You’d have to be blind not to see the success of Blindspot. NBC’s highly anticipated drama arrived on Monday with all the action that was promised, but underneath that – like a clue hidden in one of Jane Doe’s tattoos – was a rich tapestry of character development and engaging performances by an entire ensemble. This is the kind of show that networks are built around, and it should be the hit that the network is looking for.
The opening has been well established: in a busy Times Square, there’s an abandoned duffel bag with a tag that reads “Call the FBI.” Panic promptly ensues, and the area is evacuated save for the one bomb squad guy who gets the job of defusing what he presumes is an explosive device. It’s not – it’s Jane (Jaimie Alexander), covered head to toe in tattoos and understandably terrified.
While she’s taken into custody, crack FBI agent Kurt Weller (Sullivan Stapleton) and his Critical Incident Response Group team are rescuing kidnapped girls from a farmhouse in rural Kentucky. But no sooner have they handled that situation than Weller ges a chopper escort back to New York – because Jane has just shot to the top of the Bureau’s priority list.
He’s met by his boss, Bethany Mayfair (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and Dr. Borden (Ukweli Roach), who explain to him that Jane is suffering from a chemically induced state of permanent amnesia and oh yeah, his name is one of the biggest tattoos on her body. It’s a shame, then, that he’s never seen her before in his life.
Weller immediately takes on Jane as his next case, assigning his subordinates to comb his professional history and do everything they can to identify her. That means a lot of poking, prodding and testing, including photographing, fingerprinting, drawing blood, and asking a bunch of required questions that everyone knows she can’t answer.
While Agent Zapata (Audrey Esparza) finds footage of the white van that dumped Jane off in Times Square, Agent Patterson (Ashley Johnson) does a full imaging of every one of Jane’s many tattoos, which she deduces are no more than a few weeks old. Weller can tell within moments that they all mean something, starting with him.
Finally Weller comes face to face with Jane, who is heartbroken when he can’t give her any answers. He asks her if she recognizes him and shows her the tattoo on her back; she struggles to place his face, but comes up empty. “What happens now?” she wonders aloud, and she doesn’t mean with the investigation. She’s been the ultimate lab rat, and so Weller drops her off at a Bureau safehouse that’s about one step above a Motel 6 before going home to wrack his brain about who she might be.
While he’s doing that, Jane has a well-earned emotional breakdown.
The next day she has her first session with Dr. Borden, who tries to broaden her horizons by getting her both coffee and tea. This teaches Jane two things: she remembers what grass tastes like and she enjoys coffee. He encourages her to keep trying new things, to find out what those things teach her about herself.
As he’s doing that, Weller and Johnson are eyeing up the square on Jane’s arm which is so obviously covering up an existing tattoo. They’re discussing it as Jane wanders out and gets her first good look at everything that’s been inked onto her. She calls out another sequence behind her left ear, which is Chinese for an address and that day’s date. We know this because Jane apparently speaks Chinese. “It was right under our nose,” Weller comments, to which Reed replies, “Behind her ear, actually.” Smartass.
Weller, Zapata and Reed are immediately sent out to the address, and Jane insists on tagging along, believing she has to have more of a purpose than being a human notepad. Mayfair reluctantly acquiesces to her demand, although Weller tries to leave Jane in the car, because it’s not a cop show until someone is left in the car.
He and Zapata go to the apartment, but have a problem communicating because neither of them speak Chinese. Thus, Weller is forced to call on Jane ever so politely, and she doesn’t recognize anything in the room but she is able to translate for him. As soon as she leaves, the team finds a secret lab in an adjoining room, and realize it’s cooking up plastic explosives. That’s a problem.
There’s another problem in the hall, because Jane hears a situation of domestic abuse downstairs. As Johnson informs Mayfair that Jane’s covered tattoo identifies her as a Navy SEAL, Jane is trying to rescue the battered woman from her husband. When he tries to attack her instead, she beats the stuffing out of him and his associate. Weller finds her engaged in a full-on brawl, one that she’s scared to be winning. This was not the new experience Dr. Borden was talking about.
Jane returns upstairs just in time to listen to the video manifesto pulled up by Zapata, which tells of an attack that’s less than four hours away. The FBI knows the who and with what, but they still don’t know where. Weller thinks it might be targeting a prominent politician, but doesn’t notice the mysterious dude watching the Bureau SUV depart (Johnny Whitworth of Empire Records fame).
Thanks to some cell phone magic, they’re able to locate their target and spot him headed down into a subway station, yet he gets a text from an unknown number (of course) that tells him the FBI is on his tail. Weller and Reed stalk the guy through the train, but not before he’s uncoupled the cars and gotten away – and planted some extra explosives for them.
