Person of Interest: “Lady Killer:” Utilizing a Large Recurring Cast

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By the time you get to the third season of a series (or the third novel in a series), you’ve probably built up an embarrassment of cast riches: there are a lot of people your viewer/reader wants to see again. Plus whatever relationship problems or secrets your central cast has are probably ironed out, so when everybody gets together, it’s just fun.

Unfortunately, the last thing an exciting story needs is a lot of shiny, happy people, which is why Person of Interest rips our hearts out halfway through this season and stomps them to a pulp.

But before that, they did some fan service and made use of that wonderful extended cast. Here’s what happened before this episode:

“Liberty” – Shaw’s part of the team! And trying really hard to only maim instead of kill. Also, the number is a great guy, Carter is working undercover on her own and collecting evidence on HR, Elias tells her where a good fence is, there’s a great shoot-out where rat bastards kill other rat bastards, and then Elias’s right-hand guy scores the millions and the diamonds, showing that Elias may be underground, but he’s still got the upper hand. And Root’s got a therapist! Plus Reese, Finch, and Harold running the main plot. See what I mean? An embarrassment of cast riches.

“Nothing to Hide” – A son-of-a-bitch number with a new murderous group (and more recurring characters) to save him from–this one’s called Vigilance–because Decima and the government and HR just aren’t enough highly-organized, murderous antagonist groups chasing Our Gang. This is one of those we-didn’t-save-the-number shows, but he’s such an awful, awful person (he hits Finch!) that we kind of cheer when Reese fails.

poi-lady

And then comes “Lady Killer.” I have to admit, this is not the strongest number of the week plot. Its biggest payoffs happen because a lot of people we like are here doing very good work to save him: Zoe and Shaw and Carter go clubbing to catch a serial killer who preys on women with the help of Finch, Reese, Fusco, and Bear, while Root and her psychiatrist and Hersh rampage through the excellent subplot.

So you have a huge cast (say the Archers, the Goodnights, and the Dempseys, oh my) all occupying the same story space. How are you going to handle that?

Do what the PoI writers did:
Make sure everybody is really necessary to the story you’re telling. You’ll notice that Leon did not make an appearance. Neither did Elias. You can argue that they needed Zoe for bait as a generic Hot Woman, but what they really needed her for was access to the rat-bastard-antagonist, something only Zoe the Fixer could provide. They needed the Root subplot to show the Machine playing its game on multiple fronts. Nobody just showed up to say hi. Even Bear is there to show Shaw’s evolution from cold-stone killer to Bear’s Best Friend.
Make sure everybody’s role in this specific story is clear,  and that it relies on that character’s personality and skills. One of my favorite moments in this episode is the number walking in and seeing each of the women. Zoe’s self-confident, Shaw gives him a basilisk stare, and then he finds Joss and she smiles because she’s an undercover cop. It’s fun because we get to see our favorites in action, but it also moves story and tells us a lot about the number.
Play the relationships that make a recurring cast fun. Reese is worried about Carter letting her guard down; their relationship has grown really tight from mutual respect. Shaw tells him Carter’s not letting her guard down, that Carter’s doing everything exactly right; Shaw and Carter have a new and growing relationship because Shaw respects how smart and skilled Carter is. We like these people, we want them respecting and caring about each other in the context of the story. That conversation held over drinks wouldn’t have a fraction of the impact that it has because it’s played over Reese and Shaw both looking through gunsights on a rooftop, prepared to shoot anybody who attacks Carter. That setting makes it part of the story.
Make sure everybody arcs because of what happens in the story. It may seem as though Zoe’s the same person–Zoe’s pretty much impervious–but at the end, she’s having a drink with two friends, which is probably not something she does without a professional angle as a fixer. Also, see Shaw and Bear, and Root and the Machine.

Basically, you can do all the fan service you want as long as every fan service move is also an essential story move. Story first, always, always, always.

So what’s with that subplot then? How does shoehorning in the Great Loony Bin Escape fit with reuniting dad and son? Well, it doesn’t. It fits with the character arcs and the relationship arcs that the minimal number plot exploits to the hilt. It’s not that we’re not happy that the number gets his son, it’s that the recurring characters are doing so much while they make that happen. We’re in it for the people and the relationships this week, even more than most episodes. So let’s look at the subplot again.

Root’s been talking with her smug psychiatrist (psychologist? therapist?) for three episodes now, and it’s clear that he has no idea who he’s dealing with. It also becomes clear in her conversations with him that the Machine is trying to guide Root back to sanity, teaching her not to kill, to rely on the AI’s guidance, to be patient until she’s achieved mental equilibrium. Just as Carter, Shaw, and Zoe are forming a relationship in the main plot, just as Reese and Shaw are settling into an equal partnership, just as the Gang’s mutual respect for each other is reinforced, so Root and the Machine have come to an understanding and a partnership. As Root tells the psychiatrist, there are things the Machine can’t do; that’s what she needs Root for. The Machine needs Root the same way Finch needs his Gang: sometimes you need somebody active who can do things you can’t.

