The Blacklist recap: 'The Debt Collector'
“Word to the wise: Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
Red can hear himself quoting Confucius, right? I know he rattles off a lot of quotes and stories, but surely — SURELY — as he guns a man down whom he’s just used to lure Mr. Kaplan into meeting with him, a woman he recently attempted to shoot dead in the woods because she went against his wishes… surely he can see the irony in this statement?
But he can’t see it. Or he won’t see it. Red did dig two graves that day he shot Mr. Kaplan in the woods, and both of them refuse to be filled without a fight. Because Red and Kaplan each still have something to live for: Elizabeth. It is simultaneously admirable, frustrating, and hilarious to observe The Blacklist‘s and its characters’ parallel obsession with Elizabeth Keen. How many people have died to protect this one life? How many times must we be reminded that it’s all for Liz? How many times in the four episodes back since the midseason return must we revisit the recent explanation that Red created an entire criminal network in order to be able to hypothetically protect Lizzie one day?
Perhaps as many times as it takes for the characters to convince themselves that they’re accomplishing their goal. Because the truth is that Elizabeth is no safer now than she was when Red wasn’t in her life, than she was when he turned himself in to the FBI, than she was when Kaplan tried to sweep her away, than she was when Red tried to kill Kaplan for it. That the show is taking this glaring hole in logic and making it less of a narrative flaw and more of a character(s) flaw is smart. It’s the characters of Red and Mr. Kaplan who are so blinded by their love for Liz that they can’t see the havoc they wreak in her life — that she’s literally tied to a chair and has 20 assault rifles trained on her as they argue over who can protect her best, whose love is truest.
To explain his eye-for-an-eye tactics, the Blacklister of the evening repeatedly tells his victims that he’s maced them in the eyes and then locked them in a barrel as “recompense”: a sort of equal repayment for the harm they’ve caused someone else. But recompense also quite literally means to compensate: to pay back in one sense; to make up for something in another. It’s a stretch of the definition, maybe, but it’s starting to feel like Red and Mr. Kaplan’s war circles around and around Lizzie without exactly being about her protection anymore — it seems now to be more about their inability to protect her…
Or at least their inability to protect her together. So which grave gets filled? And when it comes to the game of revenge, can it ever really be just one? We’re going to find out.
THE DEBT COLLECTOR, NO. 46
Let me be straight with you: For the use of Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” to score a flashback to 2002, I could never have given this episode anything less than a B+. That is my high school jam; that is my college jam; that is my extended adolescence jam; that is my jam. (A quick look at the lyrics reveals it could probably also provide some comfort to one Lizzie Keen.) For the kids at a Virginia beach bonfire, it’s scoring a steamy car make out. The young woman tells her suitor she needs to go let her friend know she’s leaving, but when he looks up at the car door opening again to signal her return…
It is a middle-aged man in a raging pair of serial killer glasses. The creepy man sprays the kid in the face with something that knocks him out, and when he wakes up, he’s sitting inside a barrel and he’s paralyzed. The man asks him if he remembers selling a girl named Eileen a cocktail of drugs that she then overdosed on. Well, he did, and she passed out on the beach, and when the tide came, she drowned. And now, her father has tasked this man with doling out the same treatment to the boy who sold her the accidental murder weapon. He’s going to lock the kid in this barrel, position it in the sand under a pier, and as the water washes over it, leave him there to die.
It’s definitely creepy and awful, and made all the creepier and more awful by the fact that 15 years later, Red is calling Liz to tell her that his network of spies has informed him that this Debt Collector has recently been hired to go after her. I immediately thought it was suspect that Red’s spies could find out she was being targeted, but not by whom, but I will admit right here that I did not figure out just what that disconnect meant until the moment of the final twist.
Red and Dembe are currently hitching a ride back to America in the steerage hold of a ship since Red recently murdered his business partner (with perfectly good reason — he had been the cause of the man’s son to be murdered 20 years earlier!), losing him most of his usual European routes. So the Post Office is on their own tracking down the Debt Collector, whom Liz describes as “an avenging angel who’s hired to exact poetic revenge.” And they’re off to a good start, immediately tracking down the body of the young drug dealer who got his recompense 15 years ago.
Because the barrel was sealed so tightly, the body is completely mummified. The medical examiner tells Liz she’ll likely be able to find something in the preserved body that could lead to identifying the killer, but it could take weeks. Considering that the killer is after Liz to exact some mercenary mystery vengeance, they don’t have that kind of time. Red advises that when it comes to death and necropsy, there’s only one person whose exacting investigations cannot be matched: Kaplan, the woman currently trying to destroy him. But they still have one tie that binds…
Red: “Kate, I need your services.”
Kaplan: “Said the spider to the fly.”
