A reversal is just that: a reversal of an expectation the reader/viewer holds about what’s happening next in a story. Reversals often happen at turning points in a story, events that show the protagonist that her or his assumption about what’s happening is wrong or at least too narrow, and that revelation turns the story in a new direction, sometimes casting everything that came before in a new light and sometimes blowing up everything completely.
Reversals must be earned; you don’t get to drop “it was all a dream” into a story just because you want to shock the reader/viewer with something you don’t want to actually have happen in the story. That’s called schmuck bait, the reversal that tries to make the reader/viewer think that something story-changing has happened. (“Schmuck bait” has other definitions, too; see TV Tropes for more.) As one of the producers of The Good Wife put it, “”Schmuck bait is kind of like the end of any Perils of Pauline kind of serial where the car is heading towards the cliff and goes over the cliff so you think the main character has died, but then you see in the next episode the main character rolls out of the car. That’s schmuck bait because it entices the audience [into believing that] something massive has happened when in fact it wasn’t massive at all. It’s making the suggestion of an explosion but then reversing it and walking it back right away.” If the reversal can be reversed back to the previous norm, it’s not a reversal at all, it’s just a waste of time for both writer and reader.
The Person of Interest writers love reversals, and they use them for both minor effect, to move the story, and major effect, to change the story world. Minor effect: When Zoe buys the gun in “The Fix,” the reader and Reese make the assumption that she’s a hitter, and everything in the story leads up to that (she lurks in a dark hallway, etc.) only to have her hand the gun to police lieutenant, showing that she’s a fixer instead. It’s not a gotcha, a trick, because when you watch again, all the clues equally add up to “fixer,” it’s just that there aren’t enough clues to get the viewer or Reese to that assumption. Major effect: When Reese goes to protect the prosecutor in the pilot, only to find out that she’s the one behind the murders. That scene in the alley swings the entire story in a new direction, leading to the co-opting of Fusco, saving the boy and his father and the hostage in the hallway, and bringing down the prosecutor in court. A minor reversal changes reader’s assumptions about an aspect of the story, a major reversal changes the story.
In “Witness,” we have a major reversal, so major that a second viewing of the same episode is an entirely different story. In the first viewing, Reese is saving a mild-mannered school teacher, beloved by his students, a standard episode of crime-of-the-week TV. And then comes the crisis turning point, and not only the story but the entire series will never be the same. Bread crumbs had been laid for this reveal in previous episodes, but they couldn’t be put together until this one moment of stunned surprise, at which point it’s too late.
That prep work adds to the weight of the reversal: it’s not just Reese and the viewer making a mistake; it’s that there’s a new player in the ongoing story, it’s that the new player will bring Reese and Carter together which heightens the danger because Carter is trying to bring Reese down; it’s that the new player is brilliant, smarter than John, smarter than Carter, smarter than Finch. It’s the best of all possible major reversals: a fair-play story move that makes everything new.
There are no weak parts.
Smart Story Moves:
• Hiring Enrico Colantoni. His performance is never a lie, he’s always Elias, but he’s Elias playing Charlie Burton. It’s brilliant.
• The “message for Elias” red herring; it sells the number as victim.
• The widow’s testimony as a way to mythologize Elias, setting him up as a larger than life figure through an outside character who has no reason to lie.
• Planting Elias’s right hand man as a cop, giving Elias a pipelineto the police, then tipping the cop as hinky through FInch.
• The way this episode pulls together all the bread crumbs laid in previous episodes.
• The bond that Elias forms with Reese. He’s not sentimental, but he honors his debts, and that’ll have a huge impact later.
• The kid as a bolt hole, working as both a plot device and a character witness for Burton, who is honestly a good teacher.
• Finch throwing down the red herring, suspecting the cop as Elias.
• Reese handing the phone to Burton to hold.
• “Sinner Man” as end music.
• Basically, every minute of this plot. It’s a swiss watch.
• Finch talks to Fusco for the first time! Fusco: “What are we, dating?”
• Reese taking out the drug lab to save Charlie. “Thank you.”
• The kid, Burton’s student, the one who says, “You’re the best teacher I’ve got” and faces down the Russian to save him, not realizing that he’s never going to see his teacher again, and that Burton’s not going to be there to see that he gets into college. It’s such a small moment, but it adds so much gravity to the reversal.
• To Reese: “You don’t know who he is, do you?”/To Carter:”You don’t get it do you? You think we’d go through all this trouble for a witness?” A great one-two punch/reversal.
