Person of Interest: Firewall, The Contingency, Bad Code

Person of Interest Binge LogoApologies for this being late. For some reason, I set it to post tomorrow.

Today we’re watching “Firewall” by Greg Plageman & Jonathan Nolan, “The Contingency, by Denise The & Jonathan Nolan, and “Bad Code” by Greg Plageman & Patrick Harbinson to talk about the Climax as Turning Point (Things Get Worse).

Turning points are places in a story where an event happens that’s so huge that it changes the protagonist and the plot, turning everything in a new direction. One of the things that makes binge-watching Person of Interest so much fun is that every climax of every season is a turning point, raising the stakes, evolving the characters, and making the story new again. The first season climax which is really stretched over three episodes does all of those things in spades.

[In anticipation of the question, “What’s the difference between a turning point and a reversal?”, a reversal reverses an expectation while a turning point turns the story. Finding out that Zoe wasn’t a hitter reversed Reese’s opinion of her and changed his next action, but the story didn’t turn until the bad guys tried to kill Zoe and Reese rescued her. That wasn’t a reversal because Zoe didn’t trust the bad guys to begin with and didn’t think John wasn’t on her side; no expectations were reversed. But the story turned because now Zoe’s a target, now she knows Reese isn’t just a driver, and now they’re in league to find out what’s on the tape: everything’s new and the stakes are higher. Having said that, sometimes a reversal is a turning point. They’re just not the same things, and they do different things for your story.]

Where was I? Right. Climaxes as turning points. I hate cliffhangers because they disrupt story and perform no useful purpose. If I don’t like a show, they can tell me everybody in it has been killed, and I won’t care enough to go back the next season. If I do like a show, I’ll be watching the next season to find out what happens next to the characters and the world I like. Proof you don’t need cliffhangers: two of the best showrunner/writers on two of the best series ever ended each season with a satisfying climax that always completed that season’s story: Joss Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and John Rogers on Leverage. That made every season of those shows a complete novel.

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PoI takes a different path. If you binge watch all four season that have aired so far, you can see that they’re four acts of a single novel. The season climaxes paired with the premiere of the following season operate exactly as turning points do, raising the stakes and changing the story to go in a new direction. It still annoys the hell out of me that they don’t just end the season instead of making it a two-parter with the next premiere, but I’m in awe of how they turn the show. Every season they made it new again, with much higher stakes, to the point where I’m almost glad they’re ending it this year because where could they possibly go next? (I know, they’re good, they’d find a higher plane to fight on.)

So first, “Firewall.”
At the beginning of the episode, it’s business as usual: there’s a number, Reese goes out to save her with Finch doing computer-fu to help. It’s a beautifully paced episode, no fat at all, as the stakes mount and the forces against them–HR and the FBI–track them down. Finch calls in help from Fusco, Carter, and Zoe, and they’re all working frantically, with the wild card of the strange woman, breaking into the library and finding Harold’s computers and white boards. It’s a great episode, but it’s a first season PoI episode with everybody doing what they do best, no worries about who’s going to win, just keen interest in how they’re going to do it. Reese sends Carolyn Turing up the ladder to safety and joins with Carter and Fusco for a nice bit of fan service, them all together in a car chase with HR ending in a well-deserved explosion, and all is well. Except that Turing is Root, she planned the entire thing, and now she has Harold, and Reese has no idea of how to find him. Business as usual is not going to cut it.

So Reese goes out to the street, finds a camera, and talks directly to the Machine, as if it’s a person. Because starting at this moment, the Machine is a person. Conden called it “God” and so does Root in a later episode, referring to it as “she,” immediately making the Machine a “she” in the minds of the viewers. The Machine is no longer a computer, now it’s an AI, artificial intelligence, that is, an artificial person. It’s not a tool the Machine Gang uses, it’s one of the gang. And now it has Root coming for it, which means this is also the first time the Machine is in danger and poses a real danger: Whoever controls the Machine wields enormous power.

