The arrest of Red (James Spader) has rightfully consumed much of the attention early in this Blacklist season and delivered mostly solid results. But in the process of exploring how a criminal mastermind adapts to prison, the show has marginalized its other lead character — and the one responsible for his imprisonment in the first place. "The Ethicist" rectified that error by putting Lizzie (Megan Boone) and her side investigation into her fake dad at the forefront.
Despite the chemistry between Spader and Boone, The Blacklist generally does better by Liz through storylines that illustrate how Red has influenced her behavior rather than ones where she directly attempts to outsmart him. The show's default setting is that Red is the smartest and coolest criminal there is, which typically destabilizes any legitimate efforts to make Liz look like an equal. But when she's operating on the fringes or making ethically murky choices, The Blacklist hums.
In literally shipping Red out of town and out of the task force's way, this episode delivered quality corrupted Liz time. It also brought back half-sister Jennifer (Fiona Dourif) and references to the premiere's Blacklister, plastic surgeon to the star criminals, Dr. Hans Koehler. The show should pull smaller plot threads across episodes more often. Needing more information about the person who last saw "Red" before Koehler changed his appearance, Liz simply created a Blacklister case out of thin air. One that conveniently helped her and Jennifer get closer to the truth about Red's mysterious identity swap.
The hunt for the titular Ethicist, a contract killer who made "ethical calculations" regarding who should live or die, spurred a few hammy monologues about the value of human life, but it also exhibited the kinds of choices Liz is now willing to make to discover the truth. She lied about the origins of the case and she lied to Ressler about communicating with Red to find more information. Most importantly, she agreed with the Ethicist's calculation that the only way to protect her rogue investigation would be to let the Blacklister kill himself.
What was particularly fascinating about Liz's actions here was not that she did them. She's been one of the most wanted criminals in the world before. It's not shocking that she'd let an awful person commit suicide after she'd extracted a key piece of information (the name of the nurse who handled all Koehler's operations). But it was interesting to see her immediately share part of the truth with Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff), who suspected her potential deception. When called out, Liz admitted her role in creating the case, but she swore that she had a good reason to do it and to let the Ethicist kill himself. However, she couldn't share that right now, of course.
Who does that sound like? That's the kind of emotional manipulation power move that Red pulls in nearly every episode of this show. The most compelling thing is that it's unclear if Liz really did it on purpose. On some level, she believes that what she did was justified and telling Ressler just enough to pressure him into covering for her is equally justified. Yet this kind of behavior is the slippery slope ideal personified. The Ethicist may have made claimed to make necessary calculations to determine life and death, but that's just a framework he created to justify evil behavior. Though Liz isn't at that point yet, it's been obvious for a long time that she is, in many ways, the daughter of the man pretending to be her father — DNA be damned.
Even with this show closer to the end than the beginning, it's hard to imagine a world where Liz fully gets the upper hand on Red. However, the more that The Blacklist turns in episodes like this, in which Liz personifies the toxic Reddington effect, the better off any potential conclusion will be. The two characters don't have to be equals and Liz should always retain some semblance of humanity, but this is how the show can raise the stakes. At its core, this is a story about interpersonal conflict, not global cabals or silly conspiracies. The show is much stronger when it remembers that.
The Blacklist airs Fridays at 9/8c on NBC.