Mr Kaplan, and the brilliant unnumbered episodes of The Blacklist

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Mr Kaplan has proved to be a character of much greater depth than even fans of The Blacklist expected, and totally warranted her own – unnumbered – backstory episode in season 4. 

In the form of The Blacklist’s Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington, James Spader has helped create one of the most iconic anti-heroes of modern TV. The morally-bankrupt-yet-principled ex-spook/criminal/informant, and his cloudy relationship with FBI criminal profiler Elizabeth Keen, has engagingly driven the action-packed procedural for a healthy four seasons so far – with a fifth nearing from the horizon.

Friends become foes

That fourth season, now available on DVD now, sees more of Red’s past come back to haunt him, as he goes head-to-head once more with ‘Mr. Kaplan’, perhaps the show’s most intriguing character, and one who had previously proved very difficult to get a handle on

A recurring name since the show’s first run, Mr Kaplan is actually the codename for a female character, Kathryn Nemec. Played largely, and quite wonderfully, by Susan Blommaert – but in flashback by Joanne Adler – Mr Kaplan has proven to be much more than just another mysterious and ambiguous figure from Red’s past. An erstwhile trusted confidante and ‘cleaner’, far more akin to Winston Wolf than Mary Poppins mind you, her first appearances saw her cast as the person Reddington called upon to tidy up after less-than-legal escapades, but one who appeared to have unique insight into his life and work.

As The Blacklist story arc has developed. Mr Kaplan has transformed into one of the biggest threats to his ambiguous plans. Season three saw her full-on betray her employer by helping FBI agent, and the focus of Reddington’s attention, Elizabeth Keen fake her own death. It was a decision she paid for by taking a bullet. So, why the shift from reliable help to clandestine hindrance? Well, that’s largely been left to viewers’ imaginations – until season 4.

For a show that trades heavily on the shifting relationships among the main players and Reddington’s ambiguous connections to the criminals he offers up to the FBI, pinning down exactly who Mr. Kaplan is and what motivates her actions has proved a most elusive goal for fans. This latest season, however, takes its time to clear up her backstory, and reveal how she developed her unique, disturbing, skill-set. And yes, we find out the origin of that gender-switched name too.

The real detail on all of this comes in that most rare of things: an unnumbered Blacklist episode, i.e. one that doesn’t concern itself with Red’s extensive list of targets.

The Blacklist is actually a list, y’know?

For those who don’t know, the vast majority of The Blacklist‘s episodes are numbered and named. These names correspond to a ‘list’ of miscreants the ex-Spook-turned-crime-boss Reddington offers up to the FBI in the show’s pilot, reflecting his unique knowledge of international crime. Thus, the main thrust of The Blacklist’s events has been Reddington’s work alongside a task force of FBI agents to reel in the people he identifies as a threat, often in morally dubious ways.

Apart from that opening episode ‘Pilot’, only two other chapters from the show have dodged this naming convention. The first to do so was series 3’s ‘Cape May’, a dreamy, inexact exploration of Reddington’s past. That episode introduced us to the mysterious Katerina Rostova. That’s a name which, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, pops up a lot more as season 4 progresses.

In contrast to that episode, season 4’s ‘Requiem’ hops backward and forward in time to tell the convoluted tale of how Red and Mr Kaplan crossed paths, became allies and – eventually – enemies. It also illuminates the chain of events that led to Kaplan’s betrayal and her turning on him. It also shows us the role the mysterious Katerina Rostova plays in all of this.

For anyone that has been following the show for a while – and especially those who have take a shine to blunt, efficient, once-loyal Mr Kaplan – it’s a heartbreaking piece of television. It does, however, offer up a more-than satisfying set of motivations for what we’ve already seen transpire – and the events that come subsequently.

Like Cape May, breaking from the format of the show – in both naming, format and style – serves to raise the odds of the drama going forward. It shows us that the actions of Reddington and Kaplan have been motivated by the ghosts of their past as well as their plans for the future. Promises and decisions they made long ago – we already knew that they’d known each other for over two decades – have steadily caused a build up of pressure that leads to the finale’s drama. To see the future played out in flashback, and how committed both parties are to their agenda, certainly ratchets up the tension down the line.

On to season five! 

Thus we come to the climax of season 4, and of several threads that have underpinned The Blacklist’s ongoing story arc. These final two episodes are numbered: ‘Mr Kaplan No. 4’. This not only confirms Kathryn Nemec’s place on Red’s naughty list, it also ranks her as a high risk threat. They do not disappoint.

Though there is no known definitive methodology to Red’s numbering of blacklist subjects, all of them are afforded number. Though there are some fan theories attributing more significance to the ranking, the show’s producers have said they do little more than have a think about how Red would rank them, and assign numbers accordingly. Maybe season five will finally reveal who’s in the number one spot, who knows?

The fallout from Red and Kaplan’s falling out sets up that fifth season wonderfully, and goes a long way to proving that it’s not always Reddington that’s been in control of events. Nemec/Mr Kaplan has proved an enduring character in the show, and her outmanoeuvring of Red in season 4 means she will continue to be an influential one. Perhaps too violent and amoral to be considered endearing, it has been hard to not admire – or perhaps, even, like – her a little bit. Season 4 drives home just why that is.


The Blacklist Series 4 is out on DVD now