But I think there’s an even better parallel: Shaw. Shaw is a cold, solitary person, completely devoted to her job as a killing machine until she meets the Gang and begins to form bonds, with Harold teaching her not to kill people. Root is a cold, solitary person completely devoted to her job as a computer hacker genius criminal until she connects with the Machine and forms a bond, with the Machine teaching her not to kill people. These are two characters who are being led out of exile into community. Root’s journey is more mythic than Shaw’s which is rooted in reality: She’s convinced that the Machine is a kind of God–a theory that seems less insane the farther we go in this series–so you can see her time in the mental institution as her time in the wilderness, separated from civilization, a vision quest with tranquilizers and anti-psychotics. And when the time comes, the Machine leads her out of exile in a precision escape that leaves dozens unconscious, one wounded, nobody dead, and Root and the Machine as one terrifyingly efficient entity, just as in the next episode, Shaw will finish her journey and become a permanent part of the Gang. They’re both lethal, they’re both borderline sociopathic, and now they’re both part of something bigger.

Thank God they’re both on our side.

Weakest Parts
• The missing-persons flyers are never addressed again. Loose ends are bad.
• Hersh as this week’s Exposition Fairy, explaining things to Control on the phone that Control already knows; that’s just clumsy infodump.

Smart Story Moves
• Showing Root’s evolution through the psychiatrist. I love every scene they’re in for all three of the first episodes in this season.
• The reversal that changes the number from a predator to a victim.
• “Alex is the heir, not the help.” Make your antagonist show you how evil he is.
• Showing Root’s escape, which is just freaking brilliant, all the time talking to the Machine, especially the last beat when the Machine won’t let her kill. It’s a very complex plot move, and the story shows it all very clearly without telling anything.

Favorite Moments
• Reese and Shaw in the boat. If you ever had any doubts that they’d never be lovers, it’s right here. They’re basically the same person, struggling to occupy the same space. They might learn to share, but they’re not going to like it.
• “Our guy just went from blueblood to hipster faster than you can say ‘ironic facial hair.'”
• The way they have the three women dressed; they look like they’re in armor, going off to do battle. Nothing fussy to get in their way. The shoes are not practical, but we can’t have everything.
• Shaw telling Carter that she can borrow her new gun any time. I love how excited they both are (Shaw shows emotion!).
• Reese gave Zoe a pink taser. I’m 99% sure the pink was ironic.
• “Really? A yoga instructor?”
• I would watch a show about Carter, Zoe, and Shaw every week, especially if they’re rescuing Reese from a refrigerator. And it wouldn’t be called Finch’s Angels, either. Chicks of Prey, maybe. No, that’s not right, either. Suggestions for titles in the comments, please.
• The way Fusco and Reese stick to Carter on the street even though she could probably take down the bad guy on her own. It shows how much of an emotional bond they have, especially Fusco saying, “Don’t go home, okay?” while she’s being tailed.
• Shaw bonding with Bear.
• Shaw: “What’s he doing? Should I shoot him?”
• Shaw: “Guys these days have so many emotions. They cry. They want to be held. I just don’t know what to do with them.”
• Okay, Shaw in general.
• “Are you as excited about this as I am?” And the phone rings.
• Zoe, Joss, and Shaw in the bar after they’ve saved the number. Really, I would watch every week.
• The expression on the psychiatrist’s face when he sees Hersh and realized Root isn’t crazy, at least not about the things she’s told him.
• How calm Root is because she has the Machine, especially the last move when she shoots Hersh.
• “Really? Even this guy?”

Ominous Moment
Harold walking through the unconscious bodies in the mental hospital as the psychiatrist staggers past in shock, Hersh bleeding but alive on the floor, and Root out on the loose . . .

Subsequently on PoI:
“Reasonable Doubt:” A lovely, twisty plot about a woman who may or may not have killed her husband that Reese solves by leaving a gun on a table. My guess: Somebody on the writing staff was getting divorced because that’s the second murderous matrimony plot.

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Tomorrow: 3-5 Razgovor (Kenneth Fink): Character Arc through Relationships

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21 thoughts on “Person of Interest: “Lady Killer:” Utilizing a Large Recurring Cast

    1. Isn’t that just amazing story-telling? Not to mention brilliant use of TV as a medium and the Machine as character and . . .
      Every time I see that episode, my mind boggles all over again. Denise The wrote that one, I think, and she and Jonathan Nolan, the series creator, are writing the series finale, so I have high hopes.

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  1. This is definitely the best of the “I don’t care for the number, but whatever, yummy fanservice” episodes this season. Oddly enough, they tend to revolve around Shaw, because Sarah Shahi makes her such an amazing character to play around with.

    In “Most Likely To…” not only is there the entire opening conversation about watching musicals, but then the episode is all about how awkward the Mayhem Twins are at a high school reunion. But while the number is nominally used to engender more Shaw fanservice, they openly acknowledge that the number plot is all but extraneous, with the real danger coming from Vigilance tracking Reese and Shaw down. Meanwhile, there are also nice character bits from the Harold/Fusco/Root end, tangling directly with Collier, who then advances the season arc.

