Red serves a political, social, and personal Blacklist agenda while Liz struggles to keep up.

By Jodi Walker
February 13, 2015 at 06:55 PM EST
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“At the outset, they’re opponents… each has something the other wants. They size one another up: assessing risks, setting boundaries, challenging each other to breach them. A sensuous battle—violence and sex… balanced on the blade of a knife. Nothing given that is not earned. Nothing taken that is not given. This is the pure essence of negotiation.” –Red, describing the art of tango, and also, 20 other metaphors

Reddington pushes again and again tonight for his Blacklister-slash-pal of the hour to think in the long-term: “What is the endgame?” In context, he’s encouraging a man to use his passion for politics for more than just kidnapping, but in an episode like “Ruslan Denisov,” it’s easy to pose the same question about The Blacklist itself. I wouldn’t presume to know The Blacklist’s endgame; that little chunk of knowledge is lodged solely in Jon Bokencamp’s mind, I’m sure. But after a two-part midseason return that was almost entirely devoted to working toward long-term mysteries like the Fulcrum and the strange connections between Reddington and his girl Lizzie Keen, I’d almost forgotten that’s more The Blacklist’s exception than its rule.

Yes, we were quite spoiled with the two Luther Braxton episodes back-to-back; their doubled up focus on the endgame made tonight’s episode feel particularly inconsequential. And while it wasn’t the most riveting hour—though I’d certainly put it in the running for the most gross-out moments—it’s nothing if not a reminder that good stories take time to tell… negotiations are a series of push and pull: Nothing given that is not earned. More episodic hours like this one are kind of the world-building price we pay to eventually get an hour with Being Elizabeth Keen where we learn that Liz’s name might really be Masha. Does Masha get mentioned at all tonight? Absolutely not.

Liz may be taking a breather from exploring her relationship to Red and the role it plays in her past, but she’s still learning about the (mostly) symbiotic role that he plays in her present… somehow… even though that feels like extremely well tread territory that someone trained in behavioral analysis might have cracked the code on about 18 episodes ago. Liz says plenty of silly things tonight, but chief among them is, “I never saw it coming,” when she learns Red’s angle for choosing this week’s case at the end of the hour. Admittedly, I am more understanding of Liz’ struggles to adapt to her upturned life than many fans, but even I can admit that her most tired trait is her constant surprise when the takedown of whichever wrongdoer he’s recommended the FBI go after that week also ends up benefiting him personally in some way.

It’s a nice little surprise then, that tucked into a pretty standard Blacklister-of-the-week episode is the subversion of another of The Blacklist’s more plaguing trope: Lizzie might actually get some repercussions for her past misdeeds.

RUSLAN DENISOV, No. 67

The episode opens on a priest in Uzbekistan held with a sword at his throat by a group of mercenaries in the middle of a church service. He proclaims that he is a simple man of God, but the leader of the group pulls out the priest’s walkie-talkie/satellite phone and asks why a man of God would need that. I feel like there are plenty of reasons—my mind drifts to Bruce Almighty where Bruce/God sorts prayer requests via email, but when it drifts back again the priest is, indeed, contacting not-God on the walkie: “This is Burke. Ops-Sec 3828. We have a situation.”

That situation, as Red informs Lizzie after terse “we are on a strictly professional basis” greetings following last week’s fallout, is that Burke is a CIA officer and that man who took him captive is Ruslan Denisov, the commander of a political group in favor of a free Uzbekistan known as the SRU, who funds its political agenda by abducting senior executives of wealthy corporations for ransom. There are two curious things about the SRU’s abduction of Agent Burke: Since the days of President Ford, CIA operatives have not been allowed to pose as religious figures meaning that if the CIA was deliberately disobeying the law, there must be a reason; and if Denisov generally deals in high-budget corporate ransoms, what does he want with a CIA officer?

NEXT: Why can’t big wigs just stay out of the water supply?!

Well, it all boils down to this: Denisov is kind of the Erin Brockovitch of Uzbekistan with twice the violence and three times the sporty outerwear… but we’ll get back to that in a second. CIA Director Hayworth shows up at the Post Office anxious to keep this CIA breach under wraps, but Cooper—backed up by Deputy Attorney General—tells him to stand down while the FBI send their agents to deal with it. Agents Ressler and Keen arrive in Uzbekistan on a mission to rescue Burke only to immediately be told by Uzbek Miltary Commander Kushan that their foreign presence is not particularly welcome, and while they can stick around, they’ll be under the supervision of Uzbek forces the whole time.

