entertaining, mystery-laden spectacle over the course of just a single season. Mixing themes of crime, family and betrayal into the world of shady criminals and rigid FBI rules, the show has worked hard to carved a unique identity for itself, while also blending in a successful formula from several other shows.

The weekly adventures of FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen and master criminal Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington prove to be more than just your average procedural affair. This is largely due to the show’s serialised approach to the ‘blacklist’ of criminals, linking them together the overarching plot in various ways. Elsewhere, questions about Keen’s parentage and Red’s past have also added to the mystery. Exceeding all expectations, The Blacklist was without doubt the most impressive freshman drama of the 2013/14 season.


Acting


The bulk of this show’s success must be attributed to one man, and one man only – James Spader. Having never watched Boston Legal or The Office, when Spader was announced to play Avengers: Age Of Ultron‘s titular villain a little while ago I confess to being a little disappointed. How foolish do I feel now? With just one season headlining a new NBC show, the man has gone from an unknown quantity to an acting demigod in my books. His charm and wit, balanced by his ability to hold the show’s dramatic tone as well, constantly impressed me, and always had me tuning in each week for more.

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“Once you cross over, there are things in the darkness that can keep your heart from ever feeling the light again.” – Red Reddington

For the majority of the first half of the season, Red was the be-all and end-all of the show – a star in amongst a sea of pretty mundane supporting characters. However, as things shifted into gear by the mid-season finale, I found myself investing more in the other players. By the end of the season, the cast were functioning as a fairly well-oiled unit, anchored, of course, by the ever-reliable Spader.

Though he may have been ‘the forgotten man’ on Homeland, here Diego Klattenhoff seemed to find the humanity in a pretty plain character in Agent Ressler – producing a man that was no longer (just) the butt of Red’s jokes. Bend It Like Beckham star Parminder Nagra was also quietly impressive as CIA agent Meera Malik, even when sidelined by the writers. Finally a lot of praise has to be handed to the guest cast, with names such as Lance Reddick, John Glover and Jennifer Ehle just some of the outstanding bit-players in the show’s complex storyline.

Of course, the show cannot be without its faults, and none was more glaring than the issues surrounding its co-lead, Elizabeth Keen. The majority of the blame does not lie with actress Megan Boone however, but with the characterisation of Keen, often coming across as either too bland or annoying to ever really get on side with. That said, she has shown steady improvement throughout the season. On the flip side, Ryan Eggold’s turn as Tom Keen, has perhaps slipped under the radar a little, and represents one of the turnaround performances of the year (alongside Brett Dalton in Agents Of SHIELD). Initially both whiny and predictable, Tom’s shift to stone-cold killer in the latter half of the season was both intimidating and incredibly entertaining.


Plot & Characters


The Blacklist‘s greatest overall strength has often also been the instrument of its undoing. Its complex overarching narrative, and twist abundant structure ensures the element of mystery and intrigue always remains. Occasionally though, this is too much – and not just for the casual viewer. The show rewards the Keen-eyed (pun fully intended) amongst us through various important hints and easter eggs, but then proceeds to laboriously baby its audience through the obvious plot points (e.g. Tom being a double agent). Ultimately, a lot of key information is getting forgotten between episodes (especially with mid-season breaks), while other plots begin to grow tiresome and lazy.

The character of Red has always been an entertaining little mystery – perhaps even to himself. His affinity to storytelling and embellishment makes him prone to telling an amusing little anecdote every episode or so, usually from his past. The big question of course, is whether they are true or not? All of the show’s secrets and hidden truths tend to route back to him – including Keen’s parentage, his own family, and the mystery of Berlin. The writers balanced the questions and answers about Red very nicely in the first season of The Blacklist, but there is always the threat that the big mysteries could grow stale if the audience is left long enough without any real reward (read: Lost).

The big plot for the season was the threat of Berlin, and how and why Tom Keen inserted himself in Lizzie’s life. While the initial concept of The Blacklist looked weak, this ongoing storyline at least gave it an overarching story in its early episodes, despite being pretty obvious at times. However, the writers appeared to have found a new lease of life in the new year, and what followed was some of the best scenes of the show. Affiliated characters like Jolene and Cowboy added some much needed spice, while Tom himself got better and better as a frighteningly ruthless assassin (I mean Christ, he carved a man’s tattoo off!). Elsewhere, the bait-and-switch in the finale sets Berlin up fantastically as an ongoing villain for Season 2, ensuring the season-long build-up never felt anticlimactic.