So the first turning point in the four act (so far) novel that is Person of Interest is changing the story from a simple crime-of-the-week drama that has redeemed three lost, isolated people and Joss Carter (and joined them in a community they’re all dedicated to) into a complex examination of the use of artificial intelligence, particularly as it’s used by governments.

Smart Story Moves
Purely great storytelling again: Trying to help a woman against huge odds–HR and the FBI–great pacing, feeding the info to the viewer through the FBI surveillance through Carter and Fusco (each of whom doesn’t know the other is working for the Machine), Reese’s POV, Finch’s POV, Finch being observed by the unknown woman who breaches the library, Zoe working on the outside . . . there is no fat at all in this episode.
• And then Harold sciencing the save with cell towers and Reese getting the bad guys with a bomb, working to their strengths.

Favorite Moments
• Zoe! Especially Zoe finding out that Carolyn Turing scammed them all.
• Carter and Fusco finally finding out that they’re on the same team.
• “You created God.”
• Root calling her plan a “trust fall.”
• Reese talking to the Machine like a person, demanding help, and the phone ringing.

Ominous Moment
“So nice to finally meet you, Harold.” Amy Acker is so good in this (and continues to be amazing through the next three seasons).

“The Contingency”
First season:
Harold’s good at working the Machine, Reese is good at action stuff, they save somebody weekly, while slowly building a team they trust: Fusco, Carter, and sometimes Zoe.
Second season: Harold’s been kidnapped and is going to have to learn action stuff; if Reese is going to save him he’s going to have to talk to the Machine; and the Machine is no longer just a Machine, now it’s Reese’s partner. Oh, and Carter and Fusco now know they’re both part of the Machine Gang. And HR has been wounded and is gunning for the Man in the Suit. And the FBI is closing in on the Man in the Suit. The tidy little project Harold designed and implemented through Season One in order to save people is now smashed, huge forces coming for it, and Harold himself is in dire danger.
Now that’s a “Things Get Worse” turning point.
One clue this episode is still part of the first one: it starts where the last one ended: the phone ringing.
But there’s new stuff. For one thing, we have new antagonists: Control, the government agency that uses the Machine to prevent terrorist attacks now sees Reese as a Person of Interest, and they’re not particularly interested in prosecution (higher stakes). Oh, and Fusco and Leon are in the hands of the Aryan Nation for awhile. But mostly, Root has Finch and it’s not going well.

Weakest Part
Flashbacks. Freaking flashbacks that get in the way of finding Finch, which is the story I’m invested in.

Smart Story Moves
• Showing how ruthless Root is instead of talking about it; that razor slash is shocking.
• Root’s idea that people are Bad Code, but the Machine is perfect is powerful motivation and characterization at the same time.
• Leon turning out to be valuable in finding out more about Root.
• Reese slowly establishing a relationship with the machine that will shift his and Finch’s roles as employee/employer. Reese calls Finch “my friend” several times, and now he’s on a equal footing as far as access to the Machine.

Favorite Moments
• “What are you going to be doing?” “I’m not sure. Math, I think.”
• Reese quoting Finch: “I gave you a job, Mr. Reese. I never said it would be easy.”
• Leon!
• BEAR! That whole great scene.
• Carter saving the day.

Ominous Moment
“I don’t want to control your Machine, Harold. I just want to set it free.”

And then the third beat in the turning point: “Bad Code.”

Weakest Part
Flashbacks. FREAKING FLASHBACKS. They’re beautifully done, but so unnecessary. FIND FINCH.

Smart Story Moves
• How damn smart Root is. How damn ruthless she is. And how crazy she is.
• Really, how smart everybody is. Nobody makes a dumb move in this.

Favorite Moments
• Root refuting the Wound as a motivation. Yes, a bad thing happened in her past, but Root was always a bubble off level.
• “Why is there a crossbow on the bed?”
• Fusco and Carter going out for a drink.
• Finch meeting Bear.

