James Spader IS The Blacklist. Sure the weekly villains are freakishly good, the cast solid and the story arc intriguing and ever evolving, but there’s no denying that Spader’s criminal king of charisma Raymond “Red” Reddington is why we tune in every week. In season 3, Red goes through the motions, from fugitive and saviour, to troublemaker and eventually the walking wounded.
We know as loyal and longtime viewers that the real relationship between our manipulated heroine Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) and her protector/cause of all evil Raymond Reddington is never going to be revealed until the very last minutes of the very last episode of the very last season. But that’s fine, we signed up for just that. Each week is an episodical glimpse into the mind of a new and dangerous villain, and every week another layer of Red’s dark and mysterious past peels away. What keeps us coming back is the very fact that we have to read between the lines and make connections and assumptions in our head. (That and the fact that Spader owns every damn scene he’s in. And then some!)
Season 3 kicks off with yet another dimension to our leads’ ambiguous relationship. After shooting dead corrupt Attorney General Tom Connolly (a slimy and smirky Reed Birney), Keen goes on the run with Red. Bottle blonde and acting under her Russian name, Masha Rostova, Keen’s bond with Red shifts from a fractured one to a strong one. In short, Liz learns to love him for the first time and appreciate the lengths he goes to protect her. The two are seen as equals – partners – in the first half of the season, lying low and learning the traps as well as cracking a few crimes while they’re at it.
Just as we settle into this new scenario – they’re on the run, everything’s a bit fun – Liz is recaptured and the tone shifts once again. Liz’s colleagues at the Post Office – Ressler, Samar, Cooper and nervy nerd Aram – band together to exonerate Liz in the aftermath of exposing the ruthless Cabal. In the chaos and confusion, Liz finds herself drawn back to her ex-husband Tom Keen. Cut a long story short: she gets beaten, discovers she’s pregnant and things get ugly from there on. When Solomon and his gun-toting goons hijack her wedding, Red calls in backup and a church gunfight ensues. Amidst the anarchy, Liz goes into labour, giving birth under very trying circumstances to a little girl, Agnes. Still under siege, she’s whisked away in an ambulance suffering from blood poisoning. With Red by her side, she supposedly “dies”. As we predicted, it’s a faked death, and is confirmed as such in the fast-paced finale, but this moment is much more than that.
Putting aside the red herring (Red, get it? GET IT??), this scene is most remembered for Spader’s incredible performance. When his sidekick, Dembe (Hisham Tawfiq), flings back the sliding door Spader is framed in a still moment, holding Liz’s hand against his cheek, eyes squeezed shut in agony. He runs his lips across her fingers, kissing her palm, caressing her hair before finally kissing her eyelids and walking away. Then The Blacklist does one of what The Blacklist does best – stir up emotions with its eclectic soundtrack. The spookily cheery “Blinking Lights” by Eels fades in as a shocked Red collapses by the police car, caught by Dembe. “I’ve got you Raymond, I’ve got you.”
The follow-up episode is where the show takes an unexpected detour from the usual format and focuses solely on Red in his most fervent stages of grief. Distraught and uncharacteristically distant, he travels to Cape May, New Jersey where he saves a woman from drowning and gets caught up in her nightmare. Although we gradually learn that the entire episode is a daydream in his head and that the woman is in fact Katarina Rostova (Liz’s enigmatic Russian spy mother), it is rather cleverly filmed without any hint of surrealism or cheesy hazy flashbacks. It’s real and present and Spader gives his most nuanced and emotionally indulgent performance as Red to date.
A few of the usual fillers follow (including a brush with Famke Janssen’s slinky crook Susan Hargrave in a slightly weak episode that doubles as the pilot for the upcoming spin-off The Blacklist: Redemption) but everything was gearing up to the finale. Tom and baby Agnes disappear and BANG – Liz is revealed to be alive. Red’s longtime friend and deadpan confidante Mr. Kaplan (Susan Blommaert) is unveiled to be the betraying orchestrator of the whole fiasco and Red is seeing red. On his way to rescue his beloved Lizzy in Cuba, his old nemesis Alexander Kirk gets to her first and bombshell number two drops: he is Liz’s father, supposedly. Now, breathe. Enter the lyrics to an appropriately laconic Greg Laswell number – “everyone thinks I dodged a bullet, but I think I shot the gun” – and we have Liz’s feelings in a nutshell. Brilliance.
The build up to the finale was a lot to take in, but we were rewarded with three main things: 1) Spader got to show another side to his sarcastic antihero, 2) Liz is back and 3) we have another multi-layered plot twist to take us into season 4, which kicks off in the US this week!
Hold onto your fedora’s people, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10