If you haven’t checked out Blacklist this season, you are missing a thrill ride of dips and dives, twists and turns, that serve to spin a tale around the complexity of the human spirit. Raymond “Red” Reddington is one of the most complex antagonists I’ve enjoyed in a while. It helps that James Spader doesn’t so much play the character as inhabit him. However, even with an actor of his talents, you still have to have good writing and this show does. It even flashes with brilliance, something I rarely say about television writing. This isn’t just my opinion since the show has become a hit this season.
The premise is Reddington, a former government agent on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, turns himself in to authorities with an irresistible offer that has a catch. He’ll help them snag bad guys so evil the FBI doesn’t even know they exist but only if he can work with a rookie profiler, Elizabeth Keen. The games begin there. Keen is suspicious, rightly so, about Reddington’s interest in her. The adage about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer becomes her mantra as she tries to decode her new “partner”.
The plot [so far] is terrifyingly tight and full of secrets that if carefully revealed will make the character arcs totally satisfying. It’s not easy to write this kind of thing in serialized TV. The aspect of the writing that fascinates the most is the carefully drawn and orchestrated Reddington. While all the characters are richly drawn, with layers that allow the writers to leave us suspicious of nearly everyone, it is Spader’s “Red” that lights up the screen.
Case in point: In spite of his obvious criminal nature, viewers develop a comfort level with him. It’s difficult to say an audience “likes” someone who has committed the type of atrocities Red has but viewers definitely find themselves cheering for him against the bad guys he and Keen are seeking. Red is presented in this heroic mold for weeks before he stuns us by killing Keen’s father and his friend. A horrifying scene, it revealed a side of Reddington that remained buried in the back of our psyches. [We love to see the good in people.] Now, the reality came roaring back. People filled the air with questions, “Why did he do that?” or statements of outrage, “He didn’t have to do that!” Yet, that’s who he is. He’s a criminal with a dark past. The reminder saddened us.
We showed up a bit stunned the next week to find that karma had caught up with Reddington. An enemy comes after him, but the Feds protect him. Even Red doesn’t have the code to release himself from an impenetrable cage. When the man threatens to kill Red’s friend and sidekick, Red struggles to get someone to give him the code to save his friend’s life. A completely selfless act and not at all what we’ve come to expect from Red, at least not with anyone but Keen. During the tense scene, he struggles with his inability to save someone his friend. In a bittersweet moment that shows a humanity in Red that touches the heart and we’ve not seen from Red, not even in his scenes with Keen, he communicates with his friend in his native language. Suddenly, that scene in the hospital room when he brutally killed Keen’s dad drifts away. After all, the man was dying anyway. Reddington saved him from lingering, right? Red is redeemed. When he escapes, we cheer him on.
Raymond “Red” Reddington is a criminal, a thug, a killer, immoral, a lost soul. He is also a friend, a companion, a caregiver, and a leader. The best of bad guys are so much more than the ‘evil’ label allows. They are the proverbial onion with layers of complexity. When written this way, it is easy to believe in and cheer for guys like Raymond “Red” Reddington. So much so, that now I worry that Keen needs to watch out for her husband. In spite of everything, Red has convinced me that her husband is a threat to her. I didn’t start the season with the intention of cheering on a bad guy, but I’ve never had more fun doing it.
Who’s your favorite bad guy in literature, TV, or film?