Maybe it's the nature of a sixth season or maybe it's a byproduct of the compressed schedule, but The Blacklist feels more serialized this year. The show has struggled to toggle between its sprawling mystery and its procedural core over the years. In Season 6, however, blacklisters have been more successfully tethered to the ongoing stories involving Reddington (James Spader) and company or minimized altogether to not distract from the main characters.
"Olivia Olson" is a fine representation of this small shift. After last week's momentous two-hour affair, The Blacklist used a new case to tell a few solid stories about characters navigating the emotional fallout of recent events. This wasn't a great episode of TV, but it's the type of episode that the show might have bungled more obviously in the past, with characters barely acknowledging their personal circumstances to "focus on the job."
Amid another blacklister case focused on corporate America — there's been a lot of conference rooms and open floor plans this season — the task force clashed with their new "boss" and the president's right-hand conspirator, Anna McMahon. Unfortunately, there's not too much to the McMahon character other than "she's manipulative." Still, the cabal storyline has sputtered at times, but it does function better with Reddington and the team (mostly) working together to undermine an actual person in McMahon.
The stronger material, predictably, focused on Aram (Amir Arison), who couldn't simply forget his longtime partner because Reddington spurted out some platitudes about the greater good. Better still, Aram spent the episode on the offensive, draining one of Reddington's bank accounts and using it as leverage to get the criminal mastermind to fly him to see Samar (Mozhan Marno) in her top-secret location.
The structure of that story underlined how smart Aram can be, but also how manipulative Reddington can be even when he's trying to do something approximating the right thing. Reddington initially tried to act like nothing significant had happened, then delivered a familiar speech about how loss gets easier. Aram, meanwhile, had to explicitly and charmingly reveal to Reddington his theft, with an earnest plea to move on from the task force and be with his fiancée. As the blacklister investigation unraveled, Reddington smoothly used that to apply pressure on Aram and spoke to his value to the team. And when that only partially worked, Reddington revealed that Mossad and the Umbrella Corporation are watching Aram, hoping that he'll lead them to Samar. Only then did Aram realize that he couldn't have what he wanted. The team needed him, and Samar needs him to protect her to a degree.
Are both of those things true? Yes. Does Reddington care about Aram and his safety? Yeah. But did Reddington smartly play all this up at the exact right time to get Aram to cave and return his money? Of course. Good on the show for putting these two characters together. It's the kind of late-run novelty that helps keep a show fresh-ish.
While Aram took some convincing to begin the process of moving on, Liz (Megan Boone) yet again seemed fully committed to it. Rather than using Reddington's return to the task force as a way to recalibrate her investigation, Liz appears affected by her fake father's prison stint — and her role in making that happen. Ressler pushed back against Liz's change of heart, but she didn't budge.
There are a few ways to look at this development. On one hand, it's easy to track this reaction from Liz. Though she can occasionally operate like her not-dad, she never handles it particularly well. She was already guilty for having put Reddington in prison. Everything that happened after that — the reveal that the original Reddington wasn't a traitor, the rushed trial, the potential death sentence — only shook her further. As she said in this episode, this man did protect her for years and mostly continues to do so. He's important to her, maybe more important than the truth. That's more compelling character-driven story.
On the other hand, The Blacklist has always been about the unanswered questions between these two people. It's not going to drop these questions because Liz has, at least for the moment. The show is asking viewers to wait on any answers, which is fine. But if they come without Liz's involvement, it's another ding against the show's desire to make the character more passive than she could be.
If this season's pace is any indication, there will be answers soon.
The Blacklist airs Fridays at 9/8c on NBC.