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Who is Reddington? ‘The Blacklist’ creator Jon Bokenkamp teases the truth

“I don’t think we could tell as complex a story or as emotional a story if we were just winging it.”

One thing viewers can always expect from any given episode of The Blacklist is the unexpected. And in season 3, just released on Blu-ray and digital formats from Sony, the unexpected was around just about every corner Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader, in an ongoing master turn) and the FBI agents he works with turned.

Red, Agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), and the entire code-named “Post Office” crew faced some of their toughest challenges yet, including — spoiler alert! — an elaborately staged, faked death of one of the lead characters. The aftermath of the implications of that character’s stunning return is where season 4 will pick up when it kicks off with a bang on September 22 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.

“There are a lot of betrayals between a lot of the characters, based on the reveals we had at the end of season 3 — and it’s going to be very difficult for them to put those aside and move through them,” Blacklist creator/showrunner Jon Bokenkamp told Digital Trends. “There are going to be a lot of really great stories in pushing forward — and we’ll also see some incredible Blacklisters who are going to be as strange and unique and dangerous as any we have done.”

During a brief respite from breaking stories for season 4, Bokenkamp called Digital Trends from Los Angeles to discuss the show’s brilliant visual and sound design, some of season 3’s biggest moments, and his plan for the show’s ultimate endgame.

Digital Trends: I’ve been a Blacklister since season 1, episode 1, and for me, the best way to watch the show is in full surround sound on a big plasma screen, so I can best appreciate all the effort and detail that goes into the show’s visual presentation and sound design. Do you personally like having the series released on Blu-ray?

Jon Bokenkamp: Oh, I love it. Yeah, I love it. One, it’s a great way to experience the show, and two, Sony has also been generous with the sorts of bells and whistles they add on to the Blu-rays in terms of the content and the commentaries they let us do. It’s fun to go back in and revisit the episodes, because we’re experiencing them so quickly as we write them and are producing them week to week. To go back and see them with some distance is very insightful, and fun to do. And we love laying little Easter eggs here and there too.

One of the extras from the previous season’s Blu-ray set showed how you guys worked on the Super Bowl episode [season 2, episode 9, Luther Braxton (No. 21)], where we got to see that big storyboard wall. Are you still using it to break stories?

Oh my God, yeah — and it’s only growing. It’s more of a bible now. Occasionally, if we bump up against something like, “Does Liz speak Russian?” — we have to go back to the bible to keep it straight and to be on point with exactly what the backstory is.

We’re very religious about being honest and true to the mythology of the show, the origins of it, and where we’re planning to go. So, yeah, we’re meticulous about the mythology and maintaining the bible that we’re adding to, and checking against it to make sure we’re not contradicting ourselves in the storytelling.

As far as the show’s soundtrack goes, do you personally say, “This is the tone I want for our sound design?” Do you give the production team direction in that regard?

The guys in post do a phenomenal job. There are certain sequences where, for example, when Red finds out [spoiler alert!] Liz dies in season 3 [in episode 18, Mr. Solomon (No. 32): Conclusion], there are certain things we write like, “it’s a gunfight, but it’s not a gunfight” — what we’re really hearing is Red’s emotional headspace. When I finally see the finished episodes with the full mix, it’s so cool how it all comes to life, you know what I mean?

I do. By the same token, you would know if something doesn’t hit the right emotional beat you want in any given scene.

Season 4 is going to be a very adrenalized emotional rollercoaster.

Oh yeah, if something feels off, I will have a couple of notes and a couple of thoughts. There’s more of a shorthand now for what we’re working toward. We know the show, and we know how it sounds and feels. Dave Porter [Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul], who does our music, is spectacular, and our music supervisor, John Bissell, selects the needle-drop songs we use. It’s a very cool, very collaborative process.

Do you personally choose some of the songs that run with the montages at the end of certain episodes? Do you have specific songs in mind, or do other people bring their choices to your attention?

It’s a little of both. I have very strong feelings about some stuff — either stuff I’ve listened to for many years, or stuff I’ve found that I feel will fit. I work very closely with John Bissell, who’s constantly sending me these packets of songs. He’ll say, “Hey, here are 20 songs you haven’t heard before.” Every once in a while, I’ll walk around the Paramount lot listening to them.

For example, at the end of season 3, the song I Dodged a Bullet [by Greg Laswell, in episode 23, Alexander Kirk (No. 14): Conclusion] — I think I had been listening to it since season 2. When we were finishing that episode, I went, “Oh my gosh — I had forgotten about that song. This is where it fits!”

One of the most critical episodes from season 3 was Cape May [episode 19], a James Spader showcase that should be winning awards left and right, as far as I’m concerned. Was that actually shot in Cape May in New Jersey?

