First, I forgot to do the “Previously on . . .” with the individual episodes we’re skipping yesterday, so I’m going with a fast second season recap instead. If you want to skip this, jump down to the row of asterisks: *********
The beginning of the second season focuses on Finch’s recovery from the trauma of being kidnapped, helped along by his slow bonding with Bear, a great story move that gives Finch a softer side. “Masquerade” is one of my favorite number stories, but the continuing behind-the-scenes stuff is Kara Stanton, Reese’s old homicidal partner, who is back and who’s taken CIA creep Snow hostage as part of Decima’s plan. Who is Decima? Takes you the whole season to find out but in short: Decima is the brainchild of a fed-up ex-MI6 officer who thinks people suck and machines should rule the world, so he’s trying to find Harold’s machine or another one like it, install it in a position of power, flip the switch, and then follow its every bidding. On the one hand, Greer has obviously not read much science fiction, but on the other hand, he’s clearly read the newspapers and observed what happens in corridors of power, so are humans that much better? Again, that’s all happening behind the scenes. So Reese saves the diplomat’s daughter without having a romance with her (good old PoI writers never make a false step), and we move on to “Triggerman,” in which Elias agrees to help Finch save the number in exchange for games of chess in prison; I have to admit in this one, I wasn’t much invested in the number, but points to the PoI writers for giving us unsympathetic victims, too. “Bury the Lede” takes the story back to those bastards in HR, this time setting up an investigative journalist who’s getting too close to Quinn, the head of HR. “The High Road” is notable for Reese and Zoe pretending to be married in the suburbs with an excellent lack of playing coy and with a damaged but worthwhile number to care about. “Critical” is a basic thriller with Carter finding out about Snow and Stanton in the background.
You know, this kind of synopsis makes the show sound shallow. It’s not. It’s intricate and layered and wonderful.
Where was I? “Til Death” is about a married couple trying to kill each other (who hasn’t been there?) that has the whole Machine Gang working together. “C.O.D.” is about a bastard refugee exploiter who gets his while HR tries to make nice with Elias, who isn’t having it. Elias, you may remember, takes betrayal personally. “Shadow Box” is about a soldier planning a heist for a very good reason, which is why Reese sticks by him and gets captured by the FBI, setting up some excellent mind games and putting Carter in a dicey position at a time when she’s met Cal, a really nice guy. Might as well have put a target on the poor guy’s forehead. In “2NR” Finch saves a computer whiz kid named Caleb (remember that name for two years, please) while the FBI tries to figure out which of the four men they’ve captured is the Man in the Suit. “Prisoner’s Dilemma” is Carter trying to save Reese while questioning the four prisoners and succeeding, then getting nabbed by honest FBI guy Donnelly, who is taking them in when Kara Stanton kills him and takes Reese. It’s a great episode made even greater by Elias saving Reese in prison and Fusco having to protect a supermodel, seen only in scenes in the background throughout.
“Dead Reckoning” is another twisty thriller in which . . . you know, a lot happens. In the end, Finch rescues Reese and Snow kills Stanton, but not before they’ve put an unknown virus in an unknown system and . . . there’s more but this is a short recap. “One Percent” is a nice tension release as the Gang tries to protect a rich guy who turns out to deserve protecting. (There are flashbacks throughout all of these, but I’m ignoring them.) “Booked Solid” is another fun one, basically a hotel mystery since most of it takes place in one, with an exciting ending in the police station and a feel-good coda, which helps make up for Carter losing her chance at the FBI because Cal is being framed as part of HR. Also, the Special Council (whose personal secretary is revealed to be Root) sends operative Hersh to kill Reese, which does not go well, setting up the truly great episode, “Relevance,” which we talked about yesterday.
And then things begin to get ominous. In “Proteus,” a homicidal identity thief is trapped by a storm on an island with innocent people (and Finch and Reese) in a great and-then-there-were-none episode. Carter saves the day, and Finch and Reese realize the virus they uploaded was meant for the Machine, which has become erratic in giving out numbers. “Trojan Horse” ups the stakes and starts pulling threads together as Decima starts a countdown, HR kills good cops who are getting too close (one of them Cal), and Reese watches Shaw’s back as she clears her dead partner’s name. “In Extremis” is PoI‘s DOA, their race to help their dying number find his killer echoed in the Machine’s race to save itself, shutting itself down at the end of the episode.
So NOW we’re at the climax of Season Two, or the second turning point. Every turning point in every story changes things irrevocably, but when you’re this far into the narrative, the changes become bigger and more striking, unless you’re writing a series (novel, TV, or movie) where you want things to stay the same.
