EXCLUSIVE: 'The Blacklist' Boss Says Season 5 Is a 'Breath of Fresh Air'

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NBC

The Blacklist is leaning into the chaos.

NBC’s crime caper returns for its fifth season on Wednesday, and Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader) is starting anew -- sort of. With his resources depleted, Red begins the new season going with the flow, taking smaller jobs than usual and surprisingly enjoying what life throws his way. But he'll soon encounter a major problem: The suitcase containing skeletal remains, currently in Tom Keen's (Ryan Eggold) possession, is a secret Red doesn't want his daughter, Liz (Megan Boone), to be aware of.

“While season four was dramatically fun, it became awfully dark and that’s where the story needed to go. It felt like we had an opportunity coming out of that -- Red’s empire is decimated, he’s lost the closest people who were in his organization -- to re-imagine the landscape of the show, in terms of how much fun we have,” creator Jon Bokenkamp tells ET. 

“Once we embraced that Reddington wouldn’t sit and sulk and feel bad about it and be afraid, he would embrace this idea that he’s unencumbered with all the trappings of being an international criminal, it started being super fun,” he continued. “He’s having a great time being a little introspective, taking a little time off, hanging out at the pool, finding himself as a scrapper again and having to claw his way back and yet, loving it.”

Ahead of The Blacklist’s return on Wednesday, Bokenkamp talks to ET about what fans can expect in the fifth season, finally resolving the paternity question and what he’s planning for the 100th episode.

ET: How would you describe Raymond Reddington’s mindset in season five?

Jon Bokenkamp: The way to describe him is alive. He’s doing things that he hasn’t had to do in years. He’s driving himself. He’s stealing cars. He’s doing smaller cons that he was probably above before. He’s the same character; in some ways, he’s more like the character we met in the first season because he’s more enigmatic. We know less about him now because we don’t know what he’s going to do next and we don’t know how he’s going to handle the situation. In the first episode, he’s tracking down a criminal for a bounty hunter and he's finding himself enjoying it. Same character, different mindset and one that’s deliciously fun, still incredibly dangerous, still unexpected, but with a little more sense of whimsy and a little less dark and brooding.

Is Red’s shift in persona in part due to the confirmation that he is Liz’s father?

That’s part of it. There’s been a question that’s been looming that is answered. The biggest thing is that Reddington doesn’t feel like Liz is in grave danger at the moment, so the idea that this paternal issue is put to rest is a weight lifted from both him and the show, in a way. It changes how Elizabeth Keen perceives herself, but at the same time, she’s a grown woman and she has a family. She, in a way, is who she is. She’s not all of a sudden going to let this new information completely unravel who she is or she hopes not to. There’s not really a divide between these two characters and that allows them to come together. She gets to be on the inside of his empire, small as it may be, in a way she hasn’t before. Reddington is somebody who isn’t afraid of much. He knows that, at the end of the day, he’ll find his way back. Why not have as much fun getting there? The journey is everything. The destination he’s confident he’ll arrive at, but the journey, at the moment, he wants to relish and we as writers are having fun finding strange, weird places to put him in.

You touched on answering the paternity question, in regards to the Liz and Red relationship, as being a “weight lifted” on the show. Why did it take until the season four finale for it to be fully resolved? Did you want to close that loop earlier?

It felt like it was time to move on, I’ll be honest, and yet, at the same time, acknowledge that there’s a larger mystery at the center of the show. There is still the question of what does Raymond Reddington want? Why is he here? The suitcase that Mr. Kaplan had dug up and that Red is trying to hide from Elizabeth represents a larger mystery. The show is still built around this core mythology and secrets, but at the same time, they’re able to set aside something that was a very important question and will change in ways who these people are, specifically Liz. It did just feel like it was time to move on from that and that we had more story to tell that we needed to drive into.

Speaking more specifically to the suitcase you alluded to, which has skeletal remains, what can you tease about how that factors into season five?

In terms of the serialized story that we’re continuing to tell, the human remains that are in that old suitcase that was buried under a tree on a farm are very much the catalyst that push us forward in season five. Those remains represent a secret that put Tom and Liz and Reddington in a very precarious place. There’s still a very odd family dynamic happening here. Tom has never had an abundance of warmth for Reddington and Reddington feels the same way. He would be just fine if Tom Keen were gone, but Elizabeth stands in the way of that. There is a great story that we’re going to start unraveling that hearkens back to things that happened in the first season, where Tom found himself keeping a few secrets, where Reddington became mistrustful of Tom and where Liz was put in a very awkward place between these two men in her life. That suitcase represents a great storyline that we’re going to unpack, pun not intended.

With Tom returning to the Blacklist fold after the Redemption spinoff didn’t pan out, how are you reintegrating him into the world again?

Tom left the show to pursue his own questions surrounding his own family, and yes, that show did not ultimately work out. He is doing what he would do as a character, which is coming home, and he’s thrilled to be home. It is an opportunity for us to organically bring Tom back into the series and continue to tell a story that was left unfinished last season when he left, about the relationship between him, Elizabeth Keen and Raymond Reddington. We will be putting to rest some of the larger questions that were lingering in the spinoff, so there are Easter eggs there for fans of Redemption.

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Is it fair to say that Liz will be caught in the middle between Tom and Red? What are the chances that she’ll have to pick a side?

That’s one of the things that’s a secret for the audience to be in on. She very much is going to be caught between these two men and her character’s not yet aware of that. We as an audience will see these two men plant their flags and take rather specific sides about how they feel and the story that they’re telling. Liz will become aware of that and it’s going to be a great turn. But yes, there are alliances that are beginning to form.

You’re also hitting the 100-episode mark this season. Looking ahead, what are your plans for that hour?

We’re just starting to break that 100th episode now in the [writers’] room. By episode eight and nine, we’ve got some great cliffhangers that are going to push the series in a unique and different direction. I hope we can continue to surprise ourselves. We’ve got a great season arced out, some really big questions answered. As far as the 100th episode specifically, I hope it’ll be bigger in some ways. It’s still early for us to tell because we’re not quite sure. I know where the characters are and where the stories are going, but as far as what the A case and the specifics of that episode are, that’s what we’re literally diving in to break.

Lastly, what are fans in for in the new season?

A breath of fresh air. [It’s] an exciting, unexpected rebuilding of a criminal mastermind and his empire. It’s a compelling, refreshing take on the character.

The Blacklist premieres Wednesday, Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.