At the end of last season, The Blacklist seemingly dismantled its status quo. Red (James Spader) was stripped of his global influence and his relationship to Liz (Megan Boone) was finally revealed. Things seemed like they could be different-ish!
Eight episodes into Season 5, The Blacklist has illustrated that it isn't exactly ready for that different type of story. Wednesday's fall finale brought the season-long (and really, series-long) rivalry between Red and Tom (Ryan Eggold) to a head in what was one of the more compelling episodes in recent memory. And yet, to keep the standard secret-keeping and half-hearted intrigue in place, the show chose to dispose of Tom and jump ahead 10 months. Yep, Tom Keen is a goner, killed by Ian Garvey (Jonny Coyne) and his goons. That's commitment.
"Ian Garvey" certainly paid off the simmering tension between husband and father-in-law, forcing Red and Tom into a beleaguered partnership in their conflicting attempts to protect and reveal the identity of the bones in that suitcase. These scenes were fantastic, spotlighting the show's ability to heighten the familiar conceit of squabbling in-laws. Both Spader and Eggold were on their game as the two characters renegotiated the context and purpose of their original agreement and how they would move forward as dueling members with Liz's best interests in mind. It all worked — even the overt needling about how ridiculous it is for in-laws to act like this.
If a rough truce between Red and Tom weren't enough to signal it, the sudden appearance of Tom-related flashbacks surely screamed aloud that this was to be his last episode. But at least The Blacklist toyed with us along the way, having him survive a bullet to the shoulder and few subsequent shootouts before ultimately (as far as we know) succumbing to injuries sustained during Ian Garvey's pursuit of the suitcase.
After a brief sojourn with his own family on The Blacklist: Redemption, Tom's return was a nice jolt of energy for the show early in this season. While there's an argument to be made that The Blacklist could never function like it did back in Season 1 with him still in the picture, there were intriguing storyline avenues not traveled with Tom this year. The show apparently didn't want to pursue stories involving Tom and Liz being happy for any real period of time, so instead the character went out doing what he always did: protect his partner.
As a send-off for Tom, this episode worked really well. As a representation of how The Blacklist handles Red, Liz and its long-term storytelling, it worked far less well. Even setting aside the show's tendency to marginalize its female and the decision to have this episode mostly function as two guys arguing about what's best for a woman, Tom's death feels, in part, like a way to extend the mystery related to the suitcase. He learned the identity of the bones' owner(s) — the season's big secret — and then was offed before he could tell anyone. That's not a reason to kill off a lead character.
With Tom out of the picture, Red has less reason to come clean to Liz (no matter how much Dembe protests that he should). One can already imagine the different lies he'll potentially spin to explain how, 10 months ago, thugs busted into her place, killed her husband and nearly ended her life. It's not a cop out as much as it is a reason to keep stoking the fires of the internal conflict the show wants Red to express. He feels bad about lying, because he truly cares! But he's going to keep doing it anyway, for reasons.
That internal conflict is key to Red as a character and there's no reason why he should have suddenly been a brand new man after losing his criminal empire. But when this same type of conflict keeps influencing how the show approaches its central relationships and its key mysteries, it grows tiring.
But armed with a 10-month time jump and a few months off, The Blacklist has a chance to start again, again. Perhaps Tom's death will be the catalyst for some legitimate changes that have only been present on the fringes thus far in the fall run.
The Blacklist airs Wednesdays at 8/7ct on NBC.