Person of Interest: Deus Ex Machina: Act Climax As Crisis

Person of Interest Binge LogoOne of the conceits I’ve been working with here is that Person of Interest is a five-act novel, each season finale acting as a turning point, an event that swings the story in a new direction, raising the stakes, changing character, and escalating the conflict by hurtling the plot forward. If you prefer a classic screenplay structure, then Season One is Act One and the upcoming Season Five is Act Three, leaving the middle three seasons as the arcing middle act with the devastation of Carter’s death hitting at the midpoint/point of no return.

But act/turning point designations don’t have to fall into a rigid pattern. They’re there to make sure that a long-form story keeps reinventing itself, not to make a fill-in-the-blanks framework for story. So I’d argue that there are two crisis points in the Person of Interest novel: this episode which defeats the Gang, and the climax of Season Four, which defeats the Machine, a one-two punch that sets up the desperate final act, which begins next Tuesday (May 3), a shortened stretch of narrative that raises the reader/viewer’s anxiety about the story to a fever pitch before providing catharsis in a final story-changing climax.

Well, I’m worried, anyway. Those PoI writers will kill anybody.

Previously on Person of Interest:

“Root Path:” PoI gets back to what it does best: developing character and saving people. In this case, it’s Root, now part of the Gang, who crosses paths with somebody whose life she ruined back when she was a master criminal. The overwhelming guilt she feels is evidence on the page/screen that the Machine has changed her. Also, Decima gets a chip it really shouldn’t have, so while the number gets saved, the world is now in jeopardy.

“Allegiance:” The number of the week is being targeted by terrorists because she’s fighting to get a good man out of government custody and corrupt government officials are trying to silence her. it’s a good number of the week story, and underneath that, it’s a Decima story since the whole clusterfuck is caused by Decima getting generators into the country for its nefarious plans. The Machine sends Root and Bear after Decima, and Greer, Decima’s Darth Vader, offers her a job on their team. Root says no, now firmly part of the Gang, but she and the Machine recognize they’re up against something huge and powerful and kinda creepy.

“Most Likely To:” You know those episodes where the writers send the cast to a high school reunion and they have to pretend they used to be students there? Yeah, this is one of those. But it’s good, plus the number hits on Shaw and that’s always amusing, and the subplot with Finch and Fusco sharing a hotel room in DC is worth watching on its own. Also, Vigilance tries to kill everybody and then outs the Machine so the government has to deny its existence and shut it down, leaving an opening for Decima to weasel their own AI in (that would be Arthur’s Samaritan).

“Death Benefits:” The number this week is a corrupt senator; the reversal is that the Machine seems to want the Gang to kill him. In hindsight, this was a good call on the Machine’s part, but Finch objects and leaves, and Reese and Shaw just aren’t the assassins they used to be. Root’s traveling around working for the Machine, so the senator gets to live, and he takes the bribe to get Samaritan into the government with Control heading everything up again. They shoulda shot the senator.

“Beta:” The number is Grace, the love of Finch’s life, who’s kidnapped by Decima. Finch trades himself for her, and at the end of the episode, he’s in Greer’s hands.

“A House Divided:” FLASHBACKS. Sweet Jesus, the flashbacks and they’re all about Collier, the murderous bastard in charge of Vigilance, showing how he got to be a murderous bastard. I don’t care. He’s a zealot who kills people, so screw him. Then he kidnaps Greer and a senator and Control and Finch and several others and sets up a mock trial to be broadcast so the world can see how corrupt everybody is, which would be an admirable goal if he’d quit killing people.

Which brings us to the major turning point that is the Season Three finale: “Deus Ex Machina.”

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So this is our first crisis turning point, the place where all is lost and our protagonists (except for the Machine) are beaten: Decima turns out to be the worst of all possible antagonists, headed by Greer, a man so crazed by betrayal that he has decided to give the world over to the control of machines, in fact, one machine in particular, Arthur’s Samaritan. Samaritan is the stepbrother to Finch’s Machine except that Finch’s Machine was programmed with fail-safes; Samaritan is just pure AI. That means if Samaritan sees a threat, it will act to remove it, even if it involves killing innocents. “Innocent” has no relevance; it’s all about the Greater Good, and we know how that always works out. Greer is to Decima what Pierce was to Zola’s Hydra computer program: the power behind the implementation, both determined to wipe out opposition to world peace, as they define “world peace.”

