From the very beginning, The Blacklist has focused on Reddington, a well-known entity in the criminal underworld, working on the side of good and helping the FBI. His reasoning was unknown, yet this dynamic is what has fueled the show and frankly, it’s gotten boring, predictable and by-the-numbers for the most part. With “Leonard Caul,” we get the exact opposite of this concept, with Liz going into Reddington’s world of shady deals, fixers and coverups. This change in style gives us one of the best episodes of The Blacklist, with a refreshing change in atmosphere, actual stakes and an evolution of where this story might go.
No matter how often The Blacklist features a member of our main cast getting kidnapped or close to death, it rarely ever feels like these characters are in danger. The show has become so cookie cutter, we know everyone will be safe by the end, and that little-to-nothing will have changed. “Leonard Caul” gives us an actual sense of urgency and through this shake up on the show, it finally feels like there could actually be danger.
When we last saw Reddington, he was shot and bleeding out in the street while Liz and Dembe try to protect him. This week, Liz and Dembe contact Mr. Kaplan to get Reddington into surgery, while Reddington tells Liz that in order to save him, she must find a Leonard Caul. “Leonard Caul” is a vast improvement over the usual episodes by not centering on the person-of-the-week, instead making him an important puzzle piece in the mystery of the week.
Caul’s significance to the story is that he knows how to get the Fulcrum to work, so everyone can finally see what that MacGuffin was all about. Upon seeing the list that the Fulcrum contains, Liz seeks out The Director and uses the Fulcrum in the way it was meant to be used: blackmail. She blackmails The Director into stopping a secondary attack he has used to try to take out Reddington, since his first plan failed, and after mentioning that Liz looks like her mom, also points out that she has gained a whole new group of enemies.
This gunfight between The Director and Reddington’s team does give off the sensation that we could actually lose someone. Well, maybe not someone as big as Reddington, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if we saw the end of Dembe or Tom. In past episodes, I’ve never felt like anyone was in danger at all, yet “Leonard Caul” paces itself to make this danger actually seem real.
Much in the same way that this episode figures out how to balance the person-of-the-week storyline, it also utilizes Reddington exactly in the way he should be used. Thanks to his surgery, Reddington barely ever has an opportunity to speak, yet when he does, it’s actually important. This cuts down on the rambling stories about the foreign lands he’s visited or the strange characters he’s met in the past. It’s just Reddington doing what he does best: giving vital information to move the plot forward and keeping this discussion actually interesting.
Reddington even gets a wonderful moment of honesty near the end of the episode, where he explains why exactly he turned himself into the FBI. Red originally planted Tom into Liz’s life to keep an eye on her, but even after he was fired, Tom stayed in her life, things got intimate and Red decided he needed to make himself known to point Liz towards the truth. It’s a moment of truth in this series that actually gives us some information about the past, without chickening out and deciding to make it only seem like a half-truth that could be changed later.
However this leads to the biggest problem of “Leonard Caul”: Liz. After this heartfelt moment from Reddington, Liz’s response is that he should’ve just lied to her to make her feel better. So to recap, throughout these two seasons, Liz has begged for Reddington to tell her the truth in almost every single freaking episode. In the moment when she finally gets some answers—even after saying earlier in the episode that she did trust Reddington—she gets mad at him for telling the truth! If I were Reddington, I’d consider letting her dig her own holes, if she’s going to act like that.
I also just don’t understand every male character’s desire to do everything in their power to make Liz happy or safe, when she’s becoming an increasingly unlikable character. Even though Tom is an incredibly focused con man of sorts, Liz was the one to break him down and make him want to escape this life. Reddington risks his life for her time and time again and the thanks he gets for telling her the truth is disgust that he didn’t lie to her. Harold Cooper even risked his entire career for her by lying under oath. We also get a former boyfriend of Liz in this episode, operating on Reddington, a Dr. Nick (this guy must be inundated with Simpsons jokes constantly) who is still mad at Liz for turning down his proposal. If Liz is worth everyone’s love and effort, The Blacklist should at least give us some reason at all to like her.
That being said, the episode falters into over-explaining its story and the Fulcrum does potentially mean that we’re going to have yet another list to work from. But beyond these and the continual frustation of Liz, “Leonard Caul” is one of the rare episodes of The Blacklist that is pretty exceptional. The show is trying out new directions and figuring out how to make the most of the bits that have grown tired. It’s taken a really long time for The Blacklist to figure all this out, but “Leonard Caul” is absolutely the direction this show should be going into as this second season ends.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.