I’m not sure exactly where they shot it. That’s another example of production making us look better than we deserve to be. But it was all on location, with very few things shot on a stage. It was all Spader and Lotte Verbeek [who appears as Red’s foil in that ep, ID’ed only as “Mysterious Woman”] and Michael Watkins, who directed it. They brought it to life.

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It was a difficult episode to make, which is something we talk about in the commentary on the Blu-ray — how we went about getting it made and why we wanted to spend some time just sitting with Raymond Reddington after the death of Elizabeth Keen, and how he would mourn. We thought there was an interesting story to tell there, and there’s some good insight into it on the commentary.

What I also liked was that there was no Blacklister in that episode at all, which shows you can do an episode without having that be a given part of the plotline.

It’s interesting. That’s the first time we had an episode with no Blacklister. There was no bad guy, really, and we thought, “Let’s just be honest about what it is.” I have always seen this as a case-of-the-week show, and I think it always will be. But we feel emboldened by that episode, and we feel it would be a welcome breath of fresh air every now and then to go in and tell these stories that are a little bit different, more serialized, and a little more unusual. We really enjoy mixing it up and letting the show find itself, and not be beholden to one specific sort of format.

Season 3 ended in such a great way, and we’re looking forward to whatever comes our way in season 4 — as well as the Blacklist: Redemption spinoff series that’s set for midseason. If you could assess season 4 in, say, two words, what would they be?

I would say: rollercoaster. It’s going to be a very adrenalized emotional rollercoaster. In a way, these people who have worked so closely together and have kind of become a family are going to have to somehow find it within themselves to move forward. It’s going to be a blast.

Or “a gas,” as Red would say.

Or a gas — yes, absolutely! It’s always going to be a gas.

The truth of who Reddington is guides us in every single episode.

Seeing Liz’s father at the end of season 3, and having Ulrich Thomsen playing him, is a great casting move. [Thomsen portrayed the ruthless local businessman Kai Proctor on Banshee.] Is it fair to say we’ll see a lot of him in season 4?

We’ll see him a fair amount, yes. He’s a critical part of season 4. Ulrich is a great actor, has great chemistry, and brings a real presence to the show. I think fans are going to have a great time watching him bring this character to life, one who has a lot of mysteries surrounding him. He’s not only going to raise questions, but he’s also going to answer questions as we move forward. I think he’s going to be a great addition. We’re going to have a great run with Ulrich.

That’s one of the things we like about the show — trying to surprise ourselves. Once you feel like you know somebody, you realize you don’t know them at all. That’s certainly the benchmark with Red. He’s this sort of chameleon who’s always shifting and changing. We’re getting closer and closer to understanding him, and the Cape May episode was a good example of that. But he’s still somewhat of an enigma to us — and that is part of what makes the show fun.

I totally agree. So I have one question about the ultimate reveal of the series: Are we going to find out everything is happening in Red’s snow globe?

(laughs) No, no! That’s a great idea, though. Maybe we need to set up a snow globe — or a couple of snow globes.

[This is a reference to the end of the acclaimed ’80s hospital drama St. Elsewhere — in the final episode, it was revealed the entire series existed in the mind of an autistic child who was looking at a snow globe containing a replica of the St. Eligius hospital.]

What I’ll say about the trajectory of the show and where it’s going — and where it’s been going since Day 1 — is that we do have a grasp on who these people are, how they’re interconnected, and what the agendas are. That, of course, shifts at times, and adjusts just because of the nature of doing 22 episodes of TV each season — and we don’t want to get there too quickly.

We’re fortunate to know where we’re going, and fortunate to have smart writers on staff who are keeping us in line with that. I don’t think we could tell as complex a story or as emotional a story if we were just winging it.

I would hope that by season 3, the fans are seeing that, and I think they’ll see more of that in season 4 as we continue to open up some of these bigger truths and land on some of them. But, yeah, I don’t know — snow globe… that’s a good idea.

No charge! NBC might own that idea anyway. So, just to confirm what you’re saying — no matter what season winds up being the last season of The Blacklist, you already know where you’re going to end up?

No matter how long we’re on? I have in my heart — and James [Spader] shares it, and [executive producer] John Eisendrath, and the people in the writer’s room do too — that we have a story, and it’s one we’re sticking to.

You figure out your destination, you find a couple of towns you’re going to stop in along the way, you look at the map and study it, and then you throw it away. You still know exactly where you’re going, and you know what marks to hit along the way. That’s true for each season, and that’s true for the series. At times, it adjusts slightly, but the truth of who Reddington is guides us in every single episode. It also makes writing the episodes incredibly difficult, but it is our guide.