Person of Interest has great antagonists, mostly because the writers refuse to see them as just Bad Guys. Every major antagonist they’ve had is layered, well-motivated, and intelligent, with the possible exception of the thugs from HR, and even they were led by the smart, smooth Quinn. Elias may be my favorite of all of the Major Big Bads because he’s so complex. And that, in turn, makes the stories about him as complex and layered as he is. The protagonist may drive the narrative, but the antagonist shapes it, and Elias always shapes an interesting story.
First, Elias is likable, even though he does evil things. He has an admittedly skewed moral code which is driven by his respect for loyalty, strength, brains, and courage. Ironically, these things that he exhibits in his own actions are the attributes in Finch, Reese, Carter, and Fusco that bring him down in this episode. Because of that, he’s gracious in defeat. When Carter bests him, he admires her for it because she’s been brave and steadfast. When Finch and Reese block his move, he acknowledges a game smartly played. He’s not an animal, he’s a complex human being that viewers can’t help but relate to, not because of the trauma in his past but because of his behavior in the present. The Elias who steals and kills is reliably sane; the animals of HR are just venal, jackals at large, driven only by greed. I think one of the reasons Elias becomes a major part of the PoI story world is that the series increasingly moves into the gray area, and because of his characterization, Elias is the most interesting shade of gray. And then, of course, he’s played by Enrico Colantoni, which never hurts.
Elias is also dimensional. This episode relies heavily on flashbacks as motivation, which is a mistake, not just because what happened in the past is not story (although it isn’t), not just because it takes real estate away from the gripping story in the now (although it does), but because it reduces the marvelous complexity that is the character of Elias to one note. The flashbacks say, “This is a revenge story, based on a Would from the Past,” but if Elias just wanted his father dead, the guy would have been gone long ago. Elias thinks big, thinks not just in terms of territory and power, but of reordering the world to make it right. It may have started with the trauma in his past, and it’s certainly not a coincidence that part of his plan to achieve dominance of his territory also involves taking down his father’s world and making him watch, but if he had to choose between revenge on his father and his master plan, it’d be the master plan every time. He’s ruthless and therefore dangerous, but he is also in his own way, a civilized man, a man who in a different time would have conquered kingdoms.
Beyond that, he’s Finch’s doppelganger, which I think is a brilliant characterization move. Elias wants to control his world to make it a better place; Finch built a machine to make his world a better place. They both work from the shadows, aided by one strong, ruthless captain, co-opting the police to achieve their ends. They are two fine minds in a struggle to define the world they live in, and it makes their struggle personal. In later episodes, Finch becomes Elias’s actual chess partner, going to him in prison for games, a recognition of the relationship between two like minds. That echo between protagonist and antagonist almost always makes for a layered conflict, while strengthening the character of both the protagonist and the antagonist.
Elias is going to continue to be a major player, sometimes working against the Machine Gang, sometimes working for, but always a thoughtful, strong, sinister presence, and a truly great antagonist.
Flashbacks. Freaking flashbacks destroying momentum. I’m not saying they’re not great scenes, I love the foster mom (“We are all descended from kings”) and that attempted execution of Elias is chilling. But we know Elias makes it; we’re a lot more worried about Taylor. The now of the story is always more powerful.
Smart Story Moves
• Layering the complex plot: Elias buying HR, taking Taylor, while Finch counters with HR and Reese takes Taylor back. It’s more of a chess game than a plot, with Elias playing many players at once, and it’s a terrific way to show how strong and smart he is. You always want the antagonist to be stronger than the protagonist, and in fact it takes the entire Machine Gang to bring Elias down.
• Establishing sympathy for Elias even as he does horrible things by making the men he’s trying to kill so much worse.
• Making Carter’s choice between saving her son and doing her duty, and showing who she truly is, while showing Fusco’s growth at the same time.
• Carter telling Fusco he’s the only one she trusts; then sticking by him when the mob bosses try to turn her against him.
•”Might as well kill them myself.” “If you’re up to it, that would be extremely helpful.”
• Fusco’s moment of truth.
• The music: Unkle’s “Burn My Shadow” playing over Taylor’s rescue gives me chills every time, and then Nina Simone over Elias’s final victory.