• “It’s done.” “Naw, it’s just beginning.”
After this on PoI:
“Foe:” Finch and Reese look for a former Stasse agent who is killing his former colleagues.
“Get Carter:” A Carter-centric episode, always a good thing. She’s trying to track down Elias as Reese lurks in the shadows, trying to protect her without revealing himself to her and getting arrested.
“Number Crunch:” A puzzle mystery (the Machine spits out four numbers) heightened by the CIA’s enlistment of Carter to track Reese down; when she realizes the CIA is trying to execute him, she finally picks a side and starts her relationship with the Machine Gang.
“Super:” A crime of the week story that’s a lot of fun because Reese is stuck in a wheel chair while Finch becomes a man of action. Plus there’s a great reversal, and Finch gives Carter a number which leads to her saving a life, making her a de facto member of the Machine Gang whether she realizes it or not.
“Legacy:” Carter helps Reese with a number, a crusading attorney being targeted by a rat bastard in a reversal of the pilot plot, and puts Carter directly into the Gang with Finch, Reese, and Fusco. There’s a lot of Finch’s back story, too, but you know how I feel about back story and flashbacks.
“Root Cause:” This one’s an intricate political assassination story, made better by the Gang pulling in Zoe to help, and made important because the mastermind behind the assassination is a brilliant woman who calls herself “Root.”
“Wolf and Cub:” Another fun episode because this time Reese is trying to save a kid who’s trying to kill the guys who killed his brother. Since he can’t stop the kid, he tries to teach him non-violent ways of bringing down the bad guys, and they bond over The Art of War. In the end, Fusco and Carter join in, the team working together, plus Reese as an exasperated father figure is a good time.
“Blue Code:” Reese saves an undercover cop with the help of Fusco and Carter; the episode ends with Reese sending a trying-to-be-straight Fusco back into the HR organization of corrupt cops as a mole.
“Risk:” The Gang saves a Wall Street trader and exposes a secret plot to swindle investors, part of Elias’s scheme to take over the NYC underworld.
“Baby Blue:” The number is a baby, and Reese and Finch become obsessed parents as they try to save her, even negotiating with Elias to get her back when she’s kidnapped. Their success at the end is capped by Elias kidnapping his father who refused to recognize him, Gianni Moretti, setting up episode after next.’
“Identity Crisis:” A well-plotted take down of an identity thief with a subplot of the FBI coming to Carter for help in finding Reese to bring down the CIA squad he was part of that operated on US soil.
New PoI Post: “Flesh and Blood” tomorrow, lots of Carter and Elias so it’ll be great.
Table of Contents with Links to all PoI Posts
21 thoughts on “Person of Interest: Witness: Reversals”
Oh Lawks. Now I remember what I wanted while erranding- POI first season.
Btw, we still get dvds from video store. I think some places here still have the Blockbuster brand. Many reasons, lower saturation of internet, vast rural areas and they REALLY overcharge us for data here.
I kind of wish they brought up Elias’s teacher life a little more often. Instead of Dominic being in the same class as Caleb and being inspired by Harold, what if Dominic learned his love of Roman literature from Elias? The Shaw-Dominic storyline getting dumped was bad enough, but the Harold-Dominic potential also being squandered so thoroughly (They don’t even meet again! Dominic never recognizes Harold over the phone! ARGH) was just salting the wound.
And in the same way Dominic helped people out at the community center, show that Elias didn’t just swan out of his students’ lives forever. He wouldn’t have been such a good teacher if he hated the job, or his students. Elias rewards loyalty. And there’s no way someone hasn’t tried to use Elias’s former students against him. That would have been a great number, if they hadn’t done the Thing in the S4 finale.
I’m not sure. I think if you get too much crossover, you have people saying, “How big is this city?” And since it’s NYC, it’s big. I know, mob crime has a smaller footprint.
I think, too, you have to be careful of back story. The biggest weakness this series has is back story, all those damn flashbacks, so trying to salt in details, explain that somebody was trying to get him because he’d left them at school, I think that slows the momentum. The more a story stays in the now, the better it is. Dominic didn’t just help the people at the community center in the past, he was actively helping them in the present. That’s the now of the story.
That said, yeah, a callback to that kid could have been good. They did it with Finch and computer genius kid.
