Killing Characters, aka Please Don’t Kill Carter

The producers (Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman) of one of my favorite shows, Person of Interest, have announce not-so-cryptically that Somebody’s Gonna Die, or as they put it, “We promised our actors and our audience that these characters wouldn’t be static, stuck in an endless loop — that they would have a journey. And, of course, every journey comes to an end.” I am not happy. I love all of the characters on this show including the dog, especially the dog, and I’m not prepared to let go of any of them, so as a viewer, I’m apprehensive. I am not going so far as to say, “If they kill X, I’ll never watch again,” because this is a stellar show, but I also don’t want to mourn a character I love. I’ve been doing that too much lately in real life, I need TV as an escape, not a reminder that people I care about die. So as a viewer I’m against this.

But as a writer, I see their point.

If you don’t change your story after a stretch of time (an act in a novel, a season in a series), readers get story fatigue. “We’ve been doing this forever,” they say. “Bored now.” Case in point: The Mentalist, a show that’s been fun because of the characters but that’s been running on plot fumes for a while now because Patrick Jane has been looking for serial killer Red John for six freaking years. Now that he’s finally got Red John (whoever he is; my money’s still on Brett Stiles) on the run, it’s picking up again, but dear God, they’re even dragging that out. When you stretch things out that far, the story gets thin.

So you have a couple of options. You can keep your story as it is but keep it short. Life on Mars is the gold standard here; they knew their premise wouldn’t stretch past sixteen episodes, so even though it was a huge hit and the BBC offered them another year, they ended it, going out strong and creating a classic that still stands up seven years later and I’m betting will still be amazing twenty years from now. But if you want to go for the long form, you’re going to have to put in turning points, things that spin the story around in a new direction, make it all new. Person of Interest has been brilliant at this, essentially remaking the story each season, but now they’re flirting with death.

Killing an important character is a great way to turn a story around; you’re pulling out an integral piece of the structure, and all the other characters have to redefine themselves without that piece, adapt to the changes that the death brings. Joss Whedon killed Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sending Tara’s lover Willow into a murderous rampage, creating crises for the other characters who loved Willow but had to stop her ending the world, spurring Xander to sacrifice and maturity, and bringing back Giles (still one of the greatest sit-up-and-say-OH-MY-GOD moments in TV) to repair the fractured family. Compare this to the death of Wash on Firefly/Serenity, a death that had no real impact on the plot, its impact on the characters summed up as “We’re all really unhappy now.” Wash was a great character, but his death was meaningless from a story-telling perspective.

I think that’s the key to killing a loved character: it has to have meaning. Whedon, a serial loved-character killer, did it again in The Avengers when he killed Phil Coulson (I have the “Keep Calm, Coulson Lives” T-shirt), but he gave Coulson death-with-meaning, his death unified the otherwise contentious superheroes into The Avengers, who then worked together to save the world and not incidentally to kick Loki’s murderous ass. Coulson’s death transformed the story, so the story earned it. I’m thinking of Saving Private Ryan‘s “Earn this,” something every important doomed character should say to his or her writer: “If you’re going to kill me, earn it, make it mean something.”

Which brings me back to Person of Interest. They’ve been so gutsy up to now about spinning their story, taking a premise they could probably have milked for at least another year and turning it by unleashing the mad Root on the plot who not-so-insanely points out that The Machine is in the hands of ruthless killers and they have to set it (“her”) free. That led to the second season, a conflict between Our Gang and the shadowy government branch The Machine also talked to, ending with The Machine setting itself free, which lead to the current great third season, the Machine talking to Our Gang, the government, and Root, spooling out multiple instructions in complex layered stories that boggle a storyteller’s mind. These writers know how to plot. Which is why they probably really are going to kill a vital character tonight or next week, the bastards.