The whole episode is an ominous moment. Not a lot of comic relief in this one.
Subsequently on PoI:
“Matsya Nyaya:” This is one of those episodes that’s so loaded with backstory that the number of the week gets swamped even when it becomes an HR case. Kara Stanton and Reese are ordered by Mark Snow and Alicia Corwin to go to China to retrieve a stole briefcase, and then to kill each other, and then there’s a bombing . . . This is one of the few PoI episodes that I think got away from the writers because they were stuck with all the backstory. Back Story Kills, people.
“Many Happy Returns:” Reese saves a woman from her abusive ex as the FBI follows a lead that Reese might have been involved in the death of the abusive husband of his lost love Jessica. Carter shreds a file that the FBI wants on Reese.
“No Good Deed:” A national security analyst discovers the existence of the Machine and tries to warn people which almost gets him killed, Finch gives him a new identity and tells him to shut up, but he’s seen by Alicia Corwin. Reese finds Finch’s ex-fiancee, Grace, who thinks Finch is dead; Finch confesses to Reese that he faked his death to protect her.
New PoI Post: Tomorrow, the trilogy of “Firewall,” “The Contingency,” and “Bad Code,” three linked episodes that focus on Root, the antagonist of “Root Cause” and a major player in the PoI story-verse, the story serving as a great example of (Act) Climax as a first turning point.
Table of Contents with Links to all PoI Posts
14 thoughts on “Person of Interest: Flesh and Blood: The Well-Rounded Antagonist”
I will be the lone voice here.
I like backstory. I like flashbacks if done well and what I remember PoI does them very well indeed. (I also like prologues & epilogues so what can I say – I’m just twisted)
To me it feels more like major and minor chords working together and it’s watching the two parts approach the moment of Now that makes the story work for me.
I’m thinking especially of Finch’s backstory with the woman he loved
This show is the only show that’s done back story I’ve liked. I thought the “RAM” episode was great. And I loved the four therapist scenes in “The Devil’s Share.”
But the “RAM” episode was an entire episode of back story, there were no flashbacks, only that one brief flash forward at the end. And honestly? If it hadn’t been in the series, nobody would have missed it. It was fan service, and I had a great time watching and rewatching it, but it wasn’t essential to story.
The four therapist flashback scenes in “The Devil’s Share” actually added to that story, I thought, because it was about stunned grieving. When you lose somebody like that, there’s a period when nothing makes sense, everything is out of order, so the disruption seemed right there, along with Reese being half dead from his wounds and half out of his mind with grief. I thought those four scenes were brilliant.
The flashbacks here are all about The Wound, the terrible thing that happened in Elias’s past, and I think they not only slow the story down, they flatten his character.
Finch’s back story with Grace is lovely, but it serves to set up the kidnapping, which would be much more interesting told without them. We already at that point know he loved her, Reese finds that out, and then Root. And given that Michael Emerson can convey volumes with just his face, I think it’s another waste. I love rewatching these episodes, they’re just so good, but I fast forward through most of the flashbacks. They’re just not interesting to me.
However, trust me, you’re not a lone voice. People argue with me about flashbacks all the time.
They’re wrong, of course . . .
At what points are flashbacks just backstory, and at what point are they Patterned Structure?
The brilliance of flashbacks in visual mediums is that, via visual language, all flashbacks can be incorporated as Patterned structure with regards to themes, if not character. Sure, Jim and Michael could infer that they’ve changed from their past selves, but also explictly getting to see those changes is just as powerful.
Kara’s appearance in S2 doesn’t hold nearly as much impact without seeing just how complex her relationship with Reese was, or why she goes on her rampage.
And finally, these are very private people. There are certain things they just won’t share with each other, and won’t naturally come up in the modern timeline to be discovered by the other characters. Like the nature of the friendship between Harold and Nathan.
PoI is aggressively linear; they get a number in the beginning, they trace down the answers in a logical, cause and effect manner, and then end with a capture/save/climax. You know exactly where you are in the story at all times. It’s true you can’t see the full story until you get to the end and pull back to see everything as a whole but it’s not because it’s patterned, it’s very linear.