Keeping things the same in a popular series (film or book) can guarantee that popularity (I give you the long-running NCIS, Castle, Bones, etc.) while losing critical appreciation (I give you NCIS, Castle, Bones, etc.). The problem with doing the same damn thing over and over again is that it becomes boring. The problem with making changes is that you alienate your audience who really liked the way you did things before. The genius of PoI is that they somehow manage to do both through two and a half seasons. That is, Our Guys (Finch, Reese, Carter, Fusco, and Bear) fight the good fight every week, changing as they grow closer, trusting each other more and more as they come through for each other. Zoe and Elias and Leon show up just enough that we’re glad to see them but not tired of them. HR continues to be evil sons of bitches in the background. We know these people, this community, this story.
But toward the end of the second season, things become dire when an attack is made against the Machine, and it stops giving out numbers.
Look at that for a minute. This whole series rests on the premise that there’s a machine that gives Our Heroes numbers to prevent crime. And yet toward the end of the second season, the writers start taking that away. Our Heroes have two choices: retire or go fix the Machine and stop the bad guys. But given who they are, they really have no choice, two seasons have gone to show that the numbers have given Reese and Finch a purpose that binds them to each other and to the Machine. Without the numbers, they won’t know who they are. Character not situation forces them into action; they’re no longer reacting to the Machine, they’re acting on their own to save it as the season story races toward the big turning point.
That’s dangerous storytelling, to take away the hook that people have presumably been tuning in for. Except that’s not why we watch, and it hasn’t been since early in the first season. We watch for the Machine Gang, not just to see how they work together but how they grow together. Reese at the end of season one is not the Reese at the beginning; that arc was always going to happen because he started as a homeless drunk. The fact that Finch has changed, though, is huge. And Carter, an honest cop, is now working outside the law. And Fusco, has anybody ever had a character arc like Fusco, who’s found himself, redeemed himself, saved himself by working for the Gang? Season Two takes all of that up a notch, HR closing in on Carter and Fusco and the Man in the Suit, Decima lurking in the background and sabotaging the Machine, Root out there, free range and deranged. The story moves from simple tales of simple people in a battle between good vs evil, to simple tales about complex people in a battle between good and evil, to (in Season Three) complex tales about complex people in a battle in shades of gray. All of the complexity of the first two seasons is embodied in the double episode season finale that blows everything open by . . . explaining how a computer works.
To understand how complex this story is at this point, we have to unpack it. The double episode has to:
• Show that Decima is attacking the Machine.
• Show that the government knows the Machine is under attack and is racing to stop it by any means necessary.
• Show how Shaw joins the Machine Gang.
• Show that the Machine is acting on its own to save itself.
• Show HOW the Machine breaks free (let’s learn about computers, shall we?).
• Show that the Machine is still dedicated to saving people.
• Show how brutal the government is willing to be in covering its tracks and keeping the existence of the Machine secret.
• Show how Elias gets out of prison.
• Set up next season’s immensely more complicated story.
Please note that all of this is “show” not “tell.”
And here’s the kicker: None of that is the story. The story is Protagonist vs. Antagonist, in this case, a double plot of:
Reese (and Shaw) vs Root as he tries to save Finch
Finch (and Root) against the government and Decima as they try to save the Machine
with the huge subplot of
Carter vs HR trying to bring each other down.
Even the resolutions of those plots are complex:
HR brings Carter down by getting her discredited and demoted to uniform; Carter loses.
Finch and Root can’t save the Machine because the Machine has saved itself; their conflict is a draw.
Reese and Shaw find Finch only to find out that he’s joined forces with Root; their conflict was resolved without them.
All of which gives the season a conclusion to the conflict–the Machine has saved itself by escaping and all our players are in stable situations if not happy about them–while opening up an entirely new level of story world.
Which brings us to two questions: How do you build a story with all of these threads and, even more important, why would you?
The how is easy to explain, hard to execute. You start with story–everybody trying to capture or rescue the Machine–and make all the things you need to put in essential to the telling of the story.
So Finch has to keep Reese from following him and has him arrested, but he needs somebody to rescue him, too, so he makes sure Shaw is there to witness the arrest so she’ll save him. Shaw is now a provisional partner with Reese, learning about the Machine as she goes. That part of the plot does not work without Shaw.
And the Machine keeps sending Reese numbers even while he chases Finch and Root, which provides barriers and tension relief, not to mention comic relief (love that wedding). Without the Machine sending numbers, Reese gets to Finch before he’s ready for him (leading to the assumption that the Machine is sending those numbers in part to help Finch).
