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Do you have a morbid interest in cults? Do you find religious iconography fascinating and a little creepy? Were you swept up in Da Vinci Code fever in 2003? Are you still haunted by Tom Hanks' flopping hair in the 2006 film adaptation? Well then, have I got a Blacklist episode for you!

As far as criminal conceits go, this has to be one of the most elaborate Blacklister plans on record, not so much in the complexities of its heist, but in the nuance of its conception. I mean, how do you even come up with a scheme to emotionally hijack a mundane religious group and then radicalize them to steal religious relics, all so that you can secretly sell those stolen relics for millions on the black market? You'd have to be really intent on not paying for labor to create an entire religious movement instead of just hiring a few lackeys to execute your heists. And that's not even mentioning the custom-made foot pedal our Blacklister was working with…

But outside of the silliness and the Dan-Brown-ness of this plot, tonight's Blacklist episode is all about how the choices we make for ourselves define the relationships we create with others; about how only we can give myths the power to help or harm. With Liz no longer in the picture, there's simply more room for other Task Forcers to get a little narrative spotlight. I can't say it's all working — while I am thoroughly enjoying Ressler's new tight crewneck tee wardrobe, I don't care for his every-other-season regression into getting big mad about Reddington's plays at personal gain that are basically a built-in part of the Task Force's agreement to work with him…

But hey, the guy's going through a hard time; we all act out in different ways, and almost all of them manifest at some point in an unfortunate hair choice. Except, of course, for Aram, who always keeps the hair high and tight, and whose heart will always be bigger than his bank account.

THE SPK, NO. 178

The episode kicks off with a classic cathedral heist. The Prato Cathedral in Italy currently has the Sacra Cintola — the belt of the Virgin Mary dropped during her ascension to heaven, according to medieval legend — on display. But just as the bishop uses his special key to remove the belt from its casing, a crew of thieves is let into the building by a guard who's clearly been working with them. Still, one of the thieves stabs and kills the guard before stealing the belt.

As Reddington tells Cooper, the robbery is the work of the Supremo Prioro Knighthood, "a rather toothless group of religious extremists" that has existed for the last few decades, but only recently started stealing religious iconography and selling it on the black market — and only very recently become violent. And we quickly find out why when Reddington heads to one of those black-market auctions and drops a cool $5 million on Mary's belt just to get a meeting with whoever offered it up in the first place. And when he does…

Boy, is he surprised to find his old frienemy, Robert Vesco — the man who taught Red everything he knows, then swindled Red out of everything he had, faked his own death, and did it all over again in season 6 — is on the other end of this weird religious cult.

Robert Vesco is a fun Blacklsiter in a fun performance from Stacy Keach, which is why it's all the more surprising that he's gotten himself into such a dark and twisted con! I mean, I have no problem with Vesco pulling one over on some zealots, but as he soon finds out, those are really not the people you want to inspire and mobilize, even if it is making you millions. The original criminal concept was to commandeer the leadership of the historic STK extremists under the alias "Giovanni" and convince them that they needed to steal various religious relics in order to stop people from worshipping the past and open their eyes to the kingdom of heaven. Giovanni's followers believe he's destroying the relics, but of course, Robert Vesco is actually selling them for millions of dollars. And, if you can believe it, this simple, fool-proof plan got away from him…

You see, Vesco has a strict no-murder policy (Reddington picked that one up after their mentorship, I guess), and he was disheartened to learn that a man was killed during their Sacra Cintola heist. For the next — and final — heist of the head of Saint John the Baptist, Giovanni/Vesco's men are under strict instruction not to harm any bystanders. But when Vesco isn't overseeing the execution of his plan — Reddington has abducted him and they're already en route to Malta to recoup the money Vesco swindled from Red, obviously — the STK members come up with a different plan. To, uh, blow up the Old Holy Cross Church.

