The Endgame NBC

The Endgame plays a clever cat-and-mouse game with the audience

NBC‘s The Endgame is the thriller we’ve been waiting for. Countless television series claim to keep viewers guessing, but very few of them actually deliver on their promises because it’s difficult to make a great thriller in today’s TV world. Writers have great ideas that they can’t follow through on or production gets in the way of. Discerning audiences have seen similar concepts or characters before. And whole websites make their living spoiling plot twists. (I’d challenge anyone reading this to not click on a single spoiler for The Endgame and just enjoy the live viewing experience.)

This show, though, is different. It stands a chance of genuinely surprising people the way we haven’t been since the early days of Homeland—if it can follow through on its ambition.

The plot is fundamentally simple: relentless FBI agent versus criminal mastermind. Both characters play to certain well-known archetypes. The FBI agent is a misfit (in this case, due to her husband’s arrest) while the villain was raised in a system of violence. But that’s about where the similarities end, thanks to the cast and the show’s wise decision to sidestep certain narrative tropes.

Valerie “Val” Turner is played by Ryan Michelle Bathé, coming off a recurring run as hotshot lawyer Rachel Audubon in All Rise. Her character could easily be just another brooding hero but the way that Bathé plays her adds greater depth to the characterization. Val is exactly the type of person to get obsessed with a case because everything else in her life is going to hell. She’s not smarter than everyone else; in fact, it’s understandable why she has moments of being off-putting. She’s falliable, which in turn makes her quest more believable, because she’s humanized. She fits into The Endgame‘s world unlike other crime dramas that have the quirky protagonist whose talent puts them above everybody else.

Her opposite number is Elena Federova, portrayed by Morena Baccarin, who’s also done an awful lot of TV over the last few years—she’s starred in Gotham and the remake of V, but this part is ironically more like her Emmy-nominated work in Homeland. Jessica Brody’s character existed to show the human cost of terrorism and the fight against it; she was the mirror to show viewers how much her husband had changed. The fact that Baccarin has played that other side gives Elena a different flavor. She’s certainly as showy as other TV villains (one thinks that she and Raymond Reddington from The Blacklist would have a great conversation), but there’s emotional depth to her performance that isn’t in the character just yet. Hopefully the series will diverge from the “nature vs. nurture” argument it’s setting up between its protagonists, because the more it breaks Elena out of that mold, the better.

It’s clear that the show wants to draw certain parallels between the two characters, which has become typical of the genre: the idea that the bad guys and the good guys aren’t that far apart. While commonalities exist, they’re not heavy-handed and there are just enough to make the inference. These two actresses are so strong in their roles that the characters are distinct, even if they come from similar starting points. That’s far more intriguing because they don’t know what the other one is going to do—and neither do we.

The Endgame NBC
THE ENDGAME — “Fairytale Wedding” Episode 102 — Pictured: (l-r) Jenna Stern as Joan Bradbury, Ryan Michelle Bathe as Val, Mark Espinoza as Rogelio Real — (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

That’s where The Endgame succeeds: it has a willingness to push the audience’s expectations. Viewers want to be surprised. We want to have plot twists we don’t see coming. We’ve simply seen so much, and are bombarded with so much information, that it’s usually not possible. This series sets up small details in its first episode that make it different from the pack and set it up to be a success if it continues to disrupt the norm.

Its approaches to the supporting characters are critically important. Val’s teammates both create a certain way of thinking in the audience: here’s her fresh-faced partner who’s going to get dragged around on all of her crazy ventures, and her boss who’s just going to look down his nose at her until either he realizes she’s right or he dies. Yet her partner pushes Val to think about what she’s doing and her boss is written as someone who may have actually closed a few cases before he became an FBI supervisor. (Chalk this also partly up to casting: Noah Bean, who plays the boss, was a standout as CIA agent Ryan Fletcher on Nikita while Jordan Johnson-Hinds was an FBI agent on Blindspot before he became the partner.)

The show also steers itself away from the kind of “only on TV” moments that undercut any genuine thrills. Val is dealing with a pending divorce in the pilot but it doesn’t distract her from doing her job. She hangs up on the lawyer when he tries to call her, and only keeps talking to him later on because it’s relevant to the plot. There’s a twist at the end of the pilot that reveals Elena’s husband isn’t actually dead, but that’s a legitimate twist and not the “we made something up for shock value” fallback. It helps that said husband is played by Costa Ronin, speaking of Homeland, because that tells the audience Sergey is going to have a major part to play in the show and not be the sidekick to Elena’s character.

Everyone has a role in the ongoing mystery, and the mystery itself is genuinely high-stakes. The Endgame has set up something that audiences genuinely have to figure out. Viewers don’t have those “safe” tentpoles to hold onto when there are actors who play against archetypes and there’s writing that avoids genre stereotypes. Of course there’s the question of how long the series will last—is the mystery tightly plotted out and if so, do the writers have actual plans beyond this season—but that’s not something that can be judged out of the gate. What is clear at this early stage is that the show is incredibly well-cast, deliciously ambitious, and a hell of a lot of fun.

The one caveat to The Endgame‘s success is that there are an awful lot of cooks in the kitchen, and they’ve all got very different backgrounds. Among the executive producers credited on the pilot are Fast & Furious alum Justin Lin, The Vampire Diaries‘ Julie Plec, and Scorpion‘s Nicholas Wootton (the latter also serves as showrunner). Being an executive producer doesn’t always mean a hands-on involvement with the show; sometimes it just means helping get it on the air. But if they do co-mingle, it will be an interesting proposition to see how these big names mix their creative sensibilities.

Right now, they have everything they need to give us the next Homeland or 24. Between this series and Ordinary Joe, which preceded it in the Monday at 10:00 p.m. time slot, NBC has the best new series on the air this season.

The Endgame airs Mondays at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.

Article content is (c)2020-2022 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.

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