And this is where Viewer and Story Wonk collide. I don’t want to lose anybody in that show. I love them all, even the insane Root, a role Amy Acker is pretty much having for breakfast, even if Harold does have her imprisoned in the library at the moment. The character they’ve been teasing as doomed is Fusco, the formerly corrupt cop, now redeemed and part of the team, the everyman in a team of super-skilled human beings. When your cast is a computer genius/billionaire, a superspy with extraordinary combat skills, a brilliant former-military cop who’s also a loving single mother, a fixer with connections all over the city who’s also the occasional lover of the superspy, the female version of the superspy with an even lower emotional affect, a batshit computer genius with no moral compass, and one great dog, there’s really nobody in there who steps up and says, “You know, I’m kinda boring. Off me.”

And yet one of them really does have to go. That cast is just too damn big; at this point, there are more people working for Harold than are working for the government (and I’m not even counting Elias, the mob boss, although I should because he appears to consider them all allies at this point). It’s a stellar, stellar cast–Michael Emerson, Jim Caviezel, Taraji P. Henson, Kevin Chapman, Amy Acker, Sarah Shahi, Enrico Colantoni, Paige Turco–and they’ve all established their characters as complex, flawed, fascinating people. There are just too damn many of them to keep the paranoid tension up, especially now that Carter, the single-mother cop and my favorite character on TV right now, is poised to take down half the police force in a corruption scandal. Our Gang has enemies, but they’re getting tired (HR) or they’ve been co-opted (Elias) or they’re as confused as Our Gang (the government); time to upset things again.

That leaves fans playing the “Please don’t kill” game and me, as a writer, trying to figure out whose death would have the most impact on the story without destroying it. Fusco is the Ordinary Man in that tribe, they need him to ground the story, so it has to be one of the extraordinary people. Reese’s number comes up tonight, but I don’t believe they’re going to kill off the lead. Harold is the linchpin of the plot; without him, the center cannot hold. They wouldn’t dare kill the dog, I really would stop watching then. That leaves Carter, Shaw, Root, Zoe, and Elias. Leaving aside my own viewer bias (“Touch Carter and die, you bastards”), as a story wonk, I’d pick one of those five.

But not Elias. I love that character, I love that actor, but he just isn’t important enough to the team to change the story. Not Zoe for the same reason. It has to be one of the core group. So Carter, Shaw, or Root.

I’d pick Carter. Again, one of my favorite characters of all time, her arc over three seasons from dedicated by-the-book cop to bad ass avenger makes me cheer, I want to see her stride into the future, probably as police commissioner after she takes down HR, but as a storyteller, if I had to pick one character whose death would remake the story, it’s Carter. Harold sees her essential, Reese loves her as a fellow warrior, Fusco considers her not only as a partner but a sister, Shaw respects her and laughs with her which she does with no one else, Carter is loved. That’s the key: she’s not only necessary to their mission, they all love her: she’s bright, she’s dedicated, she’s brave, she’s loyal, and she’s beautiful in every sense of the world, and she’s still a believable human character. Killing Carter won’t just make the team sad, it’ll throw a bomb into their world.

Reese&Carter

That choice is underscored when you look at the other two candidates. As much as I love Shaw, she’s redundant; they already have a low-affect killing machine in Reese. I have loved everything Sarah Shahi has done with this character–her interaction with the little girl at the end of “Razgovor” was amazing and her comic timing is perfect–but we can spare Shaw. And Root, crazy-fascinating as she is, is essential only to the Machine, not to the story (which is another reason I think she’s safe: the Machine will protect her), so we can spare her, too. That’s the problem: we can spare them. The team can spare them, even though they’d be sincerely mourned (well, maybe not Root). The strong move really is Kill Carter. Damn it.

Having said that, I’m really hoping the writers don’t make the strongest story-telling choice. Maybe somebody else will step forward and become the hero that dies, although not Leon, I’d miss him, and not Elias’s right-hand man because there’s something about a loyal, cheerful sociopath . . .

