A lot of different novels, shows, and movies have some kind of mystery element, and I think how long the mystery runs is a delicate balancing act, especially in longer works. For a short story, novel, or singular movie, holding the reveal for the entirety of the work is probably appropriate. But for longer running mediums like story series or TV shows, it can be trickier. How long do you keep a mystery from the audience before they get bored of waiting?
I’ve watched The Blacklist since its beginning and have enjoyed it largely because of James Spader’s performance as Raymond “Red” Reddington. There are some other characters who are fun and add to the show, usually Red’s henchmen and various contacts, and some of the episodes have interesting plots or individual villains, but I’ve found that the larger mystery surrounding the show’s other protagonist, Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), is largely unfulfilling.
At the start of the show Keen, a relatively low level criminal profiler, is brought on to serve as Red’s go-between to the FBI at his request. No one really knows why she’s selected, and the show goes on to explore her mysterious parentage and why she might be so important to Red. Now, in the show’s fourth season, it appears we have finally gotten an answer, but at this point I just don’t care that much.
I still enjoy the show for Spader’s performance, but the mystery surrounding Keen has gone on so long and been so convoluted that I just lost interest. The writers managed to take what should have, in many ways, been the heart of the show and turn it into the most boring part by pushing the tension of the plot arc past its breaking point.
Compare this, if you will, to two other shows and how they have handled their reveals:
I think Lucifer has a similar “ongoing mystery” to The Blacklist in that the audience is left wondering when Lucifer will reveal that he is the devil to his partner Detective Chloe Decker…or at least we’re left wondering when she will find the definitive proof to believe him when he tells her that he is the devil, which he has done on numerous occasions.
However, unlike The Blacklist, the audience knows from the very beginning who Lucifer is and that what he’s saying is true, so the show relies on a different type of tension, one that is more character driven. We get to see the full picture of how it’s difficult for Lucifer to prove to Decker who he is, the first prime example of this coming in season one when Lucifer convinces Decker to shoot him. Normally he is impervious to human weapons, but he finds out, the hard way, that around Decker he is not immortal.
Then, in the second season, we see how his friend and therapist reacts when Lucifer does finally reveal his true form to a human for the first time. Her (at least initial) fear and revulsion creates an impediment for Lucifer. He obviously cares about Decker a lot and doesn’t want to lose her, so seeing someone react negatively to his true form makes him reluctant to reveal himself to others.
Continually adding obstacles to the “mystery element” keeps it fresh, and as viewers we understand why Lucifer doesn’t want take certain actions, unlike in The Blacklist where it’s incredibly unclear why exactly Keen’s true identity needs to be kept secret.
Then there’s The Flash. Now in its third season, the series has done a good job with its villains, I think, in terms of not holding on to the reveal too long. In each season there has been a question as to the real identity of the Big Bad, and in each case the show has given the reveal in what I feel was a timely manner.
Granted, this is slightly different from The Blacklist in that each Big Bad only lasts for one season, so it’s not as if the tension would carry over into future seasons. That being said, the show still has a good sense of when to let the audience in on the reveal, even if the heroes don’t know what’s going on. In this season in particular, The Flash revealed the identity of new villain Alchemy to viewers fairly quickly.
Revealing a mysterious identity like this early on in the story does alleviate the problem of having audience members who have guessed the twist already getting frustrated by being strung along. Additionally, it allows for the story to move on to other problems that are introduced by the reveal. The tension transitions from being a total mystery to being a multifaceted story wherein the audience gets to see both sides of the conflict unfolding and can see tragedy or conflict coming, even if the hero can’t.
Unlike The Flash, The Blacklist didn’t give the audience much to go on, choosing instead to keep viewers in suspense, but in my opinion they’ve been holding on to this reveal for too long. Now in season four the audience is clued into Keen’s parentage, but Keen still is not. And after a lot of stops and starts and slow or false reveals, I think the show needs to find a way to conclude this plot arc and move on to other things or the whole show runs the risk of growing stale.
Do any of you watch The Blacklist? What are your thoughts on how the writers have handled the plotting and the mystery surrounding Keen’s parentage? Let me know in the comments, or feel free to hit me up on social media to share your opinions.