By Jodi Walker
October 25, 2019 at 09:00 PM EDT
Sony/NBC
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Somebody call up Spike Lee, because it’s Do the Right Thing time on The Blacklist. For a show with so much gray area — what with our crime-lord-with-a-heart-of-gold-protagonist and all — The Blacklist loves asserting which of its characters are unequivocally good and moral and always do the right thing in the end (hint: It’s everyone but Red!) (recapper’s note: It’s actually only Aram!).

The interesting point that this episode dwells on is that morality is all pretty relative: Only you can be the arbiter of what the Right Thing to Do is in your own life, and that subjectivity leaves quite a bit of wiggle room in one’s scruples. There’s no question that Harold Cooper is a good man, but he’s proven that he doesn’t always make the most morally sound choice. He simply tries to make choices that he can believe in, and more often than not that means protecting the people he cares about and protecting what he believes to be the greater good, even if that requires a few, uh, truth manipulations to, uh, Main Justice.

At least, that’s the Cooper we know today. But he had to get those principles of steel from somewhere

KUWAIT

That’s right, a no-number Blacklist title can only mean one thing: flashback episode. And from our first glimpse of the perfectly cast Ruffin Prentiss, it’s clear we’ll be headed down memory lane with ol’ Coops.

Or rather, Lieutenant Coops, as we catch up with young Harold back in his Navy officer days in 1989. As with most flashback episodes on The Blacklist, everything is very confusing right until it’s not. We see young Cooper driving through the streets of Kuwait City with a fellow Naval lieutenant named Hutton, and they seem agitated with each other. Cooper is demanding to know if Hutton “told them about the money,” and Hutton replies angrily that he had no choice. Suddenly, bullets fly through the windshield, Hutton is hit, and their car is surrounded by men with guns.

In the present, Cooper is telling Liz that he made an appointment with Panabaker because he’s decided he has to tell Main Justice the truth about Reddington’s identity. But before Liz can point out that’s a bad idea, Aram comes in telling Cooper that an encrypted message has come in from an unofficial CIA outpost in Iran: Daniel Hutton, a man Cooper believed to be dead for the last 30 years, just walked out of the Iranian mountains alive, made his way to the CIA outpost, and has asked to speak only to Harold Cooper.

Soon, Red is flying Cooper over to Iran to confirm Hutton’s identity and potentially retrieve him, but he’s none too happy about it. See, Hutton is the reason Cooper and the Real Raymond Reddington first crossed paths 30 years ago. After Hutton’s assumed death, Cooper had to testify about the attack that got Hutton captured — and behind the two-sided mirror, watching on, is United States Navy intelligence officer Raymond Reddington. Though young Cooper testified that he and Hutton were not arguing beforehand, we know, and Red seems to know, that there was more to the story.

In the present day, Cooper takes out a thumb drive that we last saw waaaaay back in the season 2 premiere, when Red handed it over to Cooper saying it was his “only copy of our little adventure in Kuwait.” Red reminds Cooper that he gave the thumb drive to him so he could put the whole incident behind him, “not carry it around like an albatross around your neck.”

We soon find out in a number of flashbacks exactly what happened in Kuwait that only Cooper, Reddington, and Hutton seem to know about. Shortly before the attack from the episode’s opening scene, Hutton was loading boxes labeled “medical supplies” into a truck when one came open, revealing bundles of cash inside. Young Cooper came in about that time, demanding that Hutton close the box and forget what he saw, but Hutton is sure Cooper is smuggling cash over the border. “We’re here to help stabilize this region, not bankroll rebels!” Hutton yells.

And that’s what Hutton and Cooper were arguing about in the car right before the attack. Hutton tells Cooper he told their captain about the money he found, and Cooper replies, “You have no idea how much worse you’ve made this, Hutton,” moments before Hutton is shot through the windshield and dragged off by rebels.

