Person of Interest: RAM: There Is No Good Back Story

Person of Interest Binge LogoWhen I chose the episode and craft topics, I did it by memory. As a fan of the series, I loved “RAM,” so I thought it’d be a good way to talk about “good back story;” watching it now as a writer, it’s still an excellent story on its own (another written by Denise The), but in the context of the series as a whole, it has two main purposes: explain what happened in the past and provide fan service. The problem is, while it’s fun to know what was happening to Finch and Reese before they joined forces (even more fun to see Shaw at her murderous best), there is nothing in the story that we needed to know. It’s a good episode, but if you were editing the season as a novel, this episode would go. Back story kills, people, no matter how well it’s written.

Previously on Person of Interest:

“Provenance:” A rare meh episode, completely forgettable except for Reese pouring a glass for the absent Carter at the end celebration.

“Last Call:” An episode about a mysterious man who calls a 911 operator and threatens to kill a kidnapped child unless she deletes a call number from the main computer. A good number episode with the loose end of the bad guy who threatens Finch at the end and then never reappears in the series (so far), unlike Root who did the same thing and then came back with a vengeance. (Analysis of plot and subplot made at the time the episode first aired is here.)

And then there’s “RAM.”

Finch-Dillinger

To recap, “RAM” is a good solid story and outstanding fan service, but it’s also good example of how back story can suck writers out of the story they’re writing and into outer darkness (aka not-the-story).

Here’s the thing about back story: It’s not the story. It’s the stuff that happens before the story. The reader/viewer wants the story, so anything that gets in the way of the forward progression of that story had better be fantastic, which most flashbacks and discussions of the past are not.

Here’s the other thing about back story: If you need to tell it to make your real story make sense, you may have lost your grip on your real story. It’s Occam’s Razor again: given two choices, the simpler one is the best. One of the great things about Person of Interest is also one of its problems: Every season gets higher stakes with more sophisticated and complex antagonists, so every season gets more complex, which brings in more convoluted back story, which . . .

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Which brings us to that damn laptop that almost got Kara Stanton and Reese killed in China before there was a Machine Gang.

That sentence alone should tell you everything you need to know about toxic back story. Kara Stanton is not part of the ongoing story in the Now (although she did come back working for Decima, she got blown up when . . . never mind). The story in the now does not take place in China. The laptop is not part of the story in the now. (It was when the virus activated the code that Finch typed into it that enabled it to set itself free, but that was last season; we rolled with that just fine without the back story then.) Which means that everything in this episode is there to show how the laptop got to China, which we don’t care about.

POI_RAM

Having gotten that off my chest, I will say this: one way to make back story not annoying is to make it the story in the now about people we care about like the good Daniel Casey who’s Finch’s doppelganger with just as many people trying to kill him. Because the whole story is about Daniel in the now of this episode, it’s not a bunch of annoying interruptions; in fact it’s one of the few PoI episodes NOT interruped by flashbacks. It’s also excellent fan service because it shows Finch with the guy who was Reese before Reese showed up, and it shows Reese losing his taste for the work he’s doing while unknowingly showing Finch the kind of man he is, which will lead Finch to offer him a job when he hits bottom. It’s as if Leverage had done an episode showing Nate and Sophie back when his insurance investigator was chasing her art thief around Europe. Wouldn’t that have been fun? You know why they never did that episode? Because it wasn’t the story.

Sorry. Back story always has this effect on me.

Weakest Parts
The fact that it’s a giant flashback.

Smart Story Moves
• Making Reese the threat. It pulls the narrative closer to the ongoing series story. Before Reese and Stanton show up, this is just Scenes from Finch’s Past.
• Showing Decima acting aggressively very early, again tying to the main story.
• Showing how FInch corrupted the code to thwart Decima years later.
• Root showing up at the end and sending Casey to Cartagena to meet Greenfield, pulling it all together.

