I wrote a book once about a depressed divorcee. Well, she perked up fairly quickly, but she was depressed in the beginning. And that taught me a valuable lesson: Never write a depressed protagonist. They’re usually immobilized, unhappy, and frankly, depressing. It’s nice to have a 180 arc, but it’s possible to start too low.
I think the emotionally-stunted Shaw presented the PoI writers with much the same challenge. Shaw isn’t depressed, she just has a personality disorder that makes it difficult for her to feel emotion. And that in turn is why it would be difficult for us to feel emotion for her: there’s nothing for us to relate to.
So why do so many of us love Shaw so much?
One reason is because the depth of her personality is revealed in her relationships.
Relationships are an excellent way to characterize because they’re action: we’re not told what kind of a person a character is, we see it in the way he or she interacts with others. We use this all the time in every day life. The classic is the date who is rude to the waitress; that’s the only date that person’s going to get. My go-to example for action-as-characterization is also a relationship example: If somebody says “I love dogs” (a relationship declaration) and then kicks a puppy (a relationship action), which do we believe?
But we also evaluate what other people in relationships with that character say. If one of the people I trust says, “Not that guy,” I’m not going to trust that guy. But if somebody I don’t like says, “Not that guy,” I’m going to look at that guy more closely, the old “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” in effect. That’s why one character on her own, sittin’ and thinkin’ is not very interesting, and another character on his own, sittin’ and thinkin’ is not very interesting, but those two characters together in action can be great story. (One comment I loved on the first scene between Nita and Mort was that some people liked Nita, a very Shaw-like character, because Mort, a much more accessible character, obviously not only loved her but liked her.)
That means that relationships are one of the best methods for characterization because they’re played out in action and conflict between characters, developing both. So let’s look at Shaw, the most isolated character in the PoI cast. (Okay, maybe in a tie with Root.)
The problem with a low-affect character like Shaw is that we have difficulty establishing an emotional connection. Shaw’s never afraid, never sad, rarely happy. She’s excellent at anger but even that is a cold, calculated anger; we never see Shaw in a rage. But the flip side of all of this is that when something finally does reach Shaw, the impact is enormous. It’s one of the biggest reasons we connect with her in her introduction in “Relevance.” Cole dies in front of her, having obliquely said he loves her (“Just you.”) and the look on her face says she’s shocked, but more than that, she’s in pain. As she tells the bad guys later, “I had one friend, and you killed him.” (It should also be noted that having Sarah Shahi play Shaw is a big factor, too. With this and Life, Shahi pretty much has the Grim Bitch We Love role staked out.)
Shaw eases that pain the only way she knows how–she kills the bad guys–and the experience doesn’t transform her–she’s still a low-affect killing machine–but it does change her, and the PoI writers show that in their usual subtle, effective way: While she’s on her vengeance quest she refuses Finch’s card, but at the end, she takes it. She still drives off and leaves them stranded in the cemetary, but she takes the card. For anybody else, that a polite gesture. For Shaw, that’s a turning point.
And of course that turning point leads to her joining the Machine Gang in Season Three, another huge step in her evolution from completely emotionless and solitary to I’ve-got-emotions-somewhere-around-here-but-they’re-buried-deep and the-only-one-I-like-is-Bear. When those emotions are finally dragged to the top, it’s because of Shaw’s core identity: She needs to save people.
That seems an odd motivation for somebody who kills so many (until Finch convinces her to shoot them in the knees instead), but Shaw makes that clear early in “Relevance” when Cole tries to tell her that there was something wrong about their last kill. She tells him that the guy they killed was selling information to terrorists, that they saved people with that kill. She doesn’t enjoy the killing–she doesn’t enjoy anything–but working to save the country was her second choice after she washed out of med school (for not having emotions, as we find out later). She’s not emotional about the saves, it’s just what she does. Until the number is a little girl. We can argue about why Gen is the one that gets to her–my take is because she admires how tough and smart and determined the kid is, seeing a kindred spirit, coupled with the overwhelming forces against her–but there’s no doubt that Gen does. And this episode shows beautifully that while Shaw may have very low affect emotions, once they’re engaged, they fill the screen
Shaw’s character could so easily have been a one-note reversed stereotype, the Anti-Mother, but because of the way she forms relationships–first Cole, Gen, and Bear, and the slowly Carter, Zoe, Finch, Reese, and Fusco–she becomes not just a fully rounded character but a fully rounded character with complicated relationships she’s willing to kill for, even though she’d die herself before she’d admit that. And of course the best relationship of all, the one she fights tooth and nail against, is the one that began when Root holds that hot iron up to her face and Shaw says, “I kind of enjoy this.” Shoot may not be a traditional romance–they’re two borderline homicidal sociopaths plus Root is just nuts–but the depth of that bond is so beautifully built that even if the rest of the Gang goes down fighting, I better see Shaw and Root and Bear in that bar in Cuba, frowning over drinks with umbrellas at the end, with the Machine ringing the pay phone. Shaw’s come through too much to just die in the end.
