Invisible Ink and The Blacklist

I must have mentioned before how much I love the book by Brian McDonald, Invisible Ink. Not only does it give you raw insights into storytelling, but it gets your thoughts stirring.

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Today I’m reading Chapter 5 on feminine and masculine storytelling. McDonald goes into detail on the possible value of explosions in film and TV, in relation to emotional impact. It just occurred to me how extremely well the show The Blacklist (2013-, John Bokenkamp) deals with this element. In the episode The Decembrist (No. 12) (S02E08), the character Alan Fitch, previously indicated to the audience as a shadow character, finds himself imprisoned by a bomb strapped around his neck.

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Because the detonation time is unknown, Fitch is placed in a secure glass cage while the bomb squad works on the bomb. The same glass cage that was used to contain Reddington in the very first episode. As Reddington is called down to the cage, the two characters seem to have swapped positions.

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Before this episode, Fitch has been indicated as selfish and inconsiderate of others. While in the cage, we learn that he has been married for 51 years, and by the way he states it, loves his wife deeply. We learn that he knows the exact number of people who have died on his watch, how he mourns them, and how he wishes he could have prevented their deaths. He says he’s gone to every funeral. Fitch orders the last man from the bomb squad to leave him to die, because he doesn’t want to cause another death. These statements and emotions presented here turns the audiences perception of Fitch upside down. He is no longer the “bad guy”, but a guy lost in the same situation as other characters.

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Fitch finds himself isolated in the glass cage built to contain threats. He is shown to us as a thought-to-be threat who is unravelling before his death. Previously shown as the antagonist to Reddington, Fitch reveals that he wants to help him. Or, he would rather help Reddington than whoever’s on the other side. As detonation approaches, Fitch tells Reddington about a bank deposit box, and says he will give him the code. We brace ourselves in anticipation, knowing the bomb will detonate before Fitch hands over the code. -But it doesn’t. Fitch states the code, and Reddington repeats it.

The tension drops. The bomb threat slightly slips the audience’s minds: Reddington has the code now. But wait, where is the box? Thus, tension again rises, but Fitch reveals the box’s location. Tension drops.

Fitch begins to say something more, and blows up before the tension has time to re-build. Next to the screenplay, the sound design should be given a lot of credits for this moment, dressing the footage as an exhale. Reddington is left facing a glass wall covered in the unravelled insides of the man he thought was out to get him, but who in the end might have helped secure his future.

Just like that, another truth unravels. The audience is once again left clueless, just as the characters on the show. This, I believe, is what makes The Blacklist not not only a great show, but a strong, emotional experience. The episode balances the masculine elements of the explosion and threat of the explosion with the feminine elements of emotional impact through Fitch’s character coming undone in front of the audience, and the other characters responding to this emotionally.

Note: if you’re like me, you’re likely to think categorizing emotions as “feminine” elements and action as “masculine” elements sounds sexist. It does, until you understand the context of it. Which I can’t really explain better than Brian McDonald does in Invisible InkI highly recommend you to go check it out, it’s brilliant, but for now I can assure you that the terms above are based on generalizations of what are the dominating elements of the “boy movie” genre and the “chick flick” genre. -And, if you’re not like me and didn’t react to this at all: never mind, sorry if you had to read this last paragraph.