SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Robert Diaz,” the sixth season finale of “The Blacklist.”
It’s nary that a week goes by without NBC’s “The Blacklist” doling out a high-stakes situation. This sixth season alone James Spader’s Raymond Reddington faced a surprise jail twist, a capital punishment trial in which he defended himself, an attempted prison escape and a last-minute stay from the president just as he was about to face execution.
So it came as no surprise in “Robert Diaz,” the sixth season finale, when the Task Force, led by Liz (Megan Boone) attempted to stop a presidential assassination that the president himself orchestrated. Of course, as the episode revealed, the presidential plot was actually a hit on the First Lady, whose information about a past crime her husband committed was putting the president’s re-election campaign at risk.
And then, in the show’s closing moments, Liz brought Agnes home for the first time in years, believing her situation to finally be safe, and Red took off to Paris. There, on a dark and deserted street at night he confronted a present-day, very much alive Katarina Rostova (Laila Robins, taking over the role formerly portrayed by Lotte Verbeek).
While the reunion appeared emotional and close at the outset, within the mere minute she was onscreen Katarina turned on Red with a knife and stabbed him, before a van sped up and Red was dragged away.
Here, Variety talks with “The Blacklist” creator Jon Bokenkamp and showrunner John Eisendrath to discuss what Katarina’s return means for next season and how they continue to plot out these massive twists.
Did you have a sense the show would be renewed when you wrote the finale?
Eisendrath: Yes, we knew in advance of writing the finale that the show was going to be renewed. One thing I’m really proud of [is] the way we’ve been doing the show: At the end of Season 5 where we didn’t yet know our future, we had an equally open-ended question to the fact that Reddington is not Raymond Reddington, and we sort of boldly embraced that and thankfully it worked out. We’ve always worked without a net.
It’s been confirmed James Spader is returning next season, does that take away from the cliff-hanger ending and the fact that he’s stabbed?
Eisendrath: He’s not dead, I don’t think we should pretend that James Spader is no longer going to be on “The Blacklist.” He’s alive, but despite that, the end opens up an incredible number of possibilities. What is going through Katarina’s mind? How was Red so easily deceived? What did he think was going to happen when he showed up unguarded and met this woman on a dark street in Paris? How does a man who does nothing without taking incredible precautions leave himself open and vulnerable to being captured or attacked by a woman who he allegedly has known his own life — was her lover, had a child? Those are all great questions.
Is that character 100% Katarina or, given the turn with Red’s identity, is she potentially someone else?
Bokenkamp: He calls out ‘Katarina’ so we should take it at face value. Although it is “The Blacklist,” so…
What went into the casting of present-day Katarina?
Bokenkamp: We had long conversations with Laila Robins about the role. We had talked about the idea that this is a character that had been brought to life — we’ve seen her in a number of episodes — and so she sort of exists and is part of the fabric and DNA of the show. What Laila brings to the series, even in just the brief, less-than-a-minute that we saw is that she’s incredibly formidable, she’s smart, she’s mysterious, she’s really an enigma. Much like Reddington. What we were looking for and what she really brings is a powerful presence that Reddington likely has not seen the last of and will have to face off against in some capacity. We really just wanted to bring to life and dramatize the present-day version of this character that we’ve talked about for so long.
The White House is in a bit of disarray by the end of the finale, how do politics factor into next season in terms of power over the Task Force or even Red’s pardon?
Eisendrath: The short-term answer is that the story of President Diaz is closed. He had to resign. He was exposed for doing the terrible thing that he plotted, and that story has ended. We have had success over the years in ending stories like that but allowing them to have a ripple effect on the Task Force. Whether it was Jane Alexander, whose character was the first person to oversee the Task Force or the people who came in her place, each character who has come to oversee the group has brought a different color and a different threat level and that is going to be probably something that we consider going forward. We haven’t made any decisions about that, but the impact of the story will likely be felt on the Task Force going forward.
How much of next season have you plotted out at this point?
Eisendrath: We get about the same distance every year. At the end of 22 episodes it’s a very long season and we’re all very tired and we come up with the end of the season based on what we think the best end will be and what we can image to throw forward in the most general sense. There are tentpole ideas that we will start fleshing out when we get back in June.
