The Blacklist: "The Stewmaker"
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The Blacklist: "The Stewmaker"

C

The Blacklist

"The Stewmaker"

Season 1, Episode 4

This show continues to have some major conceptual problems. I wouldn’t have thought any of them were insurmountable, but in the direction it’s taking, the more it fleshes out its basic concept, the stupider it seems. The FBI does not just allow Red free reign of Washington, D. C. in exchange for his help reeling in his select list of master criminals; it is also permitting him to continue his own work as a master criminal, on a global scale. (At one point in tonight’s episode, he traipses off to Haiti.) In terms of real-world plausibility, I suppose you could argue that Red deserves at least a good a deal from the Feds as Whitey Bolger had for so many years. But how is it that the membership of the World Crime League remains unaware that Red is working with the law to pick them off, one by one?

His surrender to the FBI was staged for maximum, attention-getting flashiness. Yet the fact that one of the most high-profile fugitives in the world walked into a government building in broad daylight, identified himself, got down on his knees with his fingers laced behind his head, and suddenly had a phalanx of officers pointing their guns at him somehow went unnoticed by all the cable news networks, all the reporters and bloggers and authors of steamy Red Reddington fan fiction. You’d think that a single tourist passing by the glass doors would have looked inside, thought to himself, “There’s something you don’t see every day,” and taken a picture and put it on Instagram. It’s as if nobody outside the FBI ever found out that they’d gotten the Unabomber, because somebody forgot to issue a press release.

In earlier episodes, Red declared, with great pride and even greater implausibility, that he never discusses business over the phone or using the Internet, that he doesn’t even have email; he always insists on doing business face to face. I get the feeling that the show is so taken with its notion that Red is a genius at what he does that it thinks this way of conducting criminal business will sound brilliant, just because it’s how Red says he does business. By contrast, when it was explained that Keyser Soze, or Avon Barksdale, only did business through middlemen, so that hardly anyone knew what they looked like, let alone met them face to face, that sounded like a brilliant way to run a criminal empire because it’s obviously a brilliant way to run a criminal empire. It makes sense. Red’s way, especially in the modern technological age, smacks of senility, no matter how smoothly James Spader croons his lines. And the fact that his “surrender” doesn’t even make a dent in social media makes it seem as if the world has agreed to play by his rules.

Since the forces of the law that we see on this show are doomed to be less than Red’s match, it would be nice if the special guest villains could at least meet him halfway and send up some flamboyance and fireworks. So far, that hasn’t come close to happening. It doesn’t happen tonight, either, but this is the first time the show seemed to be trying. The villains are Clifton Collins, Jr., as a smooth drug dealer who’s on trial, and Tom Noonan. Red turns up his nose at Collins, “a vicious little drug lord thug” unworthy of inclusion on his precious Blacklist. But he gets aroused when he learns that Noonan has entered the picture. Noonan is “the Stewmaster,” who is hired by criminals. such as the drug lord, to wipe out all traces of witnesses they’ve had killed; he uses his knowledge of chemistry and his ability to find motel rooms with really deep bathtubs. How’s that for an anticlimax?

The Big Bad is a cleaner, a criminal type that’s hardened into a cliché since Harvey Keitel played Walter Wolfe in Pulp Fiction, and just to reinforce the secondhand, pre-chewed feel, Noonan’s performance is like collected outtakes from Manhunter.  (Noonan, God bless him, will always go that extra mile to appear freaky. In Manhunter, when he was just finding his niche, he loomed over people, looking about eight feet tall, with a stocking pulled over the upper half of his face. More than 25 years later, facing a more jaded crowd, he chases Elizabeth through the woods, butt naked, wearing a gas mask. You can practically hear Hannibal Lecter whispering, “Damn, dude!”) As if he can hear the audience yawning, Red quickly adds that “It’s much more than the proficiency of his tradecraft that gets him on the list. He’s a trophy keeper.” The Stewmaster maintains a photo album identifying the countless victims he’s disposed of over the years. So, just to sum up: This week’s Big Bad is a cleaner who is much in demand for how meticulously he dissolves any evidence of a murder, and who carefully preserves evidence of all the murders he’s cleaned up after, which means he’s the most useless cleaner in the history of crime. A lot of thought went into this one.

Like the pilot, “The Stewmaster” was directed by Joe Carnahan (Narc, The Grey), and it has more snap that the last couple of episodes. It also has stray bits that make it seem like a rush job, such as a split-second glimpse of a murdered federal officer whose goofy facial expression makes him look as if he’s been gassed by the Joker, and a close-up of Elizabeth, in a dramatic moment with her husband, holding her long fingers across her mouth in a way that makes her look as if she has duck lips. I’m guessing there’s not much Carnahan could have done to counteract the built-in dumbness of a scene in which a helicopter, an armored car, and an SUV all converge at a pre-arranged meeting spot where nobody has thought to make sure there’s not somebody waiting on a nearby rooftop with a rocket launcher. (I’m half-convinced that it’s intentionally funny when Elizabeth, who’s talking to Noonan and seated in a chair, so that her face is level with his crotch, says, “You know, I was wrong about you. You’re not perfect.”)

This episode also contains the most promising scene since the pilot; it comes in the last 10 minutes, when Red corners Noonan and delivers an oblique little parable that seems to be about what brought Red to this pass, or what turned Noonan into a monster, or maybe both. At the end of his speech, Red executes Noonan, which gives Elizabeth the chance, for the third time in three straight episodes, to be shocked, shocked, that Red is capable of taking human life. I can’t say that, by the end of the hour, I was any more interested in solving the riddle of who Elizabeth is or what her connection is to Red; listening to an actress bleat lines like “Why are you doing this!? You don’t take life! You clean up death!” will beat any interest right out of you. But when James Spader is in the frame all by himself, inserting perfectly weighted pauses into the lines “His suffering became… complicated,” and “the farmer who is… no longer a farmer,” he actually seems righteously angry, and tired, instead of just glib. It might be the first real acting he’s done on the show, and it does more to generate real curiosity about Red, about what he’s done and what he’s up to, than all his cute little riddles and smartass remarks. It suggests a base upon which some people might build a character, and a show, if that’s something they might be interested in doing.

Stray observations:

  • Elizabeth should never be allowed to speak, but she continues to have terrific nails. In a saner world, the actress would have had to decline the role, because she was so busy starring in commercials for Palmolive dishwashing liquid.
  • Poor Diego Klatenhoff continues to inspire a mixture of irritation and pity as Agent Ressler. As conceived, Ressler’s role in the show seems to be to constantly flaunt his contempt for Red, who the audience is supposed to like, or at least find fascinating, and to accuse him of being wrong about things that the audience knows he’s right about. In short, he’s The Blackist’s version of Cliff Barnes, except that he’s never going to get his sordid little day in the sun by sleeping with Red’s wife. He is also obliged to deliver this line: “I’m not the guy you kill. I’m the guy you pay.” I can only assume that the writer, series creator Joe Bokenkamp, happened to catch Michael Clayton on TV, liked the line “I’m not the guy you kill. I’m the guy you buy off,” and concluded that he could rip it off with impunity, since probably nobody else had seen that movie.
  • This is the second TV show I’ve seen in two days that worked in a Johnny Mathis record. I hope to Christ it’s the last, because whenever I hear Johnny Mathis’ voice, I think of The X-Files episode “Home,” and then I can’t sleep.