On the plane to Iran, Copper tells Red he won’t look the other way again. “I’ve carried this secret for way too long… I plan to do the right thing.”

And the Right Thing turns out to be getting Hutton back home. When Cooper arrives at the CIA outpost with the help of Red’s Iranian contacts (Red stays on the plane), he confirms that the man is indeed Daniel Hutton. And even though the last time he saw Hutton they were arguing about the fact that Cooper seemed to be a traitor to his country, Cooper still buys Hutton’s present-day story about how, as he was being tortured in captivity for 30 years, he held tight to the comfort that Harold Cooper would never abandon him: “Because you’re honorable… I knew there was only one person I could reach out to, one person who would stop at nothing to get me the rest of the way home.”

Cooper assures Hutton he will get him home, and they get back in the cars with Red’s men to head back over the border. But soon, like a replica of that scene from all those years ago, only with a few more gray hairs, Hutton and Cooper’s car is being attacked, and they’re being pulled out by men with guns. Cooper yells that he’s there on official United States business, and Hutton swivels around and sneers, “They know who you are, Harold… because I told them,” as the men toss him a gun.

It seems that Hutton was held in captivity for decades, but that his capture was arranged by his own U.S. Navy superiors. And Cooper was smuggling cash for the Kurds in 1989, but he was doing it on direct orders from his captain. So when young Hutton went to that very captain to turn Cooper in, upper management arranged for him to disappear. But Hutton didn’t disappear. After years in captivity, he eventually leveraged his knowledge of U.S. naval intelligence and became a feared crime lord himself. But now he’s out of secrets, and he plans to torture Cooper to get some fresh material.

Luckily, back at the Post Office, Aram was able to track the compound Hutton took Cooper to through satellite footage, and Red cashes in the favor he’s owed due to a recent Magic the Gathering win (you heard me!). With the proper coordinates, Red’s gamer friend drops a drone bomb on Hutton’s compound, creating enough chaos for Red, Dembe, and only three other men to make their way in, shoot down Hutton’s men, and retrieve Cooper. Hutton is killed in the process, but not before Cooper apologizes to him for not going back for him all those years ago…

And to be frank: He should be sorry. That was really messed up what young Cooper did! He learned from it, yes, and it’s made him the much better man he is today, no longer willing to just go along with what he’s told is the right thing to do, but it’s still a burden he carries. “How do you do it?” Cooper asks Red on the flight home. “Wake up each morning content to live a lie… put on a face for the world?”

Red tells Cooper that he doesn’t. “I may once have had another identity, but that identity no longer exists — I am exactly who I am.” That seems to be the tipping point for Cooper, who decides not to tell Panabaker about Raymond Reddington’s true identity but hands over the Kuwait thumb drive, offering her the truth about himself instead.

A FEW LOOSE ENDS:

In non-Coops news, the bond between Maddy-the-next-door-neighbor-who-is-actually-Katarina and Liz continued to grow stronger this episode as Katarina managed to scare Agnes’ new nanny away, inserting herself as the alternative, which gives her plenty of access to Lizzie’s home.

And most of my hope that Katarina harbors any maternal love for her Rostova progeny vanished when she got back to her own apartment after babysitting, where her lackey assistant asked her, “Fun times with the urchin?” First of all, rude, Agnes is an adorable Spy Kindergartener! Second, Maddy doesn’t even flinch at her granddaughter being called an urchin, just tosses over her phone to show the new intel she gathered: a photo of the original Ilya Koslov, “the one person who can tell me what I need to know.”

So the Raymond Reddington who is allegedly not Raymond Reddington (and alleged by some to be Ilya Koslov) has a perfectly working knowledge of the real Raymond Reddington’s past with Cooper from 1989? Okay, sure, let’s go with that… for now.

And Reddington’s explanation to Cooper about the very question listed above is, “I know because… I know.” YEAH, OKAY, SURE. LET’S GO WITH THAT. FOR NOW!!!

Related content:

Episode Recaps

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