So if you use flashbacks to pattern, you’re essentially mixing two structures to the detriment of both. You’re not getting enough pieces to see a real pattern and have a real ah ha moment at the end and the driving power of linear structure is disrupted by “things the writers want the reader to know” instead of “things the reader wants to know.”
Arrow’s the worst of these; its flashbacks are insanely bad and add little or nothing to the narrative, they just like telling stories in the past. PoI is trying to give us stuff they want us to know so we can understand character in the now. But their stories would be so much more powerful if they let us intuit that. I think the flashbacks in “Bad Code” were particularly egregious because we didn’t get anything there that wasn’t discovered in the now of the story. It undercut the urgency with which Reese was searching for Finch, they repeated the same images over and over, and in the end, it really didn’t tell us anything about Root because the focus was on Hannah Red Herring. Hannah’s death does not explain Root. Reese finding out how Root managed to get her murderer killed was much more enlightening. If she could do that at sixteen, she’s on Finch’s level now. That’s the key fact about Root as a kid, and it’s not in flashback.
I don’t think it’s necessary to see how complex Kara’s relationship with Reese as in the past. It’s a lot more interesting to have this woman show up now, seeing what she’s doing now. The information could have been supplied as Finch and Carter try to figure out what’s happening; Reese is a private person but he’s not insane, if she’s gunning for people, he’ll share. And that’s really the key: if the information is important, they need to know it in the Now and they’ll find it.
Flashbacks, for the most part, are lazy writing. “Here’s what happened in the past, it explains the now.” No, it doesn’t. If years have passed since that thing happened, it’s in the rear view mirror, not consuming these people’s lives. And if it’s important, there are ways to get the information on the page that don’t disrupt the now.
Which, again, is why I love the four flashbacks in “The Devil’s Share.” They disrupt the linearity because that’s what’s happening to the characters: they’ve lost someone they love, their lives are disrupted, their community is disrupted, they’re stripped down to the bone. I actually don’t think any of the flashbacks are illuminating except for Fusco’s; it’s all stuff we know. But I like the flashbacks anyway, these four damaged people forced into discussing themselves with professionals, nailing how damaged they are, broken into a narrative that shows them at their lowest emotional point. It’s not the information in the flashbacks that’s important, it’s the way they disrupt the structure, the coldness of all of them.
HOWEVER, zillions of people think I’m wrong about this, so flashbacks will probably be with us forever. They’re just such an easy way of getting back story to the reader.
Hello! I’ve been reading your articles about this show and loving them (because I love the show, but also because your analysis is great and interesting to read). I wanted to weigh in on this conversation because I have a particular pet theory about the purpose of flashbacks in Person of Interest specifically. I don’t want to join some kind of dogpile and tell you you are Wrong About Flashbacks, because in general principal I agree that flashbacks can be pretty pointless and that there are often better ways to get information across, but in the case of this show, I think there’s something more (and something very consistent) going on with them.
I feel a running theme of the show is the importance of memory and how experience in the past affects actions in the present. After all, the framing device of the show is the Machine cataloguing the current, very linear plot, but also piecing things together from information it passively gathered earlier. We know this is how it functions: pattern recognition as a method of prediction, and that the pattern can start long ago in something that seems small at the time. But it also ties in to the Machine’s character development: its understanding of humans, the sentiment behind the preservation of memory (highlighted especially in “Lethe” and “Aletheia”) that it learned from Finch. Humans mentally exist as a complex web of memory, association, and speculation; as the show goes forward, the Machine increasingly behaves like this too. Just because the past is in the rearview doesn’t mean it’s left a person mentally; the world exists in linear time, but human minds don’t. I think the constant flashbacks underpin this. Certainly, I would feel this was a lesser show if we never saw Nathan, never saw the Machine’s development, never saw what a blithely remote person Finch was before Nathan’s death. The slow, piecemeal revelation of how he died felt, to me, vital, and it would not have had the same effect if all we got was whatever Finch felt like revealing.
