Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Blacklist Episode 1.12 “The Alchemist” Review

So what would you do if you’re on the run from the authorities? What would you do to disappear?

Well, tonight on The Blacklist, you’ve got your answer- how about a man that can take your DNA and transplant it into someone else’s DNA, with the other person getting killed? Since the other person has your DNA, the authorities will be fooled into thinking it’s really you that had been offed, when in reality you’ll be watching the news laughing at those incompetent fools before crying all the way to bank once you realize how much you paid for this endeavour.

…but hey…what’s the price of freedom?

The episode begins with The Alchemist doing his work. He’s got some busty blonde in his sights, and it looks like they’re going to have a fun time…but what’s this? She’s going to pass out? Dude…she’s totally into you, taking advantage of her when she’s unconscious just isn’t cool. Of course, sex isn’t The Alchemist’s goal- he needs a body where he can transplant DNA to, and this bodacious blonde seems just the right fit.

After the blonde passes out, we cut to a scene where she’s wearing some hideous Dalmatian-inspired dress (that’s the best way I could describe it), complete with really pale skin, some thick lips and jet black hair. Oh, and she just happens to be on a jetliner, with some dude she’s never met before. Understandably, she’s delighted at this occurrence (before anyone raises a quibble, yes that is sarcasm). This man, too, is wondering what the heck is going on, since he’s been transformed into some guy with tattoos (didn’t know The Alchemist was a tattoo artist too) and much tanner skin than he’s accustomed to. However, before the two erstwhile lovebirds can realize what’s going on, they meet The Alchemist, who’s taken- presumably- the aircraft’s only parachute and launched himself out of the plane. We then pan to the lady screaming, the man being dragged out of the plane by the wind created by the door being open aloft and the pilots hunched over their chairs, presumably dead. We then see the cockpit window showing the ground getting ever so closer, leaving little to the imagination about what’s going to happen to that poor couple.

Of course, the savvy viewer will wonder why neither of the two doomed passengers ever thinks to try to grab control of the plane or why the aircraft seems to have just one parachute (how did that pass Federal Aviation Association standards?)…but then we’re reminded that this is a television show and any pretense of realism was shown the minute we turned it on.

Anyway, we then cut to the scene where the Federal Bureau of Incompetents (because the FBI on this show display the average intelligence and awareness of your local village idiot) brief each other over coffee and copious amounts of donuts (okay, I’m exaggerating…there are no donuts) about the plane crash, revealing that the pair that died were really mobsters that have been FBI fugitives for years! The viewer knows better (and, presumably, the viewer also knows that hiring someone like The Alchemist seems useless since there’s no way the FBI in this universe could catch anything other than a cold), so who’s going to be the one to show the FBI what’s really going on?

Oh…it’s you, Raymond “Red” Reddington. The only person on this show that seems to have any kind of clue about what’s going on, and maybe the only character that makes this show worthwhile…but, I digress.

We first see Red meeting with his “people” still trying to find the mole that led Anslo Garrick to the FBI headquarters back in November, with Red pulling up garbage bags upon garbage bags of shredded FBI documents, and, in a classic Red move, he gets his cronies to open each of those bags and piece every last one of those documents together. Red’s minions are understandably overjoyed at this task, but Red isn’t too concerned about their feelings toward the project- he, too, is worried about The Alchemist.

So he meets with Elizabeth Keen inside of a Church and…wait, is he wearing a kippah? So does that mean that Red is a religious man? Or does his arrogance know no bounds in that he believes he’s some kind of “servant” to the LORD in that by targeting all these criminals on “The Blacklist” he’s doing God’s work? Time will tell us…or, as I predict, this whole sequence will be forgotten and four years down the road it will all be contradicted. I don’t trust the writers of this show to be good enough to remember such details down the road when inside their own episodes they miss a lot of details…but hopefully I’m wrong.

Anyhow, Red meets with Keen and explains to her that The Alchemist has ways of manipulating DNA and the teeth of his murder victims so that they can appear to be the fugitives he’s trying to hide. Red doesn’t delve into the process much, only describing some kind of process where one’s blood is substituted for another person’s blood, which seems a bit iffy a proposition if you ask me, but for the sake of entertainment, I let it go.

This leads to the FBI to realize their mobsters are really still alive, so they fly out to Hungary (where the mobster lives) in an effort to catch him. They do that, but for some mysterious reason, decide that locating his wife isn’t important (despite her being a wanted woman too). We see the wife- in what must be the worst Hungarian accent I’ve ever heard (note to the director: the Hungarians have absolutely no relation to the Slavs (e.g. Russians, Poles, etc.)- they’re more closely related to the Turks, so a Turkish accent would have been much better)- confronting The Alchemist, understandably asking him how, despite his work, the FBI found her husband. The Alchemist decides he doesn’t have time for the wife’s questions and shoots her dead, which makes him look to be rather rash in his judgements making one wonder how he had the patience to transform all of his victims…but, again, I digress.