So the big reveal at the end is that all the work Root has been feverishly doing with the Cartagena Three hasn’t been to defeat Decima and Samaritan at all; that battle has been lost since the Gang wimped out on killing the senator. What Root is doing is removing Finch, Reese, Shaw, herself and the three computer geeks from Samaritan’s sight: it thinks they’re all irrelevant, and its code tells it to disregard them. That’s the best that Root can do–worse, it’s the best the MACHINE can do–to defeat Samaritan in its attempts to wipe out all opposition. And that leads to final scene when Finch and Collier learn that Decima was far, far ahead of them, that the trial has not been broadcast to the country because Decima owns the TV station, that Vigilance was actually created as an unwitting arm of Decima, doing its bidding even while the group thought they were striking a blow for liberty, and that now that Samaritan has taken over the government’s feeds, they’re irrelevant. So Samaritan destroys them, Finch narrowly escaping death because the Machine is fighting a desperate rearguard action (and because Hersh ends up a hero; who’d have ever thought we’d mourn him?).

A good crisis turning point puts the protagonist completely on her knees, bruised, bleeding, defeated, and that’s where this finale leaves Our Gang. It destroys everything that came before–we’ll never go back to the library again–and forces the Gang to reinvent themselves as they realize the enormity of the threat that has just taken over the country. After this, everything is new again, and it’s terrifying.

As I mentioned before, one part of the gang who’s not defeated, though, is the Machine. She’s still going strong, watching the Gang’s back. To get to the Crisis point where they AND the Machine are done, you’re going to have to stick around for the Season Four finale.

So what does a crisis do, besides destroy the hopes and dreams of your protagonist?

It’s like a forest fire: it’s devastating, but it clears the underbrush to allow room for new growth. After three years, the Machine Gang had evolved into a group so efficient they were almost omniscient, but the enemies they were battling had also grown–the secret branch of government, Vigilance, Decima–so that the story was resting atop so much detail and history and convoluted master planning that it was imprisoned by its own past. This crisis point burns away all of that: Vigilance is destroyed and Decima and Samaritan have infiltrated the government and fused into one super-powerful antagonist, achieving the goal the Gang spent an entire season trying to block. It’s not just that the Gang failed, it’s that their community has taken a body blow, its members scattered, its base invaded, its enemy everywhere. There’s a reason that the crisis point in a story is often called the Dark Moment: the lights have gone out on the story, and the protagonist is down for the count.

The protagonist gets up again, of course. This isn’t the climax, it’s the devastation before the climax. It’s the burning away, not just of plot but of character barriers. Whatever line your protagonist had in the past that she or he would not cross, it’s gone up in smoke with everything else as she or he (or in the case of PoI, they) march irrevocably toward that last big showdown with the antagonist, no holds barred.

If you think Season Three was tough, wait’ll you get a load of Season Four.

3x23_-_Root_Irrelevant

Weakest Parts
• Fucking flashbacks that once again are completely unnecessary, taking story time away from the people we care about who truly are in desperate circumstances. ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH.
• The weight of an incredibly complex and convoluted story drags this down, especially the long Vigilance rants. Collier is a misguided, homicidal loon, drunk on power and purpose, but he’s standing beside Greer, who’s calmly handing the world over to a machine because he’s given up on humanity. A little less ranting and a little more direct action would have helped here, although I may think that because I arrived at the “just shoot him already” stage about the time he shot Sloan.

Smart Story Moves
• Balancing the tense but static courtroom scenes with the odd-couples-in-action: Reese and Hersh rousting Vigilance to find the courtroom, and Root and Shaw planting the corrupted computers in the heart of Decima.
• Greer delivering the death blow, literally and figuratively, to Vigilance. I still hate Collier, but that is a devastating revelation.
• Greer’s final act of terrorism, wiping out witnesses and ensuring that the government will turn to Samaritan. Greer may be evil, but he’s efficient evil.