So, the Post Office task force has things totally on lock, as usual. Upon arriving at their hotel, Ressler and Liz find Red unannounced and waiting for them in the lobby, and when they make their escape to the elevator, they’re promptly hooded and abducted by two men who emerge out of a secret panel in the elevator wall. The sheer number of agent abductions is getting a bit ludicrous at this point.

But this one isn’t exactly for keeps. Denisov is their abductor but he doesn’t want them for money and he means them no real harm (though that is not immediately clear as he leads them through his collection of caged corporate executives)—he needs them to deliver a message. Twenty five years ago, Uzbekistan sold the rights to a company called Anneca Oil to create a pipeline through their region with the Uzbek people only receiving a very small fraction of that sale. Now, the pipeline is leaking harmful chemicals into the water and the Anneca refuses to do anything about it. They insist that the water is safe, so Denisov tells Ressler and Keen that he did a test of his own, pulling up one of the cages that has been submerged in water to reveal an abducted Anneca V.P. with full Freddy Krueger sores all over his raw skin.

Denisov sends the V.P. back with Ressler and Keen as proof that the water is toxic and with a message that negotiations for Agent Burke’s return begin in 24 hours. Luckily, in the V.P.’s hospital room, they meet another Anneca exec, Dean Walker, who they’ve spotted spying on them since they arrived in Uzbekistan. Walker tells them that his company sent him to deal with Denisov and that the whole thing is a scam: Denisov’s men sabotaged the pipeline so that they could demand money in the name of saving Uzbek people. Commander Kushan shows up, furious that Ressler and Keen dealt with Denisov without his consent, and sends them back to the hotel under 24-hour surveillance. But they just can’t keep those elevators guarded! After a quick conversation between Ressler and Red where Ressler writes Denisov off as a criminal who couldn’t begin to know what to ask for in a political negotiation, he and Liz head back into the elevator to make a more voluntary second trip to Denisov’s compound.

When they arrive, Denisov turns Ressler’s words spoken in private around on him, “I was a little worried…I mean, who am I? I’m just a criminal. Don’t even know enough to know what I want…” And so, he brought in a professional negotiator: Raymond Reddington. Lizzie just can’t believe it! They took this case to get Agent Burke back, not to help Denisov’s side get what they want.

“Agent Keen, in this world there are no sides, only players.” –Red

And while I truly hope Lizzie commits that sentiment to memory this time, the real way to her brain has always been through her heartstrings, so Denisov escorts Agents Keen and Ressler through one of the villages affected by the Anneca-poisoned water where they can see the physical effects of the contaminated water firsthand. As Red puts it, “Somewhere 6,000 miles away, a group of bean counters in the boardroom did a cross-benefit analysis and concluded that these people aren’t worth the cost of responsibly maintaining their pipeline.” So, Lizzie says they’ll put some pressure on the State Department to hold Anneca responsible. “See… no sides, only players,” responds Red.

But Liz’s play doesn’t hold much water with Denisov, it turns out, and that’s when Red’s negotiation lesson comes into play, as he watches a Russian tango with Lizzie while simultaneously trying to force her to eat baklava and teach her the ways of the world. Of all people, Lizzie should know things very rarely go as planned: While Liz and Red talk, Hayworth is busy rolling out a CIA rescue mission by using Commander and his forces as a cover to attack Denisov’s compound, the location of which Cooper told him earlier in a confidential conversation. Cooper simply can’t believe that Hayworth would disobey the Attorney General’s order, and here I can hardly thing of a single time that a direct order wasn’t exchanged between the CIA and FBI on this show that the receiving player didn’t then immediately turnaround and disobey it. They’re just a bunch of rebels!

A bunch of rebels who are constantly almost blowing everything. Red is afraid that Denisov will no longer trust him, and indeed, the guy is furious to find out that a dozen of his men were killed during the compound raid. But Red—the only person who seems to know how to not trust anybody—had already moved the hostages, so Denisov still has Burke as a playing card. Red encourages Denisov not to kill him in retaliation because Burke has the valuable information of the CIA. He knows that Denisov’s Anneca oil problem didn’t just start when he became aware of it. The CIA broke there rules to pose Burke as a priest to protect a secret, and after quite a bit of threatening, Burke confesses that secret is Leonard Zhabin, former Cabinet Minister of the Old Soviet Regime.