And Elias has to be free to help bring down HR, and Carter has to be shown on her own at her own turning point, so Carter puts on a ski mask, shoots a Russian gang boss, and clubs a dirty cop to free the most dangerous man in New York, gaining an ally she really doesn’t want, and setting herself on a solitary path of vengeance and redemption. The subplot doesn’t interlock with the Machine plot but it echoes it and reinforces it–Carter’s setting free an uncontrollable great power, too–while arcing two characters and pushing them into an uncertain future.
As long as all of the threads are necessary to the main story, as long as none of them can be cut without damaging the story, you can pull in multiple aspects of story because readers will want to read them. They won’t skim because that information is entertaining, enthralling, illuminating, necessary. How autonomous is the Machine? When it sees its doom approaching, it fabricates orders to send it somewhere else, covering its tracks so that no one can find it. That’s not a Machine anymore; that’s an Artificial Intelligence, a mind acting on its own. Nobody explains how it did it, but it’s integral to the plot that it did it. And it’s a wonderful surprise at the end
Okay, that’s how, but why does this story have to be so damn complex? (Simple is almost always better.)
Because unless viewers understand the complexity of the Machine and the people that surround it, they can’t understand the stakes. The Machine on its own is an artificial intelligence of devastating power, the Machine in the wrong hands could be devastatingly dangerous (see Season Four), and the people who are chasing it–the Machine Gang, the government, Decima–are all off the leash, lethal and accountable to no one as they race to control and/or protect the future. This isn’t a “We have to stop the bomb from going off, cut the blue wire!” plot; it’s a complex concept that is front and center in the real world. The Snowden case broke between the first and second seasons and threatened to take the stories out of the realm of science fiction and into front page fact. Some of the best minds in the world are publishing essays right now on the benefits and dangers of AI. And Person of Interest takes not only all its storytelling threads but all these informational threads and boils them down to one phone call: “Can. You. Hear. Me.”
This is great storytelling.
Freaking flashbacks. Sigh. These episodes are so complicated that interrupting them with the past is really chancy. Having said that, I think the scenes with the Nathan story could have been an episode of its own, like “RAM.” It’s excellent storytelling, it’s just not this story, and putting two excellent stories together weakens both.
Smart Story Moves
• Ernest Thornhill is the Machine, a terrific way to foreshadow the Machine as not just a computer but a living entity.
•Echoing the finale of last season (Root kidnaps Finch again!), using the inevitable comparison as a foil to show how much everybody has changed.
• Decima’s attempt to make Reese distrust Finch, seconded by the naturally suspicious Shaw.
• Setting the finale of “Zero Day” in the NYC library as an echo of the Machine Gang’s library-fortress, reinforcing that this is really a battle of information dissemination and control, even while the guns blaze.
• Showing the Machine resetting itself and then establishing taking control of it as answering a phone, an action instead of an abstract.
• Showing Carter defeated by HR as a way of stirring outrage against a long-running antagonist that might otherwise have worn out its welcome. Carter is Our Girl, and nobody messes with Our Girl; we want those bastards dead. This is a great move for a subplot here because it’s so damn hard to follow who’s the bad guy in the main plot. At least in the subplot, we know who to hate.
• The brilliant reveal of the empty hanger that shatters Root.
• “Is this what you expected?” “It’s what I’d hoped.”
• Finch’s plan to hide a virus in a virus to trigger the Machine to save itself.
• The intro that shows the Machine crashing.
• “I’m not a sociopath, Harold. Believe me, sometimes I wish I was. The things I’ve had to do would have been so much easier.”
• Shaw as Reese’s lawyer.
• “I’m driving.” “No. No, you’re not.”
• “It’s just a machine, Miss Groves.” “It’s a life.”
• The phone calls.
• That glorious beginning of “God Mode” where the Machine tells Reese where to shoot.
• “I wasn’t talking to you, Harold.” Root bonds with the Machine.
• The wedding vignette, an entire episode in a minute.
• “We’re gonna need to borrow your helicopter.”
• Carter saving Elias (“At least he’s loyal”), the echo back to his last trip to the woods to be executed, especially the part in the van when Carter takes off the ski mask. “Detective Carter? What a funny old world.” One of my favorite moments in the entire series. Carter is just the best.
• “You shoulda killed me better, Hersh.”
• “Fair enough.”
• The numbers starting again still gives me a chill, especially . . .
The Machine calling Root in the mental hospital–“Absolutely”–ominous and “Hell, Yeah!” at the same time. Why Amy Acker doesn’t have an Emmy for this is beyond me.
New PoI Post: Next Week:
April 11: 3-3 Lady Killer (Amanda Segel): Utilizing a Large Recurring Cast
April 12: 3-5 Razgovor (Kenneth Fink): Character Arc through Relationships
April 13: 3-6 Mors Praematura (Helen Shaver): Fusing Multiple Story Lines