Favorite Moments
• Shaw, Hersh, and Reese walking through the blackout like pals, especially Hersh taking a bike at gunpoint so Shaw can go rescue Root.
• “What Machine?” “What trial?” Fucso, safely out of the know.
• Shaw showing up to save Root. SHOOT!
• “I tried to quit, but some jackass told me I needed a purpose.”

Horrible Moment:
• Leaving the library for the last time, then watching it get ransacked by Decima’s jackbooted thugs.
• Decima and Samaritan wiping out the Vigilance people who would fight back.
• The Gang splitting up.

Ominous Moment
• “The time has come for your god and mine to do battle.”
• “This was never about turning it off.” “This was never about winning. This was just about surviving.”
• Samaritan coming online: “Let there be life.”
• “The question is what, my dear Samaritan, are your commands for us?”
Basically the last 15 minutes.

Big Machine Moment:
• Telling Finch to hope.

Next week: The beginning of Season Four (and in real life, the start of Season Five which I understand starts with a flash-forward so expect whining from me):
May 2: 4-1 Panopticon (Erik Mountain and Greg Plageman): Rebooting a Story After a Turning Point
May 3: 4-3 Wingman (Amanda Segel): Multi-Thread Plotting
May 4: 4- 11 If/Then/Else (Denise The): Point of View as Meaning

Table of Contents with Links to all PoI Posts

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35 thoughts on “Person of Interest: Deus Ex Machina: Act Climax As Crisis

  1. I’ve been watching PoI because you started commenting it. Seasons 1 and 2 were quite entertaining, season 3 had me watching with some reservations, and now is the point when I sign off. It was fine while they were just saving irrelevant people, but by now the body and kneecap count has become astronomical, and while they’re desperately fighting to save the world, I can’t keep track of what’s plotting against them (yes, I admit I’m doing some sewing and ironing while I watch because otherwise, I just can’t justify the amount of time I spend with this). I’ve had enough of Reese being impolite to Fusco and talking in a low voice like a bad perfume commercial. I hated to see Carter die, Root smiling like the madwoman she’s supposed to be, and Shaw being displayed like an idiot in jobs that don’t suit her after they had to go undercover. The only one I really love is Finch, and since it’s not sure he will survive, I’ll quit… Call me a wimp, but I think I’m not cut out for TV shows like this. Books, that’s a different matter…

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    1. Perfectly understandable.

      One of the things that happens when a story reinvents itself at turning points is that it becomes a new story, and that’s invigorating but it’s dangerous, too, if the things that change are the things that drew you to the story to begin with.

      I think with each turning point, the world of the story gets colder and grimmer. I keep going back because I’m a sucker for community, but like you, I found the fourth season a lot more complicated. They’re working more to save the country (and the world) instead of the number of the week, and I think as banal as the number-of-the-week plot idea can be, the specific is always more compelling than the general. That is, it’s a lot easier to be worried about Tim Sloan or Gen than it is the fate of all Americans. The more abstract a story gets, the colder it gets.

      I agree that Reese is horrible to Fusco, but Fusco calls Root “Cocoa Puffs” and tells Shaw that the only one who likes her is the dog. I think it’s a guy thing.

      Did you get to “If/Then/Else”? Might want to watch that one just because it’s so damn much fun.

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        1. And then you can quit (g).
          Really, it’s just so interesting from a writer’s point of view.

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  2. Interesting, @colognegrrl, I had the opposite reaction. As the seasons have worn on, and the story has shifted from mostly “crime of the week” to the Gang’s fight against Samaritan, I’ve become more and more entranced. And as much as I hated seeing Carter go, I loved how the writers used her death to deepen our appreciation of the other characters (and I was mesmerized by the scene where Reese kisses Carter, not out of some out-of-the-blue romantic twist, but because her honorable nature is like a salve for his torn up psyche … hearing that kiss was improvised just blew me away). I know I’m going to suffer having to watch this last season of POI one week at a time, now that I’ve gotten used to binging. Ah well.

