On Friday's season seven premiere, Liz and the team race against the clock to rescue Raymond "Red" Reddington (James Spader) from Liz's once-presumed-dead mother, Katarina Rostova (Laila Robins), after she drugged her former lover and dragged him into an unmarked van in Paris before he could warn her about an assassination attempt on her life. Katarina's master plan is largely a mystery. What does she want with Red? What is she going to do with him? How will the task force get to him? Will her estranged daughter, Liz (Megan Boone), find out who she really is? Alone in hostile territory and unsure of who to trust, how is Red going to get out of this one with his hands literally tied behind his back?
"Is Katarina going to get what she wants or is she not going to get what she wants and go into the wind? We decided that she's the ultimate bad guy on our show," executive producer John Eisendrath tells ET. "She's the personification of this great spy we've talked about for seven years. She's the Big Bad for the season."
While Katarina is a character that's familiar to viewers (her roller-coaster backstory having been explored in previous seasons), this Katarina is far more formidable than the one established in the past -- and she's ready to beat Red at his own game. The power she yields, due to her connection with Red and Liz, will be a chip she'll play to her advantage.
"We've seen Lotte Verbeek play young Katarina and Laila Robins brings to it not only a very formidable, dangerous spy element but she also brings to the character a real vulnerability, which speaks to everything she's going through. How personal this is to her," executive producer Jon Bokenkamp says to ET. "It's not just a Big Bad who wants something from Reddington and is going to put the screws to his thumbs, this is somebody where it pains her to do this to Reddington, despite the rift that has happened between them."
"Whatever it is that has gone wrong -- and it went terribly wrong," Bokenkamp points out, "is something she lives with day after day and she's finally hit this point where she's not going to live in the shadows. She's not going to stand back and watch and take instructions. She is going to flip back into operator mode and take destiny into her own hands. I think you can see an incredibly formidable, incredibly dangerous, incredibly wounded woman who is going to stop at nothing to get what she wants."
Whatever plan Katarina has concocted is something that will be unraveled gradually as the season progresses, but know that there is an endgame at play. And getting Red out of his, um, situation, won't be an easy task for Liz and the task force.
"Her endgame is so tethered to the mythology of the show that if she gets it, Reddington is bested. And we know the ultimate answer, right? We know the deepest truth of the blacklist," Bokenkamp hints at Katarina's next moves. "What she's after is something that Reddington is deeply protective of, and doesn't even want to talk about. He's masking this from the task force. He's playing it very close to the vest, which he does many times, but I think Reddington knows, and probably Dembe (Hisham Tawfiq) knows and [Katarina's father] Dom (Brian Dennehy) knows that if this woman starts puling at the thread of truth that Red is so protective of, everything could come unraveled. And Red is in jeopardy of losing everything that he has been so protective of."
"It's a little bit of an enigmatic question, but it's built that way because it is such an important question that the answer, if she were to catch it, sort of lights everything on fire," he says.
An unexpected reunion between mother and daughter is also coming early this season, though Liz won't exactly know Katarina is back in her orbit -- in the most deeply personal of environments.
"Liz will ultimately realize that Katarina is here," Eisendrath confirms. "Once she does, I think she will... we spend a lot of time trying to put ourselves in her shoes and experience it with her. What would she say? How would she react? It feels like initially she would react by giving Reddington the benefit of the doubt. He's been in her life for a long time. He has proven himself to be someone who cares about Liz. By contrast, Katarina has been built up in Liz's eyes as an antagonist who has not been in Liz's life. And now she sort of parachutes in. She's going to react like the audience would react, which is, 'Well, Red's been good to you.' But there will be revelations that make her -- and possibly the audience -- doubt whether that trust is well placed."
As for the overall thematic pulse of The Blacklist, Eisendrath says that the root of the conflict this season revolves around family.
"Liz is caught in between warring parents, a very relatable story our viewers can understand because it happens in everybody's lives," he teases. "The adult child trying to navigate between parental figures in her life, asking who should she trust and who should she believe. That's the through line and the stakes, hopefully, are life and death for the characters. Katarina will die unless she gets the truth she's looking for from Reddington and Reddington would rather die than give that truth up. The stakes couldn't be higher and Liz is caught in the middle."