Bokenkamp: Because it is a serialized show with a clear endgame that we’ve talked about, there have always been moments where we know in the life of the series that we need to hit. Sometimes it’s about moving those up and sometimes moving them back. In the whole mythology of the show there are even sort of tentpole moments that we know we need to hit in each season.
Eisendrath: Part of what’s exciting about writing a TV show, and this show in particular in keeping it fresh going into year seven, is that it has to surprise us before it can surprise the audience. We do allow ourselves to be surprised. We come into the season and we never know exactly what the story is going to be — we didn’t know Red was going to be in prison and have to argue in his own defense when we started the last season — so part of the process is a little bit walking on the high-wire so that we can be surprised, and only then will the audience be surprised.
How do you balance reveals, like giving a potential explanation of Red’s true identity, in a way that satisfies viewers and the need for answers without necessarily sacrificing story or pandering?
Bokenkamp: If you go back and look at the show again we’ve often given answers that are an answer, that are true, but when you look back on it, it may feel like we’ve contradicted ourselves. But if you wait a little longer you’ll find out that it was in fact the answer. In Episode 8 Liz asked Reddington if he was her father and he said no. We then found DNA evidence that proves Reddington is her father. So it looked like we lied, but the truth is, that wasn’t the DNA evidence from the James Spader character. It sounds convoluted and even as I walk through it my head starts to spin, but along the way there are benchmark truths that we like to land on that are canon that might sound like they’re adrift or can be open to interpretation — and oftentimes they can be, and they should be. But that’s part of what’s fun about the show is trying to keep up with the mythology and unlock it. Ultimately I’m really proud, if you look back at the last six seasons that we’ve done, it adds up in a very clear way. We work very hard to do that.
Do you read fan response and speculation? And if you do how do you keep it from influencing the writing?
Eisendrath: Jon loves reading it and I try to avoid it. It does come in to Jon but I think we both agree that no matter how aware we are of what people are saying the story is the story. We’ve never changed the story based on what people are guessing is the end game, the answers, the truth. The fun of the guessing game that the audience has is hopefully made more fun if we just tell the story the best possible way that we can. We don’t try to alter it and throw them off or to try and lead them on.
Bokenkamp: But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to go online to see if we’ve pulled off the trick.
Viewers have been commenting on Liz’s daughter Agnes being absent for a while, did that prompt you to bring her back at all in this finale?
Eisendrath: That’s the first time I’ve heard people were really asking that question. We were asking ourselves the question and we felt like we had a very legitimate reason: In the mythology of the show Katarina gave up her child when her life was upturned, and here we have like-mother, like-daughter when Liz felt that her life was overturned and upended and there was risk to her daughter. There was some sort of mother-daughter connection in that. This season, there was a legitimate reason for Liz to feel like she is safe in bringing her child home. What we like about the way the season ends is that it is based in part on Raymond Reddington telling her that she doesn’t have anything to worry about from Katarina Rostova. But Katarina Rostova is on camera for one minute and she takes down Raymond Reddington. So while the audience is going to be thinking mostly about Red’s well-being, next season the question is also going to be about Liz’s well-being and her child’s well-being as well.
Can you comment on Mozhan Marnò’s exit earlier this season as Samar and whether you’re looking to introduce another female character on the Task Force or series to compensate?
Bokenkamp: We talked about it a lot, Mozhan was ready to go out and do other things. She directs, and acts, and has a lot of opportunities, so we embraced it. We found a way that I think was a really good, emotional, character-driven story that felt organic and we were able to build it in, in such a way that it came from the fallout of last season when she was underwater and we weren’t sure about her position. We miss having her on the show, but it does open the possibility of having someone else on the show and we’re always looking for that. We’ve killed off people on the show and sometimes we regret it. We blew up Alan Alda, who is a TV legend. We lost Mr. Kaplan, who was a great character. The story is ultimately what dictates that and oftentimes it can be painful but ultimately if it weren’t for some of these characters going it really does open up windows for us to have new people within the Task Force and within Red’s world. It’s such a strange and eclectic group of people that it’s always fun to bring in new characters.