Killing characters is hell on storytellers and readers. Too bad it’s such a great way to turn a plot. (Please don’t kill Carter. Or Fusco. Or . . .)

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41 thoughts on “Killing Characters, aka Please Don’t Kill Carter

  1. You know, the writers have a really hard job on this one. If they follow your writing advice and bump off a critical character, they also jeopardize the viewers’ trust. People get invested in characters and they feel betrayed when the show kills them off.

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  2. Okay. This wasn’t a show I have ever watched or intended to watch. But now I have to. I have to find all the previous episodes (Netflix?) and start watching them because this sounds like an incredible show. Damn you, Crusie! ::shakes fist::

    And this is why I hate when writers kill off characters I love. But it does have to work, without betraying both the character and the reader. I’m still not forgiving Tamora Pierce for what she did in Mastiff, the last of her most recent trilogy. I can see why she did it, but it was a huge betrayal of character and that is a betrayal of the reader.

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    1. This is a most excellent show but while I agree with what they did last night from a storytelling standpoint, I feel like the one they killed was also the one the female audience identifies with most strongly and I’m not sure a good chunk of viewers will keep watching without that character.

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  3. Finally!!! A proper explanation of why killing Wash seemed superfluous to the story. I get it now – it didn’t drive the story forward. Thank you, repeatedly!!

    I always wondered whether I was just a whiner about Wash because Whedon usually kills with reason – he doesn’t rampage across all formats delivering killing blows willy-nilly. Yet Wash’s death had a different flavour from Tara or Joyce or even Buffy herself. Now I understand why.

    Btw, one day we must discuss Heroes – I read that the writers’ original premise was to start season 2 with a totally new set of characters but the popularity of season 1’s characters made that difficult to sell. So they got stuck halfway because of the viewer buy-in to characters and slid steadily downhill from there.

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    1. Yeah, Wash and Book were killed to have an out since the actors weren’t able to commit if more “Firefly” stuff came about. Book at least impacted the story-All your allies will be eliminated, you have nowhere to go-but Wash-just break your heart and that’s about it.

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      1. I think Wash was killed for a purpose: to set the stakes for the final confrontation. It might not have had a story affect on the characters, but on the AUDIENCE it demonstrated that all bets were off for our heroes, anyone could die, and to drive home this really COULD BE their last stand. Until that point, there’s this little voice in the back of your mind saying all these characters have “plot armour”, particularly if coming in as a fan of the series. Whedon may have killed off Buffy at one point, but no one ever would have even considered that any series would end with Buffy, Giles, Xander, and Willow all dying; if Xander had died a “pointless” death in the end of Season 7 though, I imagine we really would have been holding our breath considering that none of them could come out alive.

        Book is a different case, as he’d effectively “left” the central cast and become a (much loved) side character. His death drove the story and prepared the characters for the finale. Wash’s death was to subvert tropes and expectations and prepare the audience for the finale.

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        1. I agree, but again, that’s the audience/reader interacting with the writer, not the story. It’s not the realization that the universe inside the story is a dangerous place, it’s a realization that the writer will do anything. That viewer/writer relationship is important in writer-dominated shows like the ones Whedon and Moffat do, but killing off a character without earning it is still weak storytelling.

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  4. This show has an embarassment of riches – everytime they added someone, I thought, OK, why do we need him/her, and then that character just fits right in and makes the show better. And I agree with Carter being “the one” that will influence the show the most, but I am right up there saying, nooooooooooo! I love how strong she is, I love that she is not the “love interest”, that she is a stand alone character, I love her relationship with Fusco and her belief in the right thing. It won’t make me stop watching – this is a great show – but it will hurt.

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    1. I became Carter’s fangirl forever in that bar scene. When she said, “You’re working for me now,” I thought, “Cast this woman as Wonder Woman. I believe she has super powers.”

