There are a number of things that went into the creation of DEEP DOWN, the undeniably bleak horror novel that I finished last March and that should come out sometime next year. The main inspiration was my own depression, and that desire—I’m sure there’s a German word for it—to just stop one’s life and get off.
For me, I wanted to go into my closet, shut off the light, close the door, and never come out. For others, it might be to climb into bed, pull the sheets over your head, and never wake up. Sometimes, I want to just step out the door and start walking. Not to any place in particular, and with very few possessions. I’d be picked by crows in a week, I’m sure. The point is escape, but I’m not sure it’s escape with the intent to survive.
That was the premise of DEEP DOWN, the concept, but it didn’t really turn into an idea for a while. Not until the first time I saw an episode in Season 3 of THE BLACKLIST, “Cape May.”
Strangely, very little of “Cape May” actually relates to my novel at all. The flint spark comes, I think, not from the story but from James Spader’s performance in the episode. It gave me a rope to hold in the dark. From there, I went my own way, of course. But I recently resumed my effort to get through Season 3 of BLACKLIST by way of starting the whole series over again, so I was able to revisit “Cape May.”
I have trouble with serial dramas. It has to do with my emotional energy in the evenings, and the emotional requirements necessary to follow television drama. It’s why I generally don’t binge-watch shows; it’s why I prefer standard procedurals and one-off reality shows most evenings; and it’s why I sometimes get stuck in a viewing loop, because rewatches take much less energy than new viewings. I’ve yet to get through Season 2 of SUPERNATURAL, and not because I don’t like the show, whereas I’ve watched CSI:NY multiple times over. Similarly, I’ve had trouble getting past a certain point in BLACKLIST, despite my enchantment with Spader’s Raymond Reddington. It’s the two-part episodes that do it. That’s not just a 45-minute commitment. That’s a movie-length commitment, and I just can’t take the suspense.
I’m exaggerating–because this personal failing sometimes amuses me–but not by much.
I was looking forward to re-watching “Cape May” again, though, so I soldiered on to get there.
I love episodes like “Cape May.” You know the kind. The one that deviates from all other episodes of the series, one where the writers and the actors really get to stretch their legs in another direction. An experimental, genre-bending episode. All the other episodes are names of Red’s blacklisters, but “Cape May” is simply a place. It’s a moment out of time, out of sequence, and it has nothing to do with Red’s list or the task force’s actions. It has none of the carefully curated music that I’ve loved about BLACKLIST from the beginning, so much that I’ve made a playlist. It stands out in a series that is essentially an action-thriller conspiracy procedural, albeit with season-long story arcs to tie them all together.
We open to Reddington quite unlike the vibrant, larger-than-life figure who can anecdote his way through every encounter. His eyes have no life, his face shows his age, his uniform is rumpled. He is a man in pain, a man dead with grief that is not mere sadness.
In that grief, he leaves everything behind and breaks into an abandoned seaside hotel that’s fallen into disrepair. There’s not a soul to be seen except for the old man with a metal detector searching the sand, then the woman at the edge of the ocean who removes her coat, her necklace, then walks straight in.
For those familiar with the BLACKLIST background, the notes of this story immediately ring a bell, but here Redddington dives into the water and drags the woman from the sea, bringing her into the parlor to warm up by the fire, his arms around her. The woman is almost catatonic, murmuring about someone with whom she spoke harsh words before his implied death. Reddington has briefly been given a purpose, but she already looks dead.
What I love most about this episode is that it is, at its heart, a ghost story. The abandoned hotel is the perfect haunted house, American gothic to the driftwood; Red is a haunted man. And ghost stories, when done right, are about human hearts, human grief, not specters and spirits, which is part of what I loved so much about THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE Netflix series. Ghost stories are so difficult to do well, but I’ve always wanted to write a good haunting.
BLACKLIST is not a supernatural show. When it feels like it treads the line of supernatural, that’s just science reaching the level of science fiction, a sense of ‘this is the future now.’ But ghosts don’t have to be supernatural fixtures. Like I said, the hotel feels like a haunted house, but in the end, it’s Red who’s haunted, his heart and mind that creates the ghosts.
The entire episode’s dialogue is spare, as is the setting—more like a play than a television show. Red and the woman speak in parallels, the exact meaning intentionally vague—Are Red and the woman talking about Red and Elizabeth or about Red and the woman herself? The answer is always yes, because history repeats itself. History haunts. Red tells so many stories of the people and places he’s encountered, outlandish experiences, but it’s the stories he doesn’t want to tell that haunt him. He is a killer, a principled sociopath. The woman is a killer, even less scrupulous, but with enough room in her killer’s heart for a daughter. They speak as killers speak to each other, ships passing in the night, a nod to each other in their respective, unique pain—the only deaths that have caused this pain, when they themselves are reapers.
Even the episode’s action sequence plays very differently than the usual BLACKLIST operations. These are people who work best alone but who ally themselves for the moment. They aren’t self-righteously blustering and bombastic like the FBI, and Red is in no state for theatrics. It’s just Red and the woman, quiet killers, quiet reapers. There’s minimal dialogue in the sequence, no headsets and walkie-talkies, no music except in the survivalist set-up. Everyone moves in silence and shadows, as though the house and the killers themselves are ghosts haunting the encroaching mercenaries, a sense enhanced by all the white-sheet-covered furniture between which they stalk each other.
Was the woman ghost or grief? Just because something isn’t there doesn’t mean it isn’t real. There was no rescue, no fight, no woman. Red was alone, yet he experienced them; they were real enough. His internal haunting remains unresolved, but there is, ultimately, catharsis—an exorcism, in acknowledging what truths he spoke to himself in the darkness.
“Cape May,” like a good haunting, lingers, depending on James Spader’s charisma even when Red is at his least flashy and most human—a fallen Icarus, crushed by the weight of his failure. Red himself, in shedding his previous life and living a shiftless criminal life, is a kind of a ghost himself, for all that he seems so lifelike. It is when Red stops, when the plummeting of his restless momentum reaches its inevitable, abrupt end, that Spader’s performance transcends an already brilliant role. No tricks. No gimmicks. No slick talk or stories. Just a man who can’t wrap enough layers of charm, class, and ruthlessness to protect himself from his own fallibility.
In pulling “Cape May” out of the BLACKLIST formula, stripping it down to the grain, we get something that’s not just good but might actually be great.
And we get a hell of a good ghost story.