I began to watch a John Sayles movie called Lone Star several years ago and almost turned it off because it kept switching to new characters with new problems. I can’t remember now how many–six? eight?–but I was completely confused. Fortunately, the writing was great and the actors were exceptional, so I stuck around. And as I watched, those multiple stories slowly converged, and as they converged, they added layers to each other. What had seemed like fairly straight forward character stories became complex, what happened in one story shifted the other, plot points took on different meanings, and I couldn’t look away. As I remember, I didn’t understand the impact of everything until the very last lines of the very last scene. It was a perfect inverted pyramid plot, everything resting on the final words.
This episode reminded me of that the first time I saw it.
In the beginning, it seems as though the writers are just throwing everything at the screen, something they can get away with because we already know most of these people and at this point would watch them wash cars. We’re also used to watching subplots unfold as the main number plot plays out, so PoI has more time to string the multiple plots out. But by halfway through the episode, they’ve begun to merge and at the climax they all (but one) come together, creating a scene sequence that’s infinitely more interesting because of the plots that have been developed separately before it.
1 A. Root tazes Shaw; the Shoot Plot begins
2 B. Machine hears Vigilance planning, the Machine Plot begins
3 C. Reese looks for evidence in Shaw’s apartment; the Reese Rescue Plot begins
4 D. Finch works with the new number, Timothy Sloan; the Number Plot begins
5 A. Root and Shaw start their mission.
(That’s the first five minutes.)
6 D. Finch investigates Sloan as he talks on the phone to Reese
7 C. Reese discovers that Root has Shaw.
The story slows down here to invest us in Sloan, the number who’s trying to find out how killed his foster brother.
8 E. Carter dealing with Lasky; the HR plot begins.
9 C. Reese meets with Fusco, gets more info about Root and Shaw.
10 D. Finch and Sloan find out about his brother’s storage unit.
11 A. Root and Shaw go underground to cut their future escape route.
12 D. Finch and Sloan discover the storage unit.
13 A Root and Shaw break into a CIA pick-up site.
14 D Finch and Sloan discover the writing on the wall in the unit and almost die, saved by Reese
15 BD. Reese, Finch and Sloan discuss Vigilence
(Two of five plot merged).
16 A. Shaw gives Root to the CIA agents, leaves with her
17 E. Lasky finds out how much trouble he’s in while Carter watches.
18 A Shaw and Root arrive at CIA black site.
19 BD Reese and Sloan search the apt and find the codebook, Vigilance shows up and takes Sloan
20 D Finch finds out that Vigilance is going to kill Sloan’s brother that night
21 ABD Sloan’s brother arrives at the black site and meets Root.
(Three of the five plots now merged.)
22 ABD Shaw puts Root in truck with knife to escape
23 ABD Finch sends Reese out to stop Vigilance’s assassination attempt.
24 ABD Reese arrives at the intersection and sees Vigilance.
25 ABD Root sets Sloan’s brother free
26 ABCD Reese sees Shaw.
(Four of five plots now merged.)
27 ABCD Shaw, Root, Reese, Vigilance, Sloan . . . well, everybody but Carter and Finch
28 ABCD Root sets the brother on his way with a new identity.
29 ABCD Reese faces down Vigilance, saves Sloan.
30 E Lasky confessed all to Carter
31 BD Resolution of number plot
32 AC Resolution of Root/Shaw plot
So we begin with five PoV protagonists:
Root, the Machine, Reese, Finch, and Carter.
In the 15th scene, it’s clear that the conversation the Machine overhears is the plan to kill FInch’s number.
In the 21st scene, Root meets the number’s brother and those three plots merge.
In the 26th scene, Reese sees Shaw at the climax, merging his plot to save her with Root, the Machine’s, and Finch’s plots to save the number, followed by the big climax in scene 27, followed by Root saving the brother and Reese saving the number in 28 and 29.
The plots split again for the resolutions, first of the number plot, then of the Root plot, although the resolution with Root is more set-up for following episodes than a “This is the end” scene.
The key to keeping the plots separate in the beginning is that the only PoV character who knows what’s going on is the Machine, which is probably why there’s only one Machine PoV. So four protagonist pursuing four presumably different problems that turn out to be four aspects of one problem, the fun happening as they begin to come together. The one plot that never merges is the Carter/Lasky plot which is important to the season/novel arc, but irrelevant to this story arc. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be in there–in a long form like this you have to keep all the plates spinning–just that if this was a movie instead of an episode, those scenes would go.
A diagram of the plot looks like this (filled-in ovals are scenes):
You can see that the writers bounce back and forth among five plots (again, remember that we’re already invested in these people so they can do that), and then begin to pull them together by the one/third to one/half point in the story. The success of this story doesn’t rest as much in the individual plots, although they’re important, as it does in the story movement that brings them together because the underlying idea in this story is that the Machine has moved from number-of-the-day to multi-tasking, which means something’s happening that we don’t know about that’s making her step up her game.
• Maybe the Machine PoV at the beginning, but I’m not going to quibble. This was a really well-crafted episode.
Smart Story Moves:
• The Machine’s Swiss Watch approach to each of the missions, echoed in the writers’ Swiss Watch approach to the episode: Structure as Meaning.
• Keeping Shaw and Reese’s recognition of each other to a minimum: “Shaw.” “Reese.” “Gotta save somebody.” “Know the feeling.”
• “I suppose it’s too much to hope she tazed herself.”
• Shoot, all the moments of their beautifully dysfunctional romance starting now.
• Root eating an apple while Shaw fights, then tasering the guy when he gets up again.
• “Did you see a man heading his way? Wearing a nice suit?” “Yeah.” “He’ll be fine.”
• “I’m not smiling at you.”
The Machine is playing three different games, and Finch is blocking one of them.
New PoI Posts:
• April 18: 3-10 The Devil’s Share (Amanda Segel & Jonathan Nolan): Rip-Your-Heart-Out • Storytelling
• April 19: 3-13 4C Melissa Scrivner Love & Greg Plageman): Character in Crucible