For most network procedurals, season premieres have to establish a new year's worth of stakes — including new looming threats and new antagonists — but also return to a familiar equilibrium so the case-of-the-week story engine can begin again. True to Raymond Reddington (James Spader) form, The Blacklist likes to con this formula with two-part season premieres.
Last week's opener ended on a major cliffhanger, with Reddington strung up, literally, in the custody of Katarina (Laila Robins), while Liz (Megan Boone) and the team struggled to pin down his whereabouts. The episode primed the audience for Katarina as a season-long threat to Red, Liz, and the rest of the gang, but underlined the immediate peril of the world's greatest criminal.
Naturally, by the end of "Louis Steinhill: Conclusion," Red was free of Katarina's torture fence and back gaslighting Liz like it's 2013, despite the fact that he just had many liters of blood drained from his body. And of course, Katarina evaded detection altogether, enabling her to pose as Liz's friendly new neighbor in what also feels like a plot straight out of the show's first season. Even the titular theatrical grifter Steinhill (David Meunier) swerved the task force with a fake suicide long enough to escape custody and, presumably, live to con the FBI another day.
These events would be more frustrating were it not for the great performances of Spader, Robins, and the guesting Brian Dennehy, whose Dom took a bullet and remains in poor condition.
Spader always brings it, and Dennehy has been a fine recurring player in recent seasons, so Robins deserves the spotlight here. It's difficult to come into a show this late in the game in any context, but particularly so when you're playing a much-discussed and rarely seen character. Even though there's a lingering sense that Katarina will be defeated by Red (or Liz), Robins is doing great work to convince us of the character's legitimate cunning and power. She switches registers — between truly evil, sympathetic villain, and victim of circumstance — so quickly, as all the strong performers on this show have before her.
The long-term play of Katarina trying to con Liz through neighbor shenanigans is so, so tired, but the inter-generational-ness of it all, with cute little Agnes now potentially in danger, adds intrigue that Robins and Boone can make work. The Blacklist has always been a show about the corrosive and potentially uplifting effects of family, and now, finally, there's a whole bunch of true-blue relatives in the mix. Counting Agnes, we've got four generations of a completely dysfunctional family in play, with Red positioned directly in the middle ready to manipulate all branches of the family tree for his own personal gain.
More traditional Blacklisters will get in the way. The show will fall back into its familiar rhythms with the lying and the deceit. But having more characters around for Red to twist into knots is better than him doing the same old mind games on his fake daughter.
The Blacklist airs Fridays at 8/7c on NBC.