NBC’s “The Blacklist” has never shied away from tumultuous and game-changing deaths, but the fifth season winter finale delivered its biggest story-bending twist to-date when it killed off an original character in the episode’s closing moments, and jumped forward a year in the timeline.
After spending the entirety of the season searching for the truth behind the suitcase of bones that Reddington (James Spader) desperately wanted hidden, Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold) finally learned what his father-in- law was hiding. Leading up to that moment, the episode combined flashbacks of when Tom was first assigned to Liz (Megan Boone) and a present-day chase involving Red, Tom and the episode’s Blacklister Ian Garvey (recurring guest-star Jonny Coyne), culminating in a shaky alliance of sorts between father- and son-in- law.
Unfortunately by the time Tom snuck off with the bones and made plans to tell Liz everything that had happened, Garvey had caught up with them both. The Keene residence became a crimson crime screen for Garvey and his goons as the leader repeatedly stabbed Tom and his men delivered a potentially fatal blow to Liz’s head. By the time Red and his sidekick Dembe (Hisham Tawfiq) arrived on the scene both Liz and Tom were in precarious conditions, and Garvey had long escaped.
It all culminated in a tranquil finish as Liz awoke from a coma to Red reading to her. She had been unconscious for ten months, and as Red informed her, Tom died at the hospital.
In the wake of the pivotal episode, Variety caught up with executive producers Jon Bokenkamp and John Eisendrath — along with departing star Eggold — to break down Tom’s final moments, why the character’s time had come, and how this particular death changes the tone of the show when it returns for its back half in January.
Tom Keen was a character that was supposed to die in the pilot; why kill him now?
Eisendrath: There’s not any one particular answer. Yes, he was supposed to die in the pilot. We feel like we had given the character of Tom just so many different avenues to pursue: opportunities with Liz to love, to hate, to fight, to get divorced, to annul their marriage, to get remarried. Ultimately in the end the short answer is that, when the series ends, whenever it ends, it’s ultimately a parent-child story and Tom was the most important person in Liz, ‘the child’s’ life. His passing is going to change the dynamic of who Liz is, how she behaves, and what her relationship is with Red in ways that are a huge new engine for her going forward in the show.
Bokenkamp: The “why now” is almost why you need to come back in the winter to see where the show goes. How she deals with this, how she can overcome it, how Liz tries to resist any of the dark impulses that might be within her are all important things to look at as we move ahead. It’s going to be really seismic for her to grapple with. It does sort of change the show in a way. Not only because Tom is gone, but because of what it might do to Liz.
Had you not had the opportunity to go so deep into Tom’s background with the “Redemption” spinoff is this a character that could have stuck around longer on “Blacklist?”
Eisendrath: One doesn’t have anything to do with the other. As writers the show tells you what the stories are going to be as much as the writers tell the show what the stories are going to be. There’s a rhythm, a life of its own. “Redemption” didn’t really play a big part of it, it just seemed like the organic, right time.
Eggold: It’s a tragic but fitting ending. There’s always been a twinge of Romeo and Juliet to their relationship and there’s always been this idealistic dream that they would get away from this crazy world with the truth in hand and have peace and have Agnes and live in a beautiful home in the middle of some beach somewhere. The episode delivers an enormous, violent dose of reality. It’s a catalyst for Liz. In terms of the ‘when’ of it all, I don’t know there’s a right time but it is a really fitting, tragic ending.
The episode featured telling flashbacks of Tom’s earlier days, does that allow for the character’s return in the future?
Eisendrath: We’ll leave that to Ryan to tell us. Or Ryan’s agents. We would love it. We have no idea what the future holds in terms of those stories but there are secrets and stories that we have not told that he has gone to his grave holding; that might be fun to unearth at some point in the future.
Eggold: These guys can do plenty of amazing storytelling without Tom, but doing some of the flashback scenes in eight was really fun and it’s interesting how truth from the past affects the present. It affects your perspective of the current story. Some of that here and there could be interesting.
Given certain fake deaths in the past, was it important to physically show Tom in the morgue?
Bokenkamp: It was really important, that’s why it’s the last shot of the episode. Not to say that he’s not coming back because that would be great in a flashback if we told those stories — but we should be clear that, like Mr. Kaplan (Susan Blommaert), he is dead. There’s no trick there. We wanted to play fair with the audience like we did with Mr. Kaplan and a number of other people on the show who have died. We just wanted to be super clear that there was no trickery here, there was no bigger agenda.
Eggold: I tried one take with a wink in the morgue but the guys cut it.
Tom was often the window into the espionage world of the show; will someone else take up that mantle?
Bokenkamp: We still like to tell the dark, espionage kind of situations that our characters get into so we’re going to continue to do those kinds of stories. Tom’s death just opens up some real estate in an exciting way where we get to know the other characters on the show more. Quite honestly what it does to Liz is probably the story that might in a way take up some of that oxygen in terms of what she does moving forward and how she chooses to handle this.
Eisendrath: The extra illegal undertakings that Tom did, Liz might end up doing some of those in pursuit of the people who killed Tom.
With Tom’s death dies the truth about the suitcase of bones, how does that factor into the second half of the season?
Bokenkamp: Tom found the truth to what was in that suitcase and who that was, and what that larger secret may sort of represent to Reddington in a dangerous way. That truth is still out there. Jonny Coyne took that suitcase and that is a story that we continue to unpack and that we will have to confirm before the end of the season.
How will Tom’s death affect Liz and Red’s relationship going forward?
Eisendrath: There will be many twists and turns in it, both in the immediate
aftermath and in the rest of the season. Questions revolving around, does he support her in her quest? What did he know? Was he involved in a way that he’s kept secret from her? When last seen, Liz is totally unaware of any of this. She’s unaware of Kaplan having given this suitcase to Tom. She doesn’t know anything so she’s going to find all that out and that’s going to have a huge impact on her relationship with Red.