On some level, The Blacklist has always been about the two Raymond Reddingtons. There's the criminal mastermind Reddington (James Spader), who simultaneously torments and aids the federal government. And there's conflicted father Reddington (also Spader), who simultaneously torments and aids his supposed daughter (Megan Boone).
For years it appeared that the central tension of The Blacklist was about which version of Reddington would prevail and how. But now that Liz has learned about the actual two RRs, the show is about identity and patronage in a different way. After tonight's two-hour episode, it's clear there is a lot of potential for the search for The Real Raymond Reddington (TM) -- if only The Blacklist doesn't get too caught up in the supposed mystery of it all.
The basic question of what happened to the legitimate Red isn't as interesting as the show thinks it is. Whoever James Spader has been playing for 100-plus episodes is the character the audience cares about. His relationships with Liz and Dembe (Hisham Tawfiq) matter the most. A shocking revelation that the original Red is some hero, or even still alive, can't diminish the stature of the show's main character. The mystery surrounding the identity of the real Red does hold intrigue, but what matters is how the answers to that mystery help evolve the characters the audience already knows.
These episodes offered mixed results on this front. At times, the trial sequences exhibited what happens when The Blacklist gets too dialed into the secrecy of its plotlines and between its main characters. The degree at which both Fake Red and Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff) referred to "Raymond Reddington" while clearly indicating they meant someone other than the Spader-esque figure in the courtroom quickly felt on-the-nose rather than sharp. Likewise, while it's technically big news to learn that original flavor Red did not, in fact, commit treason against the U.S. all those years ago, the second hour undercut the emotion of that revelation -- and great work from Spader -- with an onerous line about how Reddington was never the same person again.
The big news of these episodes unsurprisingly only generates more questions. The original Red didn't commit treason and tried to unveil the operations of the shadowy cabal that the task force can never seem to snuff out, only to be undercut by Katarina, Liz's mother. How did all of that lead to this other guy taking over Reddington's identity -- especially after he was branded a traitor by the U.S. government? Why was Katarina then involved in that identity swap? These are perfectly interesting questions in the grand scheme of Blacklist-style mysteries.
And yet, like with the bag of bones last season, there's a creeping sense that these questions will subsume so much of the show, to the point where answers are all that matters -- until even newer questions are raised. While the race for answers can produce good TV, The Blacklist has thrived more commonly in exploring the complications between Red and Liz. That's really what it comes down to.
The moments that worked best across this two-hour block were far closer to that realm of storytelling. Spader and Boone were both quite good in their characters' respective reactions to the recorded explanation of Katarina's betrayal. Liz and Dembe shared another fine scene where the latter swore to -- and later followed through with -- not telling Red about Liz dropping the dime on him. Ressler and Liz seem closer than ever now that he knows the truth about her rogue investigation, to the point where Ressler committed perjury to protect said investigation. And the two sisters, Liz and Jennifer, decided to go their separate ways after Jennifer realized all the answers in the world weren't worth being kidnapped and beaten by a crook in her faux father's orbit.
Those individual character moments hit harder than any big, sweeping twist. It's far more interesting to think about Liz's deeply conflicted feelings over her fake father who holds an already outsized influence on her life. It's far more interesting to consider why Not Red continues the lie because of his similarly large emotional connection to Liz, even in the face of the death penalty. And it's far more interesting to think about how secondary characters like Ressler and Jennifer get stuck in the orbit of this complex relationship and struggle to maintain their own connections to Liz.
Really then, this is all about not just two versions of Raymond Reddington. It's about the two versions of The Blacklist. There's the show that gets gassed up on its twists, and the show that highlights the ongoing toll of its central relationship. The Blacklist probably isn't a success without both, but at this point in the run, the latter version is more compelling. That version needs to win out moving forward.
The Blacklist airs Fridays at 9/8c on NBC.