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      1. Did you read her interview over at EW.com, Jenny? She talks about Carter as a superhero. Wonder Woman would work. She’d also make a *terrific* Misty Knight. Someone please call up Netflix/Marvel and tell them to cast her in those new Marvel shows being produced for Netflix that include Jessica Jones/Luke Cage/Daredevil.

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  5. I hate it when my favorite characters are killed. There is another way to get rid of them to revive a story. For example, a relocation or a family emergency would remove the character from the storyline but leave the ‘end’ open and dangling – for an occasional guest appearance later on, maybe. In CSI NY, they didn’t kill Stella – they had her accept a job in another city and move away. The show had changed with her leaving, not for the best, in my opinion, but it had changed.

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    1. But sometimes the move doesn’t make sense because that character would not leave that community. I will never believe that Doug Ross would leave the woman he loved and his newborn twin daughters to take a job across the country. And I do not believe that Brenda Leigh left her team for a promotion, either.

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      1. Right — you have to give the reason to leave the community. Eg that he wants to protect the community by going away (if he thinks it’s his presence that brings a danger on them, though that leaves an unresolved danger if you need to keep that character gone) or that there’s a stronger draw elsewhere, like an open-ended obligation to birth family somewhere else. I could believe for several of my favorite characters that they would leave a chosen family if they thought it was their duty to take care of an elderly parent or something.

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  6. I remember being outraged when Tara was killed. I’m illogically protective of the fictional communities I’ve come to know and love. But it was a huge turning point within that community. I think that was when Buffy and the Scoobys became adults.

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  7. I can’t speak to this show, but there’s a strong possibility that when the choice comes down to killing beloved characters, the story has simply gone on too long. The writer is forced to make those hard, hard choices because s/he (usually he, it seems) didn’t end the story at a wedding or a baby.

    Some writers glory in a death — the repercussions and how people grieve is endlessly fascinating to them, and it can be a good lesson for the readers/viewers in the options that are out there. But, if it turns a story about the glory of living into one about the bittersweet horrors of death . . . well. It’s not a decision every reader or viewer will follow.

    I’m really glad I stopped watching the Mentalist at season two. That was a very fine stopping point, and I can watch those two over if I need more of the darling Jane.

    I’m not a huge fan of Buffy, but it seems to me that with vampires, you are natually going to get deaths. I don’t know much about Person of Interest, but looking at iMDB, it looks like it’s only in the third season. That seems awfully early to me to be pulling out the “Let’s kill a beloved main character” card for a mystery series. IDK, it sounds like the story has been moving very fast, so maybe it’s time. But it still more “fast living.” It will only hasten the demise of the show.

    It sounds like “Life on Mars” made the brave choice, and went out when they still had good story-telling choices.

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  8. I will never watch person of interest again !!
    You kill Carter the only black female! All the blacks
    Have been killed or put in jail!
    She was a role model for people of Color! A Strong , intelligent
    caring and competent character.
    Why would she walk around without a vest knowing
    the number two person of HR was unaccounted for!
    She gets dumb in the end??? The writers did a lousy job !!
    Me and my friends are finished with this show!
    Very disappointed with this show following the
    usual practice that is seen in TV and movies of killing
    the people of Color !!
    Shame on you!!!

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    1. She was a role model for women, a role model for human beings in general, and still managed to be flawed and real and human.
      But yes, we lost Cal and now Carter and the cast is looking pale, although Shahi, at least, is Iranian/Spanish. I think it was story decision, not racially motivated, but it really unbalances the cast. If Nicole Beharie wasn’t going to be locked into Sleepy Hollow for another decade, I’d lobby for her, but that’s just because she’s my other go-to kick-ass female character on TV. I’d lobby for her for any role. Put her on SHIELD, she could rescue that sinking ship single-handedly. Come to think of it, they should put Taraji Henson on there. They desperately need somebody with personality.

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      1. I think a decision can be motivated by completely innocent intentions and still play into some very unfortunate tropes.

