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Despite its recent rise as a binge-worthy series on Netflix, The Blacklist's more longstanding watchers can all tell you: The Blacklist is a marathon, not a sprint. There are ups, and there are downs; there are miles when it's an easy race to run, and miles when you're screaming at the track about paternity mysteries that have nothing to do with your own life. Is this metaphor falling apart? Okay, just a little longer, then — at mile 22, you may start to wonder why you ever started this godforsaken journey (or in Panabaker's case, "this godforsaken taskforce") in the first place. And perhaps you'll even blackout at the beginning of the final stretch and miss out on recapping the season 9 premiere…

Why, yes, that was a self-burn! But, folks, I was unavailable, and there was nothing to be done except wait an extra week to feast my eyes upon Ressler's new beard (but it kind of looks more like a… large goatee, no?).

Of course, we don't know for sure if season 9 is this Blacklist marathon's final stretch; it feels like it should be. Because for as long as we can remember, the finish line of this race has been answering the flashing neon sign that reads, "WHO IS RAYMOND REDDINGTON?" But the silent part of that question has always been, "Who is Raymond Reddington to Elizabeth Keen?" And now that Elizabeth Keen is gone, most of the motivation to find an answer to that particular question has gone along with her. So, what exactly are we running toward now?

I expected season 9 to feel like an epilogue of sorts — but instead, it feels more like The Blacklist is being restored to factory settings. Yes, the Task Force was disbanded during the two-year time jump between seasons 8 and 9, but right away, Cooper is banding it back together again. So, to us — and to a very confused Panabaker — it's almost like the Task Force Band never broke up at all. They're just taking things all the way back to their roots: finding Blacklisters with the help (and sometimes hindrance) of Raymond Reddington. And first up on the Blacklist Reunion Tour:

THE SKINNER, NO. 45: CONCLUSION

Since I wasn't around last week, here's what you missed during The Blacklist's two-year time jump: Dembe is an FBI agent now, Aram is a tech bro hopeful, Ressler grew a well-earned grief beard, Park is keeping her wildin' out at bay while teaching, Cooper is retired, and Reddington has spent two years in Cuba healing from the loss of Lizzie with the aid of two sort of… gurus? Who are also sisters? Who he's also maybe seen naked? Not sure, but they've helped him a lot!

So, they're also there when Cooper brings the whole gang back together to help Dembe figure out who killed his FBI partner and why. That reunion includes a less-than-willing Reddington, although he really doesn't put up much of a fight, and kind of just keeps showing up places to help. He's the one who tells Cooper that the "S" tattoo on the man who killed Dembe's partner stands for "Skinner," the name of a discreet criminal organization that's been passed from leader to leader — a.k.a., "The Skinner" — for the last 700 years since it was started by a pirate.

As it turns out, this generation's Skinner is a tad less discreet than Skinners' past. He has his deranged little heart set on stealing basically all the microchips in the world — and when Dembe prevents him from doing that, he moves his sights to stealing the Korean proprietary microchip software and kidnapping the engineer who designed it along with his wife and daughter.

After the not-exactly-Task-Force figures this out, Cooper goes to Panabaker — excuse me, Senator Panabaker — to see how she can help them move toward catching this Skinner guy given that only Park and Dembe actually work for the FBI now, and Raymond Reddington no longer has immunity. There's nothing she can do about that, but she does give them access to a li'l office space you may have heard of called the Post Office! Reddington officially commits to helping after Ressler reminds him that the night Elizabeth died, it was because she had committed herself to continuing the work of the Blacklist. "I'm not just here to help you, Harold — I'm here because it's what she would want," Red tells Cooper.

So while the reunited-but-unofficial Task Force sets about looking for the kidnapped microchip engineer, Chen, Reddington sets out to find the last known Skinner, Vincent Duke, and convince him that his successor is a total chump who's about to sink their entire operation by getting caught by the FBI. You see, the Skinners — as former pirates and all — live by a code, and that code says that if two former Skinners agree, they can forcefully remove the current Skinner. So Red and former Skinner Vincent march right over to the assisted living home where former Skinner Alberta lives, bust her out, and prepare to approach a dangerous criminal of their own making about stepping down from his role.

But first, the Task Force has to find him, which they're able to do by locating the engineer he kidnapped. Weirdly, Chen is at work while he's supposed to be fully kidnapped. That's because the Skinner sent Chen to the American branch of his office to steal the proprietary microchip software that he designed, telling him that if he didn't get it, he would kill Chen's family. So, Chen very much steals the software from his own company, and then Aram and Park very much chase him down, and take him back to the Post Office, further endangering his family.

Personally, I thought they were being a little flippant about leaving Chen's family alone with a modern-day pirate this whole time, but to be fair, they are a little out of practice at being FBI field agents and are also kind of just doing this whole job as a freelance favor. So, in their unpaid opinion, the best thing to do is slightly alter the code of the microchip software, send Chen back to the Skinner with it so that he'll free Chen's family, and then send the SWAT team in after Chen (who the Skinner intends to hold onto in order to become the master of microchips).

And that's all well and good until Chen makes his way back with the altered software and finds out that the Skinner hired one of the only other software engineers in the world who would be able to look at the code and realize it's been altered. Fearful for his family, Chen immediately cracks, saying that the FBI found him and made him return with an altered code. With Chen and his family in imminent danger, Dembe, Ressler, and Park are forced to rush into the warehouse where the hostages are being held, knowing they'll be severely outnumbered.

Once they're inside, the Skinner lures them out by shooting Chen's wife in the leg, an extremely dick-ish move that he seems ready to top until…

The Skinner Cavalry rolls in! And listen, I know these are technically bad guys too, but from my observation, the Skinner predecessors seem more in the bad guy vein of our Reddington: they're just in it for the power and the wealth that comes with criminality, and try to avoid all the kidnapping and murder of innocent parties. Which makes it a fairly seamless transition then, when the two past Skinners vote to remove the current Skinner (a turnover that's helped by his henchmen all immediately turning on him because they're loyal to the organization, not to him) and are left with a Skinner vacancy to fill. The next thing we know, Red is getting tatted up as the next Skinner in a long line of Skinners.

After his two-year hiatus, Reddington tells Cooper that the world doesn't belong to the young: "It belongs to anyone with the strength to reach out and take it." And for the first time in a long time, Raymond Reddington is feeling strong. And much like us — he's showing up to finish this Blacklist/Blacklist race out, no matter what it takes.

A FEW LOOSE ENDS

Which is probably a good time to inquire: was Reddington not… imminently dying when we last left him two years ago? Maybe someone invented a cure for his mystery illness in that time, and the writers have just yet to mention it… but I would love an update on that!

"A 700-year-old pirate is claiming responsibility." "Does Reddington know any run-of-the-mill criminals?" It was a killer Panabaker episode — so killer that I briefly thought Reddington was about to make her the next Skinner.

And speaking of, were we to understand that Reddington did give Panabaker the microchip technology in order to get his immunity and the Task Force reinstated? He gave her something, because — oh yeah — Reddington's immunity is reinstated!

What was going on with Reddington telling Park that her "recent freelance work" seemed like "a nasty bit of business?" Why can't Park just keep out of non-FBI-sanctioned trouble?!

"Oh yeah? Well, sometimes rules are meant to be brok—" BOOM! I do love when a bad guy gets cut off mid-rant.

Thanks for waiting patiently for the return of Blacklist recaps in season 9, friends! Let's finish this out in style.

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