Monday, October 7, 2013

Is Red in the Blacklist the latest incarnation of Hannibal Lecter?

Despite writing only a few books, Thomas Harris (the writer of Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal) has impacted fiction for decades. More specifically, the character dynamic of the anti-hero as the modern criminal mastermind that likes to play quid pro quo with the incredibly beautiful and smart rookie agent has been used almost to the point of being cliche. I say "almost" because despite my ability to spot this trope whenever it rears its ugly head, when a storyline takes the time to reinvent it, I'm on the hook. And that's exactly what NBC is doing with The Blacklist.

We are introduced to the characters of "Red" and "Liz" in the pilot episode in total Thomas Harris fashion. Red is a super brilliant criminal mastermind who has better intelligence than the top chiefs at the F.B.I. (this is "the skinny" on the scariest people you hope to never cross paths with) and in a nod to the character of Hannibal Lecter, he will only share his knowledge with rookie agent Elizabeth Keen on her first day at work.

"Tell me about the scar on your hand..." Red says to Elizabeth. Well if she doesn't tell him, he's not going to cooperate. That's just the way these quid pro quo things work. So our hero Elizabeth gives Red what he wants by revealing one small layer about herself. And of course, James Spader then tells her what she wants to know regarding a master criminal who is going to abduct a little girl and set her to explode at the D.C. national zoo.
Megan Boone and James Spader
The clever dialogue of the series more than likely hinges on the psychology involved in profiling villains and their motives. Like Clarice Starling (whom we first came to know in Silence of the Lambs) Elizabeth is also a graduate of Quantico and possesses a degree in forensic psychology. In an interesting scene with the FBI Director, she is asked to profile herself. When he informs her that he's read her resume and doesn't need her to just vomit that back upon his desk, she gets personal in a way that I know I probably couldn't do and manages to seal the deal that she's the right person to be working with Red. One thing I like to do when watching shows like this is to think of how predictable we are in reality? Could my psychology be profiled? Could I (a reasonable human male) get caught up in unreasonable yet predictable psychological behavior? Have you ever heard of the $500.00 $20.00 bill?

Here's how it works:
I have a $20 bill. I'll sell it to you for whatever you want. Bidding starts at $1 and moves in $1 increments.
But there's a catch. Other people get to bid on this $20 bill. If someone outbids you and you throw in the towel, you still have to pay me your final bid. You get nothing in return.
How much are you willing to pay for my $20 bill?
Psychologists have been conducting this experiment for years, usually on students. It always goes the same way. People get excited at first at the prospect of bidding $1, or $5, or $10, for a $20 bill. It's free money. At around $17 or $18, a bidding war arises between two players who realize they could end up having to pay a lot of money for nothing in return. Not wanting to lose, they each bid higher and higher.
Eventually, someone bids $21 for a $20 bill -- which actually makes sense, because at that price the winner loses $1 while the loser is out $20.
Things blow up from there. The bidding war becomes a fight to lose the least, rather than to win the most. And as psychologists know, people hate losing more than they enjoy winning. It's called loss aversion, and it pushes bids for a $20 bill to absurd heights.
Wharton management professor Adam Grant, who plays this game in consulting sessions, says a military officer once paid close to $500 for a $20 bill. Harvard Business School professor Max Bazerman claims to have earned $17,000 auctioning $20 bills to his students, with at least one student paying $204 for a $20 bill.
The psychology of the above irrational example of human greed, the desire to get a bargain, and to not be the one that ends up getting screwed financially is simply a part of human nature. My conclusion then to the questions I posed before the above example is yes, I may think of myself as a reasonable human being but in the end I'm as easily profiled as the next guy. I think all of us secretly know this, and that's why characters in fiction that are smart and able to figure out the motivations and goals of villains are worthy of our attention.

