The Blacklist recap: The Raymond Reddington line of succession
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Hurt people hurt people — it's a tale as old as time, or at least as old as the study of human behavior. I've been a little perplexed by The Blacklist's season 9 decision to fast forward two years following Elizabeth Keen's (Megan Boone) death, only to then swing back around and repeatedly focus on the goings-on of those two years, however …
I do appreciate that the flashing back-and-forth has offered us multiple lenses through which to view the way that grief ripples through time and space. The grief of Liz's death is big and overwhelming close to the epicenter — when Reddington (James Spader) hit the eject but on his entire life, and in turn, Dembe (Hisham Tawfiq) went into full crisis management mode. And it's more subtle — but just as detrimental — two years out when Reddington is looking for anyone to blame, and Dembe is grasping at any chance to mitigate past sins. (Don't worry, I won't use any more words pontificating on the varying lengths of Ressler's (Diego Klattenhoff) grief beard — there was a whole other episode for that.)
Longtime readers, this is where I tell you something difficult. Before I watched this episode, I was planning to save this news for the Loose Ends section — but something about the hour's Succession undertones and heavy storyline made me think I should just come out with it: This will be my last Blacklist recap at EW. I'm moving into a new role elsewhere, which means that after nine seasons of recapping, I must finally set my Blacklist pen down. And if I had to go out on one episode, I'm glad it was the one that finally saw Reddington and Dembe reconciling in season 9. These two have lost enough to have to lose each other too.
BOUKMAN BAPTISTE, NO 164
Any cold open that features our main Task Force players means we're in for a doozy — and this time we're recounting the moment Elizabeth was murdered from the various viewpoints of Reddington, Dembe, and Ressler, so you know this hour is probably going to stab us in the heart and wiggle the blade around a little.
Now, you don't recap The Blacklist for eight years without holding special space for Raymond Reddington — a space that forgives him for most murders, torture, lying, and general criminality. But I do draw the line at being mean to Dembe. So even in Red's grief, it's been hard to get behind him suddenly deciding to blame Elizabeth's death on Dembe, just because Dembe failed to notice he was being followed. Reddington has spent years reminding everyone who would listen that Elizabeth's connection to him puts her life in constant jeopardy, and now it's Dembe's fault she died because he didn't check his rearview mirror enough times? I don't think so, pal!
Marvin Gerard (Fisher Stevens) echoes this sentiment to Reddington when he visits his trailer. However, the scolding fails to take priority because the thing Marvin is actually there to talk about is the fact that, uh, Reddington's entire criminal operation is under siege. Three of his top men have been captured and killed in the last three days, and Reddington needs the Task Force's help to figure out who's targeting him. As a personal favor, Red asks Cooper (Harry Lennix) to relocate Dembe because he refuses to work with him again …
To which Cooper is ultimately like, I don't think so pal — we've allowed a number of our agents to straight-up murder top government officials here, so Dembe failing to omnisciently prevent Liz's death isn't getting escalated to Human Resources. And it's a good thing because Dembe immediately uses his personal knowledge of Reddington's organization to assess what's going on and figure out the person who will likely be targeted next: Red's only remaining port manager on the Eastern Seaboard. Dembe and Ressler show up at the port just in time for Dembe to spot Boukman Batiste torturing said port manager for information on where to find — gasp — Dembe Zuma.
This is where things get pretty morally rough on our favorite bodyguard with a spirit of gold. As it's revealed over the course of the episode, when Reddington disappeared without so much as a goodbye following Liz's death, Dembe picked up the crime-lord mantle in order to keep Reddington's enterprise afloat. That is, until something happened that Dembe couldn't stomach. Boukman Baptiste was a man attempting to usurp Red's empire, so Dembe put together a team to take him out. Only, Dembe's intel was wrong, and Batiste wasn't alone when they shot up his car …
Batiste's 10-year-old son was riding along with him and was killed in the crossfire. That was when Dembe decided to become an FBI agent, and becoming an FBI agent is how Dembe now finds himself staring at a man he thought was dead. But Batiste actually managed to escape the gunshots and car fire alive, and he's been searching for Dembe to get revenge ever since. As Dembe stares on in shock, one of Batiste's men sneaks up behind him, and Dembe is captured. But with the help of Ressler, Dembe escapes — unfortunately, so does Batiste, and as he makes clear before he disappears, he's not just looking for revenge on Dembe. He wants to get even. Which means capturing Dembe's poor daughter Isabella, who has certainly already been through enough.
With Reddington actively trying to get him fired, Dembe decides all bets are off to save his daughter, and he makes Batiste a counter-offer: this all started because Batiste was trying to steal Reddington's empire, and Dembe was trying to stop him. But in exchange for the safe return of his daughter, Dembe will offer up the names of all of Red's top executives on a silver platter. Batiste agrees to entertain the idea, but when Reddington gets wind of Dembe's traitorous plan …
He's like, yeah, go for it. As Red tells Dembe in earnest when he finds out Isabella has been captured: "I don't want to see you hurt — you or anyone you care about."
Ultimately, Red not only gives Dembe the collateral he needs but sends a team — including Weecha and her tiny, murderous knife — to save Dembe and Isabella when Batiste reneges on his agreement to let Isabella go. And I like to think it's because Reddington simply loves Dembe and realizes that he's perhaps been projecting his own feelings of guilt onto the person he's closest to. But there's also the fact that, through all of this, Aram has been mapping the GPS data from the phone that Reddington lifted off Liz's now-dead murderer, VanDyke — which ultimately reveals that he wasn't following Dembe at all, so someone else must have tipped VanDyke off to Liz's location on the night he murdered her.
So, if seeing Dembe and his daughter in moral peril hadn't swung Red back around to the side of loyalty and leniency, then the reveal that he's been rude to blame Liz's death on Dembe does the trick. Reddington tells Dembe that the letter he secretly gave Liz is water under the bridge — maybe it did bring her some peace before her death — and apologizes to Dembe for abandoning him. Because, in the end, Red and Dembe don't want to fight one another when they know there's a much more important fight to be waged: the one against the person responsible for Elizabeth's death.
A FEW LOOSE ENDS:
It's me, I'm the loose end this week!
It's been a long, weird, fantastic ride, and I'm so grateful to have had you passionate, persistent people along with me. I started recapping season 1 of The Blacklist when I was an intern at EW — if Reddington's life's work was Elizabeth Keen like Dembe said, well then, I was right along with him.
If you'd like to keep up with my writing, please feel free to follow me on Twitter, and I trust that we'll all cross pop culture paths once more in the future.
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