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For Jon Bokenkamp, creator of NBC’s The Blacklist, the scene that catapulted the crime thriller into more than a procedural came early in the first season. By the first few episodes, the drama starring James Spader and Megan Boone was already considered a breakout hit.
It was a moment in the 11th episode, titled “The Good Samaritan,” in which Spader’s Raymond “Red” Reddington -- one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives -- established himself as an unexpected and charming anti-hero that viewers rooted for. Here, Bokenkamp explains why an insignificant scene turned the tide for The Blacklist.
It’s become known as the “Stroganoff scene” in our writers’ room, or at least that’s how we reference it at times because we have done some things similarly a number of times after that. Raymond Reddington is searching for somebody who has betrayed him. It’s a very simple scene; he’s talking to a corrupt banker because he knows that the banker has information that can give him the name of the person who betrayed him -- and he gets the name by the end. It’s basically three pages of Raymond Reddington being Raymond Reddington, hanging out with this family. Things get incredibly tense and dark, but also weirdly funny.
It was the first time we did that in the show and I think those elements came together nicely. It’s one of the reasons it sticks out to me -- partly because of the writing, partly because of the way it was directed [and] largely because of the way James [Spader] played it. I wasn’t interested in doing a straight procedural and the sort of B stories and the characters and the overarching mythology of the show is really important to what The Blacklist is. This was an example of where we had fun, in what would have otherwise been a straightforward procedural scene.
There’s a version [of this moment] in a parallel universe in the 2008 movie, Taken. Liam Neeson is asking for something and he ends up shooting that person in the leg. It’s incredibly dark and tense; it’s uncomfortable and very muscular in a dark thriller kind of way. What happens here is the same objective of that scene but instead, when we join in, Reddington’s been flirting with the wife and making up a history with her. You get the sense that Reddington’s been hanging out with this woman having a glass of wine and making up bulls**t stories to entertain himself. Rather than the scene getting bloody, tense and about guns, it’s almost about the opposite. It’s about the wife, who is freaking out like most normal people would and she wants to call a doctor. She’s a bother to Reddington in the moment and he ends up telling her that if she doesn’t stop yammering, he’s going to end up putting her in the closet, which he does.
Reddington is somebody who has joy, is full of life and wants to see the best in people. He wants to have Stroganoff for dinner, have a glass of wine and hear old stories, but he can’t. At the end of the scene, he tells the woman, “So sorry, I’ll have to take a raincheck on the Stroganoff.” Just the idea that, after shooting her husband in the leg, locking her in the closet and threatening to shoot her through the door, that she would still want to have dinner with him -- there’s a willful blindness. It showed me that that’s how fun the show can be.
There’s something incredibly endearing about the character. With a bad guy like Reddington, he can do and say things that most people would never do, many of which are horrible, awful things. He murders a lot of people, but it’s justifiable because they’re worse than he is and the world is better off without them. He has his own moral compass.
The idea of a “Stroganoff scene” on The Blacklist is a scene where we’re going to reach the objective of the scene but in a fun, unusual and unpredictable way. That might be him telling a story of how he was diving off an island and was saved by the locals who nursed him back to health or forcing two outlaws behind financial crimes who are out in the middle of the woods camping out and he forces them to sing a campfire song because he likes campfire songs and they have a guitar. It’s him having fun in the world and finding ways to entertain himself, and thus, entertaining us.
There’s a levity that [James] brings that I did not expect. He claims that he always saw a fun element of the character. Now we write to it. James isn’t somebody who improvises a lot. The only thing that was different [from what’s on the page and what he says] is we lifted something, probably for time. He’s very faithful to the script and there aren’t a lot of surprises in the performance to what he has in mind.
James brings a weight and yet, a levity to the scene and he’s also great with language. I can write a long run-on paragraph that I wouldn’t be able to say or that sounds goofy to me. We were on the phone just the other day and I said [in regards to a scene in a recent script], “I don’t know. It’s a whole paragraph…” He said, “Do you want me to try it for you?” He read it to me and I said, “Yup, I get it.” He has a way to find pauses and breaks and smiles and little moments within that I wouldn’t be [able to] -- you wouldn’t understand what I was saying -- and he somehow makes it articulate and entertaining.
The Blacklist airs its midseason finale Thursday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.