The Blacklist returns with a blast from the past and a declaration of war

By Jodi Walker
April 21, 2017 at 03:17 AM EDT
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“You’ve been busy.”

Oh yes, Raymond, Mr. Kaplan has been very busy… and so has The Blacklist‘s writers room. I don’t know exactly how I expected The Blacklist to return after eight weeks away while Redemption housesat for its time slot, but a two-hour blaze of glory shooting answers, history, and bags of dead bodies, leaving only destruction and a handful of perfectly executed retro songs in its wake, was definitely not it.

We will get to the first hour of this two-hour run, which was great in its own, much more subtle ways, but it’s hard to remember what led to an explosion when you’re standing in the middle of a fire… just ask Mr. Kaplan. Between catching up with Mr. Kaplan in present day and flashing back over her 30-year journey to becoming Reddington’s cleaner — and then his attempted murder victim — the second half of tonight’s Blacklist tells the story of how we build worlds up around us and then reshape ourselves to fit those worlds. In extreme cases, that’s how one might walk into an interview for a nanny position, and then say yes, and I love you, and, “Not alone,” and Anything for Elizabeth, anything for you, anything for anybody enough times that 30 years later, you’re standing in the middle of an ice skating rink, surrounded by dead bodies that you helped facilitate in becoming dead.

I’m sure that after a while, most of us assumed that Mr. Kaplan was the one trying to bring Reddington down — she had been MIA from the last few episodes, and when she set out from the her half-captivity-half-salvation at Mr. Hunter’s Creepy Cabin, she had an unreadable look in her eye. But even though it made logistical sense, it never quite made emotional sense: From most everything we’d heard from Mr. Kaplan, she seemed to have thought she was doing the right thing for Elizabeth, but she also thought that she’d betrayed Raymond in the deepest sense, and that was a punishable offense. She didn’t seem like someone who wanted retribution on her boss.

And then in the midseason finale, the twist: It was Dembe who poisoned Red and nearly killed him. But… that didn’t make much sense either. Sure, Dembe was upset that Red killed Kaplan, but he was also somewhat complicit in it, and he has never shown any wavering in his eternal devotion to his boss. So, in these two midseason premiere episodes, The Blacklist pulled off something that The Blacklist does not always do particularly well: They made it all make sense.

At the time of her attempted death, Mr. Kaplan did seem to think that it wasn’t out of line for Raymond to kill her as penalty for betraying his trust. But in her time at the Hunter’s cabin, and in the time since we last saw her, Mr. Kaplan has been busy. She’s been busy thinking about her past and how she ended up in the employ of Raymond Reddington. She’s been thinking about how when Kathryn Nemec went to Canada to be the governess to a baby girl, she didn’t know things were about to go full-tilt Jane Eyre. How she didn’t know that 30 years later, committing her life to keeping that little girl safe would have turned into something much more sinister.

Mr. Kaplan can’t un-live the life she fell into any more than Reddington can un-ring the bell she begged him not to ring when he walked back into Special Agent Elizabeth Keen’s life — their stories are written in flash, after all. But she can do something about it. She can keep her word, her real word. She can set out on the path she intended to follow 30 years ago: not to be blindly loyal to Raymond Reddington, but to protect Elizabeth Keen at all costs.

DEMBE ZUMBA, NO. 10

But first up, Dembe, someone who kind of did pledge his unwavering allegiance to Red because Red kind of did save his life a long time ago. The first Blacklist hour opens up soon after the last one left off, with Dembe seemingly on the run after attempting to destroy Red’s empire from the inside out, and nearly killing him with poison.

Aram is showering at his apartment — I see you, Blacklist, and I’m not mad at you — when someone else enters the bathroom. And it’s worse than I could have imagined: Janet, née Elise. You may recall that Janet faked a relationship with Aram to spy on the FBI, then she was all sassy to him at that hacking convention; you may also recall that Aram and Samar are (fingers crossed) endgame, so what the hell? But it makes perfect sense that sweet, endearing Aram would be into this edgy badass, so I can’t even be mad at her. It doesn’t make sense to Aram, though, that she was able to come in through the unlocked door because he’s sure he locked it…

And that’s how Aram finds Dembe marching him out of his own apartment at gunpoint. He leaves Janet, and the Post Office team is quickly on the scene. Samar doesn’t love finding out Janet was mid-lather when Dembe showed up, but she’s also the only one who’s immediately on board with Janet helping them track Aram using a key-finder he has attached to his keys. He just has to get near someone with an active cell phone, and they’ll be able to track him.

