Any show entering its fifth season faces a daunting set of creative challenges.
Well trodden storylines, character developments that can go no further, and an inability to surprise or engage an audience with something truly fresh are all early warning signs that a show has run its creative course.
For a procedural drama that relies on a new mystery each week, while keeping some serial elements bubbling on the back burner, the challenge to stay on the air after five or six years is even greater. No surprise then that such a small percentage of primetime dramas continue past the magic episode number that makes them eligible for syndication.
And then there’s The Blacklist. As with many shows of a certain age, last year witnessed a slow but perhaps unsurprising ratings decline for a show in its fourth spin around the block, followed by a season 5 renewal announcement that surprised some.
However season five, which kicked off in September of last year, surprised all over again — both in the freshness department, and in the show’s significant ratings increase over last year’s numbers.
So what exactly is The Blacklist getting right this year?
First off the mystery surrounding Liz’ parentage, and the nature of her relationship with her FBI informant Raymond Reddington (James Spader) was once and for all, put to bed. Red was revealed to be Liz’ biological father, and season 5 set out to explore the Daddy/Daughter dynamic with fresh eyes.
Secondly, following a dour season filled with betrayals and double-crossings, season 5 burst onto our screens with its tongue planted irreverently in its cheek. Spader’s Reddington was given a new lease of life as a career criminal who had lost it all, and therefore had nothing left to lose. An unencumbered Red provided Spader with the opportunity to delight and amuse longtime fans with a new lighter facet of his personality.
However Red’s colorful suits, even more colorful stories, and sense of whimsy were not the only highlights of the new season. Megan Boone’s Elizabeth Keen underwent a metamorphosis of sorts too. Initially, we worried that Liz might be drawn into Red’s schemes in a way that wasn’t possible before. NBC teased that Liz would find herself “torn between her role as an FBI agent and the temptation to act on her more criminal instincts” but that was only half the story. Liz found herself, for the first time, wanting to protect and ensure the safety of a man whom she had come to see as family. Lying to her FBI family, and putting Red’s welfare first gave us a glimpse of an emerging new side to the formerly strait-laced agent — a side we’re genuinely excited to see more of over the course of Season 5B.
Meanwhile, while other stories failed to ignite much of a spark (Donald Ressler’s ongoing blackmail problem and Aram and Samar’s burgeoning relationship) the return of Liz’s erstwhile husband Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold) catapulted the show — and the stakes — into new and deadly territory with a story about a suitcase of bones (a parting gift from Mr Kaplan at the end of the previous season), and the ultimate identity of an unknown person with deeply personal ties to Red.
While we still do not know whose remains are in the suitcase (although it might not be going too far out on a limb to suggest they belong to Liz’s biological mother), we know the dangers associated in finding out. The mid-season finale saw Liz almost pay the price for Tom’s curiosity. However it was Tom himself who ultimately collected the tab, succumbing (if we can believe our eyes) to multiple stab wounds at the hands of those who wanted to retrieve the bones as leverage against Red.
Fast forward a year, and (fittingly) to the premiere of the show’s first new episode of the year, and The Blacklist has turned the tables on our expectations once again.
In an episode titled “Ruin,” which we screened recently, we see Liz, post coma and rehab, choosing to abandon her old life, and daughter Agnes, in order to plot her revenge on those who took Tom’s life. Roles are reversed as Red, on the sidelines, now worries over the fate of Liz’s soul, while Liz crafts a brand new black list of her very own. This time it’s Liz, not Red, who is the dangerous outsider with the unique skillset, and she’s every bit as terrifying, maybe even more so than Red at his worst.
The action kicks off when Liz seeks refuge to grieve and plot her return in an idyllic cabin in the woods, but finds her plans interrupted by the arrival of a group of men with the incredible story of a plane crash, a storm, and missing friends. It’s not long before the ex-FBI agent begins to see holes in the story, and the survivors begin to show their true colors. The result is a brutal fight for survival in which we see just how truly dark Liz has become.
The obvious similarities to Red’s history are plain throughout — from a personal tragedy, to the abandonment of a baby, to a spectacular return and an attempt to put things right — however, fans will perhaps see more of Kate Kaplan in Liz’s methodical and unemotional modus operandi. (And in case you miss the subtler hints, the writers have seen fit to give Liz a guard dog named Kate.)
If the first half of the season was marked by levity and a sense of adventure, then this second chapter is surely all about subverting the characters we thought we knew in dark and fascinating ways — a bold but welcome step for this veteran drama, and one that pays off.
Simply put “Ruin” is the show at its creative best.
The Blacklist returns Wednesday, January 3 at 8 pm ET/PT on NBC.