For TV shows, there’s no perfect way to tease out a major plot development. If you rush the information out quickly, it feels unearned. But wait too long and viewers can lose interest in the journey it takes to get to the reveal. The Blacklist currently has two major storylines hampered by the latter issue, making for a bumpy journey toward the midseason break.
The first of these, the simmering war between Red (James Spader) and Katarina (Laila Robins), encapsulates classic Blacklist chicanery. The end of last week’s episode “revealed” that Frank (Brett Cullen) was the artist formerly known as Ilya. The verb is in scare quotes because, by the end of this episode, it’s entirely unclear if Frank is, in fact, Ilya, if he’s posing as Ilya to protect Red (the real Ilya), or running a con entirely.
“The Hawaladar” saw Katarina torture Frank for information related to their pasts and the looming Townsend Directive hit on her head. While Katarina tried her damnedest to break a man she, seemingly, knows from years ago, Frank refused to talk, and instead tried to commit suicide to protect, well, whatever information he’s protecting. Red, meanwhile, spent the episode in a panicked state, manipulating the task force into tracking an illegal top-shelf money transferring outfit just to get more intel on Frank’s kidnapping. Red’s fear over Frank’s safety even led him to bully and threaten Glen, everyone’s favorite DMV wiz/tracker extraordinaire.
Everyone involved here brought their A-game. Robins delivered her most sophisticated performance as Katarina, embodying the self-interested fear and pain of someone with a bounty on their life. Spader made Red’s urgency feel legitimate — a sharp contrast to the character’s typical assured genius smarm. Even though he spent the hour being beaten and tortured and nearly hanged, Cullen’s subtle work demonstrated Frank’s resolute commitment to his cause.
Strong performances could not fully cover for the clunky attempts at intrigue, though. This is the type of thing The Blacklist loves to do. Characters ask questions that don’t get answered. They use jargon like the Townsend Directive without clarifying much about what it means. And in this case, they pretend to be people they aren’t or people they were but aren’t now.
The show has toyed with the “who is Raymond Reddington” question so many times that yet another swerve, or swerve of a swerve, is not compelling storytelling. It is especially trying to sit through episodes where everyone is strategically lying to each other with this as the backdrop. The stakes are present but not concrete. If Frank were to have successfully killed himself, that act would have such a small impact because the character is so ill-defined. If he were have to revealed himself to be Ilya, that, too, would not feel important because that card has been played many times across seven seasons.
While the relationship between Katarina and Liz (Megan Boone) is more clearly defined than what is truly happening with Frank and Red, the dissension between them has unfurled similarly slowly. Liz finally generated some skepticism toward Katarina, but only after her toddler daughter drew a picture of the dying man she encountered in the last episode while in Katarina’s care. Katarina tried to flip the pressure back to Liz by suggesting that her job as an FBI agent is likely to blame for Agnes’ troubling artwork, only to push Liz to investigate further.
Bravo to Liz for considering that the oddly friendly woman who suddenly appeared in her life and wanted to provide free childcare might actually have ulterior motives! More seriously, this is a storyline the show has teased, hoping to ramp up the tension between the two characters. Liz has operated too passively up until this episode for someone who has all of her life experiences.
Despite the movement here, the ultimate effect of a slow-burning story like this is that you can just feel the show waiting and waiting for the midseason finale to do something significant. Shows with big episode orders and long breaks have to do that, but it shouldn’t be so obvious to see the string being stretched out a little further each week. When combined with the more chaotic but similarly teased Frank plot, this episode of The Blacklist felt like full set-up theatre. The payoff needs to be worth it.
The Blacklist airs Fridays at 8/7c on NBC.