But at the moment, there are no active cell phones in the creepy warehouse district Dembe has taken Aram to. Dembe lifts a door, revealing a safe with a code, and Aram assumes that Dembe wants him to hack the safe, to which he says no: He’s not going to help Dembe steal from Mr. Reddington. And then in a truly baller move, Dembe puts in the code himself to reveal that the safe is empty — he’s not trying to steal from Raymond; he’s trying to figure out who has already stolen from him.

Aram is skeptical, but he says he can access the log of who has opened the safe. And he does get the data — but it would take him days to figure out who that data actually points to. So Dembe tells him he’s free to go and asks Aram to please forgive him. Then he slumps down against the wall like a downtrodden middle schooler and it is just the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. It must be for Aram, too, because after confirming that Dembe is really trying to help (“I have three people in my life: my daughter, my granddaughter, and Raymond”), Aram says he has an idea on how to crack the data.

I should mention that while the epic duo of all-time heart-eye favorites Dembe and Aram is forming, Red and Liz are out on the road trying to find Dembe a different way. And while it is an interesting Blacklister plot featuring Glen being all kinds of extra, Dembe’s cute daughter and granddaughter, an “underground railroad for miscreants,” and a woman wearing a shirt made of bees, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Because Red and Liz aren’t the ones who track down Dembe and Aram, and they’re certainly not the ones who get the most interesting bit of information in their quest.

That would be dream team Aram and Dembe, who talk their way into the Bureau of Data via a badge flash, a little confidence, and a truly silly song-and-dance where Dembe has to act like a regular Forgetful Freddie. Once inside a conference room, Aram is able to hack the Bureau’s system and expedite the process of tracking the date he uncovered in the safe’s digital lock back to an actual person: Kathryn Nemec. Dembe looks horrified when he sees the name (if I say “like he’s seen a ghost,” will I lose my recapper’s license?) and even more frightened when Aram informs him that Samar and Ressler have just entered the building. Ressler takes off after Dembe on foot, but Aram — now in full BFF territory with his fellow sensitive spirit — sits tight in his hacking room, locking Samar out electronically and strategically opening and closing automatic doors for Dembe until he’s able to trap Ressler and help Dembe escape.

By the time Red is able to get through to Dembe using a burner phone he’d mailed his daughter, Dembe is running through the woods looking for something. On the phone, Red asks Dembe what he’s doing because each new move is making him look guiltier. “We’re both guilty, Raymond,” Dembe tells him. “I came here to see for myself: She’s not here.” And then — BOOM! — Dembe is shot in the leg by… Mr. Kaplan’s former frenemy, the creepy Hunter! The Hunter knows who Dembe is and knows that his “slick-suited friend” can’t be far behind. And as he’s offering all this exposition, Dembe rips the arrow out of his own leg and stabs it into the Hunter’s!

But as far as Red knows, Dembe just told him he was guilty and then was attacked in some form or fashion. So he calls Aram demanding to know what they uncovered together. So Aram tells him the name: Kathryn Nemec.

That’s how Red finds himself pulling up to the woods where he attempted to put an end to Mr. Kaplan’s life… apparently, unsuccessfully. Red tells Liz, “Man’s greatest enemy is the dark forces pent up inside himself. But not for me; my dark forces had a name: a person I trusted with the most heinous offenses of my life. Every trespass I committed — expunged, cleansed as if it had never happened. My confessor, who doth condemn me.”

It’s a little dramatic. But to be fair, Red did just find out that his traumatizing murder of one of his greatest confidants was a total failure and now she’s probably after him, as is her henchman the Hunter, who just shot Boz in the side with an arrow from afar. But when he gets up close, Red and Boz have apparently switched jaunty caps to trick him, and they’re able to get the jump on the Hunter. They take him back to his cabin and try to shake out of him where Mr. Kaplan is. He tells Red, “Kate’s also very dangerous and absolutely relentless. I guess she learned that from you.” Indeed, she did, as we shall find out. But first, Red holds a gun to the Hunter’s head so that he’ll dial Mr. Kaplan on his satellite phone. But instead…

It sets off a bomb under the cabin. Boz and Red make a break for it and narrowly escape, as we see Mr. Kaplan, looking fiercer than ever, listening to a voicemail the Hunter left for her just after he shot Dembe: “Your friends, they’re here… If this is the last time you hear my voice, know that I didn’t give you up, and I didn’t go down without a fight. You told me if he ever figured out you’re still alive, he’d come at you full-boar. Well, lock and load, Katie — your war has come.”