NEXT: One pipe, two pipe; dead pipe, you pipe…

These days, Zhabin is a repentant self-flogging religious fanatic, but back in the day, he was the one who made the deal with Anneca and got a huge kickback for the sale. All of these sick people are his fault, hence the torture, and hence his ultimate cooperation with Reddington (with just a bit of holy water torture courtesy of Denisov). Red calls a meeting with Zhabin, Denisov, Agents Ressler and Keen, and the Anneca exec, Walker—it’s time to negotiate. When Red dramatically announces that Zhabin is his smoking gun, Walker insists that the man is crazy. While that may be true, the crazy man also has documents; documents that prove that the deal with Anneca for a pipeline was originally made in 1988, four years before the current one was built. Anneca got started on construction right away in 1999, before they were prepared, and hundreds of people were killed by the failed pipeline and later swept under the rug when the Soviet Union folded; all deaths that current Anneca execs can be prosecuted for, Liz tells him.

Uzbekistan doesn’t want reparations; its people want Anneca out. And with a 24-hour deadline before Red takes the news public, out Anneca goes. During Anneca’s press conference, Red and Denisov make plans to return Agent Burke to Ressler and Keen. But the CIA have somehow gotten ahold of where that trade is going down and make their own plans to kill Denisov and capture Reddington. Cooper nips that in the bud though by storming into Hayworth’s office and laying down the law just as he’s about to make the call.

But if it were up to Lizzie, she might not keep saving Reddington as their asset—despite the good he helps them do, she just can’t get past how he uses their Blacklist hunting for his own gain. Before they leave Uzbekistan, she discovers that because they cleared out the Anneca pipeline, it’s made way for a French company to establish a national pipeline… a French company with whom Red had a deal before any of this ever even started. Liz accuses him, “You knew exactly what was going to happen,” like she’s never met the guy before. Red almost always knows exactly what’s going to happen, and when he doesn’t, he’s at least prepared for it because the man knows how to think about the endgame.

Lizzie’s lack of foresight has her in the predicament that’s plaguing her throughout the rest of the episode: The DC harbor master who discovered the ship where Liz was keeping Tom and who Tom subsequently killed has been reported missing by his wife. A Detective Wilcox is investigating and shockingly it didn’t take him long to get to Liz, as she gave the harbor master her card shortly before being a pretty direct cause in his murder. Liz confesses to Ressler what’s going on and that Detective Wilcox called to ask her a few questions. She tells Ressler she did everything she could to stop Tom from killing him, but I remember her doing a lot of not shooting Tom. Ressler asks if there were any witnesses… cue the big body guard man who witnessed Tom kill the Harbor Master while Liz watched, and then disposed of the body, stage right.

Cue him leading the Detective to the body with the agreement that he’ll avoid jail time stage right.

Cue a main character on The Blacklist maybe, finally, possibly facing a consequence for disregarding protocol; in this case, FBI protocol being, don’t kidnap your spy husband and try to deal with him on your own and then let him murder someone on your watch. The plot of “Ruslan Denisov” was pretty mild, but the underlying theme of the push and pull of negotiation is key to a number of relationships on this show. Red and Liz, most obviously, as well as that between the CIA and FBI, which has continued to pop up since the midseason return. But from the looks of this episode’s final scenes, Lizzie is about to have to start facing up to the negotiations she made with herself in the beginning of this season when she want rogue. Red may say negotiation is all about the players, but at some point those players will have to pick a side to negotiate… and Lizzie’s options of which side of herself she’ll commit to are looking more limited by the second.

A Few Loose Ends:

  • Liz has Aram look at the box she found in her stuffed bunny last week, and while he has no idea how it works, he said it appears to be some kind of beta technology recording device from the late ’80s or early ’90s. Liz makes him promise not to tell Reddington anything about it.
  • How much do you want to bet that Raymond “I’m Always Necessary” Reddington is the only one with access to whatever it is that Liz “The Human Fulcrum” Keen needs to listen to her baby recording device?
  • Speaking of the late ’80s/early ’90s, Red’s words about mysterious events around the fall of the Berlin Wall seemed a little pointed, no? “It wasn’t the only disaster cloaked by those momentous events, hidden from view in the fog of the new world order.” *cough*FULCRUM*cough*
  • Red’s anecdotes have been great this season, but I haven’t counted a single “oh my gosh”… should we be concerned?

What did you think of tonight’s episode? Did the skin boiling and flogging give you that patented Blacklist shock factor you crave, or was it kind of a letdown after the past two episodes? Most importantly, did you pick up on any little endgame clues not covered here? Sound off in the comments!

Episode Recaps

The Blacklist

James Spader returns as Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington, a mastermind criminal who teams up with the FBI.
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