How The Blacklist Toes The Line Between Science and Fiction

The Blacklist excels in high concept sci-fi plots that seem plausible...but probably aren't. Here are just a few.

James Spader in The Blacklist season 9
Photo: NBC

This article contains spoilers for The Blacklist through season 9.

For nine seasons, The Blacklist has offered fans a panoramic view of the intersections between science and fiction. Paying attention to these blurred lines is not an attempt to poke holes in the episodes or to reclassify the show’s genre: The Blacklist is a fictional crime drama without question…and that means there is room to play with reality.  

For nearly a decade, the show has kept viewers shrouded in a veil of confused mystery on multiple fronts: what was the nature of Red’s relationship with Elizabeth, who is Red really and where in the world is Katarina Rostova? It seems a blurry lens is the eyewear-of-choice for the writers to impart on the audience. Yet, it is in these murky sci-fi plotlines where we can begin to get cozy with the location of truth and unanswered questions on The Blacklist…that is, as long as we are willing to get cozy with uncertainty. 

Tracing three narrative threads through The Blacklist helps us to navigate varying elements of science and fiction on the show and frees us to make our own unique guesses about what’s to come in season ten.

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Agent Ressler’s Urine Swap-Injection 

Let’s begin with season nine and a personal favorite sci-fi bit: Agent Donald Ressler’s (Diego Klattenhoff) urine swap and subsequent injection of said fluid into his bladder through penile catheterization. Poor Donald…he has already been through so much before this drug test. No other character on the show has been shot up, blown up, or hospitalized more than Ressler. His heart has not been immune to trauma either. His possibly pregnant fiancée, Audrey Bidwell (Emily Tremaine), was killed in season one and his next love, Agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), also met a violent end. Both women died because of circumstances connected to Raymond Reddington (James Spader), the man that has been the focus of Agent Ressler’s FBI career.  

After his two years off-the-grid following Liz’s murder, Donald finds himself desperate to be reinstated to the Task Force while fighting a serious addiction caused by a reliance on the pain meds he has taken to recover from his workplace injuries. So desperate in fact that he guilt-trips Agent Alina Park (Laura Sohn) into providing him with a clean sample of her urine. She eventually agrees and promptly provides her pee in a small, medical sample cup (with a lid). It’s a really small sample. 

What exactly Donny-boy plans to do with the sample is unknown to anyone but himself and the doctor he visits who assures him that professional athletes successfully inject clean urine into their bladders all the time to pass their drug tests. Donald not only risks internal bleeding and infection by going this route, but it is also unlikely to work in the real world. The kidneys don’t stop producing urine, so whatever small amount of clean urine Donald had injected into his body, his own fluids present and those generated between the procedure and the drug test would taint the sample. Nevertheless, the ruse worked, and Agent Ressler passed the drug test and was reinstated to the Task Force. Once again, Agent Ressler seemed none the worse for the wear. 

DNA & Daddy Dilemmas 

DNA figures largely on The Blacklist. In Season 1 Episode 12 “The Alchemist,” we find another swap-injection thread. The blacklister in this episode kidnaps near-doppelgangers of his clients, drugs the victims, performs oral surgery to create a dental record match, does their hair, make-up, and tattoo art, injects some of the clients’ DNA into the victims and then kills them in a physically damaging fashion so that the client is the one presumed dead. This guy is a jack-of-all-trades! 

Trouble is…even the most genius of evil scientists can’t swap out 100% of a person’s DNA. Cells are constantly regenerating, much like urine in the bladder. In fact, cells continue to generate in the body for up to 48 hours after a person dies. Some genes even become more active after death. While Agent Aram Mojtabai (Amir Arison) is the man who figures it all out in typically astute fashion, it would be impossible for The Alchemist to work his foul magic and get away with it. Even those far less-qualified than Aram would be sniffing this trail out quickly.  

We can expect The Blacklist to take fictional liberties with DNA science, and we have also witnessed how DNA drives major plotlines. No double-helix has been uncoiled and inspected more than Elizabeth Keen’s, whose DNA functioned best as tiny metal fragments always getting sucked against whichever giant magnet-shaped-like-a-possible father wanted to claim her. 