Ominous Moment• Root calling Reese to thank him, which sets her up as an ongoing threat at the same time it shows Control taking care of the inconvenient body Root left for them.

Summing up:
The first season of PoI is essentially what any first act is: telling the story while setting up the characters, goals, plots, subplots, and themes. So at the end of the first season, we know the four members of the Machine Gang (five, counting Zoe), we know the city they work in, we know what motivates them, what they’re proud of and ashamed of, why they choose to band together to fight the good fight, how they do the work they do, and how the power is distributed. By the penultimate episode of the first season, the world of Person of Interest is established.

Then at the turning point, they blow it up. The Machine Gang will go on fighting, but it’s all very different now, with a shifted power structure, and much tougher antagonists. It is, in short, brand new again. That’s what a turning point does.

Table of Contents with Links to all PoI Posts

16 thoughts on “Person of Interest: Firewall, The Contingency, Bad Code

  1. I like the idea of the complete novel over four seasons. Whedon made it easy with Buffy (tVS) because the characters and stories were compelling.

    Back when “To be continued…” first appeared on our screens, it was a novelty. Many shows were two parts because they needed two hours to tell a story.

    Now the cliffhanger is a device, one that doesn’t work on me and sometimes annoys me to the point where I deliberately choose not to watch part 2. I can’t abide cliffhangers in books and wish more of the reviewers would warn us.

    Writers’ with publishers who ask them to write in cliffhangers should refuse. All you’re doing is making a flashback in the next book necessary.

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    1. That was one of the more frustrating parts of Doctor Who this last season. So many 2 part episodes. Due to life, we rarely got to watch them on live tv anyway but it got to the point where I was grateful for the Part 1 comment in the description on the DVR and we’d just wait another week and watch them back to back.

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  2. In regards to cliffhangers-

    If I find a book/tv show that is not the first episode of a multi-part set, it has to be very compelling to get me to invest time or money in it. I am so nerdy that I want to read/watch from the beginning, so it’s hard to jump into something new if I have to backtrack a bunch. I am enjoying these PoI posts, but I don’t want to go watch 4 seasons worth.

    That said, an author who I know and trust can come out with a new series, and I’ll probably be all over it. I get to start from the beginning, and they have already earned my faith that they will make the investment worth my while. But I still get frowny waiting for the next installment. 🙁

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    1. That’s why I often wait until a new series has a complete season in the can before I binge watch it. And I rarely start reading a series unless I have all the books. Discworld was an exception, but those are pretty loosely linked. Also, nobody waits for Pratchett.

      But yeah, I loathe season finale cliffhangers. They’re always schmuck-bait. “Will the entire team perish in a fire?” No, they won’t, so don’t expect me to worry about it for five months until the show comes back on.

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  3. Continuing the flashbacks conversation here, since the examples used are more relevant here:

    See, I disagree that the PoI flashbacks are just about character or plot, though. Especially for Bad Code, the purpose is thematic. The entire Bishop plot is used to illustrate the concept of people as bad code, how it pervades all levels of society, not just in Corrupt Government land. Even before the Sam Groves reveal, the flashbacks achieve their thematic purpose. And that’s why they contribute to pattern structure, not linear.
    The Machine could have given Reese more directly useful information. Based on how we now know how much The Machine likes to multi-task with the numbers, the purpose of forcing Reese and Carter to go to Bishop at all was to facilitate their future allying, with the meta-level subtext of impressing the thematic lessons on the audience as more important than just the Finch hunt.
    Because if the Finch hunt was actually the thing, then the inclusion of Leon was unnecessary, as well. The Machine could have directly given the number of Root’s credit card alias, or Denton Weeks’ number, so on and so forth. Both episodes could have been a regular intense chase thriller. But these detours were intentional, because of the show’s own priorities are that, well, Finch-rescue isn’t the most important order of business.

