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​The Blacklist Recap: A Gun Control Debate Misfires Where It Could Have Flourished

NBC's drama almost added to the debate

Cory Barker

When a show regularly operates from within a moral morass, it's hard to take more overtly moralizing episodes or plotlines seriously. That is especially true when real-life controversies are ultimately used as a cudgel to make a familiar point about that existing morass.

This is all to say that it's pretty unusual to watch an episode of The Blacklist nominally about the mass manufacturing and distribution of cheap semi-automatic handguns in America's inner cities. And it's equally unusual to see Reddington (James Spader) take an aggressive stance against these weapons, partially after watching a teenage convenience store clerk murdered during a robbery-gone-wrong. "Gordon Kemp" tried to package the morass and the politics and the novelty of all this together, but the contradictions didn't quite gel into something meaningful.

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The core tension between "legally right" and "morally right" is something The Blacklist deals with all the time. The task force works with the world's most dangerous criminal. They break the law in one way to uphold more important laws in other ways. And Reddington has demonstrated his own type of code over the years. He can be unsympathetic and violent, and he can be deeply compassionate and kind. But there's something extra tricky about wading into what can most kindly be called "the gun debate."

There were compelling moments to be found here as the show tried to pivot around, and even into, the obvious challenges. The task force's initial suspicion that Reddington would only go after a mass manufacturer of guns because he, too, sells guns was great. As were the debates between Liz (Megan Boone), Harold (Harry Lennix), and Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff) about who's to blame for widespread access to guns; Ressler openly declaring himself a member of the NRA while also decrying Kemp's role in mass death worked well for that character, despite the both sides-ism of it all.

Megan Boone, The Blacklist

Megan Boone, The Blacklist

Virginia Sherwood/NBC

And that's where the episode really faltered. There is space to debate if this is a "crime problem" or "gun problem." Yet, by shifting Kemp (Jim True-Frost) into an evil caricature willing to sell 30 guns to someone essentially wearing a shirt that says "I Love To Sell Guns To Murderers," and then burning through a closed-door case with a judge hemming and hawing about burden of proof, the show never took that debate seriously. All the complexity was sanded away and then passed off as a kind of legal quandary that, well, just can't be solved too easily. Personal beliefs aside, this approach just made for a kind of banal episode pretending to deal with something more evocative.

By the 40-minute mark, the episode was actually about Liz's willingness to "betray" the task force and her job to align with Reddington, which would be a fine enough point to make if A) the show didn't make that assertion 10 times a season and B) Liz and Reddington were not, frankly, closer to moral clarity than the rest of the team. Speeches from Harold about upholding the law aren't compelling when the episode started from the premise that these people bend and break the law all the time. It all felt so pat, just a cover to make the same point we've heard before.

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The moral alignment between Liz and Reddington was, of course, temporary. In the episode's other plotline, Dembe and Red discovered that someone was tailing the increasingly distraught Iyla (Brett Cullen). It didn't take long to reveal that the tail was indeed Liz's private investigator. Fake father and daughter might be on the same page about gun manufacturing but can't keep lying to one another, who would have guessed?!

Kudos to The Blacklist for taking on something so charged, and there were a lot of compelling, if contradictory, ideas in this hour. But those contradictions and overall busy-ness only underlined that a weekly procedural about a criminal mastermind is probably not the place for compelling takes on gun control -- especially when those takes are being used to forward a point of interpersonal contention the audience knew was coming anyway.

The Blacklist airs Fridays at 8/7c on NBC.