Red: “This is for Elizabeth.”
And that’s all it takes. When Kaplan finds out that the Debt Collector is after Liz, she video chats the Post Office and says she’ll help under certain conditions: They have to transport the body to a location where her people will be waiting to transport it again, and they’re not to be followed. So, of course, Samar and Liz tail them in the most obvious of fashions after the body drop. A super weird and great song I had never heard, “One Man, No City” by Parquet Courts, plays as they follow Kaplan’s people all the way to another location, where a prim woman with glasses and a bob comes out to meet them…
And proves to be a decoy. The coffin into which they transferred the body had a false bottom — the body never left the first location, because Kaplan isn’t an idiot. But she doesn’t ultimately hold it against them, presumably because everyone is working together to protect Liz.
Well, almost everybody. Never let us forget about Julian Gale, who, I kid you not, is still weeping over the bodies of the dead criminals Kaplan dug up. Like, not figuratively — Ressler finds him at the morgue crying, talking about how the bodies are talking to him: “They’re saying that Reddington is untouchable.” I remain so torn on this absurd character: On the one hand he exists in an entirely different show and is 100 percent crazytown, and no one seems to notice; on the other hand, just about any time he comes on screen, he consistently makes me laugh harder than I have since Ressler kicked the gnome.
And speaking of Ressler, since he’s been pulled from active duty post-small brainwashing incident, Cooper tasks him with working with Gale full time. Which gives Gale time to get more and more suspicious of Ressler’s extensive knowledge on each of Gale’s new findings. Finally, he takes Ressler with him to a sit-down with Reddington’s lawyer, Marvin Gerard. From their interactions, Gale accuses Ressler of knowing Gerard somehow, and Ressler tells him he’s nuts. “Nuts, or am I just blind to what’s right in front of me?” Gale asks in his most sane statement ever. Ressler slams him up against a wall and tells Gale never to doubt him again. These two have fun!
Kaplan reports back to the Post Office that she found a substance on the body that’s often used to cover up smells in schools. Amar cross-references the research he’s been doing, and they figure out that the Debt Collector is a middle school janitor named Edgar. At Edgar’s home address, Samar speaks with his wife, who’s in a wheelchair — she’s not able to go down into the basement where Edgar keeps his antique collection, but he says it’s very valuable. And indeed, if you call a bunch of body parts floating in jars valuable, then it is a bountiful collection.
Samar is reporting this to Liz on the phone as she packs a bag for herself and Agnes, who’s already been taken by Red’s people to their safe house. For some reason, Liz has no security with her, even though she’s being targeted by a man who has a severed hand collection, so naturally the moment she gets off the phone with Samar, she turns around to a face full of mace.
When they realize the Debt Collector has Liz, Cooper is certain that it must have been Kaplan who hired him, but Red insists that she wouldn’t do that; she is still devoted to Liz. He says all of this from the bottom of a boat, the same place he has been all episode, and from which he has had no trouble communicating. From correspondence Samar finds at Edgar’s house, the Post Office figures out that he was hired by Tyson Pryor. In 2012, Pryor sent out eight letters to eight different college presidents around the country. The envelopes contained only blank pieces of paper… well, blank except for all of the anthrax he had put inside since he was angry about not getting tenure at the university where he was a professor. Ultimately, it was a young FBI profiler who was able to solve the case.
A young FBI profiler by the name of Elizabeth Keen — before she even knew who Raymond Reddington was, other than another face on her place of employment’s special “Do Not Serve This Customer” list. Tyson got a life sentence, but was granted compassionate release to a hospice facility two weeks ago because of his terminal cancer. And now it seems his last wish is to exact revenge on Liz via the Debt Collector before he dies.
Back on the boat, Red seems to be having a bit of a crisis of conscience: “I haven’t loved many people in my life. Kate is one of them. As much as her betrayal hurt, what really hurt is knowing what I would have to do in response.” But that’s the thing Red is turning an ignorant eye to — he never had to kill Kaplan. It was unnecessary. It certainly wasn’t recompense; Kaplan didn’t try to kill Liz; she tried to save her by getting her away from Red. He simply didn’t agree with that tactic, though he understands the motivation: “In the end, she did it out of love for that little girl she swore to protect what seems like a lifetime ago.” And now they’re having the same battle all over again, though it’s much more exposed. The one single mission that brought them together so many years ago is that one thing pitting them against each other now: their devotion to Liz that’s never truly allowed room for anyone else.
Dembe tells Red that though he also loved Kate, “She’s gone too far — all to prove that you’ve gone too far.” It’s an astute argument, but it’s also a cyclical one; now must they go too far once more to stop Kaplan from going too far, who was trying to show Red how he’s gone too far? Dembe tells Red to remember why he did all of this in the first place: “You can’t let Kate destroy everything that gives you purpose. Our work is not yet done. I loved Kate too, but it’s time to end this. Stop her.”