Favorite Moments
• Finch and Casey bonding, two socially awkward nice-guy computer geniuses
• Shaw coming in at the end. It’s always good to see Shaw.

Ominous Moment
“We have a mutual friend. And right now, she needs your help.” Root is always ominous, even when she’s smiling from inside a furry Nanook of the North hood.

Tomorrow:
“Deus Ex Machina,” the Season Three Finale. Talk about your ominous moment.

Next Week’s PoI Posts:
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 (YAY!)

Table of Contents with Links to all PoI Posts

15 thoughts on “Person of Interest: RAM: There Is No Good Back Story

  1. I totally understand what your saying. BUT. I think when you’ve totally got your audience committed, so that you aren’t going to lose them if you stray from THE story shortly, these kinds of stories are a wonderful treat fir the audience. It’s like the episodes when everyone acts totally out of character which only die hard fans get cause you have to know the characters to get why it is soo cool. It may be that you can only do it in television (as opposed to books if films) where you have that long term commitment and can take an episode or two to be a “gift to the fans”.

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    1. I loved this when it first aired.
      Usually when I re-watch a PoI episode, I’m fascinated all over again. When I re-watched this one, I found it oddly flat, and I think it’s because the fun factor is gone once you’ve seen it once. It’s the very fan service that makes it fun the first time that makes it flat the second time. It’s by a really good writer, too, Denise The, so I think it’s just that it happened in the past. We know Dillinger isn’t going to kill Finch. We know Reese isn’t going to stay with Kara and keep killing people. We know Shaw is more than a grim executioner. So on the second viewing, I felt a lot of yadda yadda going on. Plus it’s one thing to have Reese and Kara be the CIA assassins sent after Casey; I’ll buy that because it’s one of the things that leads Finch to recruit him later. But Shaw showing up to execute Dillinger? What are the chances?

      So for me, it isn’t just that it doesn’t have any effect on the story; it’s that it’s not fun to rewatch because the juice is in the surprise, not the story.

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  2. How does this differ from Rashomon Job? The fact that Leverage is much more episodic? The framing device? (since the framing device means that the differing ways of retelling reflect on the characterizations of the crew in the now)
    (I forget, is Terra Incognita on the schedule? Are those flashbacks different since they occur within show timeline, and thus aren’t backstory? They’re also directly integrated with the now to characterize now-John.)

    Leverage is quite good about taking what people would instinctively place as backstory flashback material, and reintegrating it into present-day stakes. The Inside Job ensures that we don’t need to see Parker’s childhood outside of short humorous punchlines. The implications of Eliot’s service under Moreau are more chilling left unsaid, because what actually matters is how the crew reacts to learning about that history, not the history itself. The Nate-Sophie romp is played out in the present day via The Two Live Crew Job, with Starke as the substitute Sophie that they chase, and Frame Up Job, with Sterling as the substitute Nate chasing them.

    Is RAM at fault just because it has the trappings of season arc, compared to the middling but present-day two episodes preceding it? I’d rather Last Call be excised from the hypothetical novel. TV can go pretty far on well-crafted fanservice alone.

    I’m wondering if the characterization comparisons they were going for could have been done via a present-day case. Their previous attempts (Foe with Ulrich, Critical with Alistair) usually fall flat, like with the Last Call hacker coming off as bargain-bin Root. The two military numbers (Mission Creep, Liberty) also are just less impactful as proxy young-Johns compared to John himself in flashback, from the fans’ POV. Is that just an acting issue? The proxies for Leverage above were Mark Sheppard and Griffin Dunne, which goes a hell of a long way.

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    1. AHA!

      It does differ in a big way. “The Rashomon Job” takes place in the now of the story. It’s five people talking to each other, trying to one up each other; the juice isn’t in what happened back then, it’s what’s happening as they tell their stories now.

      And key to that is the scenes that seem like flashbacks aren’t flashbacks.

      A flashback is stopping the story in the now to go back to the past to show what happened then.

