This episode brings back Charles “Skinny Pete” Baker as Grey, who appeared in the pilot, and whose job it is to stand in Red Reddington’s shadow and feed him exposition and the occasional tribute to his brilliance. As soon as the show felt that it had its basic premise glued in place, it presented Red with a full entourage, but at the same time, it seemed to decide that none of those characters ever talk, so now there’s a dude hanging out with Red in his house in Maryland. The new guy’s job is to tell Red that “The Courier” is up to mischief again, so that when it looks as if Red might suggest trying to scoop him up, the dude can remind Red what happened the last time they tried scooping The Courier up. “I’m well aware,” says Red with a wince, “of the men and resources we lost in Cairo.” Then he has a brainstorm and decides to sic the FBI on The Courier. Since The Courier is on that fabled Blacklist of his, this exchange might seem to indicate that Red is just cynically manipulating the FBI to serve his ends.
Or not. When Elizabeth arrives, responding to Red’s summons, he tells her that the house they’re standing in, which is filled with books and letters and manuscript, “used to be home to one of the finest American writers who ever lived,” fella name of Frederick Hemsted. When Elizabeth says that she’s never heard of him, Red explains that Hemsted was never actually published, but Red met him when he was working as a waiter—“Strange little man. Built like a fireplug.” Fred was living with his ailing mother at the time, and when she died, he was in danger of being put out on the street, so Red simply bought the house and allowed him to go on staying there until his death. Now Red enjoys puttering about there, reading Fred’s hard-copy collection of his letters to newspapers.
These scenes have nothing to do with the plot; they’re just there to shed some light on Red’s character. But what are they supposed to tell us about him? Are we meant to see that Red is capable of great acts of generosity and kindness? Or is he just prepared to go to great lengths to patronize a failure and a crackpot, so that he can someday pillage his files and have a good chuckle at his ambitions and ideas? Given the degree to which Red still is the show, and one’s reaction to Red is the strongest emotional response you’re likely to have to it, these are not idle questions. Norman Mailer once said that the worst thing that can be said about Americans as a people might be that we’ll sell our souls for a giggle, and much of the time, that looks to be what Red is really all about.
It would help if the villains, the members of the Blacklist, were colorful and strongly individualized enough to give Red something to define himself against. That hasn’t happened yet, although the show has started going out of its way to bring in guest actors with a past history of giving viewers the creepy-crawlies. Tonight, it’s Robert Knepper, ol’ T-Bag himself, as The Courier, “the physical personification” of “fear and the threat of violence.” As Red explains, The Courier is the guy to turn to if a couple of underworld figures need to have something delivered between them; he’s so devoted to his job that he cannot be threatened or bribed, and will kill anyone who tries to get between him and the timely completion of his rounds. That all sounds good, but then Red goes that one step further and announces that if either of the parties who have contracted The Courier tries to screw over the other, The Courier will kill both of them. Considering that the whole idea behind The Courier is that he serves a need for two people who need to work together but who, being crooks, do not trust each other, wouldn’t that be a deal breaker for a lot of people? It makes you wonder what he threatens to do to them if they don’t hire him.
The bad guy Knepper played on Prison Break was motivated by itchy, sweaty desires and a pathological need to prove that he had the ferrety smarts to outwit anyone in the room. These were playable qualities, of a kind that made him fun to watch. The big reveal regarding his character here is that he can’t feel pain, so he’s impervious to torture and is always cutting himself open and storing little treats inside his body. His brother is brought in to supply the backstory: They had an abusive father who liked to whoop on his kids, and since li’l Courier didn’t respond in the desired way to having the crap kicked out him, Pops would just whale on him and whale on him. (The funniest line of the evening is when the brother says, “What it did to him over time…” I feel more likely to become a serial killer just from sitting on my couch, hearing about it.)
Given what a cartoon this show is, it might as well be giving us over-the-top, wild-card supervillains who’d be entertaining because they enjoy their work, because these morose, depressive Blacklist villains have been a straight drag. None of these people enjoy their work. (Even Isabella Rossellini’s human-trafficking queen looked as if she were meeting with IRS auditors in the morning.) But there may be something deeper that’s holding this show back. Midway through, with The Courier in FBI custody, Ressler goes to meet his contact, prepared to sell her on the idea that he’s The Courier. This entails beating up the bouncer posted outside at the contact’s club. Watching surveillance footage of Ressler pounding a man’s head in, Agent Malik purrs, “That was hot,” and Keen, who’s in the room with her, doesn’t even barf in the nearest trash can. Maybe T-Bag is on the show’s writing staff.
- When Reddington offers to arrange a meet, Ressler points out that every time he’s been allowed to do that, “somebody ends up dead.” Harry Lennix adds that “You’ve killed two people” since the series started. My own count is that he’s personally killed three people, but if this is the closest the show can bring itself to have Red’s FBI handlers acknowledge how many corpses he’s piled up since he started “helping” them, I’ll take it. It’s the elephant in the room.
- The episode begins with what is obviously a dream sequence, with Elizabeth confronting her husband about the evidence that he’s a murderer, at the very least—a Russian died in Boston in one day, and Tom came home that night reeking of bloodlust and clam chowder—and ends with the two of them finally about to have The Conversation. So however next week’s episode goes, that’s one thing I can give them credit for not trying to drag out over the course of five seasons. Seriously, what’s the whole point of having a secret stash under the floorboards if you never check to make sure your wife hasn’t confiscated it?
- The plot also involves a tech geek who The Courier has buried alive; will our heroes find him before his air runs out? They do, of course, in the nick of time—and while his heart is restarting as he gasps for air (and everyone else is catching their breath and celebrating, and I’m making a mental note to watch that Tarantino-directed episode of CSI again), Red, eager to remind everyone who the focus should always be on, chimes in: “I died once in Marrakesh. Two and a half minutes.” At moments like that, the question of why Red hasn’t died more often loom large and awkwardly.