SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Dr. Hans Koehler” and “The Corsican,” the two-part Season 6 “Blacklist” premiere.
When “The Blacklist” wrapped its deadly fifth season last spring, it did so with the reveal that the real Raymond Reddington is dead, and the man claiming to be him (James Spader) is an impostor. As revealed in two-part Season 6 premiere, “Dr. Hans Koehler” and “The Corsican,” that left Red’s daughters, Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) and the newly introduced character Lillian/Jennifer (Fiona Dourif), in a conspiring tailspin.
While the duo feared for their lives as they investigated “Red” in the first part, by the end of the second part they had executed a secret plan that resulted in one of the world’s most wanted men being arrested while buying a pretzel.
Heading into the rest of the season, that arrest continues to affect not only the task force, but also the relationship between Red and Keen, as the former launches an investigation into who turned him in. According to creator and executive producer Jon Bokenkamp, Red in jail is “totally unchartered waters” for both the character and the show.
Here, Variety speaks with Bokenkamp about how the arrest affects the show’s format, how much of the overall plan creatives have currently nailed down, and when some of the upcoming big reveals might happen.
When did you first decide Red was heading to jail?
Very early this season. We didn’t know that’s where things would go at the end of last season, but it felt like such an organic direction for the show to take. And also, weirdly, it’s completely new territory for us. We’re so used to seeing Red in dangerous and unexpected situations — well, here’s one of the most dangerous and unexpected of all. He’s sort of stripped of his super powers and he finds himself in a very unexpected place.
This is a guy that always has a contingency plan. Does he have one here or was that attempted bribe it?
That bribe was it. Genuinely, there is no map of how to get out of this one that he is ready to pull out of his suit pocket. That doesn’t mean he’s not going to try, and it does accelerate the urgency for a plan. But no, he is caught off-guard by this. This is totally unchartered waters for this character.
With Red in jail, what happens to the task force?
Remember at this point the task force doesn’t know that Elizabeth Keen turned him in. They don’t know why she turned him in. They don’t even know that Red is not Red. So, we’re going to get to watch the task force catch up to this and have very specific, very different opinions about how they should proceed, how to move forward and what this means. By the way, the task force is not likely going to say, “Oh guess what, you shouldn’t have put Red in prison because he’s been working with the U.S. government for the past five years.” So this would probably be on the menu of things to come that is going to complicate things further.
What does this mean for the show’s procedural format?
One of the things I’m really proud of is we have some of our best cases of the week stories in Season 6. We’ve got really unusual and unexpected people that you wouldn’t see on other shows. So, the case of the week is still very much a part of the DNA of the show. At the beginning of the season and the end of the season we often become a bit more serialized as we’re unpacking reveals and pieces of the mythology. But people should rest assured the case of the week is still a part of the DNA of what we’re doing.
Is the source of those cases still Reddington?
It’s still Reddington. Why he does that may have shifted. Why he’s giving us cases and his real agenda is something that is always suspect enough to question. But yes. Just because he’s locked up in a cell doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have an incredible breadth of knowledge and resources in terms of people who have either betrayed him or who need to be checked off the list. The list remains strong. … One of the things that is important to point out is that more important to Reddington than being in jail is finding out who betrayed him. That weighs more heavily on him than surviving prison. Finding out who would turn him in and cross him in such a deep way is the promise of the season.
What is it about Jennifer that Keen is siding with here?
Remember, Jennifer and Liz are sisters. They come from very different backgrounds and they have different mothers, but the one thing they share is that Raymond Reddington was their father. They have both been incredibly betrayed and this unites them. Liz is wise enough to know that this decision to turn in Red is a significant one. Megan did a great job of playing how complex that was at the end of the episode. Like Red, she is more concerned about the consequences of the betrayal than him navigating prison and what that does for our two leads really puts them in a new dynamic.
What kind of a timeline are you playing with for the upcoming trial?
