Either I was really grumpy when I watched the pilot, or The Blacklist gets a lot better between episodes one and two. In this week’s taut “The Freelancer,” James Spader further fleshes out his character, Red Reddington—moving away from the Hannibal Lecter imitation and toward a hero/villain who seems more clever and complicated than straight-up sadistic. Like Lecter, however, he has a great one-liner for everything. We see Red manipulating the puppet strings of the FBI with glee, and it’s clear Spader is enjoying himself just as much.
At the beginning of the episode, the FBI is trying to parse the relationship between Red and Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) using lie detectors, Hollywood’s favorite mechanical truth serum. When Red denies having known Keen previously, the machine wiggles about to indicate he is lying. At this point, it seems so obvious Keen is his daughter, I’m beginning to think she can’t be. So what is his interest in her?
Keen heads to the hospital to visit Tom, who, this being network television, is in a coma. She asserts out loud her belief that Red planted the pirate’s booty of spy paraphernalia that she discovered (unlocked!) in their floorboard, but you can see in her eyes she’s got doubts.
Back in the undisclosed location where they keep his cage, Red keeps telling the agents that instead of focusing on him they ought to be heading out to Decatur Industrial Park (which doesn’t exist) because something real bad is about to happen there. At last, agent Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff) and co. go to the park with some bomb-sniffing dogs, but encounter only a lot of industrial park stuff. We see Ressler walking down train tracks, miffed to have been duped again, when suddenly, via the magic of CGI, the train behind him goes horizontal. Ressler manages to leap offscreen, but the disaster takes 60 other fictional lives and the FBI is pissed. Well, it’s your fault for not listening to me, says Red. True!
Keen shows up to gather intel about the train wreck, but all Red wants to talk about is Tom. Finally, she gets him to profile the man behind the railroad smashup. He’s called the Freelancer, and basically he stages disasters—building collapses, ferry sinkings—in order to take out particular people. Red estimates that the Freelancer has racked up about 3,000 collateral casualties in his career, a number rivaled only by governments and terrorists. (Subtle point, The Blacklist.) The 60 dead people on the train lost their lives because of a contract on one woman and, warns Red, the Freelancer already has another target in mind.
Next up: a trip to Montreal, where Red has a contact who works with the Freelancer. He and Keen end up dining at a restaurant, where she orders Chardonnay, but he insists she drink an Aviation cocktail “from the ’20s.” To kill time, Red asks Keen to profile him, and she talks about his intimacy issues, closing with the question on everyone’s mind: “Why am I so important to you? Did you know my parents?” Before popping up from the table, Red tells her that “all the things” she’s come to believe about herself are a lie. Then he sneaks out of the place via a laundry room, infuriating Ressler—who has been tracking our two main characters in an unmarked van. (For those of you out there counting, that surveillance van is our third Hollywood trope this episode). As Ressler is reaming out Keen for letting Red get away, our wily anti-hero pops out of the back of the van. “Do you think I’m going to fly all the way to Montreal for the cheese cart?” he asks Ressler, rhetorically.
As it turns out, the coat check guy is the contact, and he tell Red that the Freelancer’s next contract is saintly anti-sex-traffic crusader Floriana Campo, played by Isabella Rossellini—or the Naked Lady From Blue Velvet, as I tend to think of her. Keen sees no coincidence here, even though as it happens she’s such a Campo fan that she wrote her senior thesis on the crusader’s “time in Kuala Lampur.” The agents try to convince Campo to cancel her gala, but Campo insists—she never had children, you see, and considers the sex-trafficking victims her unofficial offspring. It’s agreed that she will switch venues for safety’s sake.
Keen returns to Red’s cage to get a description of the Freelancer should he show up at the gala. Red finagles an invitation to the event and gets the FBI agrees to meet his demands for security. Soon we are introduced to Denbae, his old bodyguard, and the woman who handles his finances—Luli Zeng. The FBI complete the dream team with a trusty CIA lady, Meera Malik—this handsome crew has all the makings of a great Benetton ad if Benetton sold sensible black pant suits.
On to the party: Campo tells Keen she has lost a shipment of “girls,” and is super bummed out about it. Red zooms in on a suspicious-looking waiter and alerts Keen that the Freelancer is in the house. She clears the room; Ressler chases the waiter around the hotel, over a balcony, and down onto the street. Keen car-jacks some poor civilian, flashing her badge by way of explanation, then hits the freelancer with the purloined sedan. Malik and Ressler take the Freelancer to the dungeon for a little torture session, eventually getting him to confess that he was hired by—wait for it—Red!
Meanwhile, Red infiltrates Campo’s hotel room for a little villain-to-villain powwow. We learn that she is not actually an anti-sex-trafficking-crusader but a sex trafficker, using her charity as a cover for her real business. She even murdered her own husband when he got in her way. Keen shows up and doubts Red’s assertion that Campo is “an Italian dog born with two heads,” but Red explains that he has poisoned Campo with the same barbiturate she uses to drug her victims. He has an antidote, which he will deploy if Campo will admit her crimes. She does, via a nod, but it turns out Red has no antidote. End of Campo; shipment of would-be sex slaves found and freed.
At the end of the episode, Keen is back home searching through Tom’s clothing for some clue as to whether he’s a spy. She finds a wee folder with a thumbnail drive inside. This turns out to be a video of Tom explaining to the adoption agency just why, exactly, Keen would make such a great mommy. This makes her cry.
Questions: If Keen isn’t Red’s daughter, what could their relationship be? It’s pretty obvious Red set up this situation so that Keen could learn one of her heroes—Campo—is a fraud. Will everyone on the blacklist figure into her past somehow? Also, what was with that Aviation cocktail thing? I have a feeling we’ll be revisiting that. Leave your thoughts in the comments.