Also, the show is populated with spies, dissemblers, outright liars, and Very Private People; they might, if pressed by necessity, share information about their pasts, but it would only be of the driest kind – and worst, we the audience would have reason to doubt that it’s true. Plus the alternative can be one of my pet peeves in fiction, the Motive Rant (a peeve because the #1 question that comes up when I see it is “What is compelling Person A to spill their darkest secrets to Person B? Is Person A even that self-aware?” I don’t fully understand why I’m feeling something or even *what* I’m feeling a lot of the time, so I often don’t buy it when fictional characters can perfectly sum up and justify their reasons for acting the way they do.) I do feel like it’s necessary sometimes to see what got a character to this point in their life, but such private issues don’t often come up in conversation, and bringing them up in dialogue can feel very forced to me.
Per your examples of Root in “Bad Code” and Elias in “Flesh and Blood”, I feel those are pretty good, purposeful flashbacks, because they give a better understanding of those characters by undercutting the kind of mythologising that might happen otherwise. It would be tempting to think of the murder of Hannah as an incident that broke sweet, innocent Samantha Groves, but we see that she was always a somewhat arrogant person absolutely itching under the skin for something to do with her brilliance. We’d have little reason to believe that if Root said it, because she’s been established as a liar, and it would be pure speculation coming from any other character. Similarly, it would be tempting to think of Elias as someone who was always a brilliant, cunning player ten steps ahead of everybody else, but the flashbacks show a naive idiot who almost dies because he’s too blinded by hope to see the awful truth that a smart person should have at least *suspected* by that point. Elias would have no reason to reveal that in the present. These things also cement aspects of their characterisation early: Root is not feigning that cockiness; it’s intrinsic, and while it can be a strength (unshakeable confidence!) it can also be a weakness (arrogance, underestimation that John ends up using against her). Elias doesn’t value loyalty and good faith because they appeal to him on an intellectual level; they’re a matter of survival to him. Also, he may not hold many grudges, but when he *does* find something to be vengeful about he doesn’t let it go – something that comes up again in the 4th season. Sure, the characters could tell us these things, but I’d rather be shown.
I tend to think of these as the Villain Flashback Episodes, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. I think Peter Collier’s flashbacks work like gangbusters, both because they proved he had a point (and slyly illustrated how “the innocent have nothing to fear” doesn’t work if prejudice is in play) and made me pity him in his final moments by showing just how far he’s come unhinged. Meanwhile, Greer’s flashbacks felt truly pointless: they told us nothing new about his backstory, because he’d already directly told us, because he of all people IS the kind of grandiloquent monologuer who really *wants* people to know his motives. In contrast to Greer, I was surprised (and bothered) that Dominic never got such an episode, because of all the major villains, he felt the most in need of one. Or at least some indication of backstory. Or motive. ANYTHING. Leaving him as such a cypher meant I never felt anything towards him at all.
Obviously, there are ways other than flashbacks to get such information across, but I feel that not only are flashbacks an intrinsic part of the way the show is told, but they’re also (usually) an entertaining and above all *efficient* way to show something important about the character. Kind of the way internal monologues work for me in literature. Aaaand now I have ranted at you a great deal about My Thoughts On How POI Specifically Uses Flashbacks. I am very sorry if your eyes glazed over.
This is really great analysis, thank you.
I think flashback, much like internal monologue (good comparison, by the way) have the same basic unavoidable problem: they eat story real estate. If what they’re giving us is worth taking space from the story we’re invested in, then we’ll let them pass. If they’re not, they’re annoying and we want them out of the way so we can get back to the story that matters.
It’s also true that nobody sees/reads the same story; we all bring our tastes and expectations to the narrative, which is why two people with the same taste can disagree entirely about a movie or a book.
I’m focused on story-in-the-now, so I loathe flashbacks unless I’m watching what is basically a non-linear story (probably patterned). If the story is presented as linear, then I don’t writers to break that to give me information, even if they think I need it. Others like (or at least accept) flashbacks because they’re watching/reading for different things. It’s one of the reasons we forgive bad plotting in a show we love in the fifth season: we stopped watching for plot a long time ago and now just want to see characters we love hang out and do things.
As a writing teacher, I start with the premise that story is everything, in part because writers always get hung up on character and back story (it’s in our natures to think about people) and give short shrift to events. So my mantra is “No flashbacks, no prologues, no epilogues, stay in the now) because that’s where tight story-telling comes in.
