One of the most heinous crimes a writer can commit in relationship stories is the Big Misunderstanding. After spending many chapters/episodes building a strong relationship that the reader/viewer can invest in, instead of looking at the very real, character-driven problems that might test a bond, the crisis descends into a misunderstanding that any solid relationship would defuse with an intelligent question. If you want a strong story, forget the “I saw you kissing that woman” “That was my sister” stuff; give your relationship a real test, something that just talking won’t solve. That kind of test almost always goes to character: In this situation, no matter how much this character believes in this relationship, he or she has to walk away.
There’s an excellent example of this in the first season of Sense8. Lito and Hernando are clearly in love, clearly committed, and clearly meant to be together. When Daniela moves in to become not just a perfect beard for Lito’s not-yet-out actor but also a much-loved sister, they become a family of three. So when Daniela’s abusive boyfriend blackmails her with pictures on her phone of the two lovers, she agrees to marry him to protect them. Lito accepts this reluctantly because it’s the only way to save his career, the thing that defines him. Hernando cannot. In a beautiful scene, he tells Lito that he will always love him, but he can’t stay with somebody who would let Daniela live a life of pain and fear to save a career. And he leaves.
This is not a Big Misunderstanding that would go away if they just talk. Lito clearly believes it is and tries his damnedest to talk Hernando out of going, but this is the line Hernando cannot cross. It’s his character that makes him walk away, not a misunderstanding. He just cannot do it. Lito’s realization that his actions are forcing Hernando, a man he not just loves but respects and admires, to leave him is a major turning point for his character. He goes after Dani not just to get Hernando back, but because he doesn’t want to be the kind of person Hernando can’t respect, and because in the end, he loves Dani too much to let her suffer.
And that’s the real key to the character in a relationship crucible: if it’s truly a crucible, if this is not just a Big Misunderstanding but something so intrinsic to who this character is that he or she cannot remain in the relationship, then that character will have to change to save the relationship. It’s the old “you make me want to be a better man” line: the realization that the bond is more important than strongly held beliefs will shift belief and make the relationship bond stronger because of that crucible. Or it’ll destroy the relationship entirely, but since we’re talking about Reese and the Machine Gang, we’re going to go with stronger. Think of that as the key to writing the crisis in a relationship: the characters do not return to where they were before, they are even more strongly bonded because they’ve survived the crucible.
But there’s also a second problem with the Big Misunderstanding: in romances, everybody knows the lovers will be together at the end. In PoI, everybody knows Reese is going to rejoin the Machine Gang. There is no “Will they or won’t they?” They will. Therefore the only way to build real suspense into breaking a relationship bond is to present the break in such a way that the reader wants to know how the breach is going to be healed. If just talking doesn’t solve it, what going to have to happen to make one or both or all parties in the relationship change?
Which brings us to PoI. Reese isn’t throwing a hissy fit here, he’s never believed that the world is a good place. But he believed they were saving people, and then they couldn’t save the one person they loved best, the person any one of them would have died to save. Trapped by his inherent cynicism amplified a thousand times by overwhelming grief and immense guilt, Reese isn’t going to pretend he can save the world anymore, he’s going to lose himself in it.
So he leaves the gang behind, despite Finch’s entreaties. And Finch lets him go because working with the Machine always has to be a choice. It’s not a misunderstanding, they both know exactly what’s going on, and neither of them can fix what’s broken. This is all established in the two episodes previous to “4C,” a two-part story that reveals that Machine Gang is up against something much more brutal and powerful than HR just as Reese leaves them. So the double-episode has an A plot that’s all about a new Machine that various groups (the government, Vigilance, Decima) are trying to take control of, but the B plot is Reese leaving the Machine Gang, Fusco trying to bring him back, and his ultimate departure at the end of Alethia, his belief in his ability to change things and in the Gang broken.
Previously on Person of Interest:
“Lethe:” Simmons is dead, but the Gang isn’t recovering, especially Reese, whose failure to save Carter eats at him as he quits the gang and heads for Colorado, Fusco on his tail. Meanwhile, Finch, Shaw, and Root are given a new number for Arthur Claypool, a brilliant scientist whose mind is so deteriorating from a brain tumor that he can’t even recognize his own wife and who is being stalked by Vigilance. The episode ends with a huge reversal when Arthur convinces the Gang that his wife is really dead, and they realize that the woman pretending to be his wife is really the government’s Control.
“Alethia:” Root rescues Finch, Shaw, and Arthur, but is captured by Control and tortured, ending up deaf in one ear. Decima and Vigilance both target the Gang; Reese and Fusco come back in time to save them, but not to thwart Decima who ends up with Arthur’s AI, Samaritan. Reese resigns from the Gang even though the threats from Vigilance and Decima are overwhelming.
Which brings us to “4C,” Reese’s flight from the Gang. The only things standing in his way are a blonde flight attendant, an annoying computer nerd, assassins from three different countries, and the Machine. In other words, Reese is toast. By putting Reese on an eight-hour flight to Rome that cannot be diverted, the Machine forces him to re-evaluate people in general and what he does in particular. The Machine doesn’t want to talk him out of anything, it wants to put him in a crucible where through the actions he’ll have to take, he’ll be forced out of his guilt and misery into looking at what he does and who he helps. Action is character, and Reese has been immobilized by grief for so long that he’s forgotten who he is. The Machine uses muscle memory to remind him of the reason he exists.