We then see the husband in FBI custody, talking with Donald Ressler. Ressler, as is par for the course in the FBI, is getting nowhere with the husband, who promptly asks to speak to his wife and his lawyer. A frustrated Ressler relents, giving way to the husband’s lawy…wait, what’s this? Is The Alchemist pretending to be the husband’s lawyer? The husband isn’t fooled, but The Alchemist doesn’t flinch- the husband, in a panic, asks for one of The Alchemist’s nicotine gums, which The Alchemist is only too happy to give him. It’s revealed that this gum was really a poison (which raises the question about how The Alchemist can manufacture twelve identical gum pieces and the gum package in time to meet with the mobster husband), and the husband falls dead. It’s here that The Alchemist beats an escape somehow.

Normally, I’d say this is another case of FBI tomfoolery but in this instance it is justified- The Alchemist likely has forged documents allowing him to fake being a lawyer and since the situation really doesn’t call for a thorough background check, The Alchemist can slip by undetected. Still doesn’t excuse the other errors the FBI seems to make on a routine basis on this show, but at least for once one of their mistakes is an understandable one.

Meanwhile, back at the FBI headquarters, the investigation on who the murdered victims really are reveals that the blonde (identified through bone marrow records, which casts further doubt that this “blood exchange” method of The Alchemist could really work) met The Alchemist through a dating website. The FBI’s resident technical analyst, Aram Mojtabi, explains that although the dating profile doesn’t reveal his actual name, it reveals his actual face, which is forwarded to the agents in Hungary.

Ressler sees that the “lawyer” he let in was really The Alchemist, but it’s too late- the deed is already done. The team then digs a little bit more into The Alchemist’s online alias, revealing that he’s really an estranged father to a daughter and a wife that seems awfully terrified of him. The kicker? The daughter, a young girl, just recently got diagnosed with diabetes, which you can bet will come back up once the show is finished.

Despite this nugget of info, Keen and Ressler don’t find much, digging through The Alchemist’s lab but finding nothing but a sheet of plastic paper with some random numbers on it. That’s either crafty of our criminal, or sloppy. I go with the latter- clearly this guy isn’t meticulousness enough to bother cleaning his lab out thoroughly, since you’d think a serial number (as that’s what the sheet of paper clearly is) would be something important to keep hidden.

Then again, maybe our Alchemist is savvy, since our hapless agents run around in circles in their minds trying to figure out what the numbers mean- we hear Ressler posit that these could be part of a bank account serial number. Seriously Ressler? How’d you get your badge? Since when is a bank account serial number printed on a white, plastic-coated, strip of paper in thick black font?

It takes Red- who seems to know crime fighting a lot better than the people actually tasked with crime fighting- reminding Keen about her job as a profiler (which she should have some mastery over after five months on the job) to figure out what the audience already knows. Since The Alchemist is a “lab rat” according to Keen, that serial number is part of a serial number for a microscope The Alchemist bought, which is evidence enough to get an arrest warrant out for him.

The Alchemist is already planning his next move, having invited a young blonde woman out for a “casting call” that we all know is fake. This woman, showing her superior intellect, thinks it’s a wonderful idea to take a ride from a man who only informs her that the call has been relocated- she does nothing to verify that this man actually works for the studio that she’s supposed to be auditioning for.

(Which raises another question- did the actress not drive to the event? Why couldn’t she use her own car to get to the new location?)

Predictably, the woman is on the gurney, affixed with black hair, pale skin and drugged beyond recognition. We then cut to a scene where the aspiring actress is found dead next to a body of a young girl, both shot. This time, Ressler and Keen know right away exactly what’s going on- The Alchemist has kidnapped his family and is on the run- so they try desperately to find him before it’s too late.

How do they find him? Remember when I said the diabetes diagnosis would come in handy later? Well, Aram, ever the intrepid one, informs us that the daughter’s insulin pump has a radio transmitter on it, useful for if it ever gets lost. They use it to locate the family, who stopped at a gas station just outside of town. The result is a standoff with the SWAT team and the now cornered Alchemist, and despite Keen trying to intervene and negotiate the peaceful surrender of The Alchemist, the SWAT team still manages to shoot the criminal in the back. It’s still possible that The Alchemist could live through the bullet wound, though, so perhaps not everything is lost for Keen.

Keen manages to get a list of all the criminals The Alchemist made “disappear”, which she passes on to Red. Red, without looking at the list, puts it into his pocket, which surprises Keen. Red informs her that he’ll have a look at it later, but right now he has “some business to take care of”.

It’s here where we see Meera Malik, alone in a room with Red. Red’s men had figured her out to be the mole based on piecing together the documents the FBI discarded, and Malik believes that Red is meeting her to kill her. The episode ends before we find out her fate.

Another side story in this episode sees Keen’s husband- Tom- get frustrated with Liz’s lack of commitment to the marriage, starting to take things into his own hands. During a baby shower where Liz reveals that she won’t take maternity leave- which, despite agreeing to it, is a sign for Tom that Liz isn’t interested in the marriage, a notion that gets Liz understandably upset- Tom meets “Jolene” (an alias for a person we saw earlier was someone Red was keeping tabs on), who tells him that the two of them need some “spice” in the marriage. She tells him about a photography exhibit where an artist takes pictures of married men while she has sex with them, which Tom founds outrageous. Tom is intrigued by this woman, so, despite his insistence that a photography exhibit isn’t a thing the Keens would go out for, he tries to make Liz go to this exhibit anyway. Liz promises another idea for a date, but, after several failed attempts to have that date- because of her work- Tom decides to go to the exhibit alone, and the storyline ends with Liz bringing home Chinese takeout to an empty house.

