Recap video and review of The Blacklist – Series Premiere – Pilot:
It honestly makes all the sense in the world why NBC is investing so much time and money into The Blacklist. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty much the best drama pilot NBC has delivered in a long time. Unlike other high-concept premises this season, The Blacklist is easily sustainable for multiple seasons, as we have no idea just how long this “Blacklist” is, nor do we have any indication of an endpoint for the story, which means we could simply continue on in perpetuity, with Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) and Ray “Red” Reddington (James Spader) bringing the world’s biggest criminals to justice. But naturally, the show must go somewhere at some point, given that it has one very big question that needs answering: What are Red’s motives? It’s a question that could potentially drive the series, even though it doesn’t really drive the premiere, since the show is good enough to stand on its own, without the overarching mystery being the focal point. This bodes well for the sustainability of the series as an engaging, ongoing drama.
What works best about the pilot is how lean and straightforward it is in establishing the plot. Ray “Red” Reddington turns himself in to the feds and offers to help them solve a pending terrorist attack under the condition that he speaks only to rookie FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen. The feds are reluctant to negotiate with one of the world’s biggest criminals, but they have little choice. However, this is Keen’s first day on the job, and she has no idea why Red wants to speak with her, claiming that they share no prior connection. What follows is some fairly clumsy exposition, as Keen’s boss, FBI Assistant Director Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix), asks her to profile herself as a means of helping them to understand what Red’s interest in her might be. Yet despite the obvious nature of the exposition, it works pretty well regardless, as Keen reveals that she’s called “sir” by her colleagues because they all see her as a bitch. Though that hard-edged quality is hardly in evidence in the earlygoing, it becomes more apparent as the episode goes on, and it speaks to the skill of Megan Boone’s performance that she’s able to balance Keen’s sterner nature with a tender-hearted approach when interacting with the young daughter of a General.
It’s this investigation surrounding the kidnapping of the General’s daughter that forms the basis of the episode, as the pilot has a tremendous action sequence in the beginning in which Keen’s military convoy is ambushed by foreign attackers, resulting in the kidnapping of the General’s daughter. It’s straight action, and one of the better pure smash-and-grab sequences I’ve seen on a network show in some time, and it works not only due to the bombast of the sequence itself, but due to the emotional investment the show establishes between Elizabeth and the General’s daughter. I would argue that it’s subtle foreshadowing of the possibility that Keen could be Red’s daughter, but it’s far too obvious a route for the show to take, meaning that there must be some other connection, some other reason for why he feels so comfortable calling her “Lizzie,” as if he knew her father once. Perhaps he’s an uncle? Her father’s best friend? A distant relation? It’s interesting stuff to ponder, but it’s incidental to the story once we begin the hunt for the General’s daughter, and the terrorist who is planning a larger attack on American soil.
But before all that, we must deal with Red. James Spader is remarkable in pretty much every scene he’s in, portraying Reddington as an honest criminal (if such a thing can be said to exist), despite the ambiguity of Red’s motives. There’s a great sequence in which Spader luxuriates in the fancy hotel room he’s negotiated as part of his FBI deal, and there’s a sense of fun to Spader’s performance that provides more weight to the scenes in which he’s serious. Spader seems to indulge in every line, playing Red as someone with a vested interest in seeing justice done, even if we eventually learn that he may have a deeper level of involvement in the crimes he’s trying to prevent than he’s leading on. When Red meets with Ranko Zamani (Jamie Jackson), the terrorist the FBI is looking for, we learn that it was Red who convinced Zamani to pay Elizabeth’s husband a visit. That visit turns out to be the most chilling sequence of the episode, as Elizabeth returns home from work and sees festive decorations set up in celebration of the adoption agency approving their application, only to then discover that her husband, Tom (Ryan Eggold), has been tied to a chair beaten to within an inch of his life. Zamani tries to get Elizabeth to tell him what the FBI knows about his plan before stabbing Tom in the abdomen and leaving him to bleed out. The blood soaks through the carpets in the dining room, and this inevitably becomes a plot point for later. However, in the moment, Zamani is more concerned with forcing Elizabeth to choose between saving her husband and saving the General’s daughter.
The tension ramps up as Elizabeth confronts Red over whether he knew about Zamani’s plan, and jams a pen into his carotid artery to get him to talk, but he insists that there are things about her husband that Elizabeth doesn’t know. But Elizabeth gets no closer to the truth, and she ultimately loses Red in the process after he escapes from the hospital where he was being treated after Elizabeth’s attack. Red takes the opportunity to meet with Zamani and gain intel that he relays to Elizabeth, encouraging “Lizzie” to try and remember if she remembered anything significant from Zamani’s home invasion, at which point she recalls that the terrorist had a stamp to the zoo on his hand. From this, she surmises that Zamani’s plan is to bomb the public zoo. When Elizabeth arrives at the scene, she discovers she was right on the money, as the General’s daughter has been left in the center of the zoo with a bomb strapped to her body. Cue Reddington, who comes to the rescue by sending his own bomb defusing contact to the scene to stop the detonation, while FBI agent Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff) tracks Zamani down to the roof of a building, killing the terrorist by shooting him, sending him careening over the side of the building and onto the concrete below. The drama is fittingly tense not simply for the stakes it establishes, as countless children are threatened, but in what it reveals to us about Elizabeth. A scar on her wrist that Red earlier noticed her touching becomes significant when she reveals to the General’s daughter that the scar was something her father had given her, and that she would touch it anytime she needed to feel brave.
The show is already establishing Elizabeth’s complicated relationships with the men in her life, whether it’s Red, her father, or her husband. In the close of the episode, Elizabeth removes the blood-stained carpets from her dining room and discovers a hidden compartment in the floorboards, inside which is a box containing passports and fake identification for Tom. What is this secret life he’s leading? And how did Red know about it? Presumably, the bloody nature of Zamani’s attack, at Red’s orders, was intended to steer Elizabeth towards discovering the truth about her husband. But Elizabeth doesn’t seem sure where to start when it comes to piecing it all together — except to confront Reddington, who is now in solitary confinement following his escape. Red has all the answers, and while he’s brokered an immunity deal with the FBI in exchange for his help in catching the suspects on The Blacklist, he hasn’t exactly endeared himself to Elizabeth. But then, it’s hard to know if that’s something he even wants to do, given the ambiguity of his motives. Of course, it’s that ambiguity that adds an additional layer of intrigue to a series that’s already got its fair share of engaging material.
NBC has delivered a series that, from its pilot at least, shows tremendous promise. Whether the rest of the series will bear that promise out remains to be seen, but the show is certainly working with all the right tools to make this a show worth setting a DVR season pass for.