Weller soon realizes that his only option is to take this new bomb himself and run like hell. He separates as much of the C4 as he can before he does his best Peyton Manning and throws the rest of the device, which is still enough to cause lots of screaming. Reed watches in disbelief as his boss returns, battered but alive.
When they return to the surface, Jane explains that she’s translated the bomber’s e-mails and that it all boils down to the guy being disgruntled because his mother died in a Chinese prison camp after American authorities didn’t get her out. Weller realizes one of the phrases in the suspect’s manifesto, “mother of exiles,” is actually referencing the Statue of Liberty. We’re going to need a boat.
Mayfair decides now is a good time to tell Weller that his new associate might have been a Navy SEAL. “That’d explain a few things,” he deadpans, just before trying to leave Jane in the car for a second time. But she does the math and points out to him that his team is outnumbered, so he agrees to bring her as long as she never leaves his sight.
Thus, Jane is there when he finds their target posing as a park ranger, and though she gets shot in the arm, she encourages him to pursue the suspect up the many, many stairs inside the Statue. What follows is a brawl that Damien Scott would’ve appreciated, but just as the target has Weller at knifepoint, Jane arrives and picks up Weller’s gun. Weller encourages her to take the shot, and she hits the suspect perfectly, freeing him and saving the day.
This prompts her to have a flashback to her past, where she’s target practicing in the woods with the mysterious man. “I remember something,” she admits while also being overwhelmed by having shot someone.
Weller gives Mayfair his evaluation of Jane and her abilities, pointing out that she saved his life and insisting that she could be a valuable resource to their team, because who knows what else her body might be able to tell them? He’s still confused as to why they didn’t just get a phone call, but we all are.
Mayfair thinks everyone should go home and sleep it off, but maybe that’s because she’s got a redacted file in her hands, with her name in it and the words “murder” and “embezzlement.” And the number on that case file is also one of the tattoos on Jane’s body. Ouch, for both of them. (Check out the video included with this article to see this big hint up close.)
Instead of going home, Weller goes to see Jane, who’s still trying to process the events of the day. “How did you know that I could make that shot?” she asks him. “I didn’t know,” he replies. “I took a chance on you.” That’s slightly encouraging, and so is the hug that comes with it. It’s almost like a bonding moment, if an awkward one.
The mysterious man visits the suspect in the hospital and tells him he was supposed to die. “You for your sister, that was the deal,” he says before killing the dude off-screen and therefore obliterating any chance at his usefulness. In another look back, the audience sees him explaining to Jane that once he inserts a needle, everything she is will cease to exist. “I know,” she tells him. “But it’s my own choice.”
Like the character at its center, there’s so much to deduce about Blindspot and you can’t stop poking at it. Let’s start with the last part first: what kind of organization was Jane involved with, because we’re pretty sure that the Navy wouldn’t authorize a program of intentional amnesia. So did she leave the service and as isn’t unheard of, fall in with some other group, either private or somewhere else within the government? What could be so damning that anyone was convinced the best way to solve it was to ink her up and wipe her memory? And what could possibly convince her to make that big a sacrifice?
If you start thinking about the specifics of her predicament, it begins to boggle the mind. Somebody had to spend what must have been hours designing and then applying the tattoos to her body (heaven forbid if they slipped). They also had to know a lot about a lot of things to even have clues to put on her in the first place, so you can assume these people have access to a lot of information (are they hanging out with Cassandra from The Player? Hey, there’s your crossover). And Jane made a voluntary choice to let this happen to her. So was her past life so terrible that she was willing to give it up, or was she that committed to her mission?
Hopefully, we’ll find that out, along with the answers to a number of reasonable questions that Blindspot raises, even if it doesn’t necessarily provide answers. Weller and his team make all the moves you’d expect the FBI to make – doing every medical test imaginable and going to the videotape to find out who dumped Jane in Times Square – so why don’t they have more information at least about how she got there? As is pointed out, why didn’t these people just reach out to Weller directly rather than sending a messenger?
We don’t know, but you have to applaud Martin Gero for having the characters ask the questions that the audience would be asking. The series doesn’t substitute dramatic license for common sense. If Weller is supposed to be one of the FBI’s top agents, he certainly behaves like it, and it’s important that we believe he’s more than competent. The series wants us to believe he’s important enough that Jane needs him, and by episode’s end we feel like that’s the case – not just professionally, but already he serves as an emotional support for her as well. He comes across as exactly the guy you’d want if you were in her situation.
Which brings us to a couple of important points – the first being that litmus test as to whether or not the characters live up to what the script says about them. Most characters on TV series are supposed to be the top or near the top of their particular field, because those characters are the most interesting, and Blindspot is no exception to that conceit. It wouldn’t work if Jane was, say, the clerk from the Macy’s at the mall. She has to be worth all this trouble, and the pilot really does convince us that she and Weller are as good as advertised.