EPISODE 2: REQUIEM

Let’s take a minute to dive into the word requiem, which can mean a few different things. In the Roman Catholic Church, a requiem is a mass for the souls of the dead. More broadly, it’s an act of remembrance for the dead. By the end of Thursday’s second hour, this episode of The Blacklist has seen those definitions through in surprisingly conflicting ways. And right from the start, it touches on the word’s final meaning: a solemn musical composition for the repose of the dead. In this case: Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

The episode opens in 1962 as a little girl and her father look at the open casket of her mother. The little girls asks why her mother didn’t take her body when she left. And if the question didn’t indicate a certain level of maturity, her father’s response certainly does: “On account of all the pain and sorrow it soaked up. What happens in life writes a story in your flesh… They’ll take this body and bury it deep.” It’s a pretty heavy statement as is, but as we move through the episode, this cold open (literally — sorry) resonates on deeper and deeper levels. Cue the music as the little girl dries her eyes, puts on her glasses, and then fades into the older version of her be-spectacled self we know and love…

At first I was afraid, I was petrified

Kept thinkin’ I could never live without you by my side

Then I spent so many nights just thinking how you did me wrong

And I grew strong

And I learned how to get along

Mr. Kaplan is driving a truck with a trailer attached to the back of it. She pulls over, shaking, and takes a pill from a prescription bottle. She calls a man currently at an ice rink to tell him she just has one stop left to make. He asks about her migraines, and she says she’s fine as she moves aside her hair and to touch the bald spot that contains a gnarly scar from where her boss shot her in the head and left her for dead in the woods. This is how she got here:

The casting choice for Joanna Adler to play young Mr. Kaplan is, well, incredible. Not only does she look like her, but she nails the hints of Mr. Kaplan’s now-hardened demeanor, while adding in the innocence and earnestness that would have existed in her 30 years ago, before she met…

Katarina Rostova. The immediate presence of Katarina calls to mind The Blacklist’s last trip to the past in “Cape May,” another requiem of sorts, for Red just after Lizzie died. And while Thursday’s episode also enlightens us on Red’s past and his connection to Lizzie, it’s much more straightforward. We’re seeing Mr. Kaplan before she was Mr. Kaplan — when she was Kathryn Nemec, interviewing for a governess position with Katarina Rostova to take care of her daughter Masha. She pulls up to the house Alexander Kirk took Lizzie to back in his babynappin’ days, only Liz is the one who’s a baby in this flashback.

Katarina tells Kathryn that she’s not trying to abdicate her role as Masha’s mother; Kathryn’s job will be to observe her interactions with Masha and provide a continuity of care when she’s away. “You will be what I am to her,” she tells Kathryn. “With one exception: You will not love her.” Honestly, it’s pretty confusing, and personally I think it makes Katarina seem a little careless and delusional about the reality of her Soviet spy life, but that might be what they’re going for… no one makes it out of this episode looking great, and those are the kind of complicated moral waters in which we tread on The Blacklist.

Three months later, Kathryn is taking care of baby Masha (also a very well-cast baby!), and Katarina comes in to quiz her on what kind of feelings she has toward her past charges. Kathryn says she feels pride for them, and though they weren’t hers to love, she would have died for any of them. She tells Katarina that she and Masha have a pact: “Every time she takes a bottle or falls asleep in my arms, she is telling me that she trusts me completely. That is a profound gift — I would do anything to protect your baby.” And it’s a good thing, because with little Masha, “I would do anything to protect you” will become much more than just a cliché pledge.

One night, as Kathryn is washing her face, she hears a man and woman arguing. At first I assumed it would be Katarina and Alexander, but this is a professional argument; Kathryn finds Katarina and a man beating each other down in the kitchen. Katarina gets a cord around his neck, but he gets her by the hair. So Kathryn slides a knife across the floor to the Katarina… and Katarina slits his throat. (Step 1 toward the Mr. Kaplan we know.) Katarina says that Alexander can’t see this, and Kathryn tells her to go upstairs and shower. “While you do what?” Katarina asks. “Clean the mess,” Kathryn tells her. (Mr. Kaplan: Step 2.)