        Tara’s death for example played into the whole bury your gays trope (and Willow’s subsequent madness put her in line for evil lesbian). I don’t believe that was Joss Whedon’s intention but given the fact that Tara was one of the very few lesbians on tv at the time, it hit a lot of people quite hard.

        The answer to this is the same answer as most other complaints of this nature, make sure you’ve got a diverse array of characters. If Tara had been one of a number of gay characters on screen then people would still have been mourning the loss of her character (cause it’s Tara) but the ugly symbolism wouldn’t have been present.

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        1. I’ve read that Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant deliberately made a character that she was going to kill off white rather than Asian as planned because she’d get crap for killing off a non-white character.

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          1. If it’s the character and book that I’m thinking of then yes, killing the loan Indian character would have sucked (especially since he is fricking awesome).

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  9. Damn. I had it narrowed down to Carter or Fusco, and if it had to be one of them, I might almost have accepted Fusco. This really, really hurts.

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  10. I didn’t think they would kill Carter. But close to the end of the show, when all the drama was over and they kept lingering on, then I knew it was about to happen. But they really should have kept it a secret. It wasn’t nearly as dramatic and surprising as say Tara suddenly getting killed, with the killer coming out of nowhere. Knowing it was going to happen made less of an impact on me.

    But I think the real reason they killed off Carter was to make room for Amy Acker. She has no story line but the producers don’t want to get rid of her character. I’m guessing she’ll become a major player and have her name in the opening credits next season. But still, she’s no Carter.

    And, oh great. Now we have another show with an all white cast. Can’t have too many of those.

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    1. I suspect Root will have an endgame of some sort and I’m really, really hoping they bring on a new minority character. The lack of one now is absolutely glaring.

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    2. I think the real reason they killed off Carter is because Henson asked for a character with a death date. She didn’t want to commit to one show for a long time, and wanted to be free to do movies and other shows.

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  11. One of the greatest emotional impacts on me (although I saw it coming a mile away) was What Happened on Torchwood: Children of Earth which I cannot talk about in detail because spoilers. It was perfect storytelling and haunts me, but I will NEVER forgive Captain Jack for doing it (even though it was the RIGHT thing to do, ethically) nor Moffet for making Captain Jack do it.

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  12. I think I’m the only one I know who feels this way, but I thought there *was* a good story reason for Wash to die in “Serenity.” His death doesn’t particularly impact the characters in a way that changes the story, that’s true. But it does impact the *viewer* deeply, and to me that made the end of that movie so much more tense and perilous than it would have been otherwise. The final act of that story sees our heroes all pinned down against impossible odds, but if not for Wash’s death, I think I would’ve felt pretty assured that they’d pull it off and all survive somehow. I don’t think I’d have felt as terrified and emotionally invested as I did once I knew that Joss was willing to kill Wash, so who knows what else he might do? Maybe that didn’t hold true for others — maybe everyone (correctly) thought that since he’d already killed Wash he wasn’t going to kill anyone else, I don’t know. But for me, it changed the tone of that last act so dramatically that I argue it made the viewing experience ten times more riveting and emotional. Assuming it’s not just me who experienced that, isn’t that a valid story reason for a character’s death?

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    1. It’s a subjective question, really depends on the viewer.
      But as a story wonk, I think the death actually has to mean something in the context of the plot. In other words, using the same justification, Whedon could have killed a kitten in Firefly because that would have said, “I’ll kill anything.” That’s a dialogue between the viewer and the writer, not something intrinsic to the plot. There are a million ways to say, “Anything goes in this plot,” but you have to be really careful about how you make major plot changes. People were upset that Tara died, but there wasn’t an uproar because it was part of the story. The big question that Wash’s death raised and still raises is “Why?” That’s from people looking for how that death fit in the story because it didn’t. Carter’s death fits, as much as I hate it. Wash’s death just came from nowhere for no reason. Yes, that happens in real life, but fiction has to be better than real life. That’s why we have it, because we need something better than real life.
      I think you get a lot of bad story when writers do something to screw with the reader/viewer. Cordelia and the Beast is a good example. Unearned deaths are another. When you think of the deaths of great characters like Carter and River Song, they’re great because of the impact they have on the story, not because of the impact they have on the viewer. And because they have an impact on the story, they have an impact on the viewer. Put another way, you want the viewer responding to the story, not to the writer; you want the viewer worrying about what the characters will do, not what the writer will do.
      BUT that’s my opinion, yours is equally valid, not trying to saying you’re wrong. It’s a subjective topic.