Behind The Scenes


Though the show’s quality was anything but reliable in its early days, the writing staff injected some much needed stability after the mid-season break, increasing the standard also. Special mention ought to go to the creative mind of Jon Bokenkamp, while A-Team director Joe Carnahan always improved the quality of the show whenever he stepped in to write or direct. Sets were solid if unspectacular, and hopefully there will be more money available for new locations – and the special effects budget (the plane crash in the finale was a little… lacking).


Episodes (22)


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Pilot, 23/09/13
Wanted man Raymond Reddington offers to help the FBI catch criminal Ranko Zamani, but is only willing to speak with new profiler Elizabeth Keen. When the mission is a success, he offers to help the FBI track down his ‘Blacklist’ of unknown threats  – 9/10

NB – Lizzie returns home to discover a box full of money, passports and a gun, belonging to her husband Tom. She is even more surprised when Red calls her to inquire about it


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The Freelancer, 30/09/13
Lizzie reluctantly teams up with Red to catch an assassin named ‘The Freelancer’. CIA Agent Meera Malik is assigned to watch Red on his work with the FBI. Lizzie meanwhile toils with Red’s idea that her husband, Tom, isn’t who he says he is – 8/10


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Wujing, 07/10/13
Lizzie goes undercover with Red to bring down Chinese criminal Wujing. She also continues to investigate Tom’s box, including a gun listed as classified by the FBI. The Keen’s house, meanwhile, is under surveillance by an ‘Apple Eating Man’ – 8/10

NB – Red’s involvement with Wujing was in order to secure an envelope with the number: 042983


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The Stewmaker, 14/10/13
When a key witness disappears in the case against a drug lord, Lizzie investigates gets kidnapped too. Red links the disappearances to ‘The Stewmaker’, and must work together with Ressler to get her back. Elsewhere, Lizzie links Tom to a murder in Boston – 8/10

NB – After killing The Stewmaker, Red recovers a photograph of one of his female victims, suggesting he once knew her


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The Courier, 21/10/13
Lizzie and Malik capture ‘The Courier’ en-route with a shipment for an Iranian spy. However, the clock is ticking when he reveals he has imprisoned an NSA analyst with a limited air supply. At home, Tom discovers the box and wants to talk – 7/10

NB The Keen’s house is bugged with cameras and watched by agents of the ‘Apple Eating Man’


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Gina Zanetakos, 28/10/13
Tom denies any involvement with the box or the murder in Boston and asks Lizzie to bring him in to the FBI and clear his name. Meanwhile, the team track corporate terrorist Gina Zanetakos, who convinces Lizzie that Red was behind the Boston incident  – 8/10


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Frederick Barnes, 04/11/13
Liz reluctantly calls upon Red’s help after a chemical attack on the subway. The man responsible, Frederick Barnes, is revealed to have weaponised a rare disease suffered by his son. Liz cuts ties with Red, after he continues to warn her about Tom – 7/10

NB – Red burns a house he raised his family in in order to “forget what happened here”


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General Ludd, 11/11/13
Due to an attack on the US’ financial system by the General Ludd group, Liz is unable to see her cancer-stricken adoptive father, Sam. Red is revealed to be an old friend of Sam’s, yet gives him a quick death when he wishes to tell Lizzie the truth about her family – 8/10

NB – Red recovers the hard-drive stolen by Ludd, and uses his access to the FBI database to trace the number: 042983 to a woman named ‘Lucy Brooks’


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Anslo Garrick, 25/11/13
Mercenary Anslo Garrick infiltrates the Post Office to assassinate Red. Ressler is injured, and Red locks them both in a holding cell from Garrick, who begins by shooting Luli to get the code to enter. Meanwhile, Liz makes her way through the site to save Red – 9/10


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Anslo Garrick: Conclusion, 02/12/13
When Liz and Aram are also captured, Red convinces Ressler to give up the code, and surrenders to Garrick – who brings him to his employer, Fitch. Liz discovers the surveillance team, and Red escapes, warning her about Tom, before disappearing – 8/10

NB – Fitch is revealed part of an ‘Alliance’ who work with Red, and are not too keen on him working with the FBI and spilling their secrets


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The Good Samaritan, 13/01/14
Red conducts a ruthless manhunt for a mole working with Garrick, and ends up killing his traitorous assistant, Newton Phillips. Lizzie returns to duty to find the ‘Good Samaritan’ killer, and is contacted by Red, who suggests there’s another mole inside her unit – 9/10