Before she was Red’s cleaner, Kathryn Nemec was Katarina’s, apparently. And before all of that, she was a med school student fascinated by cadavers, which is perhaps why she has a natural penchant for getting rid of bodies effectively, as she explains in a step-by-step process to Katarina. In return, Katarina says that she considered killing Kathryn last night: “What you saw last night… you might see other things, too.” Kathryn reminds her that she has a pact with Masha to keep her safe: “And her mother.”

Which I think is pretty generous, because Kathryn seems to be the only one particularly concerned with safety. When she returns from taking Masha for a spin in the stroller one day, she comes back to find Katarina having sex with a man in a car in front of the house, and I’m guessing there’s a fedora somewhere on the floorboard. Later, Katarina tells her that the man is American and is — was — an assignment: “It’s frivolous, exciting, dangerous.” She says, still, the only person she loves is Masha, and Kathryn tells her she should end it with the American. The dialog is a little clunky here, and I don’t know if it’s because these are two kind of cold cookies, or because the writers are trying to fit so much in. Because there is a lot to take in…

In a different flashback, Kathryn comes back from a walk to find police at the house and Katarina inside packing. Masha was abducted: “I started pulling away; we couldn’t continue the way we were. He didn’t take it well.” Kathryn asks if the man did it to hurt her, and Katarina says that’s not it — he thinks Masha is his. Katarina doesn’t know whether she is or not; she never found out: “I didn’t want to; it didn’t matter! I was never going to end up with Raymond.” She knows he’s taking Masha to America, and she’ll have to go after him on her own. “Not on your own,” Kate tells her

Between all these flashbacks, we get quick glimpses into what Mr. Kaplan is up to in the present. She’s checking into a motel with a Texas license; though she reserved Room 8, they give her Room 7; she makes her way into Room 8, and as a male voice croons, “I Will Survive,” Mr. Kaplan starts feeling the motel room’s wall: preparation to cut right into it.

I should have changed that stupid lock

I should have made you leave your key

If I had known for just one second you’d be back to bother me

In flashback once again, Kate is waiting in a hotel room, watching a news story on TV about a house fire. Katarina comes stumbling in with Masha, both covered in soot and burn marks. She says there were too many people and shouting and cursing, “and Masha…” Well, we know what Masha did. But Katarina tells her in Russian, “It wasn’t your fault. He was a bad man. I love you.” She tells Kate that she has to stay there with Masha and keep her safe until she can return…

Over a week later, Katarina calls to check in. The KGB uncovered her affair, which means U.S. intelligences knows too; she has to leave the country for a few weeks. Kate says she’ll take care of Masha, but Katarina insists that as the family nanny, she’ll be a person of interest to. She tells Kate to take Masha to Sam Milhoen in Nebraska.

Kate does, and Sam agrees to take Masha, all with the understanding that Kate and Katarina will be back for her eventually. But on her next call, it’s obvious that Katarina is calling from a pay phone in Cape May. She tells Kate that she’s “going away,” and that Kate can’t go back to Masha either: “She won’t be safe with you, you know that! I’m begging you, walk away… I love you, Kate.”

And so Kate does. Next we see her, she’s in a bar circling a classified ad for a job at a mortuary. As she looks at a different article in the paper featuring a headline that they’ve called off the search for a missing Russian woman who was seen walking into the frigid waters of Cape May, a lovely young blonde woman comes over to ask if she’s okay. She takes her out onto the dance floor, and Kate tells her that a good friend of hers just died: “I think she was my best friend.” She tells the woman about Masha and how her family was her whole world, and the woman tells her how she’s going to Amarillo to work at her Uncle Niko’s bail bonds business… oh, and that her name is Annie Kaplan.

And in a really lovely series of scenes, we find out that Kate moved to Amarillo with Annie. That they fell in love. That Kate did find herself a mortuary job because she doesn’t mind blood or guts. And that when Kate brought Annie dinner at her office late one night, a man who felt wronged by Niko showed up while they were kissing. Annie introduces herself as Annie Kaplan. “I guess that makes you Mr. Kaplan,” he sneers. And then he shoots them both — Annie in the heart, and Kate in the head. Kate was induced into a coma for three weeks while the minor damages to her brain healed. Annie died before the ambulance even arrived.