I watched “Relevance” again last night and one of the things that struck me about that episode is that it’s pretty much flawless because they trust the viewer. They did Shaw’s back story in half a dozen lines of dialogue spread through out the forty-three minutes, no flashbacks at all. They just dropped the viewer into a busy street with Shaw getting coffee, established her as a normal woman, then did the reversal and established her as a killer, then showed that she was working for the government. They didn’t stop to flash back to her life as a kid, which they will do later and which is just annoying as hell, they kept that story moving, perfectly paced.
Good writers can accomplish everything in the now of the story; you’re right, most of the information in the flashbacks is good stuff, but none of it is essential to story and all of it could have been done better in the now.
I agree with you on the flashbacks to an extent. What made Breaking Bad dynamic was the linear progression and any backstory was covered in the here and now. Very well done.
The flashbacks in POI add dimension and layers to the story : one example is the Ordos story which is done mostly in flashbacks and for me, add impact seeing it visually rather than in exposition. Plus, some nice character studies of Stanton and Reese.
POI is the only TV show I’ve watched multiple times in order to piece together the story and of course, for the pure enjoyment of it.
Their plots are like swiss watches.
The thing about the Kara stories is, they’re so much more interesting in the now than they were in the past. The past is boring. And then they essentially bring back Kara as Shaw, except Shaw is fascinating because she does her character development in the Now. (I do not count those horrible accident flashbacks that tell us absolutely nothing that hasn’t already been shown in the present. ARGH.)
I’m more in agreement with you now than I was about flashbacks, they do slow down the story. I skip over that Shaw – kid one, the Carter- Army one.
Thinking about them, I can see how they could have accomplished the same thing emotionally without them. Thanks for the, for me, learning lesson.
I’ve never studied writing or literature, so it took a while for me to see your point of view.
I wonder if the back flashes were time-fillers given the many episodes needed. In which case, a 13 or 15 episode season would have been better.
Arrow’s flashbacks are truly awful. I decided to take a break from that show a couple episodes ago when I saw the direction the plot was heading. It can wait until Netflix has it. If the present is annoying me as much as the past, I can’t watch that show.
I really want to watch “Many Happy Returns” again, because I remember liking the flashbacks in that episode. And I’m not generally a fan of flashing back to Reese’s relationship with Jessica; I tend to get bored (Harold and Grace are another matter, I get that we don’t need it, but I enjoy watching them anyway). But the fact that what happened to Jessica echoes the number of the week, and Carter digging into the case in the present, made it interesting for me.
Oh, hell, Arrow. What is it with the GrimDark? Everything has to go to hell. That’s not conflict, that’s just depressing.
Although the word may be getting out. The Flash outperforms Arrow, the box office from BvS is dropping off faster than any superhero movie ever has including The Fantastic Four. And they’ve just called the Suicide Squad cast back for reshoots to–no kidding–add jokes because the preview is funny, but it has every joke in the movie. I think it’s the one-two punch of Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool being hugely successful and BvS evidently tanking; I’m hoping that trickles down to Arrow because there’s so much good there, but I can’t take this “let’s kick Oliver in the nuts again because he was happy” crap.
Which may also be why this story about the Devil has turned into a romantic comedy.
The Fantastic Four did better? Heard that was awful, which I guess really says something about Batman vs. Superman.
Arrow is definitely depressing. And they had to bend over backwards with manufactured soap opera drama and make us all angry the characters to get it there, which really should tell them something. If only they’d listen. It’s even worse because the first half of this season might be the best the show has ever been. Maybe I should just watch the first half of every season and then stop. There’s enough there to like that I don’t want to give it up completely, but I’ve been painfully disappointed three years running now, and it’s time to lower expectations.
The Fantastic Four didn’t do better, but it didn’t fall off as fast.
BvS did pretty well on Thurs/Fri and then dropped like a stone for the rest of the weekend. The numbers look really good, but part of it is because they opened it everywhere in the world on the same day. So the key, evidently, is what it does this weekend. If it doesn’t come roaring back . . .
That fits with what everyone I know says about it. Everyone was open to seeing it, but afterwards said it wasn’t great, don’t go in with high expectations, etc.
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