Arthouse Blacklist wouldn't have the same impact if they rolled the genre out all the time. These black-and-white flashback episodes are a once-every-few-seasons kind of affair. First there was "Cape May" for Katarina, then "Requiem" for Mr. Kaplan, and finally "Rassvet" for Ilya Koslov and Dom. (After that, Elizabeth Keen may have stopped believing in other people's memories as a reliable source for the truth of her own life.) But a flashback episode that brings all those prior episodes together, seamlessly interweaving former flashbacks, new flashbacks, and an entirely new lens through which to view the past, present, and maybe the future - that's a once-in-a-series kind of affair.
Sorry, let me rephrase that: a two-part once-in-a-series kind of affair.
This penultimate episode of season 8 is titled "Nachalo," which means beginning in Russian. Next week's season finale is "Konets": the end. And for a series that so often takes the most circuitous route possible to finally get to the point, this week The Blacklist invited us to start from the very beginning - a very fine place to start.
The episode opens with Liz entering the bunker that Reddington described to her last week as "the epicenter… part of a machine that has been my life's work for decades." The interior looks like your fairly average criminal workplace inside a Cold War-era bunker. People are typing, shuffling papers, moving boxes around. As Reddington tells it, this is all the result of the Sikorsky Archive: those 13 packets of intel given to him all those years ago, which he traded, leveraged, and sold in an effort to acquire "more information, more protection, more authority." All of it comes together to power Reddington's enterprise, to create the Blacklist, and to protect Elizabeth Keen.
But it's that last bit Liz has the most trouble with. She doesn't want any part in Red's enterprise, or his alleged protection. All she's ever wanted is to know the story of her own life, to learn what really happened to her mother. Reddington says he didn't kill Katarina Rostova, but Elizabeth saw him do it - so once again Red tells Liz she needs to forget everything she thinks she knows.
Sony Pictures Television Lotte Verbeek on 'The Blacklist'
And this is where things get interesting. As Reddington prepares to take Liz back to the beginning - nachalo, as it were - everything in the bunker slows to a halt. The workers freeze, the papers stop shuffling, Liz's vision goes black-and-white, and standing just behind her: the image of her mother, played in flashback as always by Lotte Verbeek.
THE CREATION OF KATARINA ROSTOVA
We never really find out how Liz is experiencing this sort of intimate, black-box-theater version of memories from other people. Presumably Reddington is telling her the story and she's so swept up in it that she allows her imagination to take her to the past. But it doesn't really matter. It's artfully done in quick cuts between the past, the present, and most often the past invading the present. And I am here to tell you that by the last five minutes of this episode, I had forgotten that anything outside this story existed. I guess that's how Liz feels all the time.
The past version of Katarina tells the present version of her daughter that she needs to understand her mother's story before she can understand anything else. "The truth, Masha, is that you were conceived as part of a lie." Katarina reflects on a childhood spent under constant surveillance and pressure by her father, Dom, to follow in his footsteps as a spy. Before she could even understand what she was doing, she was carrying out operations, moving intelligence, monitoring dissidents. Her father gave her a handler, who we see in flashback is Ivan Stepanov, who Katarina describes as "a friend."
Dom handpicked Katarina's husband, Constantin Rostov, because he would be a valuable asset to their operation, and he also chose the man Katarina would ultimately be unfaithful to her husband with: Elizabeth's biological father, Raymond Reddington.
THE O.G. RAYMOND REDDINGTON
Though we've heard much of the lore behind the meeting of Katarina Rostova and Raymond Reddington, this is the first time we've seen young Raymond Reddington portrayed on screen - and he looks nothing like James Spader. (In fact, he looks a little like Ressler.) At first we see young Raymond Reddington bumping into Katarina in order for her to begin seducing him during his time at the U.S. embassy in Moscow…
But suddenly he's standing across from present-day Elizabeth. "Hello, sweetheart," he whispers. It's all very "Harry Potter has come to die"/Resurrection Stone vibes, and it is working.
While stationed in Russia, Raymond Reddington had a wife and a daughter back in the United States, but he fell in love with Katarina nonetheless. And then they conceived a daughter of their own, Masha. Dom insisted Katarina have the baby in order to draw her even closer to Reddington so she could continue mining him for intel. So she told Constantin the baby was his, she told Reddington that the baby was his, and she lost more and more of herself every day. But as memory-Katarina tells Liz, "I spent my entire life lying and pretending, but you were the first real thing in my life - so I vowed that I would do what it would take to protect you."
Remember that. It's going to be important later.
THE DEATH OF RAYMOND REDDINGTON
Katarina continued her relationship with Reddington, raising a child together when time, country, and their whole other families allowed them to. But she also continued spying on the U.S. government through him, and eventually he figured it out.
And so Raymond Reddington began spying on Katarina Rostova in return, discovering that she wasn't just your average KGB spy; she was connected to a much larger, much more threatening global network of crime…
"The Cabal," Liz gasps.
Reddington allowed Katarina to steal from him so he could continue stealing from her, gathering enough information to prove the existence of a secret global conspiracy called the Cabal. But once he did, he was in over his head. He fled Russia for America with one thing he needed to protect and one thing needed to protect him: Masha and the Fulcrum.
Katarina followed Reddington to get both back: one thing she swore to protect and one thing that would mean her death were it exposed. With that, Liz unlocks a memory: "We were looking for a Christmas tree - you came and took me to the beach house." The night of the fire, Katarina arrived at the beach house where Reddington was hiding Masha, they got into a tussle as Katarina demanded that Reddington return the Fulcrum, and a knocked-over candle started the fire. When Katarina reveals that she's been setting Reddington up all along to be branded as a traitor to the U.S. government, things truly become violent and Ilya Koslov comes flying in to get Reddington off Katarina. Seeking to protect her mother, little Masha picks up a gun and shoots her father.
