Sunday, February 1, 2015

REVIEW: 'The Blacklist' - Red and Liz Get Trapped at a CIA Black Site to Stop a Master Thief in 'Luther Braxton'

NBC's The Blacklist - Episode 2.09 "Luther Braxton"

When Red is arrested and taken to a secret detention facility, Liz and the task force set out to save him before he disappears forever. Meanwhile, Red encounters Luther Braxton (Ron Perlman) at the facility, a thief that he shares a complicated history with.

The Blacklist has been off the air for a few months now. It was a breakout hit for NBC when it first debuted a year and half ago. It continued to work throughout last fall. Now, the network is hoping that the massive audience of the Super Bowl will help propel The Blacklist to new ratings heights as it makes its big (and risky) move to Thursday nights - starting later this week. It seems like a smart piece of programming. If it works, it could be very good for NBC and turn around a night that hasn't worked for them for several years now. However, the last several shows that have aired after the Super Bowl haven't gotten that much of a boost because of the promotion. The Blacklist could very well continue that trend.

All of it will speak to how audiences reacted to the content of this post-Super Bowl episode. The Blacklist took the typical route of doing a close-ended event. Yes, it's a story being told across two episodes. But creatively speaking, you don't have to know a whole lot about The Blacklist in order to view "Luther Braxton." It certainly helps if you know the style and tone of the show and how the creative team likes to tell stories. But it's not a necessary component. Every character dynamic is simplified in order to fit into dealing with the events of this episode in the broadest way possible.

"Luther Braxton" tries to be exciting through various moments of tension. If you've seen a procedural that featured a bad guy tracking hostages in order to get something more important, then you basically know the plot beats of this episode. The characters don't ever really make decisions that inform the audience of who they are. Assistant Director of the FBI Harold Cooper gives bad guy Luther Braxton the codes to the facility because that's the standard thing to do in this kind of narrative. He doesn't have to deal with the ramifications of that action. He just has to do it in order to keep his agents alive even though a latter development will kill them anyway.

The Blacklist often thrives on the following storytelling trope: Character A knows something that Character B doesn't and the show will come up with a million and a half contrivances to keep Character A from revealing the truth. Two seasons in and we barely have any clue on why Red has this connection to Liz. She is desperate to learn the truth. And yet, so many things always come in the way of Red giving her any kind of explanation. The show can only tease the audience along for so long.

So now, the show is trying to connect its two big running plot threads - Liz's past and the mysterious shadow organization. David Strathairn has replaced Alan Alda (following his character's death in the last episode) as the one notable guest star of the elusive and nefarious group. This organization is so cryptic, obscure and abstract that none of its actions feel like anything other than something that makes the plot more exciting. We don't have a character or emotional connection to why this organization does anything. We don't even know what they do. We just know that the Fulcrum is an object of much importance to everyone involved. It's the McGuffin of this show right now - and even it isn't given as big and enticing a description as the audience probably needs.

What the show frequently does best is give Red fun stuff to do against entertaining and specific villains. Ron Perlman is an actor I often go back and forth on. When given good direction, he has the potential to elevate a character to something more than what's on the page. When not, he can often go hammy. Luther Braxton is a character of detail. It's not a flashy performance but Perlman does fill the role nicely. He's intimidating without being overbearing. Yes, the necessities of the plot dictate his every move in such a predictable way. He learns that Red is on the black site. And then, basically does nothing to stop him from interfering with his grand plan? That doesn't strike me as something a character like this would do. It's as if he didn't take the threat of Red's presence seriously - until after the server room blew up and he was taken by gun point.

That quality extended to Red as well. He fit into the generic trope of "getting captured just to end up in the place he wanted to be in" which has gotten increasingly popular and stale as of late. The FBI task force was smart enough to realize that this was what he was doing but not smart enough to realize if he wanted them there he would have informed them of his plan. And yet, Red didn't seem to have much of a plan in motion at the facility. It was more keeping Liz away from the place than having a way to stop Luther from retrieving the Fulcrum. So basically, no one had much of a sound plan outside of plot mechanics - which never makes for a good episode. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Luther Braxton" was directed by Joe Carnahan with story by J.R. Orci, Lukas Reiter, John Eisendrath & Jon Bokenkamp and teleplay by Jon Bokenkamp & John Eisendrath.
  • The threat of death is used one time too many in this episode. First, Agent Navabi was going to die if Cooper didn't hand over the code. Then, Red was unconscious and not breathing after the big explosion. And lastly, the episode ends with missiles being shot at the facility to kill everyone there. The audience knows a major character isn't going to die. So why tease it so frequently? To maintain tension going into commercials?
  • Red's introspection about his evolution from the man he used to be was a fantastic moment for James Spader. I wish there was more moments like that throughout the episode and the characters.
  • Janel Moloney also guest stars as basically a messenger between the mysterious David Strathairn character and the task force. It's really a thankless role.
  • Red did get to coolly walk around with a shotgun to kill multiple people - even though he would be an easier target out in the open like he was.
  • Red and Luther both assembled teams at the facility rather quickly and without too much of an explanation. They both alluded that they were planted there, but neither were given much focus or importance.
  • Luther knows something about Liz's past and the fire. But the last contrivance of the hour is that we'll have to wait until Thursday to see if any answers will finally be revealed. I'll likely just tune in to see if the explanation given is worth all the time and build up.
  • I wonder how this episode played to the people who have never seen the show or who gave up at some point during its run. Feel free to share in the comments below!