James Spader, The Blacklist | Photo Credits: Will Hart/NBC

If last week’s midseason premiere of The Blacklist demonstrated how the show, like its main characters, can frustratingly avoid previous seismic events, this week’s suggested a way to alleviate that frustration: remove most of the cast altogether.

Outside of a brief kicker at Agnes’ ballet performance, “Cornelius Ruck” jettisoned everyone in the main cast except Red (James Spader). While the lack of follow-up on the big moments from the fall finale remains an issue, this episode mostly succeeded in pushing that to the side. All it took was a familiar-but-satisfying premise (an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery) and fun guest star (Joely Richardson). And, in contrast to last week’s episode, this hour sharply navigated different tones.

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In an effective continuation of the clunky art forging plotline from a week ago, Red arrived on a wintery private island with his ancient “coffin” (it’s a little gold box) to strategize with a ring of thieves, each of whom have another box in the stolen collection. After a quick reunion among the musketeers, people start dropping. Hoping to solve the mystery, and his cut of a potential sale, Red activated sleuthing mode — with the help of the person who invited him to the island, the former flame, Cassandra (Richardson).

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Joely Richardson and James Spader, The Blacklist

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There’s a more playful, cynical version of this episode in which an invincible Red cracks wise as everyone around him dies mysteriously and viciously and that probably would have been great. Yet this version, in which the stakes were just high and intriguing enough to support the more compelling rekindling romance at the center, worked surprisingly great as well.

By treating the murders relatively seriously, the episode sustained a meaningful tonal consistency that immediately made the relationship between Red and Cassandra feel real. Like the murder mystery, their story offered a simple backstory: They broke it off when Red felt compelled to keep closer to tabs on Liz (Megan Boone) at the beginning of the show. The duo traded a few barbs, sure, but there was a legitimate air of regret and longing between them that we don’t see very often on The Blacklist — especially with Red.

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We’re also so used to the backstab — literally — coming around the bend, and the episode preyed on those expectations. After committing to one another again as they escaped the island — the security guard/secret bounty hunter was the murderer — Red and Cassandra made their way to the aforementioned ballet. As Red watched Agnes like a proud grandfather, Cassandra knew that he had protested a little too much; there’s still someone to watch over.

With all the lying and scheming and murdering on this show, a little complicated romance made for a wonderful change of pace. Richardson was great and, yet again, Spader exhibited that he’s still one of TV’s best actors, whether he’s inhaling scenery or delivering a measured and melancholy performance. It was also nice to be reminded of the emotional resonance that can be found among this bizarre family. Of course, it’s really, really stupid that characters can’t shoot straight with one another, but mostly because it’s also clear they love and care so deeply.

The Blacklist will probably go back to normal soon, but this detour was worthwhile. Cassandra is one of the better additions to the show in years — more of her, please.

The Blacklist airs Fridays at 8/7c on NBC.

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James Spader, The Blacklist

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