Well, the uphill curve of The Blacklist episodes is over, and it’s back to business as usual. After starting off with a handful of really fun episodes, The Blacklist gets back to the way-too-serious, convoluted stories that plagued the show last season. “The Front” is definitely a step back from the rest of second season, but at least it shows that it’s learned a bit from the show’s past mistakes, and allows the more minor characters to shine a bit. As a result, the episode isn’t a complete bust.
One of the most egregious errors that The Blacklist makes is that it forces an hour’s worth of material into a story that can’t sustain it. Even worse, the show can drag out the worst elements, when there are clearly more interesting avenues it could go down. “The Front” is an episode about eco-terrorists who believe that, to save the world, man must make himself extinct. To do this, members of The Front decide to infect themselves with an ancient plague that can become airborne through its host. Put a few infected people on airplanes before the symptoms show up and BOOM—you’ve got yourself a worldwide pandemic.
Sounds interesting (and timely) for an episode of The Blacklist right? Our entire species possibly wiped out due to a fanatical Virginian cult with a God complex—I’m on board! Yet for some reason, “The Front” spends the first third of the episode with Beck, the leader of the cult, trying to find the ancient plague, which involves stealing a painting, going through a hidden map, all while the FBI tries to play catch up. Instead of showing us an even more boring Da Vinci Code-style mystery, we should have seen the result of finding this plague.
But “The Front” tries to pad out its idea through incredibly bland story diversions. For example, the FBI brings in an art specialist to point out the importance of the painting that Beck has stolen. She hides some of the major significance of the painting, but then immediately goes to a separate meeting with Red and Liz. So when Liz finds out the importance of the painting and the map, she calls up the FBI and tells them all of the details they asked for in the meeting a few minutes prior. Why would something so idiotic occur, unless an attempt was being made to fill up an entire hour’s worth of TV?
As usual, much of the padding also comes from Reddington, who feels the need to go on long diatribes, such as the ones with his tracker who works at the DMV, and his spiel to The Front about how much he once admired them. Nothing is gained from these moments, except to, once again, waste time that needs to be filled.
At least “The Front” gives us more of Aram and Samar, who have been sorely underused and poorly fleshed out as characters so far. For a large part of the episode, Aram is worried about Reddington’s newfound interest in using him to search for his daughter. Yet all the worrying adds up to Reddington basically saying, “Oh never mind!” and ending whatever bare bones of a story that was.
As a character so far, Samar has been a big question mark, so “The Front” sets her on the good side, where she puts her life at risk to keep the plague in control. Poor Samar, though—her last moments on earth are almost spent listening to Elizabeth complain about her ex-husband again. But hey, that goes with the Liz territory.
Also unfortunate is the conclusion to the plague story. The plague is causing “The Black Death,” and was so dangerous centuries ago that it was hidden throughout the world and has been hidden ever since. Yet when two of our characters are infected, Reddington is able to find a cure within a few hours, thanks to cult leader Beck? It also seems like everyone infected seems to be okay shortly thereafter, as if two cures would be able to be spread between hundreds of people in time.
After a steady run of surprisingly solid Blacklist episodes, it’s a shame that the show reverted to the way it used to do things. The last few episodes were fun because they were silly, and intentionally so. “The Front” represents a return to the show attempting to be serious, and being unintentionally funny and ridiculous in the process. Hopefully this is just an uncharacteristic speedbump in the show’s process of actually getting better this season.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.