When utilizing Raymond “Red” Reddington, The Blacklist has to walk a very fine line. Red is sort of like a particular spice: throw in a pinch here and there and it’s fine, but overuse it, and everything just becomes a mess. Once Reddington sloppily sets up the premise for each week’s episode, he should only jump in occasionally. He should be mysterious, slightly dangerous, but still sort of likable. He should sometimes be funny, but NOT through an overly elaborate story that doesn’t exist for any reason other than to amuse himself and (I assume) the writers. After last week’s high point, “Dr. Linus Creel” continues this upturn by utilizing Reddington in exactly the way he should be used, and continuing with the entertaining weekly stories that add to the larger picture.
To do that this week, we are introduced to Dr. Linus Creel, played by David Constabile of Breaking Bad and Flight of the Conchords. He uses otherwise peaceful people who have an extreme warrior gene to test out his mind control experiments. The tests were originally created by the government in a project known as Sub Project 7, yet Creel has used it to test his own theories.
Really though, the whole story exists to get Elizabeth undercover to discuss her feelings towards her ex-husband, Tom, with Creel. Unlike Reddington—who probably has too much backstory—if that’s possible, Elizabeth’s character often plays like a blank slate. So, giving her a revenge/paranoia angle this season is a turn in the right direction.
It’s also great that The Blacklist is trying to build up Reddington as something other than a plot device—as a character with more depth beyond his vague, obnoxious, braggadocious stories. His story in “Dr. Linus Creel,” isn’t that ambitious (he wants his ex-wife to go into hiding from her former captor Berlin), but it does give us some more layers to Red. For example, his ex and her new husband want to stay where they are, the husband, especially, since he’s cheating on his wife. So Reddington uses the husband’s infidelities to convince them to leave. The best Reddington isn’t the smarmy smart aleck, but the threatening, pissed off Reddington, which we thankfully get here.
With the introduction of Naomi (Reddington’s ex-wife, played by Mary-Louise Parker at the beginning of the season), we have a person who knows all about Reddington’s past with Liz, and a person who actually wants to tell Liz about this past. When Liz and Naomi finally meet, the information Naomi gets is just as vague as the information Red would give: Red wants something from Liz, and he’s not who Liz thinks he is. We’ve gone through more than a season of questioning how Liz and Reddington are linked, so hopefully this will push us in the direction of some answers, for all of our sakes.
Already this second season has been a huge step above the first season. The characters have had some nice depth added to them, the weekly stories are much more fun (even if they are quite ridiculous), and the overall story feels like it’s evolving—maybe at a glacial pace, but moving nonetheless. The Blacklist is at a high point; the biggest mistake it could make right now is to devolve back to the type of show it was before.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.