So at the end of “4C,” Reese is back in the Gang not from a sense of duty or guilt but because he’s accepted that saving people is part of who he is, and the most efficient and effective way to save people is to go back to those he cares about: Finch, Shaw, Fusco, Bear, and the Machine. But he hasn’t returned to the person he was before, he’s irrevocably changed by Carter’s death but also by the events on the plane. He isn’t just agreeing to help Finch with the numbers as he did in the beginning, he’s accepting that the Gang is where he’s supposed to be, that his purpose is to help the Machine help others. His bond has been tested in the crucible and made stronger.
Lotta on-the-nose dialogue:
Holly: “I could have been a teacher, but no. I wanted to see the world. Meet interesting people . . . You know what this job has taught me? That people are horrible . . . . Whatever happened to people helping other people?”
Reese: “Holly, I hate to tell you this. You’re good at your job.”
Gee, Reese, remind you of anybody you know?
And then there’s this:
Reese: “You computer guys. You build something you can’t control, and when it backfires, you won’t accept responsibility. . . . You barely made anything better. Does it look like you’ve stopped the violence?”
Owen: “Okay, are we still talking about me? Because it seems like you’re mad at somebody else.”
And then at the end:
“I need to get back to work.”
Saying he wanted to buy a suit was all the story needed.
Also, Finch landing the plane. I’ll believe Reese will save everybody but Finch landing a passenger jet by remote control? Uh, no. (Also, did we know before this that Finch flew prop planes?)
Smart Story Moves
• Making this is an action-based story with a comic victim. The show was going to the same dark place Reese was; this approach lifts it (and him) back up to the light.
• The slow build from the usual tension of flying, to the obnoxious guy, to the unconscious air marshall in the bathroom, from the banal to the dangerous in six minutes.
• Tying the screen on the plane showing the flight path to passengers to the Machine PoV showing the flight path with the “Mass Casualty 94.6%,” shorthanding exactly how much trouble Reese and the number (and Holly and everybody else on the plane) are in.
• Giving Reese a number he wants to strangle more than the assassins coming for him. This isn’t a save-the-innocent story, this is a save-the-idiot-who-made-a-fortune-in-bitcoin-by-dealing-with-drug-lords-and-the-CIA terminally clueless yet brilliant victim who has the worst possible personality for Reese to deal with, which is comedy gold. (Cue song from Galavant.)
• Playing the claustrophobic plane setting–Reese and the number are trapped–with Shaw roaming the larger setting of New York beating the crap out of people to get the bigger picture.
• Reese hitting the “Listen, sweetheart” guy, which then turns out to be a clue since the Machine uses the guy’s phone to send the “4C” clue.
• “Mr. Dark and Stormy.”
• Anything with Owen, especially the way he keeps changing his story. I love Owen. This guy is the new Rick Moranis.
• Finch to Shaw: “Would it be too much for you to snap a twig?”
• “You seem like an angry guy. Do you want to talk about that? I feel like you want to talk about that.”
• “Department of International Homeland Security.” There’s a reason Reese needs Finch.
• Reese giving Holly the remote for the stun belt and telling her to use it to beep him.
• Holly whacking the assassin with the coffee pot.
• Shaw being a badass ALWAYS.
• The idea that there are three different sets of assassins–Columbian, Israeli, and American–trying to take this nerd out, and Reese handles all of them without getting much but annoyed (and most of that at Owen). He really is really good at this.
• Shaw meeting with Hersh. “I always liked you, Hersh. Even after you killed me.” I know he’s a vicious killer, but it’s so sweet when he asks Shaw if her new employers are treating her okay.
• Owen saying, “NOT THE FACE!” as the American killer comes to finish him off. I love Owen. Owen should be a recurring character like Leon.
• Holly, coping with everything. I love a heroine who copes.
* “So what is it you really do again?” “I help people.” “You want to help me get a drink?” Reese almost smiles.
• Taking Owen off the plane in a suitcase. You can tell that made Reese happy.
• This nice moment in the sun as Reese says goodbye to Holly the next day.
• Finch’s suit.
There isn’t one. How about best moment ever? “I miss her dearly, too,” and “While I’m in Italy, I thought I’d get fitted for a new suit.” The way Finch draws in his breath and then hurries to offer his own tailor is the best non-hug on TV. And then they walk down the street together, and the world is safe again.
Next week’s PoI Posts
April 25: 3-16 RAM ((Nic Van Zeebroeck & Michael Sopczynski): Writing Great Back Story
April 26: 3-23 Deus Ex Machina (Greg Plageman & David Slack): Climax as Turning Point (The Point of No Return)
And of course, this:
[I found the preview on io9 first; there are over 100 comments on the post and every one of them is saying what a great show this is. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an internet post where every single comment was hugely in favor of something. Tells you how damn good this show is.)