tv review

Morena Baccarin Is the Spark That Brings The Endgame to Life

Photo: Eric Liebowitz/NBC

Certain TV shows fit a certain purpose. There are cozy-comfort shows and put-on-while-cooking shows; watch-with-your-partner shows and cheat-on-your-partner-by-watching-ahead shows; holiday-family-discussion shows and middle-America shows; meme-able shows and theorizing-on-Reddit shows. Sometimes these categories overlap and you get a unifying breakout like Succession, Ozark, or Euphoria. The alchemic appeal of such a series’s component parts breaks it free of narrow specifications regarding how, when, and with whom to watch it. Perhaps that is the only way to talk about NBC’s conceptually familiar, narratively overambitious, and yet somehow still enjoyable The Endgame, which defies easy dismissal thanks to the uncontainable charisma of Morena Baccarin.

A mashup of Killing Eve and The Silence of the Lambs, The Endgame, which premieres tonight, is not immediately what you would expect from a prime-time NBC show. Sure, it bears a very strong resemblance to the network’s long-running series The Blacklist, and by “very strong resemblance,” I mean this thing is basically a carbon copy of that series’s format of one very smart baddie and one rookie-ish FBI agent solving episodic crimes together. At the same time, though, the 10 p.m. weeknight slot is usually reserved for copaganda like the Law and Order franchise, other copaganda like the Chicago franchise, or medical soap operas like New Amsterdam, and The Endgame is a little more sexy, sly, and self-aware than those shows.

The U.S. intelligence community is depicted here as a bunch of bumbling, corrupt morons who bomb weddings and are eager to label crimes as terrorism in order to throw more violence at them. The bankers they’re protecting are feckless and racist. Wealthy prisoners get perks on the inside because of immoral guards; lawyers charge insanely high fees to people who can’t afford them. These are all easy (and not necessarily incorrect) characterizations that rely on a simplistic David versus Goliath opposition — as is the series’s depiction of mercenaries as principled Robin Hoods who stand up for the common man — but they have their pleasures in a show that shrewdly doesn’t take itself too seriously. And a lot of that levity and attitude comes from Baccarin, who simply eats up everything this show gives her.

Looking utterly glamorous in a somehow wrinkle-free blue satin ball gown while strolling around a containment cell? Check. Smirking in a shade of burgundy lipstick I have been frantically searching for online? Check. Dropping line deliveries that perfectly balance indignation with bemusement and leaning against a table while handcuffed to it with a real devil-may-care joie de vivre? Check, check! All of these “You go, girl!” details could in other media be simply insufferable, but Baccarin is a TV veteran who knows exactly what the tone of The Endgame should be — silly but satisfying, effervescent but ephemeral. The potential is there, but the rest of The Endgame needs to reach the register at which Baccarin is thriving.

Created by Jake Coburn and Nicholas Wootton (whose individual writing credits, revealingly, include the original Gossip Girl and NYPD Blue, respectively), The Endgame is centered on Baccarin’s international arms dealer and trafficker Elena Federova. With 105 federal criminal charges against her and her for-hire mercenary force SMT, Elena finds herself in the crosshairs of U.S. Attorney General Reed Doblin (Kelly AuCoin) and FBI director Rogelio Réal (Mark D. Espinoza). They pat themselves on the back for finally bringing Elena into New York City’s Fort Totten military post, but then SMT members with machine guns take over a half-dozen banks around Manhattan. What is “the Queen” up to, how does her personal moral code guide her actions, and what will she do next? (I am sorry to report that no one in either the Justin Lin–directed pilot or the series’s second episode asks what Elena’s “endgame” is, but perhaps we will all be able to recreate the Leo-pointing meme in the future.)

While Elena vamps and sneers at her captors, FBI agent Val Turner (Ryan Michelle Bathé) visits her husband Owen (Kamal Angelo Bolden), a disgraced former agent, in prison. The circumstances of his downfall led to Val’s fall from grace within the Bureau, but now that Elena is in custody, she might have a chance to rise. Because the two have history, of course, and Elena demands to only see Val, of course; she’s a little bit Hannibal Lecter, a little bit Fast and Furious’s Cipher, a little bit Xenia Onatopp. But once Val arrives, Elena ignores her questions and instead tells her “fairy tales” about her childhood and her marriage to fellow criminal Sergey (Costa Ronin, a delight to see onscreen again after Homeland and The Americans) before sharing that she knows a surprising amount about Val’s life. “You’ve messed with the wrong woman,” Elena says, but she could be talking about the undervalued Val, too. Does Val’s male boss tell her “That’s madness!” before she correctly guesses Elena’s next move? Forgive me for repeating myself, but of course he does.

The Endgame ties Elena and Val tightly together through lost parents and romantic tragedy, and there’s enough of a cat-and-mouse dynamic established between the pair in these first two episodes that I’m assuming the rest of the season stays that way. Baccarin and Bathé have nice spark despite the consistently underwhelming dialogue (“No one knows you’re here, and we’ve got nothing but time”; “Don’t tell me I’m paranoid and don’t tell me I’m crazy!”), and if The Endgame can find more ways to relate these women to each other beyond their husbands, the couple’s chemistry could probably sell whatever. Also nice would be if the series could switch up its frustrating “show a scene, rewind it, switch to a different perspective, show it again, bracket it all with expository dialogue” methodology, which is the exact approach that made the similarly women-focused Inventing Anna such a slog and does The Endgame no favors, either.

Still, Baccarin keeps The Endgame exciting, and she and Ronin are having so much fun that it’s infectious. “There’s always another level,” Val says of Elena’s schemes, and that’s not exactly true for this series, which as of yet doesn’t seem to contain any hidden narrative depths. But if what you see is what you get, then Baccarin makes The Endgame more entertaining than it has any right to be.

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Morena Baccarin Is the Spark That Brings The Endgame to Life