The 2013-2014 network TV season may go down as the year of the non-event series. While there were isolated pockets of excitement on cable (True Detective) and some high-profile events such as the series finale of How I Met Your Mother, the networks’ slate of new shows was defined by a flood of highly touted new series that either sank without a trace (Believe, Crisis, The Tomorrow People, Once Upon A Time In Wonderland, Betrayal) or distinguished themselves mainly by the exceptional degree of mocking laughter that greeted their every plot twist (Hostages, Dracula). In a crowd like this, it’s easy to understand how NBC could wind up crowing about a show as fundamentally mediocre as The Blacklist. It has the confident stride of a hit, as if its star, James Spader, and creator, Joe Bokenkamp, never doubted for a second that they’d constructed a one-way bullet train to ratings nirvana.
After the show took off, this confidence took the form of self-satisfied laziness, as if Spader and the writers didn’t want to risk confusing or alarming their loyal audience by doing anything that might cause the viewers’ hearts to race or make their Ovaltine boil over. The season finale is kind of a perfect capstone to the show’s first season: It’s a handy anthology of Red Reddington’s greatest hits, cobbled together on the theory that if the audience tolerated it once, they’ll love seeing it a second, or a third, time. Once again, Red is shackled and caged by a Wile E. Coyote type who tells him that he may have gotten away before, but his tricks won’t save him this time—this time, he’s going to be disappeared real good.
Once again, Red eludes the cut-rate Javert’s clutches, thanks to intervention from some unidentified but powerful forces. Once again, Alan Alda drops by to personify the vaguely identified powerful forces and trade some unsatisfyingly cryptic dialogue with our antihero. There’s a replay of a scene from a previous episode in which a man comes home to find Red sitting at his kitchen table, waiting to rough up him; this time, instead of charming the man’s wife, Red gets under his skin by cuddling his dog. There’s even a brief flashback to a scene from the pilot, showing Elizabeth Keen sitting in the back seat of a car with a little girl she’s trying to protect from potential abductors. The clip lasts just long enough to make the point that while Megan Boone has never been a good actress on this show, there was a time early on when she at least made an effort.
The title, “Berlin,” refers to the latest super-villain on Red’s list, a former Russian Colonel who, Alda’s character says, “makes Putin look like a Christmas elf.” For reasons that Red himself can’t figure out, Berlin has been working for years to dismantle Red’s organization; Red finally tells Elizabeth that one of his reasons for teaming up with the FBI was to enlist the Bureau’s resources in the fight against Berlin. Berlin makes his presence felt by engineering the crash of a transport plane loaded with Russian gangsters, so that they swarm all over Gotham, or wherever the hell this is supposed to taking place. Agents Ressler and Malik track one of the fugitives to a disco.
Seeing someone who matches a fugitive’s description, Malik announces that she has “eyes on a possible unsub,” despite the fact that “unsub” is G-man shorthand for “unknown suspect,” and is usually thrown around when describing criminals for whom there is not yet a physical description, as opposed to a large, tattooed Russian who happens to step into the line of view of a federal agent looking for a large, tattooed Russian. The next thing you know, she’s getting her throat cut, possibly by some true-crime linguist who is enraged at hearing terms like “unsub” thrown around, as if by a TV writer who doesn’t know what the phrase means, but heard it on Criminal Minds and thought it sounded cool and “authentic.” In case this isn’t enough to make the point that this is a wild-ass season finale in which not even a series regular’s life is worth a plug nickel, Harold, the head of the task force that works with Red, is waylaid in a car and re-enacts the scene from The Godfather in which Michael Corleone’s brother-in-law protests being garroted by kicking out the front windshield. (He’s last seen lying unconscious in a hospital bed, still alive but “in critical condition.” This amounts to a press release saying that he’ll probably recover and be back next season, though he may take a turn for the worse if Harry Lennix asks for more money.)
One of the guards who was aboard the crashed plane is played by Peter Stormare. Keen and Ressler visit him in the hospital and, while he’s stretched out in bed, ask him about the mystery man known as “Berlin.” “You don’t know who you’re dealing with,” Storemare tells them. “I don’t know his name. No one knows his name. I just know the story.” What’s the story? Well, once upon a time, Berlin was an officer in the Red Army, and then in the KGB. He was widely feared, and notorious for sending his enemies to the Gulag. But he had a daughter who he loved very much. One day, men who wanted the heroin trade to themselves came to his house and told him they were taking over his territory. To show that they meant business, they killed his daughter right in front of him. And then Berlin showed those men of will what will really was. He killed his wife, and then he killed the intruders. He waited until his wife and daughter were in the ground, and then he went after the rest of the mob. He killed their kids. He killed their wives. He killed their parents and their parents’ friends. It wasn’t until he was killing people who owed them money that I realized I had gotten so bored that I’d zoned out and was replaying The Usual Suspects in my head.
The archetypal The Blacklist scene comes when Red captures a man who may be Berlin and tries to make him talk. The man is tough and defiant, which gives Red an excuse to shoot him in the hand and in the thigh, while lovingly describing what’s specifically horrible about these particular wounds. To call this torture porn would be to credit it with a greater level of passionate emotion and more power to disturb than it has. The scene is what it is because “He spits in Red’s face” and “Red shoots him in the hand” are easier to write than interesting dialogue. We don’t even get to find out why the guy hates Red so goddamn much; he finally barks that it’s because of what happened in Beirut in 2010, and Red just nods and agrees that, yes, it sure was a godawful mess what happened in Beirut in 2010. Red, like that Russian Colonel, is supposed to be a guy that people tell stories about. The Blacklist ought to let him tell a few sometime. It would have to be more entertaining than listening to him run out the clock until the next commercial break by discoursing on the differences between cling peaches and freestone peaches, no matter what movies his stories inevitably remind you of.
In the end, after both the guy Red has been torturing and Keen’s husband have been killed, the FBI agents finally figure out that Peter Stormare is actually Berlin. I say “finally” because everyone watching the show figures it out the minute he first appears, because Peter Stormare. The episode ends with Keen finally forgiving Red for that trivial business about his having killed her adoptive father, so that the two can face the future together, and look forward to another season of chasing guest bad guys, with sporadic guest appearances by the now in-the-wind and still hatin’-on-Red Peter Stormare. As for the show’s heavy hints that Red is really Elizabeth’s father, hints that were always so heavy that it would be really lame if it turned out he really is her father? With his dying breath, Elizabeth’s husband tells her that her biological father is still alive. Hearing this, Red tells her that he knows for a fact that her father died in a fire. Then, in the final image of the episode, Red removes his shirt, so that the audience can see the terrible scars on his back, hinting that what Red really means is that a man who was Elizabeth’s father ceased to exist in that fire, but the body’s still here, a little worse for wear, but still keeping protective eyes on his little girl. If owning your own clichéd lameness is something to be proud of, The Blacklist can continue to hold its head high.