10/14/2013, 10PM, NBC
From the start NBC’s new ratings hit, The Blacklist, has put on display week in and out the fundamental flaw in its very conception. This is procedural. Each week, Red and Liz take down one of the dubious criminals until then invisible to any branch of law enforcement. Spliced in have been fragments of season-long arcs—wisps of complexity and character that frustrated more than teased. The Blacklist felt as purposefully withheld as Red, leaving us feeling toyed with. The problem with that is we love to be duped, but only when we have no idea we’re being pointed down the wrong path. That’s the thrill. In hindsight, we see the signposts we first missed, the landmarks as they lied on the map. That’s the satisfaction.
More specific to this show, though, we broke in and out every week with the weight of the world at stake. It’s as if the writers took a page from the blockbuster of the past few summers. We lack superheroes, but Red is rather superhumany. He’s god, here, really, except he has an agenda. The drama in each episode was so artificially heightened. The Blacklist’s near ceaselessly intense attitude, the appropriateness often debatable, amped up the mood surrounding plots that involved mass murders, child sacrifices, and radical vigilantism. Each episode attempted to build and capitalize on no less than a quarter-season’s worth of drama.
That’s not to say “The Stewmaker” marks for the series a significant leap forward from the doldrums of desensitizing ruckus. This week’s episode is still mostly illogical. James Spader still must huff those laughs and invigorate some uneven dialogue. And what should be by far the biggest emotional wedge of this young narrative—Liz stumbling onto her husband’s high crime double life—is still relegated to the C-story. However, by the end of the episode, when Red has saved Liz, there’s satisfaction. It may be of the amoral sort, but hey, I’ll take what I can get at this point. And you know, that amorality isn’t exactly unearned. With pleasure: “The Stewmaker” is The Blacklist’s strongest episode to date, and while it’s a mild success, the show has finally, too, taken its leave from its prison cell.
“Too,” because this week confirms that Red is completely free of the FBI’s whims. As Liz is on her way out of the office for the trial of a man she caught some time before we met her, Red makes contact. She meets him on a park bench. He warns her of impending misgivings at court, and she heads off—her to the court, Red to wherever. The show seems to be leaving behind the idea that the FBI has any tabs on Red. He may’ve given himself over, but the bureau seems rather indifferent to his absence. Anyhow, the horse is dead, let’s leave it alone.
Despite Red’s tipoff, Liz and the other agents appear staggered when the predication plays out. The last key witness in Liz’s beleaguered case is killed and stolen away. We know exactly where his body’s going. The episode opens with a hotel patron removing a sophisticated disguise, shaving every hair from his body, and showering in iodine. This man, naked except for a gas mask and severely scarred, taps plastic sheets over every surface in the room, the sort of Refn-sleezy-opulent lair found this side of network-TV. We get ominous shots of an unused tub. Guesses? Any takers? After the murder-abduction, the man we learn to be the Stewmaker fulfills his namesake, doing Walter White proud with the efficiency of his body disposal method.
The longstanding case is a pretense to get Liz and us on the Stewmaker’s trail. The episode likewise picks up once we’ve tied up that plotline. Red sniffs out the Stewmaker’s involvement by the telltale immaculacy of the body’s disappearance. The Stewmaker is renowned for the craftsmanship of his tree branch over others’ snow tracks. Without her witness, Liz’s case falls through, and the defendant is feeling rather vindictive. Escorting the defendant to transport, Liz is ambushed and taken captive. With no quality leads on the Stewmaker and now with Liz’s life in danger, Red and an undercover Ressler must save the day. Nicely, Ressler shows off some wit for the first time and the pair pulls off the con.
All the Stewmaker tortures Liz. He was paid extra “to make it hurt,” and he casually, if enthusiastically, educates her on the patch of nerves just beneath the shoulder that will shriek with excruciating pain when stabbed with a nine-inch needle, or that the sedation he injects into her will keep open the neural pathways for pain while paralyzing her as he rolls her wheelchair toward a bathtub. This isn’t the neon hell from earlier in the episode. Rather, we’re in a wooded cabin that recalls the tropic isolation of the Red Dragon’s house in Manhunter. In fact, if the Stewmaker unsettles—and he does—it seems the achievement of both the performance and the many versions of that performance we’ve seen before. The pocket-protector sort of attire. The gawkiness. The inhumanly pale pigmentation. The eager murmuring. The performance hits the necessary notes and the direction captures the dread.
Red saves Liz, but the means to which he takes his heroics highlight the sort of morality with which the show’s working. Red enacts vengeance—initially as if for what he could assume the Stewmaker did to Liz. But Red boils over in a way we’d yet seen. His lip quivers. He seethes more than condescends. He delivers a parabolic, quietly enraged speech. And he flips the Stewmaker into the broth prepared for Liz with such a sense of retribution that something very close to Red’s home was surely vindicated in that moment. It’s the most interesting any character has been all season. Red follows it up by covertly removing from the Stewmaker’s trophy photo album a particular photo of a woman (dated almost twenty years ago, if I saw correctly). Unlike his past murders, though, Red doesn’t walk away without at least a bit of a scolding. “You’re a monster,” Liz says. Red replies, as if conceding to a child the dog was euthanized, not left at a farm, “Yes.”
Finally, there are consequences. Liz offered contrived mercy for the Stewmaker, but Red had other plans, as Red does. In turn, she offers resentment. It isn’t a potent brew, but it’s something, and it resolves the episode so much more genuinely that I could jump from my seat looking back. This is a relative victory, for the writers and for those of us who’ve been asking for some semblance of cause and effect, but it’s an important one. Red’s been thoroughly established as a character without a sympathetic moral code. We don’t like him for his compassion. The Blacklist shows its cracks when the very issue of a character acting callously on behalf of the good guys seems lost on those good guys with whom these actions should disturb. Plus, of the two danglers with which the writers have left us, this pocketed photo boasts the most promise. Immediately it rounds Red out as a person with real, emotional history. Dare I say I’m looking forward to next week?
- Death toll: 84. Times anyone’s cared: 1 (mark it!).
- These dogs are awful. At one point, Liz breaks free with force from the Stewmaker and sprints out of the cabin—right past the Stewmaker’s imposing pooch. Between that and the Keen’s dog presumably cowering in a corner somewhere in the pilot and: Man’s best friend my ass.
- Speaking core inadequacies: What kind of rarified body dumper, with decades of proficiency, has a master lair that his freaking wife knows about? There is no amount of “the best disguise is the one in the open” apologetics that can make sense of that.
- The show could really use a—or another—good long look at Dexter. Showtime’s hit is essentially a procedural hybrid. Dexter stalks a bad guy weekly, but always alongside the episodic narratives is the continuous, complex seasonal mystery. At its best, Dexter never let the people and situations that would only be around one week take too much away from what the season was ultimately building toward. The Blacklist’s long-burn storylines—Tom, Red’s past, why Liz, her past—consistently feel like throw-ins—runners, to speak toward structure. It’s tough to carry the heft of seasonal arcs on the backs of fractions. After this week, I wouldn’t be surprised to a see a procedural-lite episode in the coming weeks. The show has figured out a way yet to maintain its identity while blendning long- and short-term consequences. Until it does, even a more disjointed effort is positive effort.