How dark web hacker Rich DotCom became the heart of Blindspot
The script for the ninth episode of Blindspot's first season wasn't working, specifically the "James Bond villain" who the team was up against in the original draft. Creator Martin Gero had a weekend to come up with an alternative, and that's how wild, maverick, dark web hacker Rich DotCom (Ennis Esmer) was born. Rich, whom Jane (Jaimie Alexander) and Weller (Sullivan Stapleton) met at a party, was the criminal in possession of the WITSEC. And the rest was history. The NBC thriller about an FBI team solving cases by exposing corruption through mysterious tattoos covering Jane's body would never be the same, and it was better for it.
Gero's old friend Ennis Esmer wasn't just perfect for the role, it was written for him. Rich is a "coked-out" and meaner version of Esmer, according to the Blindspot creator. Having worked together for over two decades, coming up in the Toronto comedy scene to L.A. Complex, Gero knew what the Canadian actor was capable of and that he'd be a perfect for the role.
With energy distinct from the rest of Weller's team and an ability to mess with each of its members, agent-of-chaos Rich brought a much-needed break in tension. Whether it was collecting gossip, calling out the romantic energy of will-they-won't-they couple Jane and Weller, sparring with fellow tech genius Patterson (Ashley Johnson), or that recurring bit where he forgot Zapata's (Audrey Esparza) name, he brought something out of all the characters. "Basically, my job was to ridicule the formula already existing on the show," Esmer explains, "almost like a proxy for the audience."
Rich was proof that Blindspot could expand the types of stories it was telling, and the characters within it. "He used to be a guy that came in to do two episodes a year," Gero shares. "Those episodes fundamentally pivoted the show to a fun, more popcorn realm.” Jane's fight to find out who she is and the team's rooting out corruption with each tattoo they solved was dark, but Rich's maverick energy meant wacky characters and less buttoned-up stories could work. "The episode was really a defining moment for the series because that type of episode was what I wanted the show to be," Gero shares. "We realized the show could do funny without losing the stakes."
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After his debut, people wanted more Rich, so he appeared in three more episodes through the first two seasons. Rich may have killed two people in his first appearance, but that was shown to be out of character as Blindspot further explored his nature. As a recurring character, he would trick the team into helping him escape custody with valuable paintings, require their help when an assassin is on his tail, and more.
As Rich's character was fleshed out, so was his sexuality. When he was introduced, viewers learned Rich was an LGBTQ character, as seen through his initial flirting with both Weller and Jane. A murderous, mischievous bisexual character is a trope, one Blindspot worked to avoid in his future appearances. Rich’s sexuality came from the character’s desire to experience everything the world has to offer. "He is excited by the world in this way where he doesn't worry about laws, doesn't worry about social norms," Gero explains. "It's just how he is." Esmer, Gero, and the Blindspot team worked to humanize Rich after his murderous start and wanted viewers to get to know him completely. At his core, Rich is a person who says whatever he wants, calls out heteronormative behavior, and is someone people enjoy being around.
Esmer wasn't interested in leaning into Rich's sexuality in a performative way or dulling the edges of his personality, though. “[Blindspot] isn't about Rich's sexuality, and he's not defined by it, but his sexuality informs what Rich does and how he reacts and acts," Esmer explains. A prime example is his relationship with Boston (Josh Dean). Balancing Rich's personality with his loving relationship was important. "We didn't want to soften the edges of their relationship as we explored it. Rich loves Boston, but he is clearly a guy who wants to f— everything," he says. Rich finds himself attracted to some of the team's adversaries, is unafraid to sexualize a situation, and shows jealousy when on the outs with Boston.
Part of Rich’s impact involves Blindspot going from dark thriller to an hour of popcorn action. The show was always meant to be escapist television, which meant a thrilling story about paranoia in 2015, but after Trump's win, a shift was necessary. "Trump came into office and was like a living, breathing conspiracy machine, and so that didn't feel escapist anymore," Gero shares. "We wanted to get towards more of a fun show." Blindspot is still a show about conspiracies, but it became a visually exciting escapade full of international treasure hunts and action-packed fun, losing some of its dark edge. "The show's basic worldview is that government institutions are basically systemically corrupt, but we could do that in a more balanced way," Gero adds.
According to Gero, Rich joining Weller's team and Blindspot as a series regular in season 3 was "the main contributing factor" to the success in that tonal shift. After a two-year time jump with Jane, Weller, Zapata, and Patterson leaving the FBI, they returned at the start of season 3 to discover Reade's new team included Rich DotCom himself. While Esmer admits Rich’s FBI beginnings were more “FBI cosplay,” it was also the beginning of his emotional journey.
The beloved Blindspot pairing of Rich and Patterson was a huge part of that journey. Patterson and Rich had similar skill sets as tech geniuses and she was the comic relief on the team at the start of the series. There’s a version of the show where Rich joining the team encroached on her territory, but, instead, he enriched the character. Rich and Patterson could split the lengthy exposition where they have to explain a lot of complicated information. "It suddenly creates room for both of them to become fuller characters while still doing the actual job of those scenes," Gero explains. Making that even more of a success was the pair’s natural chemistry, which Blindspot used by creating a secret working relationship between the pair during the show's two-year time jump. A new secret partnership that turned into a beloved friendship providing consistent fun-filled energy. "Scenes with [Ennis] felt like playtime in a way," Johnson shares. "The show had some pretty serious moments and themes, and I think it was a nice break to have these Patterson and Rich moments of levity."
Working cases and building relationships with the team changed Rich. Still armed with his wit, he "basically becomes like a weird dad to the whole team" in the final season, Esmer says. Exposing hidden truths to shake them up turned into helping them out — his relationship with Tasha, which began with him not remembering her name, being the best example. He helps a pregnant Zapata as she grieves Reade's death at Madeline's hands and worries about having his child during the final season. "Zapata and I went from not liking each other in this weird sort of Toby and Michael Scott from The Office kind of way," Esmer explains, "to legitimately caring about her and everything she's going through." The change is a result of the team’s impact on him, mixing in a fantastic emotional arc with his absurd weekly antics. "Rich has had the biggest emotional journey because he had the furthest to go," Gero shares. “Over five years he kind of becomes the heart of the show. It’s been the most fun to do that very slowly and very organically.”
"He definitely does grow a bigger heart as the show goes on, which may not be as fun as being a dastardly villain, but it makes sense that a character would evolve that way for sure," Esmer adds.
"This is the character that I think is the reason we went five seasons," Gero shares. Rich made a splash and was embraced by the audience, network, and studio, a positive reception that allowed Blindspot to populate itself with oddball characters like Ice Cream (David Clayton Rogers) and Sho Aktar (Ajay Naidu), and become the show Gero wanted, and television needed to escape weekly. "That ultimately gave us the legs to take us to a hundred episodes," according to the show creator.
"For me, this is the character that defines Blindspot in a lot of ways," he adds.
New episodes of Blindspot, in its final season, air Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.