This week’s episode of The Blacklist was probably my favorite of the season, which is saying something considering the strength of the season as a whole. All the previous episodes this season have developed Red as an interesting, dynamic, and morally ambiguous character. “Frederick Barnes” was the first episode to do that for Elizabeth. I left the episode feeling much more positive about a character I’d been about to write off as irredeemably doe-eyed and two-dimensional.
That’s not to say, however, that we didn’t get development from Red, too. The episode explored his past and motivations in ways we haven’t seen yet, adding even more depth to the enigma of a man.
We start the episode on a crowded subway, where a man (played by the always magnificent Robert Sean Leonard) chats innocently with a friendly stranger. Everything seems fine, but the audience knows better. Rule one of television: No one actually carries a chrome metal briefcase unless there is something horrible in it. Seriously. He exits the train, and sure enough, the ominous luggage starts emitting some sort of toxin. The passengers all keel over as the lights flicker out. I’m really not sure why an airborne disease would knock out a trains’ electricity, but it makes it all the more frightening and reinforces why I am terrified of trains. Seriously, those things are monstrosities straight out of a nightmare. But I digress.
This scene, and really, this whole episode, is extremely important in establishing the show’s limits. They’re something all freshman dramas have to address. Even on similar shows, the limits can drastically alter how the story comes off and who wants to view it. For instance, Bones will frequently investigate the gruesome deaths of very young children, but you rarely see something that intense on NCIS. With “Frederick Barnes,” Blacklist places itself firmly in the former camp, showing that it is willing to go dark and is not for the faint of heart. As the passengers on the train die, we get several clear shots of both a young child and a heavily pregnant woman among the casualties. It’s intense stuff.
We cut to Elizabeth, who has torn apart her entire dining room in an attempt to remodel over painful memories. Tom tries to convince her to move on without destroying the dining room. They get cute and cuddly and it makes me very uncomfortable because I’m still not convinced he won’t try and kill her at any minute. Luckily, Ressler interrupts the romance with the news of the subway attack.
The feds find video of the man from earlier leaving the briefcase on the train, but can’t get their hands on it because it tested positive for trace elements of radioactivity. They seem to get a break when someone calls the tip line with information, but of course, it’s just Red trying to chat with Elizabeth, who isn’t speaking to him because of the Tom incident. “Agent Keen, I have a tip. You’re a winter, not an autumn. Stop wearing olive,” he snarks. She’s fed up, but agrees to meet when he says he can ID the man involved.
Via Red, we learn that his name is Frederick Barnes and he created chemical weapons for the government until going rogue 5 years before. “If Barnes is now willing to use his work to kill indiscriminately, then he is quite literally the most dangerous man in the world,” Red explains dramatically. I feel like they say that every week and it’s starting to lose meaning.
The doctor at the hospital where the victims were taken explains that they were all infected with a rare vascular disease that usually kills people over the course of ten years as their arteries slowly harden. Ew. However, these people were hit with an extreme killer version that took two minutes and burst the blood vessels in their faces. Double ew. The prevalence of disease has rapidly increased in the last few months, explains the doctor, indicating that someone is intentionally spreading it. Yes, Frederick, we’re looking at you.
Upon learning that a dangerous and illegal substance called strontium 90 was used in the briefcase concoction, Red just casually hops a plane to Cuba and meets with a seller of the rare chemical. Elizabeth turns down the invitations to come along for a therapy session, snapping that she doesn’t care enough about him to be angry with him. Red is still very persistent with his claim that Tom is lying, but wants to move past the fight regardless, and explains to her that “there’s just no fun in it unless you’re there, and if there’s no fun to be had, I’m not interested”.
Perhaps this is a good moment to pause and talk about the soundtrack. I tried to ignore it at first but it’s not working. This is a smart, sassy, and mature crime thriller full of disturbing murders and psychotic terrorists. Why are they playing so much obscure pop music? They aren’t bad songs, but it’s coming off as very CW and it needs to stop.
Elizabeth and Ressler track down Barnes’ old partner, whose son has suspicious veins sticking out on his body. Elizabeth correctly guesses that the boy shares the same disease as the people on the train, and the other woman admits that Barnes’ is the boy’s father. Barnes, unable to get funding for research into such a rare disease, turned to intentionally spreading the disease to find someone with a natural immunity.
Red meets with his contact in Cuba, pretending to want to buy a large quantity of strontium 90. When the contact says he can’t get it for Red immediately, they arrange a deal where the man will contact the previous buyer and buy some back for him. The previous buyer, of course, is Barnes, and Red’s associates easily trace the call to find the suspect. I really wonder how the FBI possibly functioned before he came along. Either the criminals were stupider or Ressler and co. just never got anything done.
Elizabeth and Ressler head to Barnes’ location, a court house where he has just poisoned a room of jurors. In the ensuing chaos, Ressler manages to save one of the jurors, who appears to have a natural immunity. Meanwhile, Elizabeth chases Barnes, but he takes a guard hostage, forcing her to drop her weapon and allowing him to flee.
Back at the bureau, Ressler and the director are not amused, since by lowering her weapon Elizabeth violated protocol and probably cost more lives. The always doe-eyed woman is appalled that they don’t value the hostage’s life, but they’re focused on preventing terrorist attacks.
At the hospital, Barnes sneaks into the survivor’s room, taking a sample from her and then either knocking her out or killing her with a chemical through her IV tube. It’s not really made clear. Elizabeth is forced to call Red to tell him they lost Barnes. “Lemme guess, Ressler slipped on a banana peel,” he responds, but suggests that the survivor is a target after Elizabeth relents and asks him for help. When they rush to the hospital and see that an unauthorized bone marrow biopsy was performed on the patient, they realize Barnes thinks he has found a cure for his son.
This leads to my favorite Elizabeth moment in the whole show so far. She reaches Barnes just as he is about to administer the cure to his son. She tells him she won’t let him stick the untested substance in the boy, but Barnes tries to anyway. And Elizabeth, who has lived only on the idealistic light side for six episodes, makes the tough call and kills him, even though the cure is likely the real deal and without it the boy will die. I love that our innocent heroine is starting to get a little darker, or at least a little less precious.
Afterward, Red angers Elizabeth further by sympathizing with Barnes, saying that he can understand men who are “willing to burn the world down just to protect the one person they care about. When Elizabeth asks if that is directed at her, he responds with a sassy “Aren’t you presumptuous?” It’s almost a very telling conversation, but stops short of actually giving any clarity. She tells him she doesn’t want him in her personal life, but doesn’t get a very encouraging response, so she goes home and shares a romantic moment with her still seriously sketchy husband.
Meanwhile, Red’s realtor has been purchasing a house for him. Not an interesting or extravagant pad like we’d expect the flashy king to want, but a simple middle class two-story home. We learn that this is the home he raised his family in. James Spader is subtle brilliance in this scene as, in his mind’s eye, he watches a young girl play outside the window. He then turns and leaves, saying that he spends every day trying to forget what happened in that place. “This will probably help,” he admits, as the house explodes behind him. The music in this scene is an eerie operatic piece and is much more effective than the pop music.
The primary question this episode leaves us with, of course, is that of the girl’s identity. Is it his daughter? Is it Elizabeth? Is there a difference between those two? I imagine we’ll get more clarity on that in the next episode, which, if the promo is to be believed, will feature the much-anticipated introduction of Elizabeth’s biological father.