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‘The Blacklist’ Creator on Season 7 as ‘Small Family Drama,’ Emotional Big Bad

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Louis T. Steinhil (No. 27): Conclusion,” the second episode of the seventh season of “The Blacklist.”

Mommie Dearest is officially back in the picture.

The second installment of “The Blacklist’s” two-part season opener, “Louis T. Steinhil (No. 27): Conclusion,” was rife with cliffhangers and new characters on whom to keep an eye as the seventh season progresses — most notably one Katarina Rostova (Laila Robins). The season’s big bad, who kidnapped Red (James Spader) in the Season 6 finale, moved in next door to an unknowing Liz (Meghan Boone) in what can only be a bid to gain more information about her daughter in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Red decided to keep the vet nurse (Natalie Paul) around in hopes of tracking down Katarina, the Task Force grappled with their newfound knowledge about Red’s identity, and Dom (Brian Dennehy) suffered grave injuries following a shootout that left him in critical condition.

“We’re really positioned with this season to be what is ultimately sort of a small family drama,” creator Jon Bokenkamp says. “The table is set for something that’s really fresh and new for us. We’ve got this father figure of Reddington, we’ve got the former spy and mother, the FBI profiler and daughter and the granddaughter, Agnes. Thanksgiving dinner could be awkward this year.”

It all adds up to what Bokenkamp promises to be the most emotional season of the series to-date. Here he delves into Katarina’s addition, building out the family drama, and maintaining intrigue while answering some of viewers’ more pressing questions — like the Townsend Directive.

This is the first time you’ve opened with a two-parter, does that mean a more serialized season this year?

That’s always been something we’ve either struggled with or gotten bored with or tried to speed up or slow down. There are times in the season where we feel like, let’s just stop with all this serialization; let’s just do a fun case-of-the-week. And then there are other times where we’re like, forget the case of the week, let’s just really tell a great movie, a 90-minute two-parter. It goes back and forth. One of the things I like about the show is that we have the flexibility to adjust. At the beginning of the season and probably at the midpoint and then at the very end, things become more serialized. It would be difficult for us to come in at the beginning of this season after Red had been injected and bagged and caught and abducted and then tell a case of the week. You really got to just be with him and his people. So it changes, but that’s refreshing, and I hope the audience likes the change of pace or that it’s not always a contained thing.

How much does The Townsend Directive play into the season now that you’ve revealed it’s essentially a directive to kill Katarina Rostova?

The Townsend Directive, as you’ve said, is this sort of standing order among thieves, a bounty on Katarina Rostova’s head, kicked in by all the people who are enemies of her. And she has many enemies. The Townsend Directive exists at the moment as more of a specter cast over her and over the show and this sort of looming big bad. At the moment it’s what is fuelling her, it’s important to her. It’s not quite as important to us only to know that she’s running for her life and she has been for a number of years now. But the Townsend Directive is incredibly important and will continue to take up, probably more oxygen than less as we move into the season.

What viewers know of Katarina has largely been told through Red’s eyes, so what kind of a challenge was it bringing that character to life and bridging his fantasy with reality?

One, trying not to give away everything about her. In presenting who she is, we were trying to keep some sense of mystery. One of the first questions was how do we do that? But the thing we tapped into that is unique about her, and it is a bit odd and the audience can see is different this time around, is that it’s incredibly emotional. She’s not a Big Bad who is looking for money or revenge. Well, she might be looking for some revenge, but her history with Reddington pains her. Hurting him pains her, she doesn’t want to be doing this. There’s an emotional component between her and Red and probably Liz and Dom — there’s this whole weird family dynamic that the table is finally set for. It’s different than what we’ve ever had before with any of the other Big Bads. That was both the challenge and what is the most exciting. The questions, the answers that she wants, all are coming from an incredibly emotional, sometimes desperate, sometimes very ventricle place.

