The Blacklist: Why Fans Love Tracking Red’s Hair (Or Lack Thereof)

The debate around James Spader's hair on The Blacklist provides an important bit of whimsy for fans while also being dramatically significant.

THE BLACKLIST -- "Caelum Bank #169" Episode 920 -- Pictured: James Spader as Raymond "Red" Reddington
Photo: Will Hart | NBC

This article contains spoilers for The Blacklist season 9 through episode 20.

The horror…the horror…of Raymond Reddington’s bald head in the first episode of this season’s The Blacklist. It may be just a few more passes of the razor than the tight shadow of fuzz fans have grown accustomed to over the previous eight years, but its effect is eerily similar to our first sighting of the tragic hero turned madman, Colonel Kurtz, from the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola classic: Apocalypse Now. And we know how that turned out!  

Colonel Kurtz did not get the opportunity to grow his hair out, but Red sure has, and fans would like to run their fingers through it, crack an egg on it like Mierce might, and help him out of this big Marvin mess revealed in last Friday’s episode: “Caelum Bank.” Between the grief and stress that everyone on The Blacklist has been experiencing this season, Red’s hair is the fandom’s primary source of whimsy in a show that usually delivers enough irreverence of its own.

Left - Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Right - James Spader as Red in The Blacklist

The great James Spader, who plays Raymond “Red” Reddington, took to staying out of sight during the summer of 2021. Fans and press speculated as we neared the premiere date for season 9 that a big change must be underfoot. Perhaps Red’s mysterious illness will have taken its toll, or he’s gained or lost weight, or maybe … *gasp* his hair would be different? 

Ad – content continues below

The Blacklist season 9 has delivered more skin, albeit scalp, from James Spader than we’ve seen since Crash (1996). The #Spaderverse (a term coined by @BumblyBee8) on Twitter found itself quickly embroiled in a situationship with Red’s hair that has lasted all season long. Each Friday on the live tweet #TheBlacklist watch party (8 p.m. ET), Red’s hair is closely tracked. A recent Twitter polled revealed that the #1 reason to keep watching the show is “To find out who Red is”. Tied for #2 as fans’ top reasons to watch: “The Blacklist cases” and “FOLLOWING RED’S HAIR.”

A Twitter poll asking why fans keep watching The Blacklist. "FOLLOWING RED'S HAIR" is tied for second.

Last Friday’s episode “Caelum Bank” brought fans to the brink of a sort of apocalyptic madness. Red’s need for revenge and his hair have grown together over twenty episodes, but he couldn’t get closer to any answers about who killed Liz, set up Harold, ordered hits on crucial people, and used his own money to do it all. In a season of storylines marked by oddities, confusion, and an off-temper Red, the fandom’s obsession with James Spader’s physical details has offered a rich tapestry of irreverent delights. How many fingers go in James’ mouth when he eats an orange in a certain gif? What is the just-right number of shirt buttons for him to leave undone? How long is Red’s hair gonna get?

A strong Robert California (The Office) and W.N. Bilbo (Lincoln) clarion call is what we’re hearing from the #Spaderverse. And if that’s not enough, daily tweets pop up from folks who are seeing The Blacklist for the first time and binge-watching. Everyone is getting on board with tracking James Spader’s locks and even doing a little hair-compare reminiscence tweeting:

One thing about The Blacklist that fans and new binge-watchers alike learn quickly: everything on the show means something…or nothing at all. Such is the case with Red’s hair discourse. Either fans are just having some fun or Red’s hair means something. Or both! His hair certainly meant something in the pilot episode. Who can forget Red’s wild mane in his mugshot juxtaposed with the moment when he doffed his hat, revealed his sweet buzz cut, and knelt on that federal seal to turn himself in to the FBI? A fugitive on the run, sleeping in caves, and in warm beds belonging to others: Red and his hair have to be ready to fly at the drop of a fedora, so our favorite fugitive has sported a nifty and nimble buzz for the past eight seasons.

Each week over these twenty episodes, we have witnessed Red’s hair growing back, bit by bit, until he has long surpassed the buzz and is moving into uncharted hair territory. He was nearly unrecognizable in season 9 episode 1 “The Skinner” when Harold Cooper was drugged by a bartender at the Esquina Monserrate Bar. Unconscious, Cooper was then transported to Red’s and the Xiu sisters’ Cuban lair. The egg ritual and the way the witch/Red’s lover, Mierce, holds her sage-smudge-stick like a heavy sword felt super-creepy. There were no heads littered around or half-naked corpses hanging from trees like we saw in Colonel Kurtz’s Cambodian domain in Apocalypse Now, but more than just hair dares us to compare Red with the ill-fated Kurtz.

The Blacklist season 9 and Apocalypse Now both depict the end of an iconic dynasty and the demise of its dynamic and dangerous leader. We encounter Red after two years of hiding and he is changed in looks and in spirit. When Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard finally meets Colonel Kurtz, the first symbol invoked is water. Kurtz begins baptizing his bald head with water from a basin. In “The Skinner,” the first invitation Red offers to Harold is a water ritual – a glass of tap from his own sort of basin, likely made of Waterford crystal rather than Cambodian stone. And it is water again that solved the mystery and finally pushed Red from absolute uncertainty into action in “Caelum Bank.”

Ad – content continues below

It took a beggar to bring the light Red needed to finally see some dots connect. Agent Alina Park came into Red’s warehouse this past Friday at a bad time to ask for an ill-thought-out favor. He said “no”, but before she could leave, one of her piercing headaches erupted and caused her to double-over and shatter her water glass. The sound of a cup breaking and a young woman suffering a sudden, severe headache reminded Red of Liz’s final day, a headache of her own, and the pills Marvin gave her to feel better, which is how he delivered the infamous tracker. Alina’s arrival and her broken water glass saved Heddie’s life and sealed up Marvin as the Big Bad.   

Red is grief-stricken and stressed; he is different. A light has gone out. But this ongoing hair growth and the movement in “Caelum Bank” gives us hope that the Red we love may return to us. We saw glimpses last Friday: three people left for dead in a span of three minutes while he worries his girlfriend is going to be angry that her sister is driving his car. We want diatribes about cats in busy streets, flagrant flamboyancy to get out of serious pickles, and much, MUCH more flirting. The only really hot moment this season was when the elderly, retired lady-Skinner forced a lip-lock out of Red and he served it up as only James Spader can do.

Red may never be exactly the same again after Liz’s death, but as his hair keeps growing and we see physical glimpses of the saucy Robert California or Bilbo emerge, we can’t help but desire one thing from our beloved Concierge of Crime: a return to irreverence!