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The Alchemist, 20/01/14
Liz and Tom have marital issues, as Liz investigates ‘The Alchemist’. Ressler struggles to let his ex, Audrey, go. Red’s hunt for the FBI mole leads him to Malik, while ‘Lucy Brooks’ flirts with Tom at the Keen’s baby shower, calling herself Jolene – 7/10


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The Cyprus Agency, 27/01/14
Red points Liz towards an adoption agency who have been abducting babies from their mothers. Liz herself struggles to adopt a child with Tom, sitting home alone as he spends his time with Jolene. Malik helps Red find the mole – FBI Director Diane Fowler – 7/10

NB – When Red confronts her in her own home, Fowler claims to know about what happened to his family. Red says he’ll find out from someone else, and kills her anyway


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Madeline Pratt, 24/02/14
Madeline Pratt, a former flame of Red’s, enlists his and Lizzie’s help to steal an effigy containing nuclear codes. Red tricks Pratt after she double crosses him, securing the codes. Cooper’s investigation into Fowler’s disappearance is stonewalled – 9/10


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The Judge, 03/03/14
Red insists ‘a war is coming’ after saving Cooper from ‘The Judge’. He enlists the help of Cowboy in his investigation into Lucy (Jolene) and her intentions with the Keens. Tom reveals his true self after Jolene reminds him that Liz is his target, not his wife – 9/10


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Mako Tanida, 14/03/14
Mako Tanida begins hunting down Ressler’s former FBI team. When Audrey is killed, Ressler goes on a warpath. It is revealed Tom and Jolene both work for a group named ‘Berlin’. Cowboy tracks them down, but Tom catches him, killing him and Jolene – 9/10

NB – Red is revealed to be a donor to a production of Swan Lake, and has visions of his daughter performing as he watches a private show


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Ivan, 21/03/14
The task force hunt a hacker named ‘Ivan’, believed to be responsible for the theft of an NSA Skeleton Key. Liz’ investigation into the disappearance of ‘Jolene’ leads her to Tom’s hideout, where she ultimately realises her husband is not who he says he is – 8/10

NB – Red owns an old music box, whose tune Lizzie recognises from her childhood


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Milton Bobbit, 28/03/14
The task force connects a series of murder-suicides to the grotesque Milton Bobbit. Liz and Red interrogate Tom’s ‘brother’ Craig who is part of Tom’s cover. The learn only one word (before he kills himself): Berlin. Liz also discovers Tom’s hidden key – 9/10


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The Pavlovich Brothers, 31/04/14
The team hunt the Pavlovich Brothers, who have abducted a Chinese scientist. When Tom learns that Liz knows and flees, Red employs the Brothers to recapture him. Tom escapes, but insists he is one of the good guys, and points her to his safe deposit box – 8/10


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The Kingmaker, 07/05/14
After one of his allies is framed by The Kingmaker, Red realises his interests are under attack. He points the task force after him, to find out who is doing this, as Fitch and the Alliance abandon him. Liz cuts ties with Red when he admits he killed Sam – 8/10


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Berlin, 14/05/14
Liz reveals the truth about Tom to Ressler and the FBI, before tending her resignation and refusing to work with Red. But after a virus breakout, she must accompany him to meet mental patient Dr Sanders, who created an antidote.

After catching the man behind the virus, Liz finds connections within The Blacklist, which Red used to target his own enemies. Realising that Berlin is on a plane and coming to kill Red, she tries to convince him to run, while the FBI take him into custody – 9/10


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Berlin: Conclusion, 21/05/14
The plane crashes, and some of the passengers (including Berlin) remain at large. A guard tells the story of Berlin, and how, in prison, he was sent parts of his dead daughter by his enemy. The task force are targeted as Cooper is put in a coma and Malik is killed.

Red captures the man he believes is Berlin and tortures him, but Tom arrives and threatens to kill Liz. Red kills the man, who was a decoy, while Liz kills Tom (but not before he says her father is alive). Berlin is revealed to be the guard, and is at large – 9/10

NB – Berlin is carrying a watch with a picture of a woman – the same picture that Red took from The Stewmaker. Elsewhere, Red is revealed to have burn scars on his back…


The Verdict


An altogether very entertaining show for primetime TV, The Blacklist can be considered a big success for NBC, James Spader & co. Though it is always improving, the show still has more than a few rough patches to iron out, including the personality of its other main character. However, Spader’s likability in the role of Red is enough to make this show worth it on its own, while the impending arrival of Weeds‘ Mary-Louise Parker suggests things will only get better in Season 2.

MVP: James Spader

Rating: 8.2

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About Minty

Writer for @ComicBook_Movie & @MoviesTVComics. Professional procrastinator. Real human bean.
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