Agreed that it would have to be in the present. Something like one of Elias’s sources of revenues being a scholarship fund. It’s mostly money-laundering, of course, but gotta pay out every now and then to keep up the facade of legitimacy. And isn’t it interesting the choice of beneficiaries…
Or that Elias is now the owner of that apartment complex, and keeping rents low for certain tenants, who still refer to him as Mr. Burton.
There are plenty of number cases initially unrelated to Elias that could still lead to the reveal of this information.
But this is all after pondering the show for so long. Enrico is so good as Elias, that in reality, I’m not bothered that they just keep playing the Elias side only.
On that note, this episode sets up Elias with much of the same advantages in how they introduced Zoe. In the end, Elias has shown how he’ll be a foil to the rest of the cast, but given motivation to be a Sterling-esque antagonist, with equal possibilities of being an ally or opponent. All of his actions in the episode reinforce his recurring usefulness to the show. And now he has a particular dynamic with John, that will be very different from the one he will have with Carter.
I actually saw the Witness episode as it aired. It was quite a surprise at the end. I so didn’t expect it.
Excellent, Jenny! One of my very favorite episodes- I agree, Enrico Colantoni is very good in this role.
I’m glad POI uses these massive reversals sparingly- in fact, ‘they’ do seem to change up in style to keep things fresh.
So enjoying your analysis, Jenny! I absolutely cannot wait for you to get to the first (second?) episode of season 4. The foreshadowing here, everything. When PoI does a significant reversal (something that shapes the characters, rather than something that influences just the story-of-the-week), they nail it.
I like your series analyses Jenny. Have you ever watched Happy Valley? Screenplay by Sally Wainwright who I think is a genius. She also does Scott and Bailey. Best Brit crime on television. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_Valley_(TV_series)
I’d heard about it because I’m a James Norton fan, but it sounds kind of depressing. Which is what I found in Scott and Bailey, too. It was really good, but I was always depressed after watching it.
Grantchester, on the other hand, I can take. I’m a wimp.
I’ve wimped out of Grantchester the past couple of weeks; it got depressing. I do love Sally Wainwright’s ‘Last Tango in Halifax’, though. Great characters and lots of surprises.
Season Two? Haven’t seen it yet. Boo on depressing.
This was the episode that really hooked me on PoI. I love Enrico Colantoni and actually spent much of the episode thinking what a shame it was that he wouldn’t be seen again since he was the case of the week. So not only did the ending completely catch me off guard, it completely thrilled me with the knowledge that we’d clearly get to see more of him. He’s terrific in the role, and the writers did a beautiful job with setting up the reversal so you don’t see it coming, but it makes perfect sense in retrospect.
He makes every episode he’s in better. Which is why he’s in the one we’re watching tomorrow, too.
I was accidentally spoiled for this one and it made it even more brilliant for me.
It really is amazing to watch it again after the first time. You see a completely different story. Plus it’s only then you can see how beautifully it’s put together; the structure is so tight, not a scene is a unnecessary.
I watched this episode yesterday – I don’t want to brag, but I got suspicious when Burt0n talked about his foster families. Also, it would have been too simple without this reversal.
Now, of course, I’m hooked. My daughter brought me 4 seasons of PoI when she came home for Easter. Good thing I have a lot of ironing and mending to do while I’m watching.
So glad you’re hooked (g). And that your daughter had the DVDs, too.
However… I’m a little mad after watching the next episode, “Foe”, because of sloppy work concerning the German. They could have at least looked up the word “Stasi” (the name of the East German Intelligence) to make sure it isn’t spelled wrong. 30 seconds on Wikipedia, people. That’s all it takes.
I thought that was a weak episode in general. But yes, spelling at a minimum.
So I just watched Blue Code and I’m not sure where else/to who else to make this observation, but (spoilers for any who are behind like me) at the end when L.O.S. (anyone know what that stands for btw?) gets sprung by the CIA, and he says that he now has to go teach the two cops a lesson, the undercover and the female detective…there’s no mention of Reese! Did he just not mention him cause he already had off screen to the guy who is hunting him (and that would so give Snow proof that Carter is working with Reese), or is it just cause he recognized Reese and figured that The Agency already knows? Or am I reading too much into this omission?
It’s been awhile, but don’t they think Reese is dead because they shot him and put him in a car trunk, and set the car on fire? I thought LOS had just threatened Cahill’s family, not Carter, but it’s been awhile since I’ve seen this one.
Regardless, LOS has a black hood on his head in a CIA van at the end. He’s not long this world.
No idea what LOS stands for.
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