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Jon Bokenkamp on the Mysteries of ‘The Blacklist’
September 27, 2017  | By David Hinckley
 

Jon Bokenkamp, who created NBC’s The Blacklist, knows where his shadowy tale is going. He’s just unsure about a few details like exactly how and exactly when.

“I come from a feature film background,” notes Bokenkamp on the eve of The Blacklist’s fifth season premiere, Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET. “You have to know what the answer is before you start.

“But with The Blacklist, it’s been an evolution.”

Part of the mystery stems from the shadowy nature of the show’s central character, Red Reddington (James Spader, top).

Red is a former FBI agent and master criminal who at the start of the show surrendered himself back to the FBI. He then cut a deal wherein he would lead an agency team headed by Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) to even worse criminals in return for his freedom and the tacit understanding he could continue his business enterprises and maintain the lavish lifestyle.

He also demanded upfront that he work with rookie agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone, left), and over the show’s first four seasons there was a pointedly measured trickle of details on his motivation – which turned out to be that Red and a former Soviet spy were Elizabeth’s biological parents.

Slow-release information, and not just about Red and Liz, has been a trademark of The Blacklist.

We still don’t know the full story of Liz’s husband Tom (Ryan Eggold), who’s as shadowy as Red and returns to The Blacklist this season after a year on the spinoff Redemption.

“There are larger truths to all these characters,” says Bokenkamp, in the tone of a man who has no intention of releasing those truths before their time. “When it is all over, we will know things.

“We have a detailed list in the writers’ room of what remains open-ended. I hope when it’s over that viewers will feel satisfied, and not just over the way Red came into Liz’s life.”

The question of The Blacklist’s final destination comes up because five seasons is a mature lifespan for a TV drama. There have been 89 episodes already, which takes it way past the length of the average feature film, and as happens with virtually every drama on television, its audience has gradually declined.

It’s still a strong show, with a weekly audience of almost 10 million once time-shifted viewership is factored in. But at some point it’s going to wrap up, and the timing of that farewell is one of the X factors to which Bokenkamp alludes when he talks about where it’s going.

“There’s only so much I can control,” he says. For instance, “I don’t know how long it will run. But however long that is, I know there are steps we want to land at along the way, and hopefully we will stick the final landing.” 

Running for five seasons, he says, has also afforded him and his team the “great fun” of developing backstories for regulars like agent Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff, right), tech genius Amir (Aram Mojtabai) and agent Samar (Mozhan Marno, right).

“We have an episode this season that gives us some great insights into how Harold got to where he is.”

The initial focus of Season 5, however, is that after years of private jets and five-figure bottles of wine, Red Reddington is living small.

He’s holed up in a motel, wearing off-the-rack swim trunks instead of a tailored suit. He may not exactly be broke, but viewers will remember that his assets were drained last season by his battle with Mr. Kaplan (Susan Blommaert).

Mr. Kaplan, who was Reddington’s loyal “cleaner” for years, took offense that Reddington shot her in the head and left her for dead. When she recovered, she turned season 4 into an all-out war between Reddington and someone who literally knew where all the bodies were buried.

Red was able to foil just enough of her final plan so she committed suicide, but not before she had killed or exposed many of his allies and cost him his assets.

If you think all this will make Red regretful, suggests Bokenkamp, you haven’t been watching closely. Truth is, the guy’s not miserable at all.

“James has felt all along that Red is as happy in a cave as he would be at a high-end cocktail party,” says Bokenkamp. “He has always moved in and out of different worlds.

“He’s somebody who knows life is short. He lives in a very dangerous place, so he appreciates being alive. He embraces life the way it is.”

The only thing that troubles him, and will continue to trouble him, is what happens with Liz, both her physical and emotional security.

“She’s his Kryptonite,” says Bokenkamp.

The fifth season will also have a lighter tone, Bokenkamp adds, though that can be a relative matter on a show that almost every week introduces a new deadly psycho-terrorist.

“Last season went to darker places,” he says, adding that was another turn that wasn’t in any original master plan. “We knew early in the season that Mr. Kaplan would be the Big Bad. The rest of the story grew organically out of that war.”

Not that Red or the FBI team will ever run out of either enemies or enigmas. Tom Keen, for instance, a character who was originally slated to be killed off both in the pilot and then later in Season 1, may be delivering Mr. Kaplan’s troubling final message to Liz.

“Tom’s story is another one that we didn’t plan,” says Bokenkamp. “But when Redemption ended, we had a place for him to come back. He, Red and Liz are a triangle, and both Red and Tom would be happy if the other one were gone.”

So Red Reddington, another great character for one of modern TV’s great actors, has miles to go before he sleeps. Or swims.

 
 
 
 
 
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