Point two is that this cannot be a one-woman show. Yes, Jane Doe is the center, the catalyst, and the through-line of the season is about who she is and why she’s there. But in terms of story, she needs people to help her, and from a show standpoint, the best series never rest on one thing. Gero’s script spends time with Weller on his own, and Sullivan Stapleton’s understated performance tells us a fair amount about this man in how he interacts with everyone around him – not just Jane. He is not here just in relation to her; he’s being developed himself and has his own journey to take, and we want to go with him.
Likewise, it’s a common failing of many ensemble shows, particularly procedurals, to focus on one or two characters and then wind up with one or two more that you can’t even name because they only show up to service the story. Blindspot‘s pilot makes tiny efforts to give each supporting character at least one characteristic. Patterson might be the obligatory tech expert, but Ashley Johnson imbues her with this warmth that’s appealing. Rob Brown’s Reed is a scene-stealer with his one-liners. Audrey Esparza is the tough-as-nails Esparza. These are just the most basic of characteristics, but at least we know something about them and hopefully they will continue to grow further.
If there’s a ‘but’ in the ensemble, it’s with the character of Bethany Mayfair. Setting aside how slightly trippy it is for Without A Trace fans to see Marianne Jean-Baptiste playing another supervising FBI agent in New York, the pilot seems to hint at her having at least a tangential tie to some unsavory things, and how many times has the corrupt boss card been played? It’s one of the oldest twists in the book. Plus, if Mayfair does turn out to be bad, that would seemingly rule out Jean-Baptiste beyond this season, and she’s too good of an actress to let go of. Let’s hope Blindspot isn’t setting Mayfair up the way it currently appears to be.
Past the characters, Blindspot‘s pilot script hits all the beats that it should, as far as selling the series and its premise to audiences. It satisfies the skeptics wary of getting involved with a long-term mystery by revealing not one, not two but three big clues about Jane by the end of the first hour. It establishes why Jane needs to continue to work with the FBI in a believable manner, and it’s more than just “because she has clues.” She uses her skill set, not her tattoos, to save Weller’s life. It makes you think that even if she didn’t have a single clue on her body, she’d still have something to contribute. So she earns her place on the team, so to speak.
And in that sense, the script has its head screwed on straight. It allows Jane to save the day – she has to, because we have to understand why she matters and has to keep mattering – but it doesn’t do so at the expense of the other characters. Weller and all of his agents have parts to play in solving the case of the week; Jane helps with several key clues, but she doesn’t make them look stupid. If they weren’t there, she couldn’t stop the attack on her own, and if she wasn’t there, Weller would still be trying to translate Chinese on Google. It’s a two-way street.
As long as the series avoids using Jane and/or her tattoos as a deus ex machina to get the FBI out of any future pickles, it’s got nothing to worry about.
The show’s universe is set up exceedingly well going forward. The intense marketing for the show has almost been doing it a disservice, in that it only focuses on the mystery and action aspects of the series; that’s like ordering a layer cake and only talking about the frosting. Yes, “Who is Jane Doe?” is a core question, but the show won’t shoot itself in the foot when it answers that. She’s a compelling enough character, and so are the others around her, that there’s still enough left once that answer is revealed.
So many shows with mythology mess themselves up in that aspect, because that’s all or most of what they’ve got. But like Burn Notice, this series could absolutely go on once we find out who Jane is. We already know that there’s enough body ink on her to last us a couple of seasons. Even if she finds out who she is tomorrow, she’s still got work to do.
And yes, there is some good action in this pilot episode – maybe not the best we’ve ever seen (we’re a bit spoiled coming off watching Stapleton in Strike Back) but it’s entertaining stuff. But to talk just about how great Jane is at wiping the floor with people is reducing her character and reducing the show down to just one thing, when in reality there’s so much going on within the series. It does have action, but right alongside that is strong character drama and some really great existential material to chew on.
The best series are the ones that leave you thinking well after the end credits roll. Blindspot is a very smart show, not just in how Gero and his writing staff and producing partners turn out the scripts, but in that it is TV for those of us who aren’t afraid to throw our brain into things. It poses questions about the value of identity, and how you would define identity, and what sacrifices you would make for the greater good. This is the kind of show you can argue with somebody about, and not just over how cool that bomb explosion was.
Whatever you find appealing about television, Blindspot offers it – and that’s just in this episode. Get ready for a season that’s going to test your brain, pull at your heartstrings, and definitely keep you talking.
Blindspot continues next Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. For more on the new series, read our interviews with Jaimie Alexander and co-stars Sullivan Stapleton, Rob Brown and Marianne Jean-Baptiste.