“The Freelancer” opens with James Spader’s “Red” Reddington putting on his nattiest duds and emerging from the hold of an aircraft carrier—head tilted back, the lenses of his sunglasses gleaming brightly—while “Sympathy For The Devil” rattles on the soundtrack. There’s the pitch that The Blacklist continues to make to its audience: Moment to moment, scene to scene, this show may not make a lick of sense, but it promises to always to be absolutely on the nose. The devilish but hard-to-dislike Red is whisked off to “FBI Special Ops Division,” where he is given a polygraph test, for the express purpose of giving him a chance to demonstrate his inability to give a simple yes or no answer to any question. Ask him anything—what’s his birthday, his eye color, his quest, his favorite color—and you can depend on him to reply, “You’re asking the wrong question.”
Red does do his usual party trick of declaring that, at such-and-such a place on such-and-such a time, some shit will go down. Because Harry Lennix is in charge of the FBI Special Ops Division and is a lot smarter than the writers seem to realize, that dickhead FBI agent who wouldn’t believe Red if he told him the sun was hot is dispatched to comb the area. Agent Dickweed is stomping around with his lower lip dragging the ground, telling everyone that this is all a waste of time, when, sure enough, some shit goes down: A train comes barreling around a corner, nearly parts his wet-look hair for him, and derails.
Elizabeth Keen, the pert and moist-eyed rookie profiler who is the only person Red will talk to, is called away from her husband’s bedside. (He is in a medically induced coma, after being badly roughed up by last week’s Big Bad. After he was assaulted, Elizabeth found a secret stash containing wads of cash, a gun, and a handful of fake passports with her husband’s photo. She has been sitting with him in the hospital, asking him questions about this, because she was out sick the day the special classroom guest came to profiler school to explain what comas are.) Now, she marches into the enormous packing crate where Red is kept while the aircraft carrier is picking up lunch for the President of the Navy, and barks, “Tell me about the train wreck!” Spader says, “Well, it’s not really much of a story. They came to me and told me that Carell was leaving, and I told them that I wasn’t interested in committing to a weekly series just then, but maybe, if the money was right, I could just sort of drift in and out for a season, and I wouldn’t be picky about the dialogue. Oh, wait, I’m sorry, are you referring to Supernova?” I’m kidding, of course!
Red explains that this week’s Big Bad is a super-hit man called “The Freelancer,” and that his target is Isabella Rossellini, or, as Elizabeth knows her, “Floriana Campo? The human-rights activist?” It turns out that Floriana Campo is a big thing in Elizabeth’s life. When the two of them meet, Elizabeth takes a deep breath and tells her, “Your work has been an inspiration! I wrote my senior thesis on your work in Kuala Lumpur. I was going through a bad time, and in some ways, I think you helped me through it.” This speech was one of my favorite moments in the episode, mainly because it reminded me of a similar scene in one of my all-time favorite episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Mighty Jack. In that movie, the legendary freedom fighter who the heroine is slobbering over turns out to be one of the bad guys, so I was well prepared for the shocking revelation here: Isabella Rossellini is actually a diabolical human trafficker and leader of the dreaded “Eberhardt cartel,” who only pretends to be a human-rights activist because it’s a good cover and gets her invited to all the swinging New York charity balls. Not that she doesn’t have her headaches, too. “I just got word that a shipment we were trying to track is gone,” she complains. “Girls, more than 60 of them.” You’d think that after this happened a few times, they’d stop entrusting the tracking numbers to Ziggy Sobotka.
Meanwhile, Harry Lennix and Jane Alexander seem to be having a meeting on the set of The Charlie Rose Show, sitting around a table shrouded in darkness, hashing out the details of just how far they should go in humoring Red by appearing to agree to his “demands” and maintaining the pretense that he’s working his way toward some kind of immunity deal. But, just like last week, Red is given a scene in which he casually and ostentatiously slips away from the ten-ton dragnet the Feds are supposed to be keeping over him, which underlines the sense that it’s Red who’s humoring them. (It doesn’t help that the action scenes, which were crisply handled in the pilot, are a sloppy, slow-moving mess tonight. When the camera trails Red as he walks out of a restaurant through the back way, the “escape” looks so lethargic that the agents pursuing him just look inept. A later, long chase scene looks as if the location manager put his heart and soul into it, but the camera work and editing are so careless that you never get enough of a sense of the geography to know what’s going on.)
By the time the negotiations are settled, the show’s supporting cast has been padded out quite a bit. Red is now partnered with an FBI agent played by Parminder Nagra (of Alcatraz, Psych, and the movie Bend It Like Beckham), a sexy Asian woman (about whom Red, as if reciting from the back cover of a James M. Cain novel, says, “She hates all men, cops most of all,”), and Red’s preferred bodyguard, an enormous black man called Denke. Asked if he has a first name, Harry Lennix says, no, just Denke, “like Prince, or Madonna.” (Or Lothar. Or Tonto.) None of them make much of an impression as yet, and the same can still be said about most of the characters who are milling around since being introduced in the pilot. The Blacklist seems prepared to rise or fall on the strength of Spader’s character, and the major thing we learn about him that’s new is that, in addition being an enigmatic, unstoppable rogue who now wants to serve the forces of good, he’s also judge, jury, and executioner: Rather than merely expose Rossellini’s character for what she is, he murders her, while Elizabeth looks on, helplessly. You might think this would get Red a night in the box, cause him to have his room-service privileges revoked, or something. But it’s just glossed over; Red decided the woman needed killing, this concludes our investigation. But if Red had caught any flack over it, I suppose there would have been a cut to Agent Dickweed gloating, and I don’t want to appear ungrateful for having been spared that.
- Yes, “Hallelujah” is still the most overexposed song in contemporary TV and movies, but, especially in suspense (and attempted) suspense scenes, “Sinnerman” is coming up on it fast.
- Settling into a fancy restaurant with Elizabeth, Red tells her she can pretend to be “my girlfriend from Ann Arbor.” She tells him no way, and he replies, “Fine, you can be my daughter.” I have no idea whether the original idea was for Elizabeth to turn out to be Red’s daughter, but the producers have been listening to people tell them that’s what’s going on since the first Q&A following the screening of the pilot at Comic-Con, so they might as well make an in-joke out of it.
- “You’re a loner. You keep your distance. You travel freely through foreign lands. You’re rootless. You’re very comfortable here with your glass of Scotch, but you’re just as comfortable sleeping in a cave with rebels, or sharing dinner in some hole-in-the-wall noodle shop. Your closest friends are strangers. You understand that tight bonds can make you vulnerable, so you’re careful not to have any.” This speech, delivered by Elizabeth to Red in that restaurant, is the latest in what I predict will be a series of prose poems that the characters surrounding Red will deliver on the subject of how endlessly fascinating he is. Collect and save them all!