The Blacklist recap: This time, it's personal
People are killed by guns on nearly every episode of The Blacklist. But this time, for Raymond Reddington, it's personal. And it's not simply because he saw a young woman with whom he'd made a personal connection be shot and killed in senseless act of violence right in front of him; it's not even because of Red's personal feelings about gun regulations, as it might first seem on the surface. No, it's even deeper than that. This week's Blacklister is personal because the way that Raymond Reddington takes him on offers a clearer look at Raymond Reddington's own personal criminal ethos than we've seen in quite some time on this series.
I've written a number of times in the last few weeks that the back half of season 7 has felt like a return to basics for The Blacklist in many ways. The Blacklisters have still been dynamic, but their ultimate function has been to reveal more to us about the characters we meet back up with each week. Late in this week's episode, after the Post Office has been unable to exact the kind of justice Reddington deems necessary, he explains to the Blacklister he's holding at gunpoint that in his world, the are no laws to hide behind. "You can act in bad faith," he tells this man he's deemed guilty, "as long as you're willing to accept the consequences."
Reddington might be considered by the outside world to be a lawless criminal, but he considers himself to be highly principled. He is a man of great conviction and very little tolerance, which means going against Red's principles and convictions — two highly subjective things, for what it's worth — is mighty dangerous territory. "I object to what you're doing, and I don’t need to convince any court to agree with me," Red tells the Blacklister. "In my world, if I think you're guilty, I just execute a sentence."
Reddington may not subscribe to laws, but he does subscribe to morality, the framework of which he just so happens to have made himself the sole arbiter. Because you may have noticed that our guy's got a bit of a god complex. Which means Reddington can be benevolent to the righteous — and vengeful to the wicked. That's how a scene like the final one in tonight's episode can go from the warmth of Red telling Liz that he finds her perception of right and wrong "increasingly clear-eyed" (conveniently, because they share the same opinion of this particular Blacklister), to a sudden and terrifying chill with the realization that Red now knows Liz has been lying to him.
I wonder what her sentence will be…
GORDON KEMP, NO. 158
And all these existential Reddington reckonings come by way of a chance encounter.
Red and Dembe, looking dapper in tuxes, are on their way to a retirement party that already includes Cher, but still requires a large amount of ice. They stop in at convenience store, where the young clerk is focused on her phone. When Red is unable to get her help with the ice, he asks what kind of tweeting or texting requires so much attention, but when she finally looks up, she has tears in her eyes. Reddington immediately eases up, but it turns out the news is good! The girl, Sophia, just got accepted into college, and she starts happily rambling to Reddington that she has to call her mom because her dad died last year, and her mom will be so happy, and this is so exciting, and…
I immediately write in my notes: DON'T LET ANYTHING HAPPEN TO SOPHIA!
And just as immediately, a sketchy looking guy enters the store and puts a gun on her, demanding the cash in her register while Red and Dembe are in the back of the store. Sophia calmly pushes the alarm button under the counter as she goes to get the cash, and when the guy hears sirens approaching moments later, he shoots Sophia. As soon as Red and Dembe hear the gunshot, they return fire on the man, but it's too late — Sophia is on the ground, dead. Dembe drags a stunned Red out of the store as the sirens draw closer.
And that's how the members of a FBI special task force find themselves investigating the armed robbery of a minimart. But Reddington doesn't need help finding the robber, as he tells Liz: "We killed the man who committed the crime, but not the man I hold responsible for it." No, that would be Gordon Kemp, the head of Fine Caliber Arms International, a 100-year-old gun manufacturer Kemp inherited from his father (gun restrictions, inherited wealth… this episode really has all the fun, casual social issues!). With the younger Kemp's takeover came a new gun, the FineCal9, which Ressler calls "the gun of choice for violent young criminals." It's the cheapest 9mm gun available, and Reddington says Kemp has been flooding already high-crime markets with them, making them readily available and affordable to street-level criminals like the one who killed Sophia.
Cooper questions the Task Force's right to target a company that's not committing any crimes, but Liz points out that it's a crime to sell a gun to a criminal, which Reddington believes Kemp is knowingly doing. After all, the man who killed Sophia had a long rap sheet, so he should have never been able to buy a FineCal9 in the first place. So Ressler and Park track down the man who sold it to him illegally, who is also a criminal with a record.
As it turns out, the seller had his girlfriend with no rap sheet buy 30 FineCal9s at a gun show in West Virginia, which he then sold on the street. And while she would have passed the background check no problem, the fact that she was a 23-year-old with an address in the city who suddenly decided she wanted to "start a collection" with 30 of the same cheap guns should have signaled to any firearm dealer that she was a straw purchaser. Still, Cooper tells Reddington those facts alone aren't enough to convict anybody of anything, and certainly not Gordon Kemp. However, if the same young woman were to buy from the same dealer a few months later and not be flagged, that might actually be something.
And when the Task Force send the woman in undercover at a gun show the next day, they get lucky… sort of. Because Gordon Kemp is attending that very gun show in order to push Fine Caliber Arms' PR talking points following the outcry over Sophia's death. Now, we know that Kemp is an a—hole because even though his PR people advise against it, he insists putting out into the press that an ex-boyfriend of Sophia's allegedly had some gang affiliation, as if that makes her any less of a victim. (He also has a treadmill desk, so, y'know, he all-around sucks.)