With his death goes the location of the Fulcrum, and Katarina's last chance at safety from the Cabal. "The fighting, the gunshot, the death of your father, those flames - I was desperate to erase that night from your memory," Katarina tells Liz. She was the one who attempted to have Masha's memory erased. In flashback, we see her call young Mr. Kaplan and beg her to place Masha with someone unconnected but trustworthy. Liz, née Masha, went to live with Sam as her mother disappeared from her life for good.
"You abandoned me," Liz levels at the memory of Katarina, but Katarina swears she was only trying to protect Liz by going into hiding. Enter the events of "Cape May," all resulting in an attempted suicide that Katarina couldn't ultimately go through with. "I made a promise the day you were born to protect you," Katarina tells Liz. "I realized I couldn't be part of your life, but that didn't mean I couldn't watch over you."
Enter the events of "Rassvet," as Katarina reaches out to Ilya Koslov to help her disappear. But Liz doesn't want to hear Ilya Koslov redux, because she heard it all before from Dom and it turned out to be a lie. "Dom lied to you about who became Reddington, but most of what he told you about Ilya was true," Katarina says.
Ilya did help frame Reddington as a traitor, and as a result concocted the plan to impersonate Reddington following his death. As Reddington, Ilya collected the $40 million they'd set him up to steal from the U.S. government - enough to keep Katarina hidden, and "enough for me to realize how valuable a new Reddington could be," Katarina tells her daughter. (Remember that. It's going to be important later.)
But Liz knows that her mother never knew Reddington's true identity, because if she did, Katarina would have told Liz before Reddington killed her.
THE FORCED IMPOSTER
But as most of us have long suspected, Liz actually never knew the true identity of the "mother" she watched Reddington kill in front of her.
The woman formerly known as Katarina Rostova, played by Laila Robins, enters Liz's memory circuit and tells her that she's not her mother, but she never chose to impersonate Katarina - it was simply her job. She was an asset named Tatiana, assigned by Dom long ago to play the part of Katarina so that he and Ilya could execute their plan to fake Katarina's death in Belgrave, protecting the real Katarina and her real daughter, Masha, from the many people who were after them, like Neville Townsend. (Remember him? If not, it's about time to start.)
Unbeknown to her, Tatiana's assignment was a death sentence - but she didn't die. Her husband did. And Tatiana, who the world believed to be Katarina, went on the run until the day a man named Raymond Reddington heard about what Dom had done to her and swooped in to finance her life in hiding. She was grateful to him…
Until she found out from Liz's own investigation that Reddington knew where the real Katarina Rostova was - and if Tatiana could get to Reddington and locate the real Katarina, then she could stop hiding from Neville Townsend. And so when Tatiana ultimately tortured the truth out of Dom, Reddington killed her in order to avoid that truth getting back to Neville Townsend… because the truth of Katarina's current whereabouts has always presented a direct threat to Liz and her daughter, Agnes.
But Liz still doesn't understand why her mother would have to hide from her. Why would her mother have to abandon her? Liz sounds so small when she pleads with Katarina: "You're not here."
THE CONSTRUCTION OF RAYMOND REDDINGTON
That's when Katarina tells Liz that from the moment she knew she couldn't be there to protect her daughter, she created someone who could: Raymond Reddington. But before she tells Liz who Raymond Reddington is, she needs to tell her why he is.
You see, if she resurrected Raymond Reddington, then Liz (née Masha) would never know she killed him. So Katarina and Ilya constructed their version of Raymond Reddington: "Someone powerful and feared, someone who traded in the very secrets that could help him monitor the danger around you." James Brown's "This Is a Man's World" starts playing as we see a young man in a fedora sporting about town, and ultimately going to Russia to collect the 13 packets of intel that would create the Blacklist... that would create this enterprise... that would create Raymond Reddington.
Katarina's former handler Ivan Stepanov uses Katarina's security clearance, backdates the breach, and forks over the Sikorski Archive to the resurrected Raymond Reddington. Katarina would be blamed, but it wouldn't matter: "Because she was already gone."
"This story is all about you, Masha, protecting you, and your daughter," Katarina tells Liz. To which, Liz counters: "Okay, now we have the why - I want the who. Who is he? Who became Reddington? And where have you gone?" As Liz's fury rises, as she demands the answers she's so close to getting, the word around her starts moving again. We hear Dembe's voice, then Reddington's, and the world as it exists in the present comes crashing back down around her.
Townsend has arrived. Liz never turned off the tracking chip, and he and his men are there, shooting into the bunker…
And just like that, Liz is shot. "You know, it's ironic - you devoted your life to protecting her, and in the end she betrays you," Townsend says, smirking at Reddington as he closes in on them. But Liz isn't going down without a fight (or more likely, without answers). She gets to a gun and shoots Townsend, Dembe overtakes the rest, and the two of them and Reddington are able to make it down a hatch and into into a bunker-within-the-bunker. At which point Reddington informs Townsend and his men via intercom that he chose this little "nest" in Latvia, built during the Cold War, for a very specific reason: "This facility is capable of withstanding a 20-megaton blast… well, not the entire facility."
Reddington lights up the bunker above the hatch where he's sequestered with Liz - who looks well on her way to dying, but not before she gets the answers she's long been willing to die for. And I guess that puts us smack-dab in the middle of this story. See you back here next week for the end.
(Video courtesy of NBC)