There’s an old argument that goes like this: does media reflect life or life media? How does what we see and read affect how we think and behave? Do we act accordingly with what we believe is the norm based on movies and television?
God, I hope not. At the same time I fear the depersonalization of suffering by fictional account has been translated into rising rates of murder, assault and theft. It’s not a new concept. Psychologists have warned for some time now that the images depicting acts deviating from societal norms has led to seeing victims as sub-human. To the perpetrators of these horrific acts, the victims are fodder. Sociopaths have always seen targets as not worthy of compassion because they’re not as intelligent or not as worthy as the perpetrator or, perhaps, they just got in the way. Compassion has no place in their world. They’re comfortable with televised deeds of mayhem because it fits their world view. People enamored with torture and death may have become inured to it because it doesn’t seem real to them, just as it isn’t onscreen. Have gruesomely atrocious crimes become more common due to what’s offered onscreen and in books?
Even the best of us can get dragged into the mud and wallow in it as content as pigs. What I mean by this is our fascination with The Blacklist. As a writer I’m intrigued by printed words as well as those spoken in television shows and movies. For the past few weeks I’ve been spellbound by this NBC offering, and bingeing via Netflix. The ingeniously crafted story lines and character arcs are undeniably intriguing. When I should be doing other things I’ve found myself glued to this morally ambiguous teleplay.
Here’s the basic plot: Raymond Reddinton, FBI’s most wanted criminal for over twenty years, suddenly turns himself in. He’ll help catch underworld figures no one in the upper echelons of law enforcement have even heard of. All he asks in return is the task force organized for this purpose include a rookie profiler named Elizabeth Keen.
Elizabeth can’t figure out what his game is but she agrees to play along. It’s going to be a feather in her professional cap. Any investigator has to love a mystery and Reddington is all about that. Soon it begins to take its toll on her private life and demands more of her time. She’s been married to Tom Keen, a fourth grade teacher, for two years and they’ve been talking about adopting a child. Her inclusion in the task force shoots all this to hell and gone. Planned activities go to the wayside in favor of chasing bad guys. Dinners cooked go uneaten.
Case by case we get pulled deeper into the enigma that is Reddington. He was a naval officer on the fast track toward admiralty until he was suspected of treason and fell off the map only to resurface as The Concierge of Crime. Building a fortune as vast as his network of associates, he managed to elude capture. With his aid, a plethora of dangerous men and women are captured but soon it becomes evident that Raymond is doing this to winnow out competitors and get rid of enemies. It’s all part of a larger plan so diabolically clever even the FBI can’t resist this charming con man.
Each episode links to the next, or perhaps the one after that, and every malefactor that goes down is tied somehow to one before. Sometimes the FBI gets their man and, almost as often, Reddington gets there first, either dispatching them with a bullet or helping them into a new life off-grid. If it’s the latter, you can be sure the lucky son of a gun will owe Raymond a favor one day. Yes, he’s charming but it’s a veneer over the real wood. Reddington is clearing the field.
Or is he? As the writers of this incredible series take us down a dark path, they trim the layers of their creation away and sow seeds of wondrous doubt in the viewer’s mind. To start with, what’s his relationship to Elizabeth Keen? Is he even who he says he is or is this an elaborate game designed to fool the FBI and us?
James Spader, as Raymond Reddington, would have a hard time finding a more memorable role. He was a staple of late eighties movies like Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero and Sex, Lies and Videotape. He went on to star in The Watcher, Crash and Avengers: The Age of Ultron and on network staples like The Office and Boston Legal. He portrays Reddington with humor and sartorial panache, managing to alternately attract us to his sheer bonhommie and horrify with his alter ego’s deadpan ability to gun down people we thought worthy of forgiveness.
And that’s the hook. Right there. We don’t root for Raymond because he’s good. We’re behind him because he’s an avenging angel with no aspirations of heroism. He knows he’s naughty and we’re still drawn to him. The scriptwriters do it with flair and talent I’ve not seen anywhere since Game Of Thrones.
You think I’m deluded, don’t you? The Winds of Winter series, as enthralling as it was, follows the same formula as The Blacklist. There are heroes and villains in both. No matter the arc of their character, every one of the people in these stories find themselves walking across the line to become what they’re normally not. Well, not Ramsay Bolton. Played brilliantly by Iwan Rheon, he was an incorrigible shit we were very happy to see consumed by the very hunting dogs he’d set on innocents. Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) walks such a long, hard road to the end we can scarcely recognize the sweet innocent she was in the beginning. Only Jon Snow stuck to his guns and got exiled beyond T he Wall for his trouble.
That’s as it should be. How interesting would a story, or a show, be if there was no character development? Nowadays viewers require more strenuous ethical gymnastics from those inhabiting their fantasy worlds. C.S. Lewis’ novels have been made into movies for young adults. Tolkien’s world was wildly popular among those of the boomer generation that toked pot and dropped acid and probably bought the bulk of box office tickets. It helped that these franchises were lovingly produced by true believers and we weren’t given the villain’s motivation. Sauron was bad because he was inherently evil.
We haven’t discovered Raymond’s motivation yet but we have seen how the special agents have, one by one, been corrupted by his influence. They’ve become so enthralled with the success of their task force they’re willing to accept the consequences in the name of greater good. Often they get their foot caught in the crack due to Reddington’s machinations and, when they do, choose to save their skin and career. Raymond is only too happy to pull their foot out.
What is disturbing is the steepening curve of the “good guys” making decisions society would have considered wrong twenty years ago and it would not have been okay to portray these scenarios for public consumption. Looking the other way while Raymond knocks off the very criminals the FBI was pursuing and wanted to incarcerate used to be something that didn’t happen. At least, not very often and you could be sure that the federal agent that had been turned to the dark side would be taken down himself in a few episodes. Not here.
So why did Raymond Reddington turn himself in? He had successfully eluded capture for decades and become quite wealthy in the bargain. The massive ego this man displays had to have been well-stroked over the years. Why do it, then?
That’s part of the mystery viewers want to solve. I continue to watch because I find Raymond to be hilarious in spite of his wicked, wicked ways. The series is so well-written and twists like one of those theme park rollercoasters I’d never deign to get on. I want to find out who Red really is. Is he, in truth, the read Raymond Reddington or the clever construct of a genius villain? Why is Elizabeth Keen so important to his plans?
If you haven’t seen this television gem you can catch the first seven seasons on Netflix, but I urge you to watch it before season eight begins soon on NBC. COVID shut down production but I understand filming has resumed, which means the return to network viewing can’t be far away. Hurry! Each season is roughly 21-23 episodes long so you have a lot of catching up to do.