'The Blacklist' Gets Personal

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NBC's The Blacklist is one of the undeniable hits of the fall season, and this week's episode dived deeper than the show has ever gone into the backstories of the characters ... but depth is not this show's strong suit. 

When The Blacklist premiered, we noted how it seemed to be a network's attempt at doing Homeland type show. Of course, despite monster ratings (for scripted broadcast dramas, of course), The Blacklist hasn't been nearly as good as Homeland was in its now-so-long-ago first season. Where it has succeeded, however, has been in being so blatantly outlandish that it's hard to argue with it. Unlike Homeland at present, the crazy is what you're signing up for.

The show stars James Spader as Red Reddington, a master criminal who surrenders himself to the FBI so that he might dole out precious information — on his own terms — via Elizabeth Keen, an agent who is probably his daughter. What makes The Blacklist fun is its true dedication to making each of the people on Reddington's titular "blacklist" Bond-villain level ridiculous. There was Isabella Rossellini as a sex trafficking humanitarian. Tom Noonan played The Stewmaker, a guy who literally dissolves human bodies. Robert Sean Leonard was mad scientist Frederick Barnes, infecting (and killing people) with a disease to help his own son. Last night, Justin Kirk turned up as the leader of an Anonymous-like collective that is blowing up planes. Andrew Dice Clay played a plastic surgeon! 

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These crimes committed on the show are huge and disgusting, but they're also theatrical and outlandish. If you dwell on them too much, this outlandishness can make you feel a little queasy. Slate's Willa Paskin, while pointing out that she's not sure she finds the show "ethically acceptable," noted that Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker called it "odious torture porn." We did find ourselves doing something of a double take when 9/11 was mentioned last night. Bringing real-world horror into this near-fantastical world of crime seemed out of place.  But everything is over the top in the show, and that's why it works. It's all buoyed by Spader's performance. It certainly seems like he's having the time of his life purring through Reddington's smarter-than-thou dialogue. For evidence, look no further than the way he enunciates the phrase "absolute rascals" during an aside about Malaysian monkeys in last night's episode. 

Recently, though, The Blacklist has taken the time to delve more into the show's ongoing mysteries: what is Keen's husband up to, and why is Reddington obsessed with Keen? A recent episode that focused on the husband, who may or may not be a criminal in his own right, hit something of a dead end, leaving that mystery wide open. Last night, however, the focus was on Keen's dying surrogate father and his relationship to Reddington. Keen finds herself too wrapped up in her case to make it to Nebraska to see the man who raised her. Instead, Reddington pays him a visit, and they reminisce about old times while heavily implying that Reddington is Keen's father. Reddington ends up smothering the man, after he says he wants to reveal the truth to Keen. When Keen learns of the old man's death, she breaks down, before an emotional funeral scene. But here's the thing: do we really care? 

Keen's suspicious-husband plot was a solid fit for the show; he could always simply become another in the show's rogues gallery of villains. This interlude into Keen's parentage and feeeelings only slows the action down. Reddington, meanwhile, is best when he's only vaguely reprehensible—making counterfeit money, say—not when he's an out-and-out murderer with internal emotional issues. The show meanwhile, is best when it's at its nuttiest, confronting these evil masterminds with a Spader smirk. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.