NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! To quote Raymond Reddington at the end of Thursday’s winter finale, “It can’t be.” And then one more time, in a horrified, heavy whisper: “It can’t be.”
Don’t make me choose between Red and Dembe. Because if pushed, I’m afraid I may choose Dembe, and this franchise simply can’t afford another spin-off right now. Dembe’s unwavering allegiance to Red has always been a bit of a conundrum: Yes, Red saved Dembe from a life of unspeakable horrors, but he’s also asked Dembe — a prenaturally moral person — to commit crime after crime, sin after sin, and that clearly weighs on his soul. Sure, many of Dembe’s actions as Red’s bodyguard can be explained away as being for the greater good, but even more of them cannot.
Let me be clear: I don’t buy capital-t Twist to be as as cut and dry as, “Dembe betrayed Red by attempting to destroy his empire and potentially kill him.” Dembe isn’t an “eye for an eye” guy; he’s a “turn the other cheek” guy. I believe there is more to this story. The success of this episode isn’t necessarily in the shocking Dembe turn but in the way the writers unfolded it. Whether Dembe has fully betrayed Red or not, Red can no longer ignore the reckoning that began with his own betrayal of Mr. Kaplan.
Often, the fun in a show like The Blacklist comes in getting ahead of the mystery, in figuring out each new puzzle piece just before the characters onscreen do. But it’s hard to get ahead of this one because our normally omnipotent guide is basically Girl on the Train-in’ it for the entire hour. The best thing the episode did is put Dembe’s name on the metaphorical table right from the top; the moment Dembe goes missing, he’s placed in the suspect pool for an audience of TV-watching professionals. But because this thought would never enter Red’s mind, each new explanation for Red’s current situation, each new distraction becomes another opportunity to convince ourselves it simply couldn’t be Dembe behind this takedown.
And that’s what makes the final reveal all the more shocking — nothing sucks the air out of being right like being right when you don’t want to be.
THE APOTHECARY, NO. 59
I’m kind of burying the lede here, though, which is that Red is straight-up poisoned during this episode like he’s some naughty royal in a George R. R. Martin novel. The hour opens typically enough, with Red listening to some island tunes while Dembe pours him a brown liquor drink and repeatedly warns him that something he’s about to do is dangerous. Red tells Dembe there’s “a traitor in the family” and he intends to find him — cut to Red nine hours later, wearing an oxygen mask and gasping for air.
The doctor who was on call for Red tells him he’s not actually sure what’s wrong; Red is having trouble breathing and was incapacitated, but there seems to be no physiological reason for it. Red can’t remember how he got in such a state, Dembe is missing and, and the doctor says he’s only certain of one thing: Red has been poisoned and is rapidly progressing toward death. Season 4 of The Blacklist has reinforced more than ever that, just like any other human, Red is fallible. Its winter finale is a reminder that — just like any other human — Red is also mortal.
Unlike most humans, though, Red has the Federal Bureau of Investigation on speed dial. Red shows up to the Post Office being delightfully dramatic and poppin’ the steroid concoction the doctor gave him to stave off complete and total collapse: “Your prayers have been answered, Donald. Apparently, I’m dying.” He informs the team that someone with access to his offshore accounts has been trying to destroy him from the inside out. There are 11 people — accountants, money launderers, investment advisers, etc. — who have access to those accounts. Red gathered them together for dinner the night before to confront them, and that’s the last thing he remembers: a restaurant… a glass of wine… and then waking up in a signature Reddington Warehouse Hospital, totally poisoned.
Red tells them of a man known as the Apothecary, “a druggist whose potions hijack the immune system, causing any number of allergic reactions, each one impossible to identify unless you know what to look for.” Red’s lead on how to find the Apothecary is Elario Penetti, head of a drug syndicate set to be charged with having his biggest rival’s company burned down thanks to a confession from his accountant… until that accountant, Helen Dolly, went into a mysterious coma two days before the trial. Red leaves, coughing and wheezing, to go find Dembe: “While you try to save my life, I’ll spend what time I have saving his.” (At which point I’ve written in my notes, “SO HELP ME, IF THEY MAKE IT DEMBE!!!”)
NEXT: I hope this dude’s snakes eat him alive…