Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni
Reader beware: Season premiere spoilers ahead!
Elizabeth Keen: “I need you to keep believing in me.”
The two kiss.
Donald Ressler: “I won’t give up on you. … But I still need to do my job, Keen.
Elizabeth Keen: “I know you do.”
Donald Ressler: “Damn it.”
She pulls his gun and starts to walk away.
Elizabeth Keen: “You didn’t trust me when we first met. We’ve come so far just to end up right where we started.”
Though no one wanted to see their favorite shows cut short last spring when the coronavirus pandemic hit and studios shuttered, the interruption created an added bonus for fall programming. Season-ending storylines are now setting the stage for new tales, essentially promising twice the number of reveals and payoffs over the next seven months.
One of the best story restarts took place last Friday on NBC’s “The Blacklist.” In 42 minutes, fans were given a promising new lead on the true identity of Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader), one of the world’s most-wanted criminals – and the FBI’s best-kept secret weapon in finding fugitives. Agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) finally broke away from “Red” – a man she once believed to be her father – and aligned with her mother, Katarina Rostova (Laila Robins) … who is also a world-class criminal. She abandoned her task force family – but finally made a romantic move on partner Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff).
Liz helped Katarina kidnap her grandfather, Dom (formerly played by the late Brian Dennehy, but recast with Ron Raines in the role). They plan to, ahem, convince him to explain “Red’s” role in Liz’s life – why he cares and will go to great lengths for her safety – and why “Red,” Katarina’s father and Ilya Koslov (Brett Cullen) let Russian operatives think Katarina was N-13. It’s believed the fabled three-letter KGB mole has the “Sikorsky Archive,” an elusive holy grail of government intelligence. In fact, Katarina believes “Red” to be this person, and said that’s why he’s forged a relationship with Liz – to acquire state secrets.
"The Blacklist" (NBC key art)
“The Blacklist” Executive Producer John Eisendrath and EP/creator Jon Bokenkamp recently chatted with BTS about season eight and what lies ahead for the show’s two main stars. An edited Q&A follows. Learn more about “The Blacklist” in part one of this interview.
Q: I wanted to go back to the beginning before we talk about what's going on right now, and I want to talk about the casting. Megan Boone is fantastic; James Spader is obviously a whole ’nother level of talent. But, Megan Boone, when this show debuted, she really was not well-known to audiences. I'm wondering what you saw in her that proved to you that she could be as good as what we've seen on screen. And then, No. 2, I understand that you didn't have Spader on board until the 11th hour. So, what would you guys have done if you hadn't been able to cast him? How would that have changed things?
John Eisendrath: Wow, You're really going back into time machine, there. With regards to Megan, what I guess I would say is that when she came in to audition we never heard of her either. And she was, in her auditions, able to convey a sense of that there was something underneath – like a darkness; there was something that lurks beneath the surface. And at the time, the character was presenting as having very little beneath the surface; as presenting as a very sweet and innocent person caught up in some story that she had no idea what parts he was going to play in it. But we always knew that, down the road, she would have to manifest some darkness – or worry that there was some darkness in her, and that there must be darkness in her if she had some connection to this devilish character in Red.
And I think for me, seeing that, I think, is what had a lot to do with winning me over in terms of thinking that she could do the role as the world grew in the way we knew it was going to.
Jon Bokenkamp: Regarding James, you're right, he was cast, I want to say like, was it three days, maybe, before we started shooting, John? It was very late.
I don't know what would have happened if we wouldn't have cast it; we probably wouldn't have shot or we would have pushed the pilot. I think, if I recall right, there were talks of being a midseason show or something, because we just, we didn't have the cast.
So yeah, we did test Megan first, and we were lucky enough that James came on board. He had a lot of questions, and I remember John and I had a really long, sort of in-depth conversation about the character, who he was, and he made it his own. I mean, he found humor in things that I didn't necessarily think were intended to be funny. He was able to sort of be subversive in a interesting way, and just breathe life into the character – much more than what was on the page.
Q: All right, so something a little bit more modern, last season, the sort of hybrid season finale. It was so clever – it obviously was very necessary with what was going on in the world at the time. What was the genesis of presenting that episode in that way?
John Eisendrath: Necessity is the mother of invention. We filmed have of an episode. We thought that the episode that was the last fully completed episode was not going to be a good end to the season; in terms of the story that was in it, it wasn't designed to be the end of the season. And the one that was halfway done, was a better season-ender. So, we had to figure out what to do with the other half.
Jon Bokenkamp: We originally had talked about we've had comic books that have been done about the show. We thought can we take some of those comics and make them be – you know, shoot the pictures? How would we animate it? That sort of turned into the comic; it was maybe a sort of a graphic novel-style approach to animation.
There are a lot of people who work around the clock, really, to make that work and just to come up with another episode of something that's an hour away from watching news about COVID on TV – some escapism – and hopefully that's what these new episodes are, too: A little entertainment – and much-needed entertainment.
Q: This is obviously not your typical cops and robbers show where you could just ax 10 episodes and nobody cares. This is a very well defined, very interesting story and plotline. And so, having to wrap last season where you did, are we, this season, going to get some of the ideas that you had in mind for that period of time – plus what you had for this upcoming season; or did you tie off last season and you're just going forward? What is the process for what we're going to get with this season?
