Whatever else may be true about me, my commitment to seeing a Netflix television binge through to its grimy, hummus-encrusted conclusion can never be called into question. I finished “Daredevil” in about a week, “Jessica Jones” in about twice that time (I got busy) and the only reason I haven’t started in on my third round of “Breaking Bad” is that sometimes I want to hold out hope that there is good in the world and that maybe, just maybe, some of us aren’t corruptible.
Like more than a few of you, I’m currently ensconced in a “Blacklist” marathon. Actually, “marathon” might be the wrong word; let’s call it a series of nightly sprints. I resisted watching it at first, because I’ve retained just a smidge of my “if it’s popular, it’s garbage” attitude that, I think, comes free when you get your labret pierced at age 19. But, contrived and convoluted as every single plot might be, it’s still one of the best shows that’s ever been produced by one of the Big Four networks.
And I’m completely aware that the show would absolutely fall flat if it weren’t for James Spader (honestly, sometimes I just imagine him in this show as Ultron) as Raymond Reddington, the immensely under appreciated Harry Lennix as FBI Assistant Director Cooper, and Hisham Tawfiq as Dembe, Reddington’s bodyguard and friend. The show could have been just Red and Dembe acting as a black ops duo at Cooper’s behest, with literally no other main characters, and I would still watch it.
I try not to think too critically about the plots and implications of shows like this; it’s there to entertain me, not to raise important questions about government transparency and accountability, but when something so blatantly flies in the face of what I keep telling myself I believe, it’s time to try and come to grips with it.
In a sub-plot that spans a few episodes of season 2, Elizabeth Keen plays accessory to the murder of a metro police department harbor master by her former husband, whom she has been holding and interrogating in a dilapidated barge after she shot him when he turned out to be a spy hired by a Russian named Berlin — side note: when you actually type out the plot to any episode of “The Blacklist” you run the risk of your computer automatically dialing 911 because it thinks you’re having a stroke.
Anyway, the harbor master gets nosy, goes down into the barge, where spy-hubby snaps his neck while Elizabeth watches and maybe-kinda-sorta tries to stop him. Eventually, the man’s disappearance and murder are picked up by a metro police detective, who begins an investigation into Elizabeth and the task force she works with in the FBI. He’s dogged, determined and just generally an all-around good guy.
Of course, strings are pulled, threats are made and, due to a series of actions taken by morally compromised people in very high places, the subpoena submitted for a grand jury indictment of Elizabeth — for all charges — is quashed by a blackmailed circuit court judge, for fear that the investigation will unearth “matters of national security.”
Now: as the omniscient viewing audience with the benefit of access to every moving part of the story, we know that, in the end, this is the best outcome. Our heroes have bigger fish to fry, and a lengthy investigation and grand jury indictment would all but halt their progress in bringing down the powerful clandestine organization known as the Cabal, this season’s MacGuffin.
We know this. That knowledge, however, is a luxury not afforded to us in the real world, and it would be shortsighted at best, downright stupid at worst, of us to assume that the government has secrets worth the lives of innocent citizens.
The show is deft at influencing our opinions, though, and not just in overt ways. You only have to look at how different players are presented.
On the side of our heroes (aka the group of people that acquiesced to a murder coverup), you have Elizabeth, the stereotypical spunky, brilliant, sympathetic and beautiful agent; Tom Ressler, her partner, possessor of a strong jawline and unbreakable moral code; Reddington himself, supremely charismatic and the lynchpin of the entire show.
On the other side, we have the investigating detective, a man who looks like a bank examiner crossed with a hedgehog, and the nasally voice to match; the circuit court judge forced to hand down the ruling absolving the FBI, portrayed as petulant and on a misguided crusade; the actual murder victim, a nosy old man.
This kind of thing is not, of course, limited to “The Blacklist.” Just look at the slate of Marvel films: in “Iron Man 2,” Tony Stark is depicted as a hero in our eyes because he refuses to hand over his war-god suit to the government. To be fair, the government might very well reverse-engineer the technology and use it to create a whole slew of new WMDs. But on the flip side, you’ve got an egomaniacal billionaire playboy granting himself carte blanche to fly around the world, carrying out assaults as he sees fit. It’s a celebration of individual exceptionalism, dangerously adjacent to Ayn Rand-type politics.
I’ve argued before on the side of movies and shows like this, and I’ll continue to. Intelligent (at the risk of giving myself too much credit) criticism is healthy, and shows that we can separate the real world from the fantasy one. But it’s worth, I think, bringing up specific examples from time to time in the interest of keeping it fresh in our own minds. And maybe, just maybe, a show that makes the viewer profoundly uncomfortable, for any reason, is worth a closer look.