The post-Super Bowl slot is a pretty big deal for any show. It’s an opportunity for the network to place one of its tentpole shows behind the biggest TV event of the year, hoping that people will leave their TVs on after the Lombardi trophy has been given to the winning team. In the past, iconic shows like The Simpsons, The Office, the premiere of The Wonder Years, Friends and Grey’s Anatomy have all taken the spot.
I’m always fascinated by how a show uses this larger audience to reintroduce itself to America. Sometimes it can use the position as a sort of second pilot, a way to fix the problems of the past while securing a larger viewership. Or a show can present itself with confidence in what it already is—flaws and all—and give people a pretty strong idea of what they have been missing. “Luther Braxton” could’ve been The Blacklist’s chance to reboot a muddled and convoluted show, yet instead the show gives us all the problems that viewers who have watched since the beginning are all too familiar with.
“Luther Braxton” catches us up quite nicely with all the information we need to know about the show right away, and what’s shocking is how little a new viewer really needs to know. Considering all the plot lines that The Blacklist explores, all that matters is that Reddington is a criminal who can find other criminals, and he works for the FBI—but he’s sneaky!!! In this midseason premiere, Reddington has been captured by the CIA and taken to The Factory, a blacklist prison facility used to squeeze intel from people capable of withstanding torture. The Factory basically takes spies and turns them into shells of what they once were. This might sound compelling, but don’t worry, the show never does anything with this, instead showing a facility filled with prisoners who still seem pretty fine.
As with anything Reddington does, his getting captured and taken to The Factory is all part of his plan to get closer to the titular Luther Braxton—played by Ron Perlman. Braxton is able to escape his prison cell using some simple MacGyver tricks, and he takes over the prison, demanding not only The Fulcrum—a blackmail file that would expose a clandestine organization and cause big problems in the U.S.—but also a code that would break him into the organization’s network.
Of course Reddington and Braxton have a history together, since Reddington basically knows everyone and has apparently been to every country in the world. The two had a showdown in Belgrade, where Braxton seems to have bested Reddington. Braxton is an interesting contrast to Reddington, since Red uses his brains and Braxton is strictly brawn, but The Blacklist usually finds a way to fumble its promising villains.
Every step of the way, Reddington needs Liz to get him to where he needs to go. It’s amazing how high up the criminal ladder Reddington was able to get without his partner-in-crime. Red needs Liz to crawl through compartments and to help him blow up a boiler in order to blow up the server and make Braxton powerless, with Red also mentioning that Braxton can’t get the Fulcrum without Liz, whatever that means.
But for new viewers, “Luther Braxton” also gives them the benefit of all the frustrations this show has in one concise hour. For example, the convenience of Ray Reddington. When Reddington realizes he’s unmatched at The Factory, all he needs to do is create a team of other prisoners that he knows within the facility. No problem! Reddington might as well have a magic wand that can conjure up anything he needs in any situation, including unnecessary stories filled with vague metaphors. He’ll take the time to stop and tell an unnecessary story of a vase thief he knew who died burrowing himself through walls, while FBI agents wait in a nearby room hanging by their necks.
Somehow The Blacklist has succeeded in making Reddington the most irritating, frustrating and still compelling character on the show. Someone needs to make a supercut of times that he has remembered a past place (“Ah, Belgrade!”) and expected the audience to bring meaning to that moment. “Luther Braxton” ends with the hope of some answers, with Braxton mentioning that Liz was as Reddington’s house the night it burnt down, before a missile conveniently hits The Factory and ends the episode. For people watching The Blacklist for the first time, this might seem like a big cliffhanger, but we consistent viewers can tell that this is just another example of the show dangling information in front of our faces, only to pull it away at the last possible moment.
It’s a shame The Blacklist doesn’t try to make itself any less frustrating. A show like Alias—which The Blacklist could take plenty of hints from—used its after-Super Bowl episode to completely shake up the show, revitalizing the series in a big way. But The Blacklist instead stays to its usual formula and its same problems, without actually realizing it has these problems.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.