A reversal is just that: a reversal of an expectation the reader/viewer holds about what’s happening next in a story. Reversals often happen at turning points in a story, events that show the protagonist that her or his assumption about what’s happening is wrong or at least too narrow, and that revelation turns the story in a new direction, sometimes casting everything that came before in a new light and sometimes blowing up everything completely.
Reversals must be earned; you don’t get to drop “it was all a dream” into a story just because you want to shock the reader/viewer with something you don’t want to actually have happen in the story. That’s called schmuck bait, the reversal that tries to make the reader/viewer think that something story-changing has happened. (“Schmuck bait” has other definitions, too; see TV Tropes for more.) As one of the producers of The Good Wife put it, “”Schmuck bait is kind of like the end of any Perils of Pauline kind of serial where the car is heading towards the cliff and goes over the cliff so you think the main character has died, but then you see in the next episode the main character rolls out of the car. That’s schmuck bait because it entices the audience [into believing that] something massive has happened when in fact it wasn’t massive at all. It’s making the suggestion of an explosion but then reversing it and walking it back right away.” If the reversal can be reversed back to the previous norm, it’s not a reversal at all, it’s just a waste of time for both writer and reader.
The Person of Interest writers love reversals, and they use them for both minor effect, to move the story, and major effect, to change the story world. Minor effect: When Zoe buys the gun in “The Fix,” the reader and Reese make the assumption that she’s a hitter, and everything in the story leads up to that (she lurks in a dark hallway, etc.) only to have her hand the gun to police lieutenant, showing that she’s a fixer instead. It’s not a gotcha, a trick, because when you watch again, all the clues equally add up to “fixer,” it’s just that there aren’t enough clues to get the viewer or Reese to that assumption. Major effect: When Reese goes to protect the prosecutor in the pilot, only to find out that she’s the one behind the murders. That scene in the alley swings the entire story in a new direction, leading to the co-opting of Fusco, saving the boy and his father and the hostage in the hallway, and bringing down the prosecutor in court. A minor reversal changes reader’s assumptions about an aspect of the story, a major reversal changes the story.
In “Witness,” we have a major reversal, so major that a second viewing of the same episode is an entirely different story. In the first viewing, Reese is saving a mild-mannered school teacher, beloved by his students, a standard episode of crime-of-the-week TV. And then comes the crisis turning point, and not only the story but the entire series will never be the same. Bread crumbs had been laid for this reveal in previous episodes, but they couldn’t be put together until this one moment of stunned surprise, at which point it’s too late.
That prep work adds to the weight of the reversal: it’s not just Reese and the viewer making a mistake; it’s that there’s a new player in the ongoing story, it’s that the new player will bring Reese and Carter together which heightens the danger because Carter is trying to bring Reese down; it’s that the new player is brilliant, smarter than John, smarter than Carter, smarter than Finch. It’s the best of all possible major reversals: a fair-play story move that makes everything new.
There are no weak parts.
Smart Story Moves:
• Hiring Enrico Colantoni. His performance is never a lie, he’s always Elias, but he’s Elias playing Charlie Burton. It’s brilliant.
• The “message for Elias” red herring; it sells the number as victim.
• The widow’s testimony as a way to mythologize Elias, setting him up as a larger than life figure through an outside character who has no reason to lie.
• Planting Elias’s right hand man as a cop, giving Elias a pipelineto the police, then tipping the cop as hinky through FInch.
• The way this episode pulls together all the bread crumbs laid in previous episodes.
• The bond that Elias forms with Reese. He’s not sentimental, but he honors his debts, and that’ll have a huge impact later.
• The kid as a bolt hole, working as both a plot device and a character witness for Burton, who is honestly a good teacher.
• Finch throwing down the red herring, suspecting the cop as Elias.
• Reese handing the phone to Burton to hold.
• “Sinner Man” as end music.
• Basically, every minute of this plot. It’s a swiss watch.
• Finch talks to Fusco for the first time! Fusco: “What are we, dating?”
• Reese taking out the drug lab to save Charlie. “Thank you.”
• The kid, Burton’s student, the one who says, “You’re the best teacher I’ve got” and faces down the Russian to save him, not realizing that he’s never going to see his teacher again, and that Burton’s not going to be there to see that he gets into college. It’s such a small moment, but it adds so much gravity to the reversal.
• To Reese: “You don’t know who he is, do you?”/To Carter:”You don’t get it do you? You think we’d go through all this trouble for a witness?” A great one-two punch/reversal.
• “It’s done.” “Naw, it’s just beginning.”
After this on PoI:
“Foe:” Finch and Reese look for a former Stasse agent who is killing his former colleagues.
“Get Carter:” A Carter-centric episode, always a good thing. She’s trying to track down Elias as Reese lurks in the shadows, trying to protect her without revealing himself to her and getting arrested.
“Number Crunch:” A puzzle mystery (the Machine spits out four numbers) heightened by the CIA’s enlistment of Carter to track Reese down; when she realizes the CIA is trying to execute him, she finally picks a side and starts her relationship with the Machine Gang.
“Super:” A crime of the week story that’s a lot of fun because Reese is stuck in a wheel chair while Finch becomes a man of action. Plus there’s a great reversal, and Finch gives Carter a number which leads to her saving a life, making her a de facto member of the Machine Gang whether she realizes it or not.
“Legacy:” Carter helps Reese with a number, a crusading attorney being targeted by a rat bastard in a reversal of the pilot plot, and puts Carter directly into the Gang with Finch, Reese, and Fusco. There’s a lot of Finch’s back story, too, but you know how I feel about back story and flashbacks.
“Root Cause:” This one’s an intricate political assassination story, made better by the Gang pulling in Zoe to help, and made important because the mastermind behind the assassination is a brilliant woman who calls herself “Root.”
“Wolf and Cub:” Another fun episode because this time Reese is trying to save a kid who’s trying to kill the guys who killed his brother. Since he can’t stop the kid, he tries to teach him non-violent ways of bringing down the bad guys, and they bond over The Art of War. In the end, Fusco and Carter join in, the team working together, plus Reese as an exasperated father figure is a good time.
“Blue Code:” Reese saves an undercover cop with the help of Fusco and Carter; the episode ends with Reese sending a trying-to-be-straight Fusco back into the HR organization of corrupt cops as a mole.
“Risk:” The Gang saves a Wall Street trader and exposes a secret plot to swindle investors, part of Elias’s scheme to take over the NYC underworld.
“Baby Blue:” The number is a baby, and Reese and Finch become obsessed parents as they try to save her, even negotiating with Elias to get her back when she’s kidnapped. Their success at the end is capped by Elias kidnapping his father who refused to recognize him, Gianni Moretti, setting up episode after next.’
“Identity Crisis:” A well-plotted take down of an identity thief with a subplot of the FBI coming to Carter for help in finding Reese to bring down the CIA squad he was part of that operated on US soil.
New PoI Post: “Flesh and Blood” tomorrow, lots of Carter and Elias so it’ll be great.