Part of this side story has Ressler reconnecting with his estranged fiancé, with his coming to terms with her impending marriage to another man. He can’t stand the thought of them together but he doesn’t want to be selfish, so he tells her that he’s happy for her. However, in a twist that gives Ressler a happy ending, his estranged fiancé tells him that ever since she saw him in the hospital she couldn’t stop thinking about him, so she ended the engagement with the other man. Ressler is flummoxed but delighted, and the two of them proceed to have a happy dinner.

The Good:

-Despite having very weak material to work with, Diego Klattenoff did very well as Agent Ressler. He’s come a long way since the pilot where he was wooden and stiff, as tonight he brought out the emotional nuances that brought his character to life. If only he could get some decent writing.
-Amir Arison was again his quirky self as Aram Mojtabi, proof that he should promoted to series regular soon.
-James Spader, again, was excellent, as his ability to humanize what must be the world’s most vile criminal amazes me. What really shone for me tonight was the kippah, and here’s hoping the show doesn’t shy away from the religious reference- there’s so much narrative potential in having Red be a devout religious follower because it opens so many new perspectives onto the character
-Ryan O’Nan did a good job as The Alchemist, making him smarmy but purposeful as well. You could tell that, despite his questionable morals, The Alchemist still had human motivations, and that was to eventually rebuild his life and rebuild his family
-I did like, despite the fact that “Elizabeth Keen places work over her family” is a clichéd storyline (but, unfortunately, way too common in real life), at least we’ve got an interesting variation on it. Tom is obviously going to stray from Liz, but this won’t be some random affair- Jolene wants something from him, if not from Liz as well, and I’m curious to find out what that is.
-Also, given the above, it’s great to see a law enforcement worker- Ressler- reconnect with his significant other, instead of losing it as so often happens in shows like this. At least The Blacklist shows that it wants to give its characters happiness, even if it is just fleeting.

The Bad:

-Spader, for all his good works, wasn’t featured that much in this episode, which is a shame. Red is really the only reason this show is a hit, and while I like that Keen and Ressler got more of a spotlight tonight, the show cannot forget what drives it.
-Usually, I like Elizabeth Keen because Megan Boone brings out the nuances in her character and makes her a lot more rounded than the writing makes her out to be. However, tonight Boone was flat and it showed. Since Boone and Klattenoff were expected to carry the load tonight, Boone’s average performance was noticeable, derailing the episode a bit. The frustrating part is that both actors have shown that they can rise to the occasion if need be, so hopefully the next time Red gets a reduced role in the episode (which hopefully won’t be for a while) they’ll be up to the task
-I wonder about the mechanics of the crime on tonight’s show. While I do know that DNA can be manufactured and altered, I’m not sure the way The Alchemist does it would work in real life. While I get that he doesn’t likely care about the survival of the substitute, simply substituting someone’s blood for someone else’s blood would cause noticeable complications in the skin (if they have the wrong blood type) and would likely be counteracted by the new blood created by the bone marrow, creating more complications physically. While I appreciate the fact the show at least tried to explain the crime, this may have been a case where “less is more”, with the explanation for how it works being some kind of “novel” project only The Alchemist knows how it works, especially considering that, story-wise, The Alchemist’s motivations were far more interesting
-The bumbling FBI…yeah, this criticism is getting old, but how many times must I suspend my disbelief watching people who are supposedly educated make the dumbest of mistakes? The FBI doesn’t have to be the one solving the crimes, but it would be nice to know that, every now and then, they display the competency that is expected with a job like theirs

The Questions:

-Still not sold on Ryan Eggold’s participation. Tom Keen always seemed to be nothing more than a peripheral character on the show, and, up until now, his presence really didn’t add much to the episodes. Having said that, now that he’s got a meaty storyline to follow, I’m willing to give him a chance to see what he can do on the screen.
-Meera Malik: I don’t like the thought that she’ll be offed, so I’m hoping she gets the Aram treatment and we find out that she’s been framed too, since she’s too good a character (and Parminder Nagra too good an actress) to discontinue. However, if the show does go that route, I hope Malik leads to the real mole, because I’m not sure how much more misdirection I can take.

The Verdict: B-

It was a good episode, all things considered. A lot of kinks still need to get worked out, as the writing is still subpar but, at least, the staff have still shown to be competent enough to have a “sum of its parts” be entertaining despite its flaws. I do also like the narrative potential of Tom-Jolene and it’s great that, for once, someone in law enforcement is reconnecting with their significant other instead of losing them, and, with Malik being involved, the Red vs. the U.S. government arc seems to be in full swing, so there’s lots to look forward to on the second half of the season.




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