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  3. I’m with @colognegrrl. This analysis has been interesting for a number of reasons, one of which to articulate why there are some really good shows I stop watching. “So what does a crisis do, besides destroy the hopes and dreams of your protagonist?” This may be great story telling but….it makes me feel bad. And I’ve got the evening news for that. I don’t want to feel bad for entertainment. This is the same reason I stopped watching agents of shield. Great show. But when it reached this same point (shield is destroyed, heroes gone bad or on the run, group must regroup). I stopped watching. Good writing but not for me.

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    1. “This may be great story telling but….it makes me feel bad.”

      And there in a nutshell is the reason why stories fail for some people and succeed for others.
      There was a great series awhile back with David Morse, called Hack. I thought it was brilliant but I had to stop watching because it made so damn depressed every week.
      I think it has something to do with proportion, the ratio of conflict to hope, but it’s also just personal taste with any story in any media.

      And now you’ve made me wonder if the reason that all the shows I love are/were in danger of cancellation is that I respond to things that a majority of other people don’t, and the reason that huge hits don’t appeal to me is that they make me feel bad. I’ve never been able to watch uncomfortable humor like The Office, for example, even though I know it’s supposed to be great, and forget Game of Thrones, I don’t care how damn good it is, I’m not watching rape.

      I’ve always known that the reader/viewer collaborates with the storyteller (much more with the written word than with the screen), and if the story isn’t one the reader/viewer can collaborate with, she leaves. This is the first time I’ve thought about it from a difficulty standpoint instead of a personal-story standpoint. That is, I can’t collaborate with some stories because the protagonist doesn’t fit my story world or because I don’t believe the things the characters do, but it makes sense that even if the story is one that fits my world, if the circumstances of it are too . . . not unpleasant because story is unpleasant–disturbing maybe? then I have to leave.

      It makes me think of crochet. I love crochet for a lot of reasons, but one of them is the escape into the rhythm of the stitches and the patterns they make. But there are crochet projects I frog, not because they’re too difficult, but because they make no sense to me, I can’t find the rhythm and the pattern isn’t satisfying. That’s why I left Agents of Shield; it was unpleasant to watch, not because people were getting kneecapped but because the show didn’t have a rhythm and a pattern I responded to. I’m wondering if PoI turning point changes haven’t done that for some of you: disrupted the rhythm and distorted the pattern so that the show has become dissonant.

      This is the stuff that fuels my writer wonky soul. Thank you both for bringing this up. Must cogitate.

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      1. Jenny – just curious if you have watched Better Call Saul? Lots of uncomfortable, character-defining, bad decision making (and plenty of interesting reversals) without the level of grim death in Breaking Bad.

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        1. I haven’t watched either.
          The truth is, I don’t watch much TV. I know it seems like that must be all I do, but I have a short list of shows I’m invested in and I let those pile up in the watch list most of the time and then binge while I crochet.

          Agent Carter
          Elementary
          Galavant
          Grace and Frankie
          Grimm
          iZombie
          Limitless
          Person of Interest

          There are several I mean to try–Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Veep, definitely–but some of the oh-you-must-watch-this stuff has left me cold, like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Just couldn’t get into it.

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        1. Me too – I skimmed the comments, I never enjoyed The Office or Seinfeld for that matter, and I refused to try Games of Thrones – too nasty on so many levels.

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          1. Oh, thank you, Kelly, for mentioning Seinfeld. I didn’t get that show’s popularity. They were horrible people.

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  4. Most Likely To is another episode where the mehhhhhh number plot is more than made up for in the fanservice. Even before they get to the reunion conceit, the entire exchange about Mamma Mia was gold. Yes, Shaw’s characterization has taken some hits sometimes because of how entranced everyone gets of Sarah Shahi’s comedy chops, but on the other hand, we get more of Sarah Shahi doing comedy.

    The sheer normality of the S3 opener probably drove some of their decision to burn it all down. The only Leverage opener that was like that was for S4, and PoI couldn’t manage to get the intense character moments into Liberty that made “Long Way Down Job” a winner despite being “business as usual.” PoI S3 probably should have opened with Nothing to Hide, since it introduced both Vigilance and Laskey.

