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How THE BLACKLIST Used a Divide and Conquer Strategy to Become the Biggest Hit of the Season

Warning: Spoilers for The Blacklist Season 1 — including Monday’s season finale — abound.

This past Monday, television’s runaway success, The Blacklist concluded its freshman season in spectacular fashion by slitting the throat of one F.B.I. agent, strangling another, revealing to us the face of soon-to-be Reddington arch nemeses, Berlin, and giving us a new clue regarding the question of how Red and Liz are connected. As we look back on the season, one of the most fascinating things to ponder is how the show managed to stay exciting despite its hefty episode order. Now, on the verge of its second season, we thought it might be a good idea to examine not just what lead to the series initial success, but what kept audiences tuning in week after week after week.

From the moment rookie F.B.I. agent Elizabeth Keen drove a pen into the neck of criminal mastermind Red Reddington in the initial series trailer from last May, audiences were hooked into what was arguably one of the most exciting new dramas of the season. It’s in this excitement, this anticipation of wanting to watch the adventures of Red and Liz play out, that the series’ writers and producers managed to convince audiences into coming back over and over again. How, exactly? By utilizing a strategy of divide and conquer.

Making a serialized drama work in a 22-episode format is damn near impossible without an episodic element to carry the story along when serialized matters are not being addressed. Red’s list wasn’t just a premise, it was how the show divided itself into divisions in order to give new viewers an opportunity to enter the drama free of mythology and watch the story as passionately as early adopters did. Think about the non-Red centric episodes like when Mako Tanida came after Ressler, causing him to lose his fiancé and have his character shifted into a completely new direction. Think about the time the task force went after The Judge; that episode had little to do with any of the series mythology, yet it was still exciting.

Often, and especially when the show returned with “The Good Samaritan” in January, much of Red’s arc would take place outside of any given blacklister’s episode. Red hunted Tom on his own, he enlisted the help of the cowboy on his own, he dealt with the Jolene Parker situation on his own. It wasn’t until Red was in need of F.B.I. resources that he would interject himself into the task force’s investigations. If he didn’t need to be part of a given man-hunt, he wasn’t. While broadcast shows sometimes suffer from mandates that require certain lead characters to appear in every episode, nothing stopped The Blacklist from only using Spader when absolutely necessary. If he wasn’t important to the case of the week, he would show up, hand the task force a name and leave. Not only did this method free up the show’s airtime, it freed up audience members who didn’t have a full grasp on who Red was.

As Keen and the task force kept procedural fans happy, Red and his crew carried the mythology torch. In a broadcast rarity, the series figured out how to play both sides of the coin and ultimately succeed in the end. It would be over-hype to say the season was flawless, every show of The Blacklists’ episode length suffers an occasional hiccup along the way, but it’s not unfair to say the series clicked because, even with the occasional hiccup (the first half of “The Alchemist,” anybody?), the show never lost its spunk, and that has everything to do with how plot labor was handed out among characters. Instead of thrusting everything at the audience in a shotgun blast of exposition, the NBC thriller used targeted sniper fire to keep everything streamlined and only revealing when absolutely necessary. It’s because of this that The Blacklist ended up being one of the most successful dramas of the season.

What did you think of The Blacklist Season 1? Let us know in the comments below.

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97 comments

  • When Red was on screen, it was awesome, when agent keen or any of the rest of them were on screen, could careless. It’s half an awesome show and half a boring, why am I watching this show. She’s terrible and I really couldn’t care less what their connection is. I’ll admit I haven’t seen the last few eps of the season, but I can only hope the non Red stuff gets better. 

    • I didn’t like her in the first few episodes, but in the last few she’s really warmed up.
      I don’t think this show would have been a keeper had it not been for Spader. That said, the rest of the cast has stepped it up to almost meet him.
      Tom is like Malfoy, every time he shows up I feel sick. The actor has really embraced that character in a good/awful way.

    • I thoroughly enjoy her character in the show.  I think she’s a good stand-in for the viewer, representing their part in the case, and trying to figure it all out.  It gives the viewer a “say” in what’s going on…making the audience a sort of an interactive participant.  And, she can kick some ass when needed.

  • Love  James Spader He is Intense, and gripping.
    You just want to know why Red is the person who he is now.   He is a mystery, besides a bad guy, and at the same time so likable, because he can be kind, and compassionate.  It is all that hurt he has bottled up. He is defiantly her father, hope she understood what he meant. James spader needs to win an Emmy for this part.  He is that Good.

  • Well it certainly had its flaws,  I really enjoyed the first season.  I do hope the next season gets into an actual,  solid arc now that we have Red vs Berlin.  Plus,  gimme more of that Spader. Seriously. 