There's one ponytailed man who is the main antagonist zealot, but he doesn't make it incredibly clear what he thinks this destroying the church and killing a bunch of worshipers will accomplish, only that he thinks it's time to escalate their mission. Luckily, the Post Office is hot on the STK's tracks. First, they track down a money transfer from a business manager to the Prato Cathedral's security guard. The business manager says he'd have to check his clients' recent transactions…

Then excuses himself to a shed, and lights his whole body on fire real quick. So, seems like he might be wrapped in something a little stronger than business management. Turns out, his wife also thought something was up with his recent change in behavior so she'd been tracking his phone, and found a building where he went weekly to meet with his little zealot friends. When Dembe and Ressler scope it out, they find plans for the bomb, and quickly get Aram to the scene at the church to see what their options are…

And they're not great! The bombs have been placed under the pews, and the service is being broadcast live since the presence of the head of John the Baptist is such a big deal. If it looks like everyone is evacuating, the Task Force is sure the STK will blow up the church, and if it looks like a tech geek who recently got a huge investment from an angel investor in his proprietary security software suite (more on that later) is trying to remove the bombs, they'll also probably blow up the church. So, Aram does what anyone would do: attaches a GoPro to an offering basket on a stick, and uses it to get the IED's frequency code in order to jam the signal remotely.

As Aram and Dembe are working on that, Vesco and Red are finding out from Cooper that Giovanni's calls for peace did not inspire the religious cult he mobilized to… demobilize. So Vesco heads toward the staging area where he knows his men will be with intentions of trying to convince them to obey him — but he's lost some of his conman confidence. So Red kisses him on the mouth, tells him he's the most "swindling, cheating, double-crossing, beautiful confidence-man" he knows and sends him on his way.

Still doesn't work though! The men take Vesco captive, and Red has to go in there and shoot him out. So much for the no murder rule! Luckily, Aram's plan to jam the frequency works, so there's no innocent murder, at least.

But this is where things get interesting. You see, Ressler has been hounding Dembe all episode about his former allegiance to Reddington, suggesting that he's still working with him behind the scenes. Which is pretty rich, considering that they both work with Reddington, and have for years. And even though Dembe tells Ressler that he's not "auditioning for your approval or your trust," he shows up on Reddington's plane of his own accord at the end of the episode. Red tells Dembe that the FBI will be none the wiser if he just slips off with Vesco to recoup his money in Malta, but Dembe reminds him: "I'm the FBI." And Reddington innately understands that even if Dembe is confident in his own revised loyalties, only bringing in Vesco can help convince more suspicious parties in the Post Office. As Dembe cuffs Vesco, he tells Reddington that he considers this a great act of friendship.

The episode ends with Aram telling Cooper that on the good days — like today — there's nowhere else he'd rather be than at the Post Office, doing good work with the Task Force. So, he makes the decision to have his business partner buy out his share of their software company that just got a huge investment, dedicating himself to that civil service life for good — or as his dad calls being an FBI agent, "a desk clerk." Which I don't love, but as long as it means he's at a desk on our televisions… I can get over it.

A FEW LOOSE ENDS:

  • Okay, if this show refuses to let Aram be rich, I think it's about time they gave him a permanent, satisfying, non-criminal love interest.
  • I also can't help but feel there are more lucrative ways Aram could have reduced his role in the proprietary software that he designed! (Honestly, I was on his mom's side about trying to get on Shark Tank!)
  • When Reddington presents the auctioneer with an additional bargaining chip, as he opens a paper bag, Reddington says, "One of the seven," and the auctioneer looks like he's going to choke. I feel like I should know what black market item "one of the seven" this is referencing, but I can't recall! The paper bag is really small for the Picasso and too big for the Lincoln Pennyhelp!
  • I could have listened to Reddington and Vesco complaining about the frustrations of managing a heist team's egos all episode.
  • As for the bad news, Ressler's prescription pill problem is back, which we find out through a rather extensive series of scenes where he tries to dilute his own urine for a drug test. But Park figures it out and sets her intentions toward keeping him sober — and I wouldn't bet against Park.
  • "As a matter of survival, I make it a point to only enter spaces whose borders I define," is a killer line that Reddington says to Cooper when Cooper tells him that if he's going to have a relationship with Agnes, their time together will need to be supervised.
  • It's made all the more meaningful because Reddington ultimately goes against his own survival instincts to see Agnes. And when Agnes sees Reddington, two years after spending one day together — the last day of her mother's life — Agnes still remembers him as "Pinkie" who sailed boats with her and bought her a popsicle. That should help him survive for a while.

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