First of all, what’s not to love about James Spader’s mouth – the way he twists it in a sympathetic moue right before his character, Reddington, tells his rapt listener that he (or she) is going to die. Or the way he smacks his lips and looks at his interlocutor with hooded eyes as if he could eat her alive while she screams in orgiastic delight. Or the way his lips pout with untold grief as his character remembers his little girl twirling on the stage. Even as a father-figure, he blurs the boundaries of what’s fatherly and what’s something else altogether. Nothing stand-offish about him. He gets in too close, but rather than back away, you stand there and will him to get closer.
Spader as Alan Shore in Boston Legal was a scandalous rogue with a compassionate heart tucked underneath his expensive striped tie and his sexist veneer. His character had the ability to appraise women with a lick of his chops that caused the female characters in his line of sight to drop their panty hose without a blink. Reddington is similar but grown up, battered — a mixture of vulnerability, lethalness, and righteous rage delivered with a mirthless chuckle.
The relationship between Reddington and Agent Elizabeth Keen, we’ve seen before. The pilot episode practically replicates Hannibal Lecter’s meetings with Clarissa in Silence of the Lambs. It’s the Beauty and the Beast theme that never grows old: the strong, brave, attractive young woman and the brilliant morally bankrupt older man. But he’s more than beast. He’s also an artist, and every male artist needs a muse — whether as lover or daughter-figure is irrelevant. The muse enables the man to create his art, which is what Reddington is: an artist of the criminal variety, rearranging people’s lives to suit his sense of aesthetic order.
But it’s not just Spader’s character that keeps us riveted to the screen. There’s also the list. Formulaic, sure. Procedural, of course. Good guys and gals versus bad guys and gals. Bad guys who are good and good guys are anything but. The villains on the list are so much more real than a Bushian pack of devil cards. They arrive on the scene rounded and complicated. The judge isn’t a homicidal maniac. She’s a woman who’s been wronged by the system and who is trying to right the world. The Stewmaker isn’t merely a psychopath. He’s a dentist with a loving wife and horrific memories. Even the exceptionally vicious Anslo Garrick, well, he’s got his reasons for harboring ill will towards Red and company.
The weekly stories are dark and delightful, but the ongoing saga of mysteries shrouding Elizabeth Keen’s marriage and Raymond Reddington’s past keeps me binging. It’s the serial aspect of the series that intrigues and delights and provides the skeleton for the flashy procedurals every week.
I binged on Season 1 on Netflix, then last week took a peek at the first episode of Season 2 on VUDU. And there was one of my favorite West Wing women with her enormous expressive eyes ready to rip the walls down. Still I’m going to hold off on watching any more episodes of Season 2 until it is in binge-able form. Because once you’ve crossed one villain off the list, the rest practically beg you to kill them as well.