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      1. No, you make a good point. (To my great non-surprise. 🙂 Even when I was typing that out, I thought, it’s weird that I thought of it as “what will JOSS do next?”, shouldn’t the author be invisible, etc.

        Unfortunately I don’t watch Who or POI so I will have to go ponder some other earned character deaths, but this is interesting stuff, thanks.

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  13. You know, at least they gave her a beautiful end in the arms of somebody who loved her and would have died for her. But my god, that was wrenching. When she and John were replaying that first scene, I started to cry and didn’t stop. I still think their best moment was the fist bump in the car a couple of episodes ago, but that was something. And she died fighting after she’d taken down a huge corruption ring. She was a detective again.
    I want her back.

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    1. Those last few minutes were beautiful. And after her son, her next thought was what her death would do to John. Makes me want to cry again just thinking about it. I hope he gets to kill Simmons next week. Hell, Root or Shaw can be the one to kill him for all I care, just as long as someone gets him.

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  14. I’m sorry, I just have to bring NCIS into this discussion…and all the characters they’ve killed off over the years. Kate was a complete surprise for me because I hadn’t read anything about her leaving. (Does everyone know in real life she is the DIL of Sofia Loren?) Of course she’s great on Rizolli and Isles. Again, I was taken aback when they killed off Mike Franks. Although that made sense to the story line, yet, I was again surprised. At least they left it open for Ziva to return if Cote (the actress) changes her mind. I’m not going to mention Jenny Shepherd, because it was time for her to go. I still cry when I watch those reruns though. But…NCIS just isn’t the same after Ziva leaving. The story continued and never lost my interest after the others died, but it’s just not the same right now. Perhaps I’m still mourning for Ziva, even though I know she’s still “out there”, but something is missing.
    I don’t watch POI or Who, but I have friends who adore “handsome guy” (in POI) as they call him, but I just don’t see it. Ichabod and Capt. Hook…now there is another story! 🙂

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    1. I was more than ready for Kate to go, and that was a good death, too. Shocking, plus I really loathed that character, so I was good with that. I loathed Jenny, too, and again they gave her a good death, so I was fine with that. Mike Franks was a tragedy but he wasn’t a major player. I think the death on there that the was the worst and yet the most satisfying from a story perspective was the double agent with the kidnapped sister who nods her head, telling Gibbs to kill her to get her sister’s kidnapper. That was wrenching and completely part of the story.

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      1. I completely forgot about Michelle. Yes, that was a great one. The look on Gibbs’ face when she nodded was priceless Gibbs. I thought I was the only one who didn’t like Jenny. I loved Mike Franks, and like “Q” in Star Trek: The Next Generation…although he was only in the show 3 times tops, he left such an impression that he was a semi-regular character.

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  15. If you read the interviews on EW, Carter was destined to die from the beginning. Which just makes it that much worse…

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    1. It explains why her arc was so beautifully clean. They knew exactly where they were going with her.
      Which also leads me to believe they know what’s happening to everybody else.
      I bet Fusco lives.

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  16. December 17, 2013
    Carter is dead and I am a former fan of Person of Interest.
    That is all.

    P. S. I hope the ratings tank and the writers live to regret their treatment of Taraji P. Henson for the rest of their culturally bereft lives.

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