'The Blacklist' recap: 'Luther Braxton'
“So, when are you going to tell me the truth?” –Elizabeth Keen
The Patriots have won, The Blacklist is back, and after a year of actively watching the life she thought she knew get smashed into smithereens at the hands of Raymond Reddington, Lizzie is finally ready to ask for some answers. And she totally means it this time, you guys!
It’s a big deal to get that once-a-year spot following the Super Bowl (that deal escalates even more when you’ve got Ron Perlman’s chin to come in and show Tom Brady who really runs this town). Though The Blacklist already does quite well for itself in ratings, the Super Bowl brings more eyes to the show than ever—more people to entertain, whether those people know about Red’s burned up back, Tom’s affection for tortoiseshell, and that stupid key that Red found in that hanging jar last year that haunts my dreams to this day, or not. All that said, though, The Blacklist had a challenge uniquely suited to its own natural makeup in this Super Bowl midseason return.
If you’ve read these recaps before, you know that nothing can make me congratulate or reprimand The Blacklist more than its fluctuating ability to balance the serial/procedural hybrid structure Jon Bokencamp created for it from the very beginning. It is both a show that obsessively serializes the mysteriously intertwining lives of two people with layers so thick, a boiler room on the sun could barely penetrate their surfaces, and also tries to give us a new bad guy, new story, and new reason to stay tuned each week. The post-Super Bowl episode was the perfect opportunity to introduce new viewers to a complicated overarching story by way of just one big episode, but also needed to quench old viewers’ thirst for answers.
And in that, the show succeeded; rather than give us an interesting one-week character, we got a baddie to sink our teeth into with the likes of Ron Perlman and his mysterious Belgrade references, and rather than skirting around the lingering issues from November’s midseason finale, the show went full-frontal Fulcrum. The only thing I might fault this midseason premiere for is feeling quite similar to last season’s midseason return; but I don’t need The Blacklist to reinvent the fedora every week, especially if it means Red Jack Bauer-ing his way through a secret floating prison in order to tell Lizzie that she’s… something.
The episode started a few weeks after where the last left off, with Red searching for the Fulcrum, the item Fitch told him would be the key to his own protection and—I could be reaching here, but I don’t think that I am—and maybe saving the world. But instead of seeing Red roaming through Russia in a fur hat searching for the Fulcrum (why do I imagine that it’s shaped like a Bop It?) we see news footage of Raymond Reddington, number-one target on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, being captured and apprehended in Hong Kong.
Back at the Post Office, people are milling about when they get the news. Normally Red updates are delivers via Lizzie in a frazzled/fond huff, so watching her watermelon-watermelon with Samar as Agent Cooper comes to deliver the news makes me wonder what she could possibly be talking about that doesn’t involve Red and his current whereabouts. Lizzie is a Bechdel nightmare. But now that Cooper has informed her that Red is being transported to a blacksite prison called The Factory in the middle of the ocean there’s plenty of opportunity for her to yell, “But he’s our asset!” and worry about her old pal, Reddington. Always slower to warm up, Ressler feels certain that if Red got caught, he did it with a purpose, and Samar agrees that he must have wanted to be in proximity to something.
Right, they are. As Red is locked up with a bag over his head, he tells his guard he’ll give him $50,000 to take him to the Warden. The guard refuses, but brings the Warden to Red who tells him that within 12 hours an inmate named Luther Braxton will break out of his cell and “steal a classified intelligence packet that contains secrets vital to your national security.” The Warden scoffs at Red’s ploy because the Warden has clearly never watched this show. What the audience sees is Braxton (Ron Perlman) being electrocuted as a part of his regular torture routine, but as he’s being unstrapped, one of the guards slips one of the wires into his mouth to take back to his cell with him.
NEXT: LUTHER BRAXTON, NO. 21
A name so high on the Blacklist could really only be someone with whom Red has a personal vendetta. In an excellent scene that overlays the audio of the Post Office crew finding out more information about who Braxton is with the visual of watching Braxton set up his escape—a confusing combination or wires, electricity, and some good ol’ fashioned spilled water—we learn that he’s a thief who strives in chaos. Two CIA clandestine service officers arrive to be the liaisons between Agent Cooper’s crew and what’s going down at The Factory. Goodson (Janel Moloney) seems like she could possibly be an ally, but her superior officer (David Strathairn) seems like he’s up to no good. But they give Cooper permission to send Ressler, Samar, and Liz to retrieve Red and bring him back into their custody.