    I love that Hersh doesn’t question Shaw’s decision to go after Root at all. No arguments about the tactical value of going together or splitting up (since Hersh might have survived if it had been the three of them at the courthouse), no quips about spies and romance, no grumbling about Root having kneecapped him, just acceptance that Shaw knows what she’s doing. And then spy-daddy gets a bike for his spy-daughter. Adorable violence.

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    1. Hersh and Shaw are one of my fave pairings in this series, which is kind of amazing because Hersh does such awful things without flinching. I mean, he executed Shaw. And I was really upset by his death, too. He was just such a great character.

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    2. I’d love to see Sarah Shahi do comedy but I hate to see her standing in a department store spraying women with perfume, showing an attitude that would get her fired any minute. Shaw’s not that dumb. Of course she hates it, but she’d get into it because the situation requires it.

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      1. You know, I’m not sure. I could see her doing it to get herself fired. She’d still have established her new identity.
        Also, she has to know that Root put her there just to annoy her; it’s Root’s way of flirting.
        But the big reason I buy it is that I don’t think Shaw is capable of maintaining a cheery attitude about perfume and make-up for longer than two minutes. She’s not a con woman, she’s a killer.

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        1. I rationalized that (along with John being The Worst Cop) is that in the military, Shaw and John were indeed fully professional. They knew how to be team players, to where the initial friction between John and Kara was because John was too overtly professional.

          Shaw and John being brats in parts of S3, and even moreso in S4 in their cover identities, is a sign of how the team is now their comfort zone. Their job of saving irrelevant numbers doesn’t require the utmost professional behavior because Harold’s ultimately a consequentialist boss. He doesn’t take action against them so long as the numbers are saved, and his financial and digital support means that the undercover work doesn’t have to be as pristine as it would in traditional espionage. It shows how they’ve been re-humanized, after their government work had stripped that away from them.

          Panopticon highlights how John and Shaw seemed to subconsciously assume that soon they’d go back to business as usual, of saving the numbers. And considering how Shaw is the one who knocks John out to prevent him from breaking his cover id, she’s presumably clocked how much she can push the boundaries on her own.

          What I don’t buy is that Shaw didn’t know that her cover id was also a thief. Unless that’s a variation that Root/The Machine added after the team had split up, it doesn’t make sense for her not to know.

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  5. I hadn’t even heard of this show until I read about it here. And I’ve been watching like a maniac now, in order to be fully up to date for the start of Season 5.

    And a couple of days ago, I finished the Season 4 finale.

    And I’m worried, deeply worried, about Season 5.

    D

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    1. I am, too. I trust the writers, they won’t kill anybody just for dramatic value, but they will kill people we love. If it’s Reese, I can roll with it; he’s been just this side of suicidal for the whole run of the story, but Finch, Shaw, Root, Fusco, and Bear better survive.
      The really frightening thing about this series is that it seems to be just one small step ahead of reality. I think the Snowden thing broke after the first season.

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      1. “The really frightening thing about this series is that it seems to be just one small ste ahead of reality.”

        Exactly! My programming-happy 15-year-old listened to a podcast where Stephen Hawking flat-out said that the IA will eventually take over mankind (and since then Elon Musk and Bill Gates have added their dire warnings). I could never quite image how such a thing might happen, but POI solved that problem for me. Feels all too possible.

        Yikes.

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        1. If it’s any comfort, at least the problem is being addressed. In the PoI universe, nobody publicly notices.
          But yeah, yikes.

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        2. As a former IT person, I find the AI part interesting. I wonder about the hardware infrastructure needed to support it – does it have it’s own power source? Is it its own operating system? (Can’t really see the Machine running on Windows or IOS – maybe Unix.) And who takes care of expanding the disk storage when it runs out? It’s got to have a tremendous amount of processing power. Didn’t one of the episodes suggest that the machine reboots itself every night? If it does that, how does it do its analysis of things that have happened over months and months? Lots of questions.

          The general public doesn’t seem to mind being watched. As long as it’s kind of in the background and keeping us Safe, it’s ok. There are already groups of people watching for and eliminating national security threats – they just don’t yet have a tool as powerful as the Machine/Samaritan to help.