In present day, we see Mr. Kaplan leave Room 8 with two suitcases stuffed full of something, leaving behind a gaping hole in the wall. She gets back on the road and calls the man at the ice rink again to tell him she’s an hour out with the final shipment: “Is there room on the ice?”

In flashback, Kate is sitting at the front desk of Little Niko’s when Sam shows up. He says Elizabeth is fine for right now, but that Raymond Reddington has shown up and is saying she’s in danger. And he wants to speak with Kate. And if you were hoping they’d cast a Young Spader, or do some of that crazy Jessica-Lange-in-American-Horror-Story CGI, you’re out of luck. They just let a few shadows do the work. And speaking of work, Red wants Kate to work for him, but she’s in no rush to join forces with a criminal who betrayed his country. But he reminds her that they share a common bond in Elizabeth: “God willing, Katarina’s daughter will lead a private life of quiet courage. But if anyone learns her identity, the only way I can stop the threats from rising is to rise up as a greater threat than all of them.” So that explains why Red became an international criminal…

And why did Kate agree to join forces with him? To protect Elizabeth. Red wants her on his team as “a trusted voice, a cool head, and undaunted initiative in a messy situation.” Kate says fine, with one stipulation: “If you ever put me in a situation where I have to choose between what’s best for you and what’s best for her, I will choose Elizabeth. Every time.”

That seems pretty damn clear! But a lot of time passes between that agreement and the next time we see the pair — Kate has fully transitioned into Mr. Kaplan, and Red is about to turn himself over to the FBI to work with Elizabeth. Mr. Kaplan tells him that it’s a mistake: “You’ll destroy her innocence, everything we’ve been fighting to preserve. You can never undo it.” Red tells her that Katarina’s past is circling Elizabeth, that he “put Tom Keen in her life to keep an eye on her, and he married her.” (Ha!) But Kaplan knows this isn’t just about Tom or Katarina’s past: “This is about your need to control!”

But Red has an answer for everything: “Indeed, I need to control the danger to Elizabeth. I have a vast criminal record predicated on that very principal. It’s time to live up to my mission statement.”

Red’s flaw, of course, is that he forgot Mr. Kaplan’s mission statement. Red’s flaw is that he’s a narcissist who can’t imagine that there’s anyone who loves Lizzie as much as he does. But, as we learned tonight, Kate broke her promise to Katarina not to love Masha, but she never turned her back on protecting her. From the ice rink in present day, Mr. Kaplan accepts a call from Raymond. She tells him, “I realize now I was so wrapped up in helping you build your empire, I lost sight of why I joined you in the first place. Somewhere along the way I stopped serving Liz’s needs to help enable yours.” Mr. Kaplan says that he made her believe they were serving the same interest, but when she did what she thought was right for Elizabeth — Red cuts her off: “It wasn’t best! You almost get her killed, and you betrayed me.”

“No!” Mr. Kaplan and I scream in unison. “I kept my word to you.” She told Red that she would choose Elizabeth over him every time, and when she tried to help her with what she thought was best, he put her down. “For the last two decades of my life, you had me convinced I was helping keep Elizabeth safe. But in reality, I was helping you become a monster.” Red says that they need to talk in person, but Mr. Kaplan has done her thinking, she’s made her plan, and she’s been taught by the best. And she remembers what her father taught her: “Our stories are written in flesh. And I am going to use that lesson to render you powerless.”

And Red, somehow, after all of this, still underestimates Mr. Kaplan. He tells her that his organization is built with concentric construction — castles within castles; it’s been built stone by stone over decades. She can’t get inside. “You forget I was by your side the whole time,” Kaplan responds. “I know what was required to amass your power: who you hurt, who you betrayed, who you killed. More importantly, as your cleaner, I know where the bodies are buried.” The camera pans out to show Mr. Kaplan standing on the edge of an ice rink covered in dozens of body bags—each one sorted and organized, with a story written in its flesh.

Kaplan corrects her last statement — “were buried, dearie” — as, I kid you not, Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walkin'” starts playing. “And I’m going to use them and their stories to put you in the ground.”

And in the understatement of the season, Raymond responds with the line that started us off: “You’ve been busy.”

A Few Loose Ends:

For once, there aren’t that many loose ends — the war has begun; now all we can do is watch.

Here’s a weird thing… I think I’m rooting for Mr. Kaplan? Sound off with your thoughts on all things Kaplan versus Reddington 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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