    The Contingency flashbacks are less thematic, so I could see their detriment within single-episode context. But I just can’t dislike them because of how powerful they are in the series-wide context. And, again, the entire episode is trying to impress on us that Finch-rescue isn’t supposed to be the priority. But most people won’t be satisfied with just the episode structure showing that, they need a Watsonian explanation. So we get to see past!TM rescuing Finch, like we want present!Reese to, but then we literally see Finch rebuke TM/us for wanting that.

    The facts of Reese and Kara’s partnership could be intuited, sure, but the evolution of their relationship dynamic couldn’t. Kara has no reason to take potshots about how straight-laced John used to be.
    I have a soft spot for the Kara flashbacks, though, because especially for season one, the episodes they accompany (Foe and Matsya Nyaya) have lackluster number plots, so the flashbacks are where the interesting stuff is.

    I agree with you on flashback laziness…in text forms. Can’t stand them in most novels. But visual flashbacks can employ visual language to convey even more information exactly how this relates to the present timeline, aesthetically and thematically. (Text has so do a bunch more precise diction/syntax/paragraph structure work to achieve the same effect) And in the binge-watch age, they often are used in a season/series-long pattern structure manner rather than relating to the individual episodes.

    So for a show that values the episodic, as PoI does, I can see why flashbacks that don’t contribute to the episode’s unified writing, or seem to result in less care given to the present-day timeline, would be irksome. But I binged PoI, going in spoiled for most of it, so it didn’t bother me nearly as much.

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    1. I do see your point. But I think theme-mongering–disrupting story to make theme more obvious–isn’t a good reason. Theme is essential, it’s the subtext-glue that holds a story together. But I think it always has to be subtext, and whatever is in the flashbacks is always hyper-textual, it shouts at us to pay attention because the story is being interrupted for THIS.

      I also don’t see any pattern to the flashbacks, but that could just be my myopia. I may also be anti-Kara-flashbacks because I was so anti-Kara. She’s a horrible person doing horrible things because she enjoys the power of it. The actress was really good, and she completely established that in the now of the story without need of the flashbacks.

      OTOH, I really loved “RAM” which was technically one huge flashback, except that the whole episode happened in the past, and it was never just “here’s what happened in the past,” it was actually an episode with a number to be save. I thought it was one of the best shows I’d ever seen; it didn’t bother me in the slightest that it was in the past because it was a complete story. The flash-forward coda at the end was annoying because it really was tacked on to set up the next story in the present, but I can ignore that; it didn’t interrupt the flow.

      You know the most interesting thing about the whole briefcase-Kara-Reese flashback stuff was that it was set up by Finch. If they’d done all of that as a standalone like “RAM,” I might have been more interested because that was a VERY complicated story.

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      1. There aren’t necessarily a pattern to the flashback, per episode. You’re right in that sometimes it’s just dual linear storylines. I don’t even remember the number plot of Matsya Nyaya, it’s so unconnected to the flashbacks, and so much less interesting. If flashbacks are used to prop up and excuse poor A-plot storytelling, then I can appreciate avoiding them, to force better writing.

        She’s a horrible person doing horrible things because she enjoys the power of it.
        The flashbacks were just what disrupted my perception of Kara as this. They reveal that she’s just a for-want-of-a-nail divergence from Reese. They were both deeply loyal to their country, but Kara had been in the game so long that she had become no more than her coping mechanisms. (enojyoing the acts themselves, and not just the justifications) Reese was on his way down that path, but for Jessica, and then was further saved by being picked up by Harold, who offered him a true purpose, whereas Kara was picked up by Greer, who further gaslighted her. (which also hints at what the horrible alternate world where Greer found Root first might look like)
        Present timeline Kara has no time or motivation to show us those other more complex sides to her. They could only be shown using flashbacks.

        Take “Foe,” the first Kara-flashback episode. They’re used to contrast against the version of spy-dom that Ulrich presents us. When Ulrich speaks about loyalty or torture and the like, the flashbacks are there to interject, “it’s not that simple,” whether that is Cold War espionage vs. post-9/11, showing that spies in general aren’t born into those attitudes, but have to be carefully taught, and patterning the end of Ulrich with the beginning of Reese.