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Raymond Reddington staked his claim on Liz’s first day on the job; he didn’t even let her get her feet wet. Their relational dynamic, teased by the writers, always begged the same question: do they share DNA, or do they want to mix their DNA together? It’s a long-game, bait-and-switch that has led to deep fan theories like Lizzington (Red and Liz shippers) and Agnesgate (Liz and Red are Agnes’ real parents). These theories may provide fodder for tantalizing dreams, but they do little to advance the storyline as we prepare for a tenth season – the second season of the series without Megan Boone. Unless the writers plan to resurrect her DNA, then we should expect Liz to keep fading into the background like a beautiful memory. 

In Constantin Rostov’s (Ulrich Thomsen) season four story arc, he also claimed Elizabeth (and baby Agnes) for his own special needs. Constantin was convinced they shared DNA partly because, according to Red, that’s what his wife, Katarina Rostova (Lotte Verbeek), wanted him to believe. The fact that Constantin was dying and only his daughter’s (or granddaughter’s) stem cells could save him brought him out of the shadows and into their lives. He was fierce in his need, pulling on the coils of a DNA connection to get his way. His love for his Masha was so great that he nearly tortured to death the man who he later thought was her real dad (sarcasm intended). 

Until it happened…the moment we’ve all been waiting a decade for…when Red finally grabs us by the neck, pulls us close and whispers the truth in our ears, just like he did for Constantin. The truth hit Constantin and seeped into him. Constantin crumpled back into his chair in shock. His desire to kill the creature before him melted away, all in an instant. What could Red have told him that changed his murderous intent so swiftly? It’s as if Constantin found out that Red was someone else entirely, someone he obviously didn’t want to kill.  

Where in the World is Katarina Rostova? 

The only person that could have paused Constantin’s will to kill so abruptly is Katarina, his long-lost wife. Red’s admission, though unheard by the TV audience, must have been that he is Katarina, Elizabeth Keen’s mother…not Raymond Reddington, Liz’s maybe-father. The Redarina or “mother theory” was first proposed at the beginning of season three. In September 2015, Daniel Knauf, then co-executive producer and writer on The Blacklist, was presented with the Redarina theory on The Blacklist Exposed Podcast and sounded honestly surprised, amused even, at the idea before saying, “If that’s the way it pans out, that would be fantastic.” 

Over the past decade of The Blacklist, Raymond Reddington started out as “the” Raymond Reddington, and then was thought to be Ilya Koslov (Gabriel Mann), Katarina’s old friend and part-time lover. Ilya, in fact, underwent plastic surgery in order to impersonate Raymond Reddington (no one else knew he was actually dead) in order to help Katarina retrieve $40 million in Raymond’s bank account. It wasn’t long after the Ilya revelation that we learned that Ilya Koslov is actually a whole separate human being to the person we know as Raymond Reddington, and once again the doors were flung open to the possibilities of Red’s true identity. 

The Redarina theory hinges on the idea that Katarina saw the possibilities of Ilya’s transformation and then decided to become Raymond Reddington herself. During the 2021 Season 8 Episode 21, “Nachalo,” the Redarina theory was so heavily teased that many felt the theory was all but confirmed. But did Red tell Constantin the truth, whatever it was that he whispered into his ear? Afterall, it was Red’s last-ditch effort at living. Red could’ve told Constantin much sooner, saved himself the near-death-experience, and still had the same results. This card was only played when no other options remained. And it worked.  

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What better place to hide a person than in another person: swap-inject-voila! The problem is that this Redarina tease has lingered on for six seasons. In terms of The Blacklist, that’s too long for the truth to be exposed. The beating heart of this show is the unexpected turn of the screw – a revelation that makes a dire situation worse or forces someone into action. At this point, if Red is Katarina, then that heart stops beating because something that has already been guessed for years ends up being true…and that’s not The Blacklist

The Blacklist is a crime show that relies on science to drive its storylines. As a work of fiction, viewers should be prepared for all possibilities and liberties to be taken with reality. What does that mean for the answers that fans have waited a decade to learn? The only thing we can know for sure – those answers will be like nothing we’ve already dreamed up by connecting the elusive dots on the show for nine years. It is only in the wild imaginations of the writers and the fans that we can begin to make best guesses. The only requirement? Those guesses have to be new ones. 

It’s a long wait until The Blacklist Season 10 premiere in early 2023. So, what’s your new turn of the screw guess about the big questions on The Blacklist? I have one that just hit me today when Deirdre Lovejoy posted a new profile picture on Twitter

Going on hair and eye color alone…could Cynthia Panabaker be Katarina Rostova? The sci-fi possibilities on The Blacklist are endless.