It finally happened. The Blacklist revealed the "truth" behind the Raymond Reddington (James Spader) origin story. More importantly, Liz knows this truth about how the man she views as a father figure actually became Reddington. Season 6's latest double-shot of Blacklist action successfully navigated the show's new big mystery and delivered some emotional resonance to boot.
The second hour unveiled this information through extensive flashbacks to a young Katarina (Lotte Verbeek) in the aftermath of the real Reddington's death. On the run from the cabal, the KGB, and the US — three entities she had essentially played against one another — Katarina rendezvoused with a childhood friend (played wonderfully by Revenge's Gabriel Mann). As present-day Dom (Brian Dennehy) relayed this story to Liz (Megan Boone), the show introduced his younger self, the KGB superstar also caught in the middle of the espionage black hole.
After yet another attempted salvation went sideways, Katarina convinced her father to maneuver to the US, protecting her mother and his wife in the process. That, unfortunately, left the matter of protecting Katarina and her daughter. While all hope appeared to be lost, Katarina's friend suggested a bold plan: He would become Reddington — through forged documents and a year's worth of plastic surgery — and they would liquidate the assets that Katarina siphoned into the real Reddington's accounts. Most importantly, he vowed to protect Katarina's daughter at all costs, particularly if something happened to Katarina.
That's how the legend became real.
As far as Blacklist reveals go, this was pretty damn good. The show made the right choice to commit an entire episode to the rationale behind the choice, rather than letting present-day Reddington (or anyone else) simply relay this information to Liz or Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff). Of course, it was obvious from the moment Mann appeared on screen that his character was, in fact, the younger and soon-to-be Reddington, but that didn't limit the impact of the conversations leading into the choice.
Likewise, given the trajectory of the show in recent seasons, there was no way the reveal would make faux-Reddington seem more villainous. He is a complex figure but often a sympathetic one. While the show doesn't always ask the audience to root for him, it also never really asks us to root against him. The follow-up conversations with Liz revealing her knowledge of the truth, and Reddington subsequently pushing Dom to explain exactly what he told Liz, suggest there's more to the story. But the original choice had to be for the greater good and in the name of keeping Liz safe. That keeps Reddington on the positive side of the ledger no matter what he's done since that moment.
The reveals in hour two were made possible by equally strong moments in the first hour. Rather than ponder in the shadows, Liz and Dembe (Hisham Tawfiq) came clean about sending Reddington to prison and the subsequent cover-up that led to some recent grisly revenge-fueled deaths. The early-episode sequence highlighted the strength of performances and chemistry between Boone, Spader and Tawfiq. There was no yelling. There were no theatrics. Instead, the characters spoke calmly about their complicated feelings for one another while the actors' faces sold the real pain behind those feelings. The lingering shot on Spader's face as Reddington processed what he already knew to be true was immaculately done.
The same praise should be placed upon the first hour's concluding scene, where Reddington, fully open-hearted, admitted that his care for Dembe means that he could never hold the lies against him. The way Spader modulates his performance for scenes with Tawfiq's Dembe is something to behold. With Liz, there's a layer of performance because Reddington is lying and everyone knows it. But with Dembe, all that is stripped away. For Dembe to then reject Reddington's capitulation and essentially break up with the man that has also served as his father figure was — again, shockingly — powerful stuff.
These are the types of episodes that reward long-term viewing, and not just because questions were answered. The new information is great, but there will always be a new question or a new twist on this show. The reward comes in watching how these characters are directly impacted by this information, and how the weird complexities of their surreal relationships dictate more honest conversations than normal.
The Blacklist airs Fridays at 8/7c on NBC.