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How THE BLACKLIST Used a Divide and Conquer Strategy to Become the Biggest Hit of the Season

How THE BLACKLIST Used a Divide and Conquer Strategy to Become the Biggest Hit of the Season

Warning: Spoilers for The Blacklist Season 1 — including Monday’s season finale — abound.

This past Monday, television’s runaway success, The Blacklist concluded its freshman season in spectacular fashion by slitting the throat of one F.B.I. agent, strangling another, revealing to us the face of soon-to-be Reddington arch nemeses, Berlin, and giving us a new clue regarding the question of how Red and Liz are connected. As we look back on the season, one of the most fascinating things to ponder is how the show managed to stay exciting despite its hefty episode order. Now, on the verge of its second season, we thought it might be a good idea to examine not just what lead to the series initial success, but what kept audiences tuning in week after week after week.

From the moment rookie F.B.I. agent Elizabeth Keen drove a pen into the neck of criminal mastermind Red Reddington in the initial series trailer from last May, audiences were hooked into what was arguably one of the most exciting new dramas of the season. It’s in this excitement, this anticipation of wanting to watch the adventures of Red and Liz play out, that the series’ writers and producers managed to convince audiences into coming back over and over again. How, exactly? By utilizing a strategy of divide and conquer.

Making a serialized drama work in a 22-episode format is damn near impossible without an episodic element to carry the story along when serialized matters are not being addressed. Red’s list wasn’t just a premise, it was how the show divided itself into divisions in order to give new viewers an opportunity to enter the drama free of mythology and watch the story as passionately as early adopters did. Think about the non-Red centric episodes like when Mako Tanida came after Ressler, causing him to lose his fiancé and have his character shifted into a completely new direction. Think about the time the task force went after The Judge; that episode had little to do with any of the series mythology, yet it was still exciting.

Often, and especially when the show returned with “The Good Samaritan” in January, much of Red’s arc would take place outside of any given blacklister’s episode. Red hunted Tom on his own, he enlisted the help of the cowboy on his own, he dealt with the Jolene Parker situation on his own. It wasn’t until Red was in need of F.B.I. resources that he would interject himself into the task force’s investigations. If he didn’t need to be part of a given man-hunt, he wasn’t. While broadcast shows sometimes suffer from mandates that require certain lead characters to appear in every episode, nothing stopped The Blacklist from only using Spader when absolutely necessary. If he wasn’t important to the case of the week, he would show up, hand the task force a name and leave. Not only did this method free up the show’s airtime, it freed up audience members who didn’t have a full grasp on who Red was.

As Keen and the task force kept procedural fans happy, Red and his crew carried the mythology torch. In a broadcast rarity, the series figured out how to play both sides of the coin and ultimately succeed in the end. It would be over-hype to say the season was flawless, every show of The Blacklists’ episode length suffers an occasional hiccup along the way, but it’s not unfair to say the series clicked because, even with the occasional hiccup (the first half of “The Alchemist,” anybody?), the show never lost its spunk, and that has everything to do with how plot labor was handed out among characters. Instead of thrusting everything at the audience in a shotgun blast of exposition, the NBC thriller used targeted sniper fire to keep everything streamlined and only revealing when absolutely necessary. It’s because of this that The Blacklist ended up being one of the most successful dramas of the season.

What did you think of The Blacklist Season 1? Let us know in the comments below.


  1. Kevin allan says:

    It’s the music montages. Like when they play “when the man comes around”,  amazing!

  2. Glenda Knaub says:

    something to watch since this is  Justified  last season and just as good

  3. Laura B. says:

    Love the show.  It is so much fun to discuss theories afterwards.  I usually watch each episode twice.  Now I’m going to watch the whole season again.  I wish they could get William Shatner in there somehow – he and James Spader are so funny together.  Maybe Red could call Priceline?

  4. Patricia says:

    Love, love, love it! I was never a Spader fan in his younger years but he is fabulous in The Blacklist. He was made for this role…or this roll was made for him—either way it works brilliantly. He weaves the perfect tapestry of cleverness, cunning, compassion, cruelty, and dark humor, with a golden thread of insanity shot through it all.

  5. Shawn says:

    Spader definitely carries the show! I agree with some of the other comments. I like agent Keen the least. It’s usually the female lead that gets the guys attention.

  6. Jeet Ram says:

    One Hell of A show

  7. Became my favorite show from episode #1.  Can’t wait for the next season. James Spader is marvelous in this role.

  8. cap1 says:

    this show made it by using james spader

  9. Kim says:

    Absolutely the best!!!!  I love Red’s side comments about things he’s done and places he’s been!

  10. Dian says:

    Two words brings me back week after week.. James Spader!!

  11. Meera was CIA, not FBI. Pay attention ;P

  12. Hal says:

    Let this be a lesson to writers of other serialized dramas.

  13. Gracie says:

    The best series on TV right now.

  14. weedbychoice says:

    The character Reddington ( James Spader ) grabbed attention right from the start with subliminal overtones that held viewers hostage. The chemistry between Lizzie and Red was felt immediately on the first episode. I will watch the reruns and patiently await the return next season…thought one of the best shows of the season…next to the ” Grimm “.

  15. nancy jacobs says:

    this is the best show i have seen in years, cant wait to see the next show and hate to have to go all summer with out this program.the cast fits so well together and james spader plays this role  the best anyone could ask for.keep up the good work and this show keeps you on the edge of your seat all the time and meganbooneplays her role  very very good and trys so hard to keep her job and her personal livers seperate.everyone is great

  16. Pat Carter says:

    Spader is perfect at tantalizing arrogance…facial expressions are dead on…he has mastered the character!

  17. Granville says:

    Very intelligent, great to see Spader back and on top. No expense spared and very well written. I didn’t feel like I was wasting and hour watching mindless format TV like Criminal Minds or NCIS.

  18. sheri says:

    I love james spader he is a wonderful actor .

  19. Frewella says:

    It is the best serialised drama since – well I don’t even know when – the first season of Murder 1?

  20. Love the show and the actors!   Can’t wait for the next season!   

  21. cidra says:

    riveting from the first episode to the season finale… Spader is Brilliant and deserves and Emmy for his portrayal of Redd

  22. S. Cain says:

    I love The Blacklist!! James Spader does an amazing job as “Redd.” I can’t wait until its return this fall.

  23. Judy Stochl says:

    I don’t care if some of the every incident can be backed up by facts or not; I watch this show because of the entertainment value and I am ADDICTED to it.  All of the characters, not only Red and Liz, draw me into the story immediately and keep me there.  When the show ends, I watch it at least twice more on demand.  There have been very few television shows that I have enjoyed in my 63 years of watching, that have held my attention as much as this show.  Can’t wait for season 2, and then 3, and then 4.

    • cidra says:

      Totally agree…. I love Tom’s character, looking forward to seeing him next year

  24. James Spader is such a unique actor – kinda nerdy, but intelligent and so tough. Have always enjoyed his work. Love the show and can’t wait for season 2.

  25. betty says:

    Love James Spader.  Love the show.  Can we have a summer edition?  Can’t wait for next season……