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.