But Red has already called in Kaplan to help save Liz while he’s away, so she’s inspecting the janitor’s closet at Edgar’s school. There she finds a cyberbully, whose life she threatens with a gun in the middle of the hall if he doesn’t take down something embarrassing he unapologetically posted about a classmate, and also keys to a cabin with a Boy Scout troop number on the keychain. She just so happens to drop the keychain, and a middle schooler with a particularly good memory returns them to her and later relays the troop number to the FBI…
And it’s a good thing, because things really heat up over at cabin 14401. Indeed, that is where Edgar takes Liz and ties her to a chair as they wait for Pryor to come claim his revenge. But it’s not Pryor who shows up… it’s Red. And folks, I gasped. I feel like I usually see these things coming, but while I had figured out that Pryor was not who hired Edgar, I did not think Red would have had Liz kidnapped just so he could come face-to-face with Kaplan. And yet, that is exactly what he did. He admits to Liz that he was indeed taking advantage of Kaplan’s love for her, but he sees no other option: “For a war to end, both sides have to be willing to find peace. And up until now, it seems Kate has believed the only satisfactory outcome would be if one of us dies. If that’s true it has to be her.”
Red offs Edgar just after quoting that Confucius doozy to him, and then all that’s left to do is wait for Kaplan. When she arrives, she has more security than Red expected, but he has plenty of scouts with assault rifles in the trees. He instructs them to take aim at her security, and they’re just about fire when Liz decides she’s not a willing participant in all this. She shouts out to Kaplan from her position in the cabin that it’s a trap. Kaplan’s men spot Raymond’s men, and everybody takes aim at their opposing forces. “Hello Raymond,” says Kapan, answering her phone. “Said the fly to the spider,” echoes Red.
Red comes out, and Kaplan tells him he’s proved her point better than she ever could have by showing that he was willing to kidnap Elizabeth to draw her out. Red responds, “The deaths you’ve caused in the name of crippling me have been more than adequate to prove what you’ve become,” which is pretty rich considering that Red tried to kill her, killed his business partner last week, just killed a dude inside the cabin, was about to kill a bunch of Kaplan’s dudes if Lizzie hadn’t warned her, and Gale is probably somewhere blubbering over 86 other bodies Red is responsible for.
But these two just can’t see that they’ve basically become mirror images of each other. Just before he killed him, Red told Edgar he did understand his line of work: “There’s almost nothing as satisfying as revenge. Wanting someone to hurt because you hurt. An eye for an eye — it feels like God’s work until you realize there is no God, and you’ve committed sins for which there is no absolution.” Kaplan and Red are both seeking absolution in each other that won’t come. The best they can hope for is truth, and when Liz gets out of her restraints and makes her way outside, it’s time for Kaplan to share hers: She cannot coexist with Raymond Reddington any longer.
Which seems pretty final, but it’s not the end yet, because suddenly the FBI is pulling up, guns drawn, and there are three different armed sides facing off. And that’s all fine and good until we’re suddenly seeing the scene through a pair of binoculars that belong to Gale, and homeboy straight up pulls out a rifle, gets Red in his crosshairs, and shoots! Of course he misses, because snaps in sanity don’t always equal good aim, but it throws the entire scene into chaos. All three sides are shooting at each other, everyone is taking cover, and in the hubbub, Mr. Kaplan and Red both get away.
Later, Liz tells Red on the phone that even though Mr. Kaplan said her truth was that they can’t coexist, she hopes that can change. Red says he’s found that people rarely change: “And when they do, they’re not to be trusted.”
A Few Loose Ends:
- I dunno Red, now might be a great time for a little soul-searching and moral-compass upgrades!
- Because I’m interested in what the show is doing with Red and Kaplan’s ignorance to their own sins when it comes to protecting Lizzie, but also… they’re both rapidly becoming unforgivable, single-minded vengeance monsters.
- The phrase “her/his/my/your truth” got tossed around more in this episode than in a week-long amateur yoga retreat.
- Don’t think I didn’t spot — and love — that full velour suit in the 2002 flashback.
- Unless Red is a stone-cold idiot, I don’t buy at all that he would risk another “yes, kidnap her, but make sure you don’t hurt her, okay you raging sociopath?” incident, considering last week’s reveal about his business partner’s son.
- It seemed like no one saw who it was who shot the first bullet, but… we can all agree that Gale’s completely snapped and someone needs to protect Ressler, right?
James Spader is Raymond "Red" Reddington, a mastermind criminal who teams up with the FBI.