Just how terrible a badass is Red Reddington? Every time you think you’ve begun to get a handle on the sheer scale of his deadly fearsomeness, The Blacklist insists that he’s all that and worse, plus a super-sized bag of cyanide -laced chips. Having extricated himself from the clutches of Alan Alda and his league of super-villains, Red doesn’t go crawling back to his safe haven with the FBI; knowing that there are traitors and moles who’ve been working with his enemies, he conducts his own internal investigation, written in blood.
Lest the mere sight of Red using a smoking pistol to thin out his address book fail to impress you, The Blacklist pays him the ultimate compliment that any rampaging killer can be paid: It shows him hard at work in a montage set to Johnny Cash’s epic “The Man Comes Around.” “There’s a man goin’ ’round, takin’ names / And he decides who to free and who to blame,” Cash sings, as we literally see Red going around, laying the investigative groundwork for his decisions as to who to cut loose and who to kneecap. When James Spader’s head is passing in front of the camera and Cash is intoning, “His name, that sat on him, was Death, and Hell followed with him,” you know the show is going to have to cut to commercial, just to give itself a chance to catch its breath. And maybe change its shorts.
Against all my expectations, part of this show—the James Spader part—may be getting marginally better. I did not see this coming, partly because the show seemed to be doing so well in the ratings, and even with some critics, that it didn’t have much incentive to change anything, especially since Spader’s own performance has reeked of complacency. He’s seemed perfectly happy to get by with the least amount of effort he needs to commit to the project, which is not to say that James Spader on autopilot isn’t more of a fireworks display than the combined acting talent of everyone under contract to The CW.
He actually raises a couple of shivers in tonight’s episode, though. I liked the way he exults in telling a woman he’s been charming, “You’re fun!” shortly before shooting her husband in the shoulder. In another scene he comes on like a homicidal Garrison Keillor, dousing a man in vodka and sticking a stogie in his own mouth, then taking a moment to reminisce: “The first time I ever smoked a cigar was with Marnie Peterson in fifth grade. Funny little bat-faced girl, I adored her.” And there’s a strangely lovely moment when, in a remote, idyllic setting, he makes his final peace with a treacherous assistant, just before slipping a plastic bag over the man’s head. If there can be such a thing as a grace note on which to end an international siege of carnage, this is it.
While Red is cleaning house, Elizabeth Keen has to spend her time looking for a serial killer, and her half of the show devolves into a standard torture-porn psycho-of-the-week crime drama, with Keen’s recitation of psychological-profile mumbo jumbo taking the place of the usual tour of the forensics lab. The loon in her sights is “the Good Samaritan killer,” played by Frank Whaley with that antsy, anxious manner he always employs when impersonating dangerous nut jobs. “He never kills his victims,” Elizabeth explains, after Whaley’s latest victim has turned up in a parking lot, literally tortured to within an inch of her life. “He always calls 911 and allows first responders a chance to save their lives. That’s why the papers call him the Good Samaritan.” As J. Jonah Jameson used to say, somebody’s got to decide what we’re going to call these jokers, but still, that’s what the papers came up with for someone with this M.O.? If that’s the best they could do, couldn’t they have held a contest?
It turns out that the Good Samaritan killer is himself a victim of childhood abuse, and he’s been tracking down domestic sadists and bullies, bringing them to a greater appreciation of the suffering they’ve caused by replicating the wounds they’ve inflicted on children and spouses. (“We are going to start by collapsing your left lung…”) For a crowning, baroque touch, he wheels his near-mummified mother out to the garage and forces her to watch him work. The funny thing is, throughout the show, the action cuts back and forth between Red inflicting damage on those who’ve set him up and tried to kill him, which I think is meant to be fun for the audience, and scenes of Frank Whaley meticulously exacting revenge on behalf of terrified, beaten children and battered women, which is apparently wrong, because when Elizabeth catches up with him, she shoots him rather than allow him to stave his rotten old mother’s head in. I guess that’s what he gets for being non-union.
Is the show trying to raise deep questions about what Whaley calls “the simple luxury of your simple morality”? Maybe so, but it doesn’t know how, and when Elizabeth tells Whaley’s last surviving victim that, if she ever hears of him raising a hand to his wife again, she’ll come back and finish what the serial killer started, it’s just confusing instead of being deeply unsettling; you wonder if she can even hear herself. We’re due for the show to start signaling that some of Red’s darkness has begun to rub off on Elizabeth and temper her sense of how far she’ll go to fight evil, but Megan Boone still seems to be putting most of her effort not into her acting, but into making sure that one glob of hair is always resting on her right eyebrow, like a brunette Veronica Lake.
At the end of the episode, she and Red are reunited, and preparing to resume work on the Blacklist, as well as dragging the ugly, misshapen soul of Alan Alda out into the cleansing light of day, for children to kick and spit on it. Will the improvement in Spader’s performance also wither and die once he’s forced to once again spend his screen time explaining things to Megan Boone? The show’s best hope for the future may depend on the return of Susan “Mrs. Paddock” Blommaert, who gave the mid-season finale such a kick in the pants, and whose example might just shame Spader into earning his paycheck. Fingers crossed.