Does she have that “mother gene”? By the way she inserts herself into Liz’s life in the cliff-hanger it seems like she will potentially become Agnes’s new nanny?

Well your intuition is good. The fun for us is for the audience to be one step ahead of both Liz and Red. They know that “Mommie Dearest” is living next door. And with Liz having her daughter now home and potentially needing some help, that might introduce some rather disturbing parental situations for any single mother. It’s a dynamic that we’re going to explore in terms of who Katarina is and who she presents herself to be, sort of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Keep in mind Liz hasn’t met her mother. She has no idea that this woman is her mother and she has no reason to suspect anything other than she’s the lovely lady next door. What Laila Robins is able to do — the way she plays between this very serious, dangerous woman and this incredibly sweet lady next door is an absolute blast to watch.

Do you need to be careful in how you approach that storyline with Liz, given that she’s been duped by those close to her in the past?

Yeah. Well she is dealing with a lot in her life. All of this is rather heightened, but keep in mind the father figure in her life is Raymond Reddington and they’re going after these absurd, crazy criminals each week. And so she’s in a heightened state. She has a lot on her plate to begin with rather than say, a school teacher or somebody working at an auto body shop. So she’s got a full plate to begin with. But in terms of how do we keep her ahead? That’s part of the joy of watching this and figuring out when and how Liz does figure it out. We don’t often do it where the audience is ahead, we did it last season where Liz had turned Red into the police and that was an unusual window where Liz and the audience were ahead of Red. We’ve done this a time or two, but not a lot. It’s a fun way to process the show when the audience has just slightly more information than the main character. It makes it a little bit of a different animal.

Now that the Task Force is aware of Red’s false identity, how does that factor into the season?

James Spader said that this Raymond Reddington is far more interesting than the real Raymond Reddington ever was. So as far as he’s concerned, that’s who he is. He’s Raymond Reddington, case closed. In terms of the task force, now they’re up to speed on the fact that he’s an imposter and not only an imposter, but one who has the identity of a former Russian operative. That’s going to present Cooper [Harry Lennix] with some difficult decisions. Cooper is an upstanding man. He’s a moral man. He’s sort of a father figure on our show and he is going to be battling with deciding what to do, what is the right thing to do, can this task force continue. In making that decision and then deciding what the best course of action is he is going to be confronted with a secret of his own. A shared path that he has with the real Raymond Reddington. And we’re going to lean into a Cooper story that will probably influence the decision he makes about what do to with this information. That comes up in Episode 4, I believe.

Can you confirm whether Brett Cullen is back as the mysterious person from Red’s past and for how long?

Well, let’s just say that he’s a very mysterious guy who will re-enter the picture in the first run of episodes and will bring with him some answers that are going to be both surprising and satisfying. He’s going to lay out some truths that I can’t even talk about. But Brett Cullen is coming back and he’s going to be awesome and he’s going to upheave things a bit when he does.

What does Natalie Paul as this new character, Mila LaPorte, add to the mix?

You’re going to see a lot of Natalie in the next couple of episodes. She’s somebody who not only saved Reddington’s life, but she also betrayed him; his life was only in danger because of her. And so Reddington has a very unique relationship with this woman. He senses that there’s something just and moral within her and has an instinct to bring her closer into the fold. Natalie is a fantastic actor and her character has a story that will go to a place that I don’t think the audience will expect.

The other episode-ending cliffhanger involved Louis T. Steinhil (David Meunier), or The Illusionist, not being dead after all. Is he a second Big Bad to the season or does he now become one of those occasional blacklisters?

He’s not a secondary Big Bad, but he’s definitely out there. If you look at our list of blacklisters over the years, many of them are dead, many are incarcerated, and there are a few who are out there and we occasionally bring them back. They’re definitely alive in our minds and that’s a thread we might pull back through the story. As of right now he has walked away but he is very much out there and certainly could come back.

“The Blacklist” airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on NBC.

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