At the gun show, when the woman goes to the same dealer and asks to buy 30 more guns, the dealer hesitates because she seems visibly nervous. When she begins raising her voice, Kemp comes over to see what's going on, and even though the dealer seems to be warning him that she might be a straw dealer, Kemp says he doesn't see the issue. "She's a collector," he says shiftily. "It's your job to run a background check, and if she passes, make the sale."
The FBI agents are listening in from a surveillance van outside and decide that this is enough to potentially convict Kemp, so Liz and Ressler swoop in, arrest him, and take him back to the Post Office for not so much an interrogation, but more of a scolding. "Is that your vision for the world?" Liz asks him. "That we only care about human life when the law specifically tell us we have to?" And ultimately, the judge of the hearing that Kemp's lawyer swiftly arranges is kind like, Yeah, the law is all we care about.
The judge calls Cooper into an off-the-record mediation to figure out why he made a controversial arrest with so little evidence. Cooper says he believes they have enough to convict Kemp of conspiring to sell to someone who was prohibited from buying his weapons. But the audio from the gun show is unclear on what Kemp actually said, and most of the other signifiers that Kemp was acting in bad faith would just be assumptions. The judge finds the evidence insufficient to sustain the charges and dismisses the case, which Cooper has to accept. Cooper may have his own morals and principles, but occupationally he's bound by the law.
You know who's not bound by the law? Of course you do — h's already been discussed at length in this recap. It's Raymond Reddington, who asks Cooper what he plans to do about the huge shipment of FineCal9s Gordon Kemp is planning to send to Chicago the next day specifically because demand for guns in high-crime areas goes up after viral shootings like Sophia's. Cooper tells Red there's nothing he can do, because the law says Kemp can ship those guns. "How did Dickens put it?" Red says. "If the law says, then the law is an ass."
You know what that means: RED VS. POST OFFICE FACE-OFF. Cooper knows Reddington is going to try to hijack Kemp's shipment, and legally, that means he has to try to stop it. So while Red works on his hijacking plan, Cooper convinces a very begrudging and still very ass-y Kemp to let the FBI help him, even though nobody wants to, especially not Liz, who is morally opposed to the whole thing. But this is her job, and part of that job means escorting the Kemp shipment to Chicago to make sure Reddington can't hijack it. Cooper assigns Liz to the truck carrying the guns, telling her that Red might have more hesitation with her in the escort, and he assigns Park and Ressler to the two empty decoy trucks they're sending out at the same time.
But Red wasn't anticipating the decoy trucks, so when Dembe gives him the intel that three trucks are being sent out, he calls Liz to ask which truck he should follow. He tells her to stay on the phone through his count of 10 if hers is the truck with Kemp's gun inside…
And she does. Red's team stages a car crash on Lizzie's route, holds her at gunpoint, opens the back of the truck — and there are no guns inside. Cooper lied to her, knowing she might tell Red which truck had the guns inside. And she has the nerve to come into Cooper's office all angry about him not trusting her, which he was correct in not trusting her! Cooper is angry right back, telling her she chose Reddington over them, over her job, and over the law. "Some laws deserve to be broken!" Liz cries back, seeming to realize what she's said once it comes out of her mouth.
"Not by you," Cooper tells her. "Not when you're carrying a badge."
But Reddington doesn’t carry a badge. No, Reddington sits in dark rooms with his gun out and waits to exact his own justice. When Kemp returns home after a long day of not caring about how many innocent lives he's been complicit in ending, there Red is, waiting to tell Kemp it's time to face the consequences of the careless way he puts guns in the hands of criminals. "What consequences?" Kemp asks. "The wrath of men like me," Reddington replies.
As Kemp begs Red not to shoot him, he tells Kemp he recently heard another person plead for her life when faced with a FineCal9 gun. And he understands that it can be difficult to understand a tragedy like Sophia's murder for what it really is until a similar tragedy has befallen you or your love ones. "Well, I'm here to tell you, that's happening to you," Red continues. "About an hour ago, a violent criminal bought one of your FineCal9s in the street for $100, and now that criminal is going to shoot you with it."
We don't see the fallout of the Post Office finding out Red killed Kemp, because something else much more important has been brewing throughout this episode: Ilya Koslov has been seeing the same car outside his apartment every day, and while his wife and Red and Dembe are all sure he's being paranoid, it turns out he's not. Someone has been outside his apartment, watching him. But it's not one of Katarina Rostova's people…
It's one of Lizzie's: the private investigator she hired a few weeks ago. And just as Red is congratulating Liz on Cooper's distrust signifying that she's "a person of conviction and principle," and telling her how much it meant to have her on his side today, he gets the call from Dembe telling him who's been watching Ilya. He looks across the table at Liz, hands her a glass of wine, and they toast: "To being on the same side."
A FEW LOOSE ENDS:
- For the record, Bremley finds out that the P.I. has been working for Liz via board game torture: "The real breakthrough actually happened during Oregon Trail, and then there was such a great feeling of comfort and familiarity during Chutes and Ladders, a real sense of nostalgia!" Poor lady.
- Shortly before he witnesses a senseless murder, Red informs Glenn on the phone that there will be no unplanned Cher requests at the retirement party — no matter how badly he wants to hear "Half-Breed."
- Red makes his initial guess that Liz's truck will have the guns because he thinks Cooper would have assigned them to "the badass in the bunch." You just know she loved that.
- Oh, what will we do with these two?
James Spader is Raymond "Red" Reddington, a mastermind criminal who teams up with the FBI.