        The patterning of the If-Then-Else flashbacks is obvious. And, imo, the most patterned use of them in the series, after The Devil’s Share.

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        1. I do see your point. But I think theme-mongering–disrupting story to make theme more obvious–isn’t a good reason. Theme is essential, it’s the subtext-glue that holds a story together. But I think it always has to be subtext, and whatever is in the flashbacks is always hyper-textual, it shouts at us to pay attention because the story is being interrupted for THIS.

          I think, then, I’m also getting a bit confused about how pattern structure works. They’re not supposed to be overtly connected by plot, nor by even character. How else then, but theme, are they supposed to reflect on each other? By aesthetic? Tone?

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          1. In linear structure, the meaning depends on the chronological movement of the plot, one thing leads to another.
            In patterned structure, the meaning depends on different pieces of the plot that may be related in subject, tone, character, whatever, but aren’t chronological, and the overall meaning of the story is taken not be the result of cause and effect by seeing the pattern all the pieces make. Examples: The movie Out of Sight, the book (not the movie) Postcards from the Edge, Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps. It’s hard to find examples because the vast majority of modern storytelling is linear.
            PoI is linear storytelling, a plot line driven by cause and effect. Interrupting that chronology with flashbacks disrupts the forward movement that is the reason for that kind of structure. Writers do it all the time, but they almost always do it to give back story that readers don’t need and often don’t want. You should read some of the comments about Arrow flashbacks, the worst of the worst. Even the critics make fun of the flashbacks. I just forward through PoI’s when I rewatch because I know I’m not missing anything. Granted, I already know what’s in them, but I get most of it in the now of the story, so I just skip those parts now.

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  4. Wonderful reading! Thank you! You’re adding a dimension to my favorite show-
    Next best thing to watching POI is reading thoughtful analyses of it.

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  5. ARGH. We could only make it through the first two episodes and I am SUPER FOCUSED on today ending (aka “kids in bed”) so I can watch Bad Code. I’m sick, my head is killing me, I should sleep, but I’m watching it.

    Amy Acker, though! I remarked at the end of Firewall to the hubby, when she gets in the car and says “Hello Harold,” that all she really did is take down her hair. BUT. But her face, her eyes, the crazy is now THERE in a way it wasn’t when she was pretending to be Turing. I chalk that up to her (Amy’s, not Root’s) amazing acting and just marvel (though I guess Root, too, would be an amazing actress…).

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  6. Ok, I wasn’t sure where to put this, because it’s a general POI question triggered by “Masquerade,” the episode after “Bad Code.” And the next POI post here seems to be “Relevance,” which is very far away (and here I thought I was catching up).

    I’m sure they explained this at some point–the Machine spits out the numbers for people who are going to be involved in PLANNED violence (so murder v. manslaughter), which is why so many people who get hurt ‘in the moment’ don’t have their numbers come up. Ok, I follow that, but…

    1) Why did Sophia’s number come up and not Gabi’s? The same plan to kill Sophia is also the same plan to kill Gabi: eliminate the witnesses.

    2) And now that I’m thinking about it…in the episode where we found out what happens to Jessica, where Reese goes crazy on the marshal who was killing his own wife, Finch said those numbers pop up again and again and he realized they’re domestic violence numbers. But…and I could be really wrong here…DV isn’t usually planned. But we know Jessica’s number came up cause of that one flashback. But she died because the husband got angry and pushed her too hard–very heat of the moment–and she hit the island. The Machine can predict heat of the moment? That a specific argument WILL occur and it WILL devolve into fatal force and someone WILL die, even though the perpetrator had no actual intent to kill at the beginning of the day, or even at the beginning of the argument? The Machine can pick up not just patterns (and so predict killings that have been plotted out), but also make very educated guesses about when someone will reach their breaking point/react in any given moment?