    However, the bigger fanservice culprit is “Provenance,” which, along with the casino episode last season, shows that PoI can’t do a traditional heist. The fanservice in this episode is entirely extraneous, and slanted towards wish-fulfillment than characterization, other than playing with Shaw’s attraction to Kelli. “Oh, gee, they just so happen to have a security measure that means our acrobatic ladies have to strip down. How convenient!” Again, besides the implications of Shaw’s bisexuality, there’s no character payoff to these shenanigans, whereas the clubbing setup in “Lady Killer” does provide new information concerning the characters and their relationships.
    Thank goodness they figured all of this out for the optimized-for-PoI version of the heist episode, in “Honor Among Thieves.”

    (For that matter, they love playing heisty things with Shaw. She even breaks in and safe-cracks in this episode, and comes out of the LARGEST VENT SHAFT OF ALL TIME in “Nautilus.”)

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    1. Provenance is the only episode of PoI that I think is bad. Even the weak ones usually have some kind of redeeming aspect, but that was just . . . awful.

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  2. My favorite moment was when the three women — all decked out in their tough-girl, bad-ass evening wear — engaged in full-on, girlie-girl SQUEEing over each other’s weapons. Carter’s reaction was the best. Laugh-out-loud funny. During the episode, I actually went back to look at their shoes, because really?

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    1. I loved how happy Shaw was that Carter squee-ed over her gun: “You can borrow it any time.” Such a girly bonding thing to say.

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  3. Super!! Thanks again for this – you don’t miss anything!
    The point about the characters- POI always does it right in giving us a story about each one and in depth- even if we don’t care about him/her as in this one (for me anyway).

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  4. I almost wish I taught high school social something/creative writing or literature. Id find a way to use these blog posts as lessons.

    But I have gr 3, so maybe I’ll put the BBC earth/wildlife dvd. Sigh. Attenborough makes up for a lot of despair.

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  5. “Most Likely To…” had me wondering what Shaw was like in high school. She definitely was not the cheerleader type and likely scared the boys. Reese probably had a much better high school experience.

    I am blaming you for my obsessive binge watching. I had caught a few episodes, but I don’t tend watch 10 TV. I’m about to watch the season 3 finale after just over 2 weeks of viewing.

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    1. Shaw was a diligent studious type, obviously. She got into med school, after all.

      There were bits in other episodes that said that Reese kept school bullies in line, but also something about how he went into the military because he made too much trouble.

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      1. In “Liberty,” he tells the number that a judge gave him the same choice: go to jail or enlist. And from there the CIA got him.

        I don’t know if I’d say Shaw was diligent. Obsessive. Curious. Focused. I don’t seeing her care about what anybody thought, but I can see her finding the way the human body functioned as interesting, divorced from emotion as she is. It’d be a machine to her.

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        1. Shaw may not be diligent about her patients’ emotions, but she would be diligent about the technical aspects of her work, somewhat of a perfectionist there. Just look at her disdain for amateur thieves and thugs, not for their chosen profession, but for their sloppy technique.

          Even if Shaw wasn’t a full-on nerd, in the sense of not caring about high school social hierarchies, she definitely was a straight-As honor student.

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    2. Don’t blame me, blame Nolan, the writers, and the actors. They’re all at the top of their games in this.

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    3. Laura – me, too! I’m just starting season 4. Luckily I live in Oregon so the rain gives me an excuse to stay inside and watch TV …

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    1. I saw this on io9, too. It’s just stunning. The colors alone are so beautiful, and then the shapes and the movement. It’s just mesmerizing.
      It reminds me a little bit of the game, Monument Valley. It has that same effect. You just sit in wonder.
      Did you see “Wrapped?”

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      1. the green virus? I just watched it now –
        that silent moment when all of NYC is covered with green just .halted. me
        and then all the play with scale ad size was fun

        I used to read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, and just lived for the descriptions of how cities failed. There was a long article in Scientific American more than 20 years ago on how the various systems might fail if humans just vanished, and artists’ renditions collapsed buildings and trees growing on the remains of the bridges in and out of the city. I’ll see if I can find it, if you’d like.

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        1. That would be great. Don’t let it take up your time, though. It’s so easy to disappear down the rabbit hole of the internet.

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  6. Sometimes I just go to YouTube and watch the clip of the three women gushing over weapons. I think that might be the most emotion Shaw shows in the entire series. It’s certainly her biggest smile. And I love it when Carter jumps back from Zoe’s taser. Of course John got her a taser, and he would have thought the pink was funny. Bonus: Harold being a little afraid to show Shaw her dating profile, and Reese saying “You would have preferred ‘trained killer’?”

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  7. “Suggestions for titles in the comments, please.”

    Bear’s Angels
    Deadly Anglers
    Guns and Heels
    Badass Broads

    Also, we know that Zoe keeps a gun in her apartment, from The Fix. The pink taser was definitely a gag gift.

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