The Blacklist recap: The ghosts of Donald Ressler
Some may call it a bottle episode, but I've come to refer to these standalone episodes of The Blacklist — you know, the ones without a number in the title that mostly consist of flashbacks — as something more along the lines of a "mourning episode." They usually come before, after, or during a pivotal death, I think, because it's nearly impossible to see the toll grief takes on a day-to-day — or episode-to-episode — basis.
We know that Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff) has struggled in season 9, following the death of Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), but there's so much about the totality of what he's experienced — what he's felt — that we don't know. At one point, in a very "here's what you missed on Glee" style exposition dump, Ressler fills Keen's headstone in on what's been going around the Post Office: "Dembe's an agent! Aram walked away from a tech fortune, Reddington shaved his head and his new lover is a shaman. Park had a cancer scare because I borrowed her urine for a drug test and it came back with elevated hormone levels." So, yeah, in between all the urine "borrowing," and the time jump, and the rather fluid nature of being an FBI agent as portrayed on The Blacklist, it's easy to lose track of how each of these characters has actually been grieving the tragic, sudden loss of a loved one …
For Ressler, it apparently looked a lot like a Nicholas Sparks movie adaptation (but like one of the darker adaptations). Indeed, there's a bespectacled moppet, a small-town beauty with a secret, and an honest-to-goodness extended metaphor about healing oneself while refurbishing a broken-down car. Is it The Blacklist's most subtle character work? It is not! But if Ressler's reflection episode only resulted in explaining his grief beard — and subsequently eliminating it for good — that would have been enough. But ultimately, it does much more than that.
On the second anniversary of Liz's death, Cooper (Harry J. Lennix) tells a mostly rehabilitated Ressler that they should all try to look forward, not back. But as this episode lays out to us, for Ressler, looking back is imperative to his ability to finally ... finally move forward.
BETWEEN SLEEP AND AWAKE
As it turns out, the night of Elizabeth Keen's death was even more eventful than we realized. After finding Liz dead, Ressler took off after Reddington (James Spader) with the intention to kill him for his hand in Elizabeth's death. But Ressler was driving under the influence, ran into another car, and landed himself and the other driver in the hospital. His continued employment with the FBI was contingent upon a disciplinary hearing that Ressler decides not to go to, skipping town instead, and leaving his badge and service weapon behind as a form of resignation.
Worse, following his accident, Ressler is prescribed Oxycontin, so he deboards a bus in Liberty Falls, Pa. with a new beard — and a newly relapsed addiction to prescription pills. It's not clear where Ressler was headed when he stopped in Liberty Falls, but he never makes it out. While getting drunk and looking to score more drugs, he's beaten up and robbed by some local dealers. Enter the lovely, tenacious manager of the motel where he's staying, whose son, Theodore, is permanently scarred by finding Ressler passed out in the hallway, looking very much like a dead body. (Literally everyone in this episode is given a name except for the motel manager, so I will call her the actress' name — who is fantastic — Kimberli.)
At first, Kimberli tells Ressler he can't stay at the motel if he can't pay — but then, having pity on the fact that he is obviously in more than one kind of pain, she tells him that the mechanic down the road is looking for some cleaning assistance at his shop. When Ressler inquires about the janitorial job, his obvious experience with cars lands him a cash advance in exchange for helping the owner fix up his beloved clunker-with-potential that he never has the time to work on. But when Ressler returns to the motel to share the good news, something odd happens: Kimberli spots a police car outside and tells Ressler he can repay her by not letting the approaching man know that she's there, no matter what.
Ressler dips back into his undercover skills, no problem, stepping behind the desk to act like he's the manager while a cop shows him a photo of Kimberli and Theodore, who happen to be cowering two feet away from the desk. Ressler tells the cop he's never seen the woman or the child in the photo, and the cop leaves, seeming suspicious.
Later, Kimberli tells Ressler that she's not hiding out from the law — she's hiding out from her abusive ex-husband who happens to be the law. Ressler is very much still in the throes of addiction, but his interactions with Kimberli and Theodore are slowly but steadily softening the jaded man up a bit. The bonding commences in earnest when Theodore shows up at the garage with a busted bike tire, and though Ressler insists to Theodore that they are not friends, he simply cannot resist the charm of this Peter-Pan-obsessed child as they share a lunchtime hoagie.
Theodore tells Ressler that Shane the Cop was his stepdad — his real dad died of a pulmonary embolism, and Theodore misses him all the time, but at night, he "meets him at the place between asleep and awake," where they "go on adventures, climb mountains, and explore new galaxies." (The place between asleep and awake is a reference to Theodore's beloved Peter Pan, but it also sounds a lot like lucid dreaming, something that some children innately experience, and that I weirdly once wrote about.) Ressler and Theodore bond over pretending they're okay long enough to hopefully be okay for real one day …
So when Theodore thinks that Ressler isn't going to show up to his Peter Pan-themed birthday party — that sadly has to take place alone in his mom's hotel room because it's not safe for them to get close to anyone in town — he's understandably upset. And then when there's a knock on the door, Theodore is understandably excited, sprinting to open the door for Ressler …
But it's not Ressler — it's Shane the abusive ex-husband. When Ressler does actually show up to the birthday party, he finds Shane attacking Kimberli. Shane pulls his gun on Ressler, who wrestles him to the ground, causing the gun to go off between them. After the police arrive, and Shane's death is ruled self-defense, Kimberli finds out that Ressler used to be an FBI agent. She tells him that if he's looking for a fresh start, maybe that's something they could look for together. And though we know Ressler tells Kimberli that's not something he can do right now, there's a moment in between all the flashbacks, when you wonder if Ressler might be buying flowers for a certain lovely motel manager in the present-day …
But Ressler's not quite done reflecting on the past yet — he's not quite ready to move on.
What he's ready for, two years after Liz's death is to finally visit her gravestone; to tell her goodbye; to tell her how he's doing; to tell her that even though he hated Tom's guts, he's glad they were laid to rest beside one another, because it's terrible to be alone, and he doesn't want that for her.
Finally, as he lays the flowers down on her grave, Ressler tells Keen that he's on his way to Cooper's house. Agnes — the most emotionally stable, magnanimous spy-baby-turned-spy-adolescent in all the land — wants today to be a celebration of Liz's life, not a mourning of her death.
So, Ressler is going over there to eat food, and play games, and maybe allow himself to think about what a celebratory future could look like.
A FEW LOOSE ENDS:
I thought of Dopesick on Hulu many times throughout this Ressler episode, and I cannot recommend it highly enough (although, hot tip: if you're going to binge it, plan to splice in a few Parks and Rec episodes, or the like).
I was actually stunned no one in this Nicholas Sparks cosplay — which to be clear, I really enjoyed, and am rooting to see a return to in the future — was revealed to be a ghost.
"You sure shine up like a new penny." He sure does!!! Goodbye Ressler's beard, we knew ye slightly too well.
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James Spader is Raymond "Red" Reddington, a mastermind criminal who teams up with the FBI.