It unfolds… We’ll get there. There are some prison stories that are important and first on the list, but yes, ultimately the legal proceedings of the world’s most wanted criminal being arrested while buying a pretzel become incredibly important, and I do think that one of the promises of this season is watching Spader play those scenes. Raymond Reddington would certainly have fun having a soap box to stand on in the courtroom and we will certainly take advantage of that.
Having previously said you like painting yourselves into corners, do you have the season’s endpoint in mind yet?
It is still unfolding, and yes we love painting ourselves in corners. Red in jail is certainly one of those. We have answers. We have a list of endings, but we haven’t landed on which one, or how far we want to go versus how much we want to leave untapped. That’s what we’re still talking about. In terms of where it goes, the direction, there’s a very clear map that gives us all great comfort. But that’s part of it, I think. With every season and also each episode you are listening to it and finding it as you go. We’re having a great time doing that.
Do you know who that man claiming to be Raymond Reddington is, or do you also have a list for that?
We absolutely know. It’s something that I hope an audience member could go back and look at all the stories we’ve told and all the clues we’ve given where even at times it seems like we’re contradicting ourselves. To give you an example, in Episode 8 Elizabeth said, “Are you my father?” And Red said, “No.” Then seasons later we came up with a DNA test that proves Raymond Reddington is Elizabeth Keen’s father. It may seem like we’re contradicting ourselves, but what we had not yet revealed is that yes, Reddington is Keen’s father, but the man we know as Reddington is just not Raymond Reddington. There is a winding path and a map that we’re on that is sort of our guiding force. It would be very difficult to tell this story without that. You have to work to unpack a story like this.
Do you have a family tree to help you keep track?
Yes. Yes, there is. It’s not only a family tree, but there are bibles, there are documents, and there are a lot of very smart writers who have a deep mythology embedded in their brains. We oftentimes go to them to make sure we’re not contradicting ourselves and making sure we’re staying true to the mythology. It’s very important. A reveal like the end of last season, that Red isn’t Red? Rest assured that’s not something that we’re like, “Hey let’s try that, that will be fun.” That is something we’ve been working toward for five years and have asked a number of times when it’s the right time to unpack and reveal that. This is that time.
You hadn’t been renewed when you made that reveal, were you nervous to do it?
We had not been renewed, no. It really was with the studio, and the network, and in the story telling that we did have an opportunity to say, “Well, maybe this is the ending and maybe we should play it safe and come up with something that might be construed as a resolution so that if we’re not renewed it would feel like an ending.” But we decided to bet on the story and we bet on the people we work with and are collaborating with to push ahead. It would have been a terrible ending to the series. That’s it. He’s not him and there’s no answer. Everyone involved really felt like it was a good time to bet on ourselves and thank God that paid off.
Is that something you’re willing to do again or do you then go to your partners with a two- or three-season pitch?
It’s always a conversation. One of the greatest challenges is how much to unpack and I think we’ve been successful at times and probably not successful at times. How quickly are we racing towards the finish line? I remember at one point I was convinced we needed to reveal the Red reveal at the end of season one. That would have been a complete and absolute disaster. We would have been off the air within a number of episodes, I’m sure. It’s hard to calibrate and judge that. But I felt confident about it. I felt confident about our storytelling and our fan base and the trajectory we’re on. I really do think Season 6 has some of our best stuff yet and we’ve learned from mistakes we’ve made, but we’re staying true to a really compelling story that’s going to have a really unexpected, satisfying answer when we do get there, whenever that is.
What stopped you from making that reveal in the first season?
My studio partners, who said, “Talk to us in about five years when that happens.” That came from me really not having any understanding or experience in television. I am the first person to admit I am surrounded by incredibly talented people who have done this before. This is my first rodeo so at times I don’t want to admit it, but I need to be told no and to hold off and to restrain my enthusiasm for the great twists we have coming. So, partnerships is really the answer to that.
“The Blacklist” airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on NBC.