Thursday, November 21, 2013

Person of Interest Review: "The Crossing" - Half-Measures

Warning: The following article contains some pretty massive spoilers for this week’s episode of Person of Interest.  If you are interested in the show but haven’t yet watched this episode, I would highly encourage you to do so before reading.  You’ve been warned.

Jim Caviezel and Tajari P Henson share a moment in "Person of Interest"
So Person of Interest killed off a major character, one who’s been with the show since the beginning.  They did so in an entirely reasonable fashion, with the death both shocking and inevitable.  The writing was effective and the emotions affecting.  The HR storyline was building to a natural conclusion and it seemed obvious that the team couldn’t take down the big bad without suffering a loss of its own.  But something has been nagging at me since I watched this episode and I think I think I’ve finally figured it out: The wrong character died.  It should have been the main character, John.

 “The Crossing” was not a subtle episode.  For starters, the previews for the last few weeks have been hitting us repeatedly over the head, screaming “something big is going to happen!  You have to watch this three-episode arc!”  The previews especially painted a big, bright target on Detective Fusco’s chest, indicating he might be the one to die.  We even got an extended scene with him and his son, whom I don’t think we had ever met before or even knew he had.  Happy people on television are the surest sign that something terrible is about to happen.

But killing Fusco would have been the easy way out.  He’s easily the most tangential of the original four characters, at this point mostly just duplicating the skills and knowledge that Detective Carter and John bring to the table.  And the addition of Sarah Shahi as Shaw this season made him even more of a nonessential character.  Killing Fusco would have perhaps been a fitting end to the HR storyline given his entry into the show as a double agent within the organization.  But killing the most disposable character is a little obvious and it eventually became clear the show wasn’t going in that direction.

Instead, “The Crossing” strongly implied that John, the lead character, was going to die.  For starters, we find out that he is not Finch’s first fixer in an amazing scene between Finch and an imprisoned Root.  The idea that Finch is not the unblemished hero we’ve thought he was is fascinating especially alongside the fact that he’s had a number of “associates” who preceded John Reese.  I’m assuming this is a plot that’s not going away anytime soon, but had it been introduced earlier in the run of the show, it would have nicely laid the ground for the death of John, a move that would have been, I think, unprecedented in the history of television. 

Television shows don’t just kill their main characters, at least not before the final episodes.  Killing off Reese at this point in the story would have made a powerful statement about the nature of surveillance and the War on Terror in the 21st century.  If you extend out the allegory of Person of Interest, it’s easy to see Finch and the machine as the NSA/CIA/FBI of the story—gathering data and defining targets and assets—and Reese as the military—executing missions, subduing the bad guys, and saving the people in distress. 

Allow me to digress for a second because this is kind of a big deal.  Person of Interest is essentially a story about the American surveillance state, which is an unstable alliance between the American people, their government, and their military.  The people are often willing to overlook what happens in the name of their protection.  Just consider Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or any other apparent atrocity conducted in the name of protecting or avenging the people of this country.  We’re oblivious and we like it that way.  Even the NSA scandal, while able to create a few weeks’ worth of Fox News Headlines, has largely faded from the public consciousness.  The fact is, for the most part, we just don’t care what our government and military do in the name of protecting us. 

The American people aside, however, our government and military must have at least a mildly antagonistic relationship.  After all, it is the government (in the form of its intelligence gathering agencies) that collects and analyzes the data it uses to order the military into mortal danger.  And that is the scenario we see in Person of Interest.  Finch is the overseer—the collector and analyzer of data who sees all, knows all, and decides who among us is the villain in need of thwarting and who is the victim in need of saving.  But Finch, due to his physical ailment, is incapable of acting on his information and analysis.  Instead, he needs to employ a proxy to carry out his orders, much like the United States military carries out the orders of its government. 

And that idea is what would have made the death of John Reese so powerful.  So often, deaths in our armed services are overlooked or forgotten: just another star on a wall or flag on a grave.  But the effect they have, both on the strangers they save and the friends and family they leave behind is enormous.  In Person of Interest, apparently, those deaths go completely unspoken, with Finch, the overseer, simply moving on to the next potential chess piece to insert into his game. 

But Person of Interest could not make that bold of a move.  Instead, it was Carter who died.  I suppose I should have seen it coming after Reese professed his love for her and the pair kissed.  Honestly, the less I say about that particular development, the better.  Frankly, it was dumb.  There was no setup for it, no hints, it just came out of nowhere, seemingly to add fuel to Reese’s inevitable fire next week as he attempts to avenge Carter’s death. 

I give the show credit for not taking the easy way out by killing Fusco, but neither did they make the truly bold move of killing off John.  Instead, they took the middle ground.  Unfortunately, killing off Carter presents its own unique problems for two reasons.  First, Carter was the moral center of the show.  She was the only purely good character.  Fusco had previously been corrupted by HR.  John and Shaw have questionable pasts with the US government.  Root is obviously a wild card.  And, as we discovered in this very episode, Finch is the not the white knight we had previously thought him to be.  Carter was the one character on this show who was always interested in doing the right thing.  Sure, she was presented as an antagonist during the first season or so, but that was only because she didn’t know John’s and Finch’s true intentions.  As soon as she discovered that they were, in fact, helping innocent people, she was on board.  Losing that moral center presents a potential problem for POI because the show no longer has a voice willing to say “Hey, that’s a step too far.”  The only characters left are either soldiers or manipulators. 

The second problem with losing Carter is that she represented the audience’s entry point to the series.  She was the one normal person in what was, essentially, a superhero procedural.  From the beginning, John and Finch represented supernatural archetypes: John the omnipotent hero and Finch the omniscient god.  Fusco was a layman, but his loyalties were still in question.  It was Carter who was the normal hero with whom the audience could identify.  It was her experiences that allowed us to enter this insane world.

But now we’ve lost all that.  We’ve lost the moral center.  We’ve lost the “normal” vantage point.  And that may not be a bad thing.  Shows have survived and even thrived after abandoning their skeptics’ viewpoint.  As one example, Fringe didn’t reach its peak until its third season, when it abandoned most of its attachments to the real world and really embraced the insanity of its story.  But it’s a difficult road to navigate, and we can only hope that Person of Interest is up to the challenge.

Ultimately, I think that POI made a mistake in killing off Carter instead of John.  The showrunners could have made an incredibly powerful statement about the nature of surveillance and our relationship with our military.  They could have asked their audience, “Is this the security state you want: a state in which the people and overseers are so isolated from those they send into battle that we don’t truly realize their value until they’re gone?”  They could have done all that, but they didn’t.  Instead, they chose the middle ground, killing off a character whose death would have emotional punch without making much of an impact of in the grand scheme of things.  I give them credit for having the gall to kill a character naturally within the story and without the character’s actor being in a contract dispute.  It just feels like they killed the wrong character.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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