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          1. I think either it runs on a unique Unix system that Harold probably made himself (one time a number who’s a programmer is in the Library and comments on Harold’s unique setup and specifically name-checks Unix), or it is its own operating system. As for the power source: it definitely did have its own power source when the government still controlled Northern Lights. We met the guy who built the power source (Lawrence something, Root tries to talk to him and then Northern Lights kills him); he commented that it was on the order of powering a nuclear facility. Meanwhile, of course Samaritan has its own special generators, stolen from Iraq.

            As for how the Machine runs now? We don’t know. Nobody does. It moved itself in that spectacular jailbreak. If I recall correctly, there was at some point some code for a highly advanced compression algorithm floating around which Harold or Root intends, at some point, for the Machine to adopt, to make it easier for it to “hide” in the cloud or on much smaller drives. I’d imagine that if/when the Machine runs out of data storage, it can probably just colonize drives that are hooked up to the net anywhere in the world. If it uses just a few bits here and there on a billion machines, it wouldn’t be enough for the computers’ users to notice. Just like how it built its Thornhill company partly by stealing half a cent from a million bank accounts.

            It used to reboot itself every night as a failsafe of Harold’s, to prevent its personality evolving too much–to keep it from getting too many of its own ideas, basically. I don’t think this affects its analysis much since all the input data it uses is still out there; the way we see it scroll through security camera footage, it seems to me those archives are basically its memory. The show has never been very specific about the internal coding structure of the Machine, so it may be that its “higher consciousness” is siloed off from other functions, like certain basic forms of memory (say, having all the footage not only archived but organized), and it’s that part that wipes every night. I’m not sure. But regardless, the Machine was getting around that with the Thornhill company, and now it no longer has to do the reboots at all because of the modifying code Harold put on the laptop that got John and Kara in all that trouble in Ordos.

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      2. Yes. I feel uneasy using my phone and the Internet now.

        I hope nothing bad happens to Bear. All of them really, but it just seems like such a cheap shot when movies or shows kill pets to manipulate emotions.

        I’m talking to you “Old Yeller” and “Legend.”

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          1. Sounder. The list is truly endless. I stopped reading books with animal characters at a young age.

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  6. I have really enjoyed your writings on these episodes, but I am with colognegrrl, that is exactly when and why I stopped watching. I loved all the characters but maybe I just take things too seriously. I actually started recording and then making excuses why I didn’t watch. Reading your posts have been interesting in the way you are interested in how old school/work friends are long after you have lost touch. Never going to watch Games of Thrones, either.

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  7. I love it, I just take breaks every now and then when I need a little less grim. For me it got easier to watch once we got Root and Shaw as regulars. Before that there was just a little too much gray serious masculinity. Although I do miss Zoe. I’m hoping she comes back – I’m about halfway through season four.

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  8. I like what Jenny said about how we respond to the shows or what appeals to us. I really enjoy these writing blogs based on PoI.

    I think I respond to PoI the way I do for not only the stories, acting, etc. but the way the relationships handle the loyalty between the crew. Loyalty is important to me.

    It’s strange, too, that the loyalty factor plays a huge role in my affection for Raymond Reddington on The Blacklist. Reddington is a con and a murderer and as perverse as it is, I enjoy the hell out of him. (Spader is extraordinarily good.) His loyalty to those he cares for is both touching and terrifying.

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  9. Not caught up yet, on the high school reunion episode, but every time I see Collier–“Dammit, Aaron Burr!” Anybody else have this problem with seeing actors just as one character no matter where they pop up?

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    1. In the beginning, but then they morph into the New Guy. Dan on Lucifer was Brother Blood for the first few episodes there, possibly because Brother Blood was better written. I think it’s more common with poorly written characters; it makes you default to the stronger portrayal.

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      1. True. Amy Acker is now definitely Root to me other than her many Whedonverse roles.

        Also, new life goal: find a job that I love as much as Root loves being the interface. I mean, just shy of zealotry, but still–her face in the last few minutes of the high school reunion episode? She just LOVES what she’s doing.

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        1. She was a spider-woman on Grimm, and I had a helluva time with that, although she was excellent. And they squandered her on Agents of Shield, making her a love-interest-in-distress with no personality at all; she did her best but there was nothing there.

          But Root and Fred . . .

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