BWW EXCLUSIVE: THE BLACKLIST - Liz Keen Is Dead; Long Live Liz Keen
It's a slippery world out there, in the land of hidden evildoers and conspiracies beyond the imagination of the tin-foil helmet conspiracy theorists. About the only secretive thing THE BLACKLIST hasn't tackled so far is aliens or an X-FILES "monster of the week," and one can't help thinking those might be around the corner next season. We've already got super soldiers, or a version of them, in the elusive and deadly Mr. Solomon.
But right now, with an extra week's break until the next episode, fans of THE BLACKLIST are reeling from the news that Elizabeth Keen is dead... apparently. For long-time watchers, especially those who are schooled in conspiracy-theory television, it's not only a safe bet, but a sure thing, that she's alive. Although networks have become more callous than in the past (Colonel Blake's death on M*A*S*H is a prime example of caring greatly) about killing off major figures permanently in shows without notice - THE GOOD WIFE is a classic example - it's highly unlikely that such is the case here. The last departure without actual notice on a major network of late was Shemar Moore's leaving CRIMINAL MINDS with his character, Morgan alive. But the show planned on his departure and telegraphed it in a story arc involving his character's new family and his need to balance family and the risks of his job in the BAU.
Here, we really did have notice, in the real world, that actor Megan Boone, who plays Elizabeth Keen, might be away from the show for some little time; it's been no secret that she was filming the third season while pregnant. In fact, Boone just gave birth to a healthy baby girl, just like the show's baby Agnes, only a few days ago. Her need for time off work is understandable, and it's rough when a major female character in a series - here, the second lead in the show - is due to give birth during the production season. In an action and conspiracy show of this type, and given a character who's been chased across the country, who's killed the Attorney General, and who's just had her wedding disrupted by mercenaries shooting up a country church, packing up for a couple of months to visit Aunt Sally is not a useful plot device.
The missing lead is an old plot issue in television. When Raymond Burr, of PERRY MASON fame, needed surgery during one season of the show, which he carried completely on his own shoulders, "guest attorneys" filled in on cases for him, just as attorneys do in real life when other attorneys are away. Those guests included Bette Davis and Hugh O'Brien, both major stars at the time, so neither Perry's clients nor the viewing audience were inconvenienced (and O'Brien's story line was incredibly inventive). But attorneys take vacations, or do get sick and go to the hospital, both things Elizabeth Keen cannot do safely. Our last episode showed just how unsafe her being in a hospital can become, both for her and for other patients.
Major characters disappear and reappear with abandon. There was that season-long Disappearance Of Agent Mulder in THE X-FILES, which producer Chris Carter butchered but couldn't help, given David Duchovny's lawsuit against the show. We won't even touch the fake deaths, or the disappearances and later reappearances of characters on LOST, because no one was ever able to keep score. Those machinations didn't even seem to have reasons sometimes.
That Elizabeth Keen can hardly be gone permanently is easy to surmise: the show has been renewed, and as written, its entire premise is an unexplained relationship between master criminal Raymond "Red" Reddington and junior FBI agent, now "asset," Keen. The current season has lampshaded repeatedly that there are major secrets Reddington is hiding from her. To remove her permanently at this point drops the entire theme of the show. It's the sort of plot idea that causes shows to jump the shark. But her absence from the show for several episodes, perhaps the rest of the season, allows plot to be advanced briefly without her - perhaps viewers will see an episode from the other side of the coin, from the side of the task force, or of the "bad guys." And there's a backdoor pilot to be made of a spinoff series for Tom Keen/Jacob Phelps (Ryan Eggold) and Famke Janssen, so time without emphasis on Elizabeth Keen's personal storyline is necessary.
This is television, where fake deaths are part of the drama series toolbox, borrowed directly from classic soap operas. Visiting the aunt, going to the hospital, and mysterious long-term amnesia don't work in the given storyline, but in an action/adventure series involving spies, the fake death is a classic play.
If only it hadn't already been done earlier this season in the "Arioch Cain" episode, in which Keen's fake death had been broadcast all over the news so that a hit man would be believed to have completed his task. If anything in the "fake death" scenario here creates a problem, it's that you can't have a character do this continually outside of SOUTH PARK. THE BLACKLIST can't afford an "Oh no, they killed Kenny!" trope with one of its stars. THE X-FILES had a running minor plot device of an agent who kept dropping or losing their gun, which was minimal and at least brought humor to grim situations, but a cycle of deaths and resurrections that's not a running gag becomes numbing, as THE X-FILES also proved.
It seems obvious from everything surrounding the situation that the death is faked. Boone's maternity leave, the plot devices in the episode, delayed publication of interviews with Boone's co-star, James Spader, stating that Keen is dead "to Reddington" - not necessarily in reality. No post-death appearance that night (or since) on THE TONIGHT SHOW, NBC's vastly popular late-night vehicle, to laugh off the character's elimination. These are all signs of continued life for the character, as is the direction of the show, noted earlier. The only questions are who within the show's canon engineered it, and how.
Given Spader's comment, and his own character, Reddington's, reaction to Keen's death, it would appear that Reddington believes the death to be real. In the circumstances of the current story arc that is likely necessary. Genuine despair and anger on Reddington's part would be needed to convince the opposition that Keen's death is genuine. On the other hand, Susan Blommaert's "Mr. Kaplan" is the queen of the poker face and the ingenious remedy, and she'd spent time that episode telling Reddington off in exquisite detail for his sins of failing to guard Keen adequately. Reddington has many skills, but he trades in having the right people to help him, and Kaplan performs a wide range of near-miracles for him at various times, besides being Reddington's cleaner.
The only really doubtful issue for THE BLACKLIST is when Keen will reappear. As there are five episodes left in the season, it would seem likely that she will reappear for the season finale, or appear just briefly enough, perhaps in shadow, for a Season Four opening reappearance. Those are the most probable, and most artistically sound, choices for Keen's emergence back into the show. We can only hope that the writers deliver her back to the show in somewhat more pleasing fashion than the manner in which they wrote her out for the short term.
Elizabeth Keen is dead. Long live Elizabeth Keen.
Photo Credits: NBC Universal