  • I thought this was a terrific show, but not without its occasional hiccups. The interjection of great music to tie up each episode was nice, which had me scoring Soundhound several times. Spader was his marvelous self. But I did not think the finale was as ‘grand’ as some hoped; We know who Berlin is, and sans hand he’s easy to spot and probably easier to subdue than someone who has all ten digits. But he’s still out there, and I thought Season 2 would begin totally anew. And of course, Season 2 will necessarily need to interject romance since our lovely Mrs. Keen is no longer a ‘Mrs.’

    • It’s his delivery..surgical precision..perfect timing of the best dialogue- the best one-liners..flawless diction- I have said it before- I  would listen to him read the phone book.  

      • If you like bobbleheads, you gotta like James Spader. Every line of dialogue he has, he’s shaking his head no or nodding his head yes. And he can’t hold his head straight. It’s always tilted at an angle. He’ll probably need to see a chiropractor during the summer. Megan Boone is boring and a weak character. Too wimpy for an FBI agent. But, for some reason, I watched the full season and will probably be back for season two. Go figure.

  • I have never watched a serial show in my life but The Blacklist was totally amazing.  I too am a James spader fan from way back but think since some of the actorS are fairly new to acting in a on going program they did well.  There is no way the new actors could compare to Spader and that should be a given knowing his acting and even some theatrical work.  Looking forward to next season being as if not more exciting.  Hate they omitted Tom but so is life. 

  • watching the finale when Red was holding the dog I was saying out loud, “don’t hurt the dog, don’t hurt the dog” My husband looks at me and says you don’t worry about the man, just the dog?”  I said he is a bad guy, it is ok.  Then I smacked myself and said “oh yeah it is a show!” lol.  Great season and I am not sure what flaws people are talking about.

  • Good show. Not sure what flaws are there, unless people are trying to sound clever while providing no examples.The cast is a good mix, story ideas interesting, each episode moves along at a fair clip (unlike Hannibal, for example. Another cool show, but it can be a longer hour).The rewatchablity factor is higher than most suspense shows. Will be pretty fun to see older episodes, even out of order.Blacklist is not afraid to evolve some characters while letting others stay pretty much the same, kill off some favorites, keep us guessing because they can.Mr. Spader is his usual self: convincing, all-in, can go from jokes to shooting someone in seconds. Due to newer styles of shows, Blacklist seems to be self-limiting, so we won’t have 9 seasons. More like 3-4.

  • I like the show, but they are going to continue to loose people (probably even myself) if they don’t stop the Socialist-Programming.  

    Three examples I can name (there are a dozen more) are, 1) Picturing the Criminal “dining” with Ted Cruz (talk about an Alinsky-like hit-piece);
    2) the lie about more home owners being killed with their own pistol than stop burglaries (FBI stats show that to be outright false); and
    3) the Government-mandated myth of Cave-Dwellers with box-cutters having the sophistication drive a jumbo-jet through 8+ g-forces and hit a match-stick of a building at 400+ mph… (see Mr. Lear’s affidavit of how absurd that notion is, do a Bing Search on “Lear Affidavit 9/11″)

    Again, there are many others and they all do zero to move the story along and piss-off those of us who are informed and are capable of thinking.

    • Seriously? Socialist views? In case you haven’t noticed the writers can’t help but introduce a little bit of Communism/Socialism simply because of the international characters. BTW, a little grammar might help for those of you who are informed. The word is LOSE not loose and I found the insinuation about Ted Cruz enjoyable.

    • Seriously???? Capable of thinking? You are pissed off because they showed that moron Ted Cruz in a bad light as if that were news. And Socialism doesn’t (loose ) people, for those of us who actually grasp Socialism. BTW its LOSE. Try some grammar

    • Quit hatin! There’salways got to be someonewho has to shitall over the entertainment buisness, andit looks like YOU’RE justanother piss& moaner! It’s a tv show meant to entertain people,quitmaking it something it isn’ ya scrooge

  • Loved Loved Loved the show-Love James and Lizzy and they must get more 007-ee.   Sorry to see Tom die, loved the car commercial-he should have played the whole show in a cool black car in a suit-does he have a twin???   Loveit most when Red goes against the political machines in DC, all scenes Lizzy and Red together, and I hope they go to Russia-to Italy-to Germany and with her partner also.  All things Lizzy and Red being reluctant James and Jane Bonds’, Please go to Europe for some scenes-they deserve to sit on a beach in Manticarlo-run thru the Kremlin, and looks for bad guys in the Vatican!!! and with her ginger partner!!  Red is the Blacklist!!  James Spader is the hunk!!,  needs to stop dressing like a grandpa and show how attractive he really is!!

  • I compare it very much to the X-Files, where we had a monster-of-the-week episodic element and the ongoing Cigarette Smoking Man mythos over seasons.