There’s no better type of character than that of a villain, an antagonist bad boy who is enticingly likeable. From the very first episode of The Blacklist on NBC we were introduced to FBI fugitive Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader) who, although he is now a high-profile criminal at the top of the Most Wanted List, was once a U.S. Navy officer and was apparently being groomed for a top position in Washington. Though, Red couldn’t quite escape the adrenaline filled criminal lifestyle, which made him a lot of enemies and also resulted in him becoming an unlikely ally of the FBI. After all, Reddington absorbed the criminal underworld like a sponge, honing his craft by learning from the most dangerous convicts in the world. That also makes him the FBI’s most useful informant.
We’re not completely sure why a top-notch criminal pro like Red would insist on working with no one other than rookie profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). Huh? This – and other important questions like who is Tom? – are left dangling with each passing episode and makes Blacklist nail-bitingly edgy and an addictively guilty pleasure.
Spader has always had a knack for playing the arrogant asshole. Still, he’s come a long way from his chain-smoking, preppie days as Steff McKee Blane’s (Andrew McCarthy) best friend, who insists on breaking up the unapproved relationship with poor, underprivileged Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald) in the 1980s John Hughes classic Pretty in Pink. Spader, even then, was born to portray wealth in a snobby manner that resonated on the big screen.
He takes that to an entirely new level in The Blacklist. He’s one part Dillinger, one part “The Most Interesting Man In The World,” capable of shooting a man in cold blood and then winning a stuffed animal at a carnival and gifting it to a young girl, all without breaking stride. What makes Spader’s character so likeable is his impeccable timing, similar to that of Mads Mikkelson’s Hannibal, as well as his penchant for following an especially dastardly deed with empathy and humanity. He’ll take a bite out of your liver one-second and replace the organ, sew you up and give you a dose of morphine in the next.
The “Who is Tom” subplot has been nothing short of provocative, prompting us to care about Elizabeth Keen’s relationship with her fake husband and also wonder about Reddington’s involvement in the whole charade. We learned how Reddington and Tom came to know each other, but for what reason, exactly? What is Reddington hiding from Keen, and who is he to her? While Red appears to be the reason Tom entered Keen’s life in the first place, we also know that he is genuinely disturbed at the way Tom turned on Keen. It’s as if he tries to somehow protect her by withholding the truth, while at the same time trying to warn her of the lies. It’s all such a wonderful dichotomy.
Of course, the real mystery in all of this is the relationship between Keen and Red. The fatherly or perhaps brotherly affection towards Keen makes us wonder if the obvious could be true or if the writers have yet another plot twist in store for us. At this point I have to think the latter.
The Blacklist excels in bringing three-dimensional characters to life with layers of complexity, exposing the will to survive amid a special, familial even, vulnerability. Keen dances on this precipice again and again, discovering the deception behind her husband’s identity yet covering up for him, shooting him yet employing a doctor to save his life, only to torture him as she strives for the truth. On display are the complexity of human emotions and motives that live not in area of black or white, the good or bad, but a dubious purgatory of amorality.
And while Keen is valuable, Red is vital, to the FBI black ops. Beneath his know-it-all tough exterior lies a layer that is soft and fatherly, compassionate and protective. Episode 15 of Season 2 definitely left on the cliff as we see Keen presumably preparing for a murder trial brought about by her attempts to protect the man who lied to her, married her, spied on her, warned her, and tried to kill her. Will this all cost the rookie agent her career and perhaps her freedom? How will this affect the FBI, Assistant Director Cooper and the black ops team? It appeared that Episode 16 answered some of these questions and left lingering touching moments as to what one would do for love. We see not only Tom and Liz’s unquestionable love for one another, but Red’s love for Liz. However twisted these relationships are, the complexity of the plot and characters do not disappoint.
We’ll have to wait to see how Season 2 resolves and what additional questions the series is sure to promulgate.