      The scenes in “The Rashomen Job” are dramatizations of the stories the characters are telling in the now. How do we know? Because they’re all different. NONE of them are what happened in the past, even Nate’s story is skewed by what he’s trying to accomplish in the now.

      One of the many reasons “The Rashomen Job” is brilliant is because it’s about who these people were and who they are now, and what they’re trying to do this night in the bar as a community that’s starting to bond. Also it’s funny as all hell, but that’s just a bonus.

      You want a comparison to “The Rashomen Job,” come back next week for “If, Then, Else.” That’s PoI’s Rashomen, and it is equally brilliant.

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      1. Also, Rashomon reeaaaaally doesn’t tell us anything new about the characters. By embracing that, the events in the past don’t feel like any sort of revealed backstory, just another episode that happens to be set in the past. There’s no backstory intent.

        The most “realistic” parts in Nate’s retelling, describing what “really happened,” are the less interesting parts, which is why they breeze through those parts to get to Cosgrove, telling his story of the now, and the unreliable self-depiction of Nate.

        So to “fix” RAM, probably there needed to be more interactions and overt comparisons to the now? I still quite enjoy the scenes of Dillinger, not because there’s any tension about his eventual betrayal of Harold, but in his contrast to Reese, and the Harold-Reese partnership. Maybe directly compare Harold and Kara more, look at the differences in those two partnerships, too.

        For point of comparison: what’s your opinion on Angel’s “The Girl in Question?” (the Rome episode)
        Flashbacks used humorously, minor playing with an unreliable narrator aspect, used to highlight how Spike and Angel…actually haven’t changed a bit from before. The flashbacks aren’t backstory in the sense of telling us any new information about the Angelus family.

        Let’s say that the Buffy movie never happened, so that “Welcome to the Hellmouth” was the first piece of canon anyone saw. Should the contents of the movie be inserted at any point during the series as a flashback episode? Do we need to ever see Buffy’s origins as the Slayer, see her arc from shallow cheerleader to accepting her responsibilities, see her first Watcher die? Or would the hints via her interactions with Cordelia be enough, casual references to her torched gym expulsion?
        Her time in the asylum, between the movie and the show, was left offscreen until they integrated it back into the now with “Normal Again.”

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  3. As always, Rad! review. Although I’ve re-watched RAM, uh, countless times (because I’m nuts about the show, or maybe just nuts) and it continues to amaze and amuse me.
    The Machine and its’ machinations never cease to interest me. And Greer! And Lambert!
    I agree about shoving Shaw in at the end and I only liked it because there were Control being her beastly self and Special Counsel, Mr. Fair Enough. Always liked those two.

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  4. So now I’m wondering if there’s a place for stories that are great the first time, but only the first time. You could sell them for half price to people going on long trips. And then when you leave them behind in random hotel rooms, you don’t feel bad, cause they wouldn’t have been good the second time anyway.

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  5. RAM: I’d have loved it just because Neil Jackson is in it, sigh

    Also really liked Casey and Root looks so cute when she turns up so fluffy and innocent looking, when she’s more dangerous then Reese and Finch.

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    1. It’s a good one for character arc, absolutely. But I think the really interesting thing about it from a craft PoV is how it arcs the Machine, showing it taking on a mentor role for Root, and we already did that in the mental hospital episode.

      What was it that made you think we should do that one?

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      1. I feel like there’s something to be said about the pure breakdown of the core themes of the show and the arguments it has with itself during the Root/Finch argument in the second act. But otherwise I do agree with your points.

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  6. Dropping out of lurker like to mention my fave bit of this episode when Dillinger brings Harold coffee (not noticing that it’s tea) and mentions that he should get a dog and comparing that to Reece who would never miss that it’s tea and rescued Bear. Loving the POI posts.

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    1. That and Reese is a gentleman and Dillinger isn’t, something that bugs Harold cause of his sense of honour

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