    3) Also, when we saw that flashback where Jessica’s number came up, there were a LOT of other numbers coming up. What happened to those numbers? Or, does the Machine now pick and choose, and give Finch the numbers that it thinks Reese and Finch can most likely save (and so, in fact, is playing God? And actually would explain why they were told about Sophia but not Gabi–and if that’s the case, great, good job me for guessing, but I don’t want to fill in plot holes for the writers)?

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    1. I’m not sure there are answers to some of these, like Sophia and Gabi (it’s been awhile since I watched that one although I think it’s a great episode). Without watching it again, my guess is that maybe the Machine didn’t have the data until Gabi was killed? But that doesn’t make sense either, so I don’t know.

      I think domestic violence can be predicted; if the abuser has something bad happen to him, he’s almost certain to take it out on his victim. And since the Machine only predicts, it’s not fail-safe, domestic abuse victims would keep popping up. Which would mean that the Machine was overwhelmed with numbers because there’s an epidemic of abuse in our country. So again, I don’t know.

      I think one way the Machine winnows the numbers is to only give Finch the ones in the NYC area. Giving him numbers for Colorado would be meaningless, although I can see Finch establishing outposts all over the place some day. It’s another blindspot in the premise; police departments should be getting those numbers.

      I don’t think the Machine plays God, but extrapolating (which as you point out is dangerous), I don’t think it would send numbers that couldn’t be saved. That wouldn’t be logical. I also think that in this season, the Machine has set itself free and has larger issues like Decima to plan for. It’s a powerful computer, it can do it all, but I think that it might start taking into consideration the need for the Gang to face Decima shortly, and thereby start conserving resources. Since the impact of Decima at the end of Season Four is staggering, the Machine knows the stakes: it’s not just life and death for the numbers, it’s life and death for the Gang and for the Machine itself.

      But I think your questions are all really good ones and probably go back to the problem of taking a simple premise–a machine that watches people and predicts violent behavior–and extrapolating it out to its logical extension. The more complex the shows gets–and it’s going to get a lot more complex–the more the simple premise begins to buckle.

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  7. Well, they do briefly address the police department issue–the police CAN’T get the numbers, for the same reason the federal government can’t let word get out about the Machine: it’s highly illegal. Any actions the police take then, while they may save a life, would ultimately be barred from evidence presented to the court, as they all stemmed from illegally obtained information (major 4th amendment violations with the Machine–though not with every camera–which could lead to some extremely messy law…). So, if your goal is to just save the life, or stop the crime, sure, you’ve achieved that. But then if you actually want to prosecute, you’d be completely unable to do so. All the evidence the DA would need for a conviction would not get to come in.

    DECIMA? I do not know (yet!) this Decima–oh boy. So excited.

    But I guess the picking and choosing that the Machine seems to (must?) do feeds into the narrative that it’s AI, and not just a machine that is good at predicting. And as one of the flashbacks showed, it can calculate percentages, which (crap, extrapolating again) might mean that it understands risks, and so yes, if there is too much risk in a particular save, it might not even pass along that number to Finch.

    Isn’t this exactly what you’re supposed to do, though, when you world build? Take your premise to its extension and see if it still holds up? And if it doesn’t, start plugging in the holes!! I always had this (naive?) belief that (good?) authors do that, and that was my main frustration with tv writers–they think of now and ratings, and don’t take the time to world build, so of course they run into problems down the line when they want to make things more complex. Though it’s possible I am being totally unfair in these assumptions.

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    1. I think you absolutely have to do that when you world build. But I also think that it’s easy to miss things, especially since world builiding happens on a creative level first.

      That is, you have this great idea for a story, and you look at all the opportunities it gives you, and you start spinning stories in pre-writing. And then you start coming up against the world questions, and you need to solve those, but really, unless the problem presents itself when you’re writing, you’re going to miss some holes.

      Having said that, yeah, the holes you mention are fairly large. Did you google to see if anybody else was asking the same things? Because those are good questions.

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