Red does not respond well to this news which he gets in the middle of a full prison break down. Braxton rigs his room up like Kevin McCallister with an engineering degree and when a guard goes to unlock his door, he’s immediately electrocuted beyond function. When another guard goes in to see what’s going on, he comes back out as a human torch and Braxton is now armed with his gun and on the loose. This inspires the Warden to investigate a little further into Reddington’s claims and how exactly it is that he arrived knowing about a prison break, and now has three FBI agents on their way to evacuate him. But the Warden doesn’t have time to listen to Red’s pleas to tell the chopper that’s carrying Lizzie to turn back around because his prison is currently turning into chaos.
Braxton lets a select group of prisoners out as we hear Ressler in the helicopter figuring out that four men with very specialized skills have been admitted to The Factory in the past three months. Braxton and his crew then barricade themselves off and gas the vents, incapacitating most of the guards and employees. When the Post Office agents arrive on the roof, these four omnipotent men are somehow also there, and take Ressler and Samar hostage. Lizzie manages to escape their notice and is now free to rescue Red, Samar, and Ressler with that signature Keen ingenuity.
But, uh, getting past Braxton alive does not seem to be an easy feat. When the folks at the Post Office find out The Factory is now under Braxton’s control, the CIA liaisons bring in a hostage negotiator to talk to him. Aram’s palpable worry for Samar during these scenes is such a nice and necessary beat, at odds with the detached mentality everyone usually forces themselves to operate under, and I immediately hate the negotiator for being all, “Don’t worry, this should be a real piece of cake,” and then promptly getting the Warden killed with Samar and Ressler seemingly next on the list.
I have slightly more confidence in Liz, even though the second she hits the prison floor, Red has her in a head lock. He’s annoyed that she’s there, but when she hits him with a, “maybe I actually care what happens to you,” he decides a little honesty is in order: Her government is being robbed, and Braxton is after the Fulcrum. Lizzie is all, “Thanks for the honesty that means literally nothing to me.” Red explains that the Fulcrum is a blackmail file: proof of an “extraordinarily powerful clandestine organization” that would send many a powerful person to prison. The Fulcrum isn’t there, but the information Braxton (and Red) needs to find it is, so Red decides it’s time to gather a crew: “Sadly, there isn’t a prison on earth where I don’t know a few guys.”
Red gathers his crew in the Warden’s office, and they come up with a plan. Braxton is going to have to get into the server room to hack into the system; there’s no way for them to get into the server room to disable it because the prison is locked down in sections, but they can get into the boiler room next door, blow that sucker up, and destroy the server. While they’re coming up with this, and Braxton sees that there’s a breach in the Warden office and gives it a call. Red answers and things get interesting. Many of Red’s enemies, at least the bigger, more personal ones, seem to have a sort of respect for the way Red operates—his intelligence, his precision—and he for them. But not Braxton: Braxton despises Red on a personal level.
Braxton reminds Red that he made a name for himself by besting Red in Belgrade, and tells Red that he knows the truth about him: “You’re such a snob Red… always considered yourself above the fray with your handmade suits and your fancy wine… You have everyone convinced you’re so hard, Red, but I know better. You’re soft.” Braxton says that Red won’t be able to stop him from getting the Fulcrum, but Red—in what remains of the three-piece suit he was delivered in—isn’t scared: “I’m confident you’ve got a plan for every scenario imaginable, but it’s the scenarios you can’t imagine that bite you in the ass, Luther.”
NEXT: Codes, keys, rays of light, etc.
And while Red certainly seems concerned, it’s back at the Post Office that we find out the real weight of the situation. Braxton calls Cooper again to tell him that with the prison on lockdown, all existing codes have been invalidated, and one code has been generated to access everything in The Factory—he needs that code and accents the fact by threatening to kill Samar and Ressler. Cooper and Aram are keen to give him the code immediately, but Agent Goodson tells Cooper it’s not an option: “Braxton doesn’t want the code to break out of prison, he wants it to break into our network.” Because such important information is squeezed out of the high level prisoners that go to The Factory, in order to get that information to field officers in real time, The Factory became a Level 6 Intelligence node, as well as a prison. Cooper puts it thusly: “You put an access point to the country’s most sensitive data in a prison with the country’s most dangerous enemies?”