There is one thing that somewhat bothers me about The Blacklist: I don't like how Red is such a direct clone of Hannibal with regard to his snobbiness. He loves surpassing luxury, fine dining, good music, and fine wine. He dresses impeccably, treats people with respect (if they show him respect), and is obviously quite taken with himself in being the smartest one around. I think I would have preferred that they shatter this cliche just a wee bit, but seeing as I cannot afford the lifestyle that Red so readily demands, it will in the least be a window into the decadence of the 1%. This is something that Americans and Hollywood never grow tired of showing us. There are probably dozens of shows on television that feature yachts, expensive cars, jet-setting characters to remote locations of our world, and the finest clothes money can buy.

All in all, I enjoyed the pilot of The Blacklist, but I have to say that I'm more curious as to how they will change the Hannibal Lecter character in this new reincarnation played by James Spader. He's obviously not a murderer or a cannibal. That is refreshing. I wonder if he'll go from being FBI's most wanted in the first episode, to occupying a crucial and trusted position working with the good guys. Is that kind of redemption even possible in real life? I'd best not ask those kinds of questions because the answer is probably far more mundane and obviously less interesting.


  1. Big fan of The Blacklist. Glad you're intrigued too Mike.

  2. Guess we'll just have to wait and see. If they just let him go in his own direction, Spader has the capability of carrying the show by himself as a unique character.

  3. Spader is just an amazing actor, but I was bothered too by how Hannibal Lector-ish he was. But the show is still captivating!

  4. Seeing the previews for that all I could think was Spader's really gotten old and fat. It's kind of depressing.

  5. Here in Mexico, I'm out of the loop as to new shows coming on TV. But you've intrigued me with your analysis. I'm going to have to hunt this one down.

  6. Another show, I'll catch up to on demand, but intriguing.

    I think made believable - if you compare the character to today's politicians. Not all are ridiculously rich, but quit a few are, and this is how they act - and even more blatantly than ever. Maybe because they see these characters as someone to emulate - which makes it even sadder. Sorry, again on my soapbox.

    Back to the story: I do hope we don't find out that she's his daughter - tired! But I will try to hold off judgement.

    Although, I did catch the last three hours of Breaking Bad, and thought it was wrapped up a bit too neatly - and that's said by someone who loves a Happy Ending!

    Okay, so you can't please me! LOL

  7. Man, i can barely even recognize Spader in that pic!

  8. We use loss aversion on our kids. Using loss aversion in classrooms actually produces better test results than rewarding students that do well.

  9. Spader is great to watch, but the rest of the cast is a bit middling, especially the girl. It also gets a bit predictable when everything is the opposite of what you expect (a lot of that going around tv drama last couple of years).


  10. There's been a David Spader sighting! I forgot that guy even existed. I haven't seen this show. Just too busy to watch much TV these days.

  11. Missed the show, but I saw the previews. And my first reaction was like you said, a total rip-off of the Silence of the Lambs scenario (which you do see over and over again on shows now). But maybe I'll give it a shot and see how they work with it. Spader is always interesting to watch. :)

  12. I haven't caught this yet. It must be on at 10. I'm glad he's not a murderer, then I can watch. I'm such a woos.

  13. My sister was watching the show and I caught a glimpse of it not knowing what it was about; I didn't know it was about hannibal lecter. that intrigues me. thanks for this introduction.

  14. It's interesting how you put Red in the category of the 1%, which sounds befitting considering the luxury angle. But what doesn't jive is that he's also superb at reading people, their psychology and emotions. In reality and according to tests run by some psychologists, most (although not all) of elite, powerful 1% types is that they are LESS empathetic and weak at reading emotions and needs in other people. In contrast, lower class/ low middle class people test out as the best at discerning what other people are feeling.

  15. Did you catch Entertainment Weekly's write up of this show? I believe it was in the fall TV preview issue. The creators of the show talked about it in some detail, and some of your questions were answered there.

  16. I've never heard of this $20. bill scam. How interesting, and it really does say a lot about human nature.

  17. I think I will have to check this out. I haven't had a chance yet to look at too many new shows.

  18. I've enjoyed the first 2 episodes of The Blacklist. My biggest concern is that there are so many plot twists and intrigue, that I hope they don't get burned out halfway through the season. I like Red's character, but I'll like him even more when we see some vulnerability, when we actually get to know who he is. Is Elizabeth's husband a spy or is he being framed as another part of Red's game? I'm excited to find out.