Fans have flocked to 'The Blacklist', falling for the unique if idiosyncratic charms of Red Reddington as played so mischievously by James Spader. The show’s huge audiences helped secure sale to Netflix for an impressive £2million an episode, a prestigious post-Super Bowl slot on NBC, and last week its third season was confirmed.
So who is Red, and what’s the appeal? Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington is a former Navy officer turned master criminal who’s been eluding the authorities for decades. The very first episode, however, sees him have a change of heart about his life plan and turn himself into the FBI, offering to help them capture a long list of wrong’uns. Two conditions – his own immunity is assured – which seems fair enough, really – and he will only work with one junior officer, Miss Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), with whom he has no previous connection that we know of. Apparently, she’s just “very special”. So that’s ok, then.
Well, that all sounds like a pretty mixed moral bag before you even start, but Red does appear to be a man who’s turned over a new leaf. However, there was a lot on the original side of that leaf, and we all know how hard it is to change lifelong habits overnight.
Sure enough, from the outset, despite his avowals to the FBI, Red clearly has his own agenda. The very first criminal (Ranko Zamani, played by actor Jamie Jackson) he identifies for the Bureau, turns out to be an agent on the receiving end of Red’s own orders, until that man proves disposable. Another episode, and Red has someone else poisoned (Isabella Rossellini, no less), and yet another finds his culprit forced to take an unceremonious dip in a chemical bath. All this violence can be explained by the needs of the plot, goodness knows the world is better off without these cretins, but there seems to be a delight, almost a fetishist’s relish, in disposing of them that separates Red from some of TV’s other deadly protagonists such as 24’s Jack Bauer. Even if Red does apologise as he locks up a victim’s wife, the civility just makes it all more sinister, somehow.
Never mind that, what on earth is he up to in Elizabeth’s own home? It appears Red has her husband Tom in his sights, and there seems to be more than schoolyard jealousy behind it. If it turns out Red IS related Elizabeth in some way, well, he makes Robert De Niro’s suspicious father in ‘Meet the Parents’ look positively welcoming.
However, when Red’s not doing all that, or sometimes in between his maleficent endeavours, there does seem to be a small cup of valour in his heart, from which he sips occasionally, generally when Elizabeth is involved. When he’s not being brutal, he maintains his own code that he sticks to, behind his decadence there is also great discipline, and he also displays unexpected gestures of kindness to confound and delight his fans. He obviously has access to great vaults of wealth, and yet there is nothing remotely materialistic about him. He is, quite obviously, a psychologist’s delight.
Here’s the thing, though – is it actually important? Does it matter to sophisticated telly audiences of this era whether our protagonist is definitely one or the other? Recent successes would appear to suggest not, on the contrary, that their appeal lies in their moral ambivalence. With 'Breaking Bad’s Walter White, we saw what happened when a character did something bad for good ends. Tony Soprano demonstrated what happens when a character does something terrible to cover up something else only averagely bad. Even more singularly, 'The Wire’s wonderful Omar Little took us down a path of somebody inherently bad who does something good, and finds the poetry within. You get the picture.
Only after several seasons did Walter White’s deeds become just too unjustifiable and, by then, he was like the bad sheep of the family – we despaired but we could never abandon. It does seem as though TV’s extended narrative arcs lend themselves in way films don’t to a rich, unfolding tapestry of an ordinary man’s moral wilderness, and the best actors of this generation are delightedly lapping up the work.
Case in point, James Spader. With many of Red’s wonderful fedora hats from the actor’s copious collection and his own irresistible speech inflections with a bon mot, this veteran Emmy winner has made Red a truly rich source of complicated entertainment, and it appears to be reciprocated. “He has very inclusive tastes. I think he has a great fondness for the strange, and wonderful, and the eccentric,” is how Spader described his character fondly to Entertainment Weekly. Perhaps more revealingly, he also told Rolling Stone, “It can never, ever, ever get weird enough for me.”
So, I guess one day soon we might work out whether he truly dines with the devil, or flies with the angels, that’s if he doesn’t end up swimming with the fishes. But, for now, Red Reddington inhabits a moral maze of his own making, and it makes for marvellous television.
'The Blacklist' Season 1 is available on DVD Boxset and for video download. Here's a taster...