The Blacklist has, like most TV shows, expanded its storytelling focus over the years. With more episodes comes the need to give lead characters a refresh and supporting characters more essential things to do. In theory, this is a great, necessary idea; in execution, the results vary.
No matter your perspective on Red (James Spader), Liz (Megan Boone) or their relationship, it's clearly the central, most successful part of The Blacklist. Even during the show's more strained attempts to keep from answering questions about what Red is to Liz and vice versa, they have remained a compelling pair around which to build a broadcast drama. The supporting players, while solid, don't make up the deepest bench, nor has the show consistently found a way to make them interesting.
This week's episode, "Miss Rebecca Thrall," fully embodied that discrepancy. Despite mostly functioning as a building block for down-the-road intrigue, it was a very busy hour spent on three or four different threads. However, that approach meant that each thread was just underdeveloped enough not to work together -- particularly anything not involving Red.
Red's scheming to rebuild his criminal empire? We could all watch that every week. The Blacklist was very recently one of the most popular shows on TV because people enjoy watching Spader look cool and cunning and smart. Giving us more insight into his process through the replenishing of his resources is a great way to let Red shine without being as overtly evil as he's been at different times over the course of the prior four seasons, and as I mentioned last week, enabled Spader to let it rip even more.
That fun -- inasmuch as The Blacklist can have legitimate fun -- continued in "Thrall," complete with the glorious return of Glen (Clark Middleton), your favorite tracker and mine, some patented Red psychological warfare directed toward Tom (Ryan Eggold) and, obviously, an elephant. Any stories that feature elephants that also don't feature those elephants being hurt should be viewed as a giant W.
While there's still a sense of loss for the real joy of the season premiere, it's reasonable that Red would quite quickly tire of living the way he has recently -- middling hotel, disappointing transportation and underwhelming amount of influence in the global underground. He's going to push ahead, and fast, both to get back to where he was and to prove that he can do it.
At least with another shot from Glen and the latest appearance of Red's new ad hoc "crew," Smokey (Michael Aronov) and Hawkins (Aida Turturro), made for entertaining -- if not hilarious -- shenanigans. Scenes with Red using his intellect and power of personality to get what he wants are simply far more engaging than backroom threats about shadowy figures and unseen powers. The Blacklist doesn't have to change what it is on a fundamental level, but an hour that ends with Red, Glen, and Dembe (Hisham Tawfiq) sharing celebratory drinks after commandeering some guns and a private jet is a productive alteration to get behind.
Unfortunately, that was only one part of the episode. Elsewhere, The Blacklist presented some decent ideas that weren't exactly executed well, or given enough to be executed well. The case involved all sorts of stuff -- police corruption, BDSM, insurance fraud, crooked attorneys -- that a FBI task force mostly dealing with the world's worst criminals wouldn't always get involved with, which is a good thing. Mix it up. Yet, what started strong with the titular Thrash (Sarah Wynter)'s dramatic introduction, got muddled as the hour went along.
Ressler's (Diego Klattenhoff) struggles with his blackmailer were similarly okay served by the episode. Klattenhoff has been a strong, underrated force for a long time, so it's positive that Ressler continues to have his own storylines separate from Red and Liz. This one, with him constantly at the beck and call of the blackmailer Prescott who helped him dispose of Hitchin's body, just don't hold up against the rest of the show at the moment. Characters lying and covering their tracks is never as compelling as writers seem to believe it will be, and that holds true here.
Thankfully, Ressler's paranoia might turn more interesting very soon, if a moment late in the episode is any indication. Red clearly knows about Ressler's involvement in Hitchin's death and his declaration of admiration for the agent in this episode is part of a longer game to get Ressler on his side -- for what, we don't know. The task force is generally compromised ethically. Liz has already demonstrated a sympathetic view towards Red's actions, both in the past and certainly now. But pulling Ressler into that moral gray area could be a boon for the show, and one of its more sturdy supporting players.
Let's just hope it doesn't take another few busy, middling episodes like this to get there.
The Blacklist airs at 8/7c on NBC.