It seems that Cooper briefly considers that a reason not to give Braxton the code until Braxton calls back with an audibly choking Samar in the background, hanging by her neck on a chain, and Cooper caves. Cue Strathairn’s high-up character talking to some other high-up seeming characters about the threat of the Fulcrum being found. He says the good news is that Reddington is no longer a threat because what’s protected him for so long from Fitch and his associates was the thought that he might have the Fulcrum, but his scramble to stop Braxton makes it obvious that he doesn’t. Braxton is still a liability though, so they come with a plan to eliminate all threats: annihilate The Factory with everyone who’s currently inside.
That would include Red and Lizzie who have made it to the boiler room and are manually bringing the pressure in the boilers up to a level that will explode them and the server room where Braxton’s computer guy is currently getting into the system with Cooper’s code by proxy. That means if they’re successful, they’ll have about 10 seconds to get out of the way of the explosion. They’re also working in 90-second increments between amping up the pressure, which Red decides to use to give Lizzie a few answers, albeit, cryptic answers, to her questions about the truth.
She wonders why he’s so worried about Braxton getting the Fulcrum and he tells her that the only thing that protected him from the cabal Fitch was working with was their belief that he possessed the Fulcrum. But when Lizzie says, “So, that’s what this whole thing was about… protecting yourself?” she gets a pointed look. Because this—all of this—has always been about protecting Lizzie for him. It’s a selfish kind of protection, one that doesn’t make Lizzie feel safe or understand why she’s being protected, but Red can protect himself; he doesn’t give Lizzie the chance to prove the same for herself. Red reminds Lizzie that he used to have a normal life; indeed, in the news report from the top of the episode we’re told that Red was once a rising star at the Pentagon until he disappeared on the way home to visit his wife and daughter on Christmas Eve 1990.
He tells her a story about a kind of fish in Mexico that ended up lost in complete darkness, forced to colonize in freshwater caves. They didn’t die, they adapted, losing pigmentation and all eyesight: “With survival they became hideous. I rarely think about what I once was. I wonder if a ray of light were to make it into the cave, would I be able to see it? Feel it? Would I gravitate to its warmth? And if I did would I become less hideous?” Little Lizzie Keen, our resident ray of light. Red finally tells Liz why he was so desperate for her not to come there: “The truth is, if I don’t stop Braxton, what he’ll discover is that he can’t get the Fulcrum without you.” So, that’s ray of light and key, I guess.
Just as this information is shared, Braxton’s men come in shooting, the boilers explode, taking out the server next door and Red, and Braxton’s men take Liz. When Red regains consciousness, he’s on a hunt: Back in the Warden’s office, he loads up a shotgun to get through the now escaped prisoners, to Braxton, to Lizzie. Just as with the murder walk set to “The Man Comes Around,” this bloody march is excellently scored to The Brothers Bright’s “Blood On My Name.” After taking out a few prisoners, Red makes it to Lizzie, shoots Braxton in the leg, and she turns a gun on him, as well.
Red tells Braxton the Fulcrum isn’t worth what he thinks, that it’s just a target on his back. Braxton says he knows all about it: “I know where it was 20 years ago, and I know when it disappeared. I know about the house, the fire, the girl.” And then he gets that look in his eyes that people keep getting when they look at Liz this episode. And just as he’s asking Reddington if that’s why he came for her, if she’s the girl who was “there that night,” the missiles that were ordered to destroy the Factory arrive, right in Lizzie’s eye line through the window.
And that’s how you do a Super Bowl two-parter. There’s not any questions as to if our main characters will live, but there is a huge, gaping question as to what they’ll be to each other once they make it out. The constant use of “the girl”—for Zoe, for Liz—in this show is maddening, but I’m certainly ready to know, if not exactly the relationship between Red and Lizzie, at least where their lives first intersected.
Any guesses as to why Lizzie is so important to finding the Fulcrum? Is she a literal key, or is she more of a metaphorical step? Why is Red willing to be more open with her now? Do you think his protection of her is really as pure as he makes it seem with his romantic fish stories, or is this all just a plot to get to the Fulcrum and protect himself?
James Spader is Raymond "Red" Reddington, a mastermind criminal who teams up with the FBI.