Jon Bokenkamp: It is true, like you said, what was to be the finale of last season was really big moves. Episode, what was it, 20, 21 to 22, those last three episodes have been reshaped to launch season eight. And so, typically where we're sort of starting a little more flat-footed, this season we have a really great what was to be the cliffhangers; and the launching point of season eight are really big, juicy episodes with some big reveals and turns in them.
And so, yes, and for that reason we start in a rather serialized place. We pick up right where we left off, and we dive right into this sort of story between Red and Katarina and Liz, and the dynamic between these characters – the sort of shifting dynamic between them, and the reveals or the information to sort of draw Liz closer to her mother and to taking her side.
Q: What will we learn about Red this year – and what are the odds that we actually find out who he is?
John Eisendrath: I would answer that by starting with Liz, who, at the end of last season, has made a commitment to not only side with her mother, but to find out the (truth). And her commitment to doing that is stronger and more unflinching than it has ever been. And that is going to force Red into reacting. He and Liz are going to definitely be at odds over Liz's quest. And I think that battle with Liz is going to be one that he probably has anticipated coming for many years, but also probably has (feared) the day of its arrival, because he cares about no one more than he cares about her. And to be more squared in opposition to her is going to be much more difficult for him than it is with any other person that he’s ever come up against.
“The Blacklist”: FBI agent Elizabeth Keen has been torn between Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader, above) and Katarina Rostova (Laila Robins) (Sony Pictures Television photos)
Q: For years, we're looking at this character of “Red” and he is quote-unquote, I suppose, a “villain,” a “bad guy,” a criminal; but because of the way Spader portrays him – because of the way you guys write it – the good that he's done and the comedic elements – it's hard not to root for him. So, I always thought he can't really be a typical sort of straight-up villain. And yet, watching the beginning of this episode, it almost seemed like that's the road you guys were going to be taking – that he would be more clearly defined as ‘the bad guy,” and Katerina would maybe be more well defined as ‘the good guy,” if you will; but then it sort of flipped on its head toward the end of the episode. Is the plan to keep both these characters morally ambiguous and to keep us sort of guessing throughout the course of the season, as to if there is a “good” person, a “bad” person – someone we should be rooting for against?
Jon Bokenkamp: I do think that's sort of a fundamental question about Reddington, right; it's one of the things that's interesting to me about him is that he's a bit of an enigma. People forget he is a bad guy, right. He's a murderer; he has killed countless people; he's a criminal. And yet, he, because of the way James plays him, is very engaging and the kind of guy you'd want to hang out – and fun. And so, I think the show would be an incredibly dark show if it didn't have those elements of humor and sort of whimsy, the sort of lust for life that Reddington has.
It's always been part of the DNA of the show that he sort of has his own moral compass – and I think the same can be said for Katarina. She has a very specific moral compass. If it were her story, and you were watching this TV show about her, I think you would understand why she does (what she does).
I don't think either of them see themselves as ‘the bad guy,’ right. And for that reason, I think, yes, it is complex, and I think both of them are right, and both of them are wrong, in the way they're approaching this. It's a very gray sort of moral landscape. …
That's in terms of sort of the tone of where he's coming from. I think for both characters it's morally gray.
“The Blacklist”: FBI agent Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff) has been growing closer to Liz. (NBC photo by Virginia Sherwood)
Q: It's interesting because here we see Elizabeth sort of turn her back on the FBI. I mean, Harold and them are still wondering if there's another sort of angle she's playing, but she's more or less turned her back on the FBI. And there's a very interesting conversation that Harold has with ‘Red’ about Elizabeth, and the question of who she is, or who she was before she met ‘Red,’ versus who she's supposed to be – and her fate is. I'm wondering, what will we learn about Elizabeth this season in regard to that – in regard to that struggle with the darkness?
John Eisendrath: She goes on this journey to find out the truth and, yes, they will be very concerned for her, in terms of the lengths to which she may or may not be willing to go to get the truths she’s looking for. That is, I think, going to be some great tension.
Jon Bokenkamp: I think that, yes, I think what you're pointing out is a fundamental question about who Elizabeth is, right. Is she going to be consumed by this darkness – and it's the same darkness that has obviously consumed Reddington. I think the question is how much of Reddington has rubbed off on Liz and … it's a fight for her soul.
I know that sounds big, but it is a fight for the core of who she is; and will she be consumed by this darkness – will it change her, or will she rise above it. And I think that's a question for everyone on the task force.
The scene that you're talking about with Cooper, I think is a good one that dramatizes just how much she's changed, because like John said, at the beginning of the show – in the pilot – she was a very young idealistic, sort of innocent, young FBI agent. And the arc that we've seen her take over the past seven and now eight years is one of darkness.
She has changed a lot, and I think we're at the point now where we do get asked the ultimate question of can she rise above this, or does this consume her. And what does that do to the people that she loves, and the people who are the task force that supports her and has worked with her for so long? How will they all survive this? I think that's a fundamental question going into this season: Will they survive this? And if so, what does it do to them? What's left in the end?
"The Blacklist" airs at 8 p.m. Fridays on NBC.
“The Blacklist”: Megan Boone as Elizabeth Keen (Sony Pictures Television photo)