So to build a distant (or any other kind of) character:
• Put her in juxtaposition to people she will be forced to relate to (if you give her a choice, she’ll say no).
• Show how that relationship is tied to the character’s core identity, the way she sees herself subconsciously (Shaw may not like kids, but she has to save them).
• Test that relationship by showing how the character reacts when its threatened.
• Show character arc through relationship arc: as the character becomes more comfortable with the other person and the relationship, show the character becoming more vulnerable (that hug at the end gets me every time).
THE FREAKING FLASHBACKS.
I know, I know, I keep bitching about how they kill the pacing (they do) and take me out of the story (they do), but these are particularly egregious because they tell us nothing that Shaw didn’t cover in two lines with the drug dealer back in “Relevance.” I think part of the problem here is that Person of Interest made the same mistake that Arrow did: they baked flashbacks into the regular story structure. (If Oliver Queen had any brains, he’d have bought that damn island and turned it into a Club Med by now.) That means the writers tend to put them in regardless of need, and there is zero need for them here. These flashbacks aren’t even a Wound from the Past (bleah) because Sameen isn’t wounded, it’s just an illustration that even as a little kid, she had an abnormally low emotional affect. So what? What matters is what she is now, not what she was then. GRRRRRRRRRRRR.
• Carter infodumping her plan on Reese. Argh.
• Not sure why they wouldn’t have killed Shaw on the spot instead of waiting, but I’ll give them that one. I want Shaw alive.
Smart Story Moves
• Showing Shaw’s investment in Gen in her conversation with Finch–“Gen. Her name is Gen.”–and her relentless determination to get her back.
• Showing the main plot and the subplot converging by showing Reese and Carter meeting at a street corner. Outstanding visual storytelling that also deepens the tension, followed up by Gen (Shaw and Reese’s number) being threatened by
Sills Simmons (Carter’s antagonist). Just a great, great move.
• Brilliant use of subplot: “New gun, Lasky?” Carter’s working with a kid who doesn’t know what he’s getting into, either.
• Keeping Shaw and Gen isolated. PoI doesn’t always save the number (a smart series move) so their isolation increases the danger and the tension, plus Shaw and Gen are so alone for the first chunk of the story that Shaw almost has to bond with her because she reluctantly admires the kid so much. So when Gen gets taken, Shaw rolls out with a this-time-it’s-personal fury that is magnified a thousand times because it’s never personal with Shaw.
• Excellent use of rat bastard antagonists, and then brilliant combination of Gen’s antagonists (Russians) and Carter’s (HR) to make the finale really cathartic and satisfying.
• Establishing Shaw’s dysfunction through Gen’s questions, which are important to Gen because she’s trying to stay alive and needs to trust Shaw.
• Shaw’s blood transfusion; they gave her a back story that helped establish her dysfunction, but they use it for story all the time. Multi-tasking.
• “I’m just not wired for this kind of stuff, kid.” Perfect character arc through action.
• The theme of everybody spying on everybody else, all of which ties back to the Machine watching everybody.
• The opening with Shaw. “Here’s your liver.”
• Gen and Shaw treating each other with equal suspicion, both calling BS on each other.
• “Shaw just got made by a ten-year-old.”
• Shaw bugged Finch’s office.
• “I thought you might be a robot.”
• “To be honest, I’m only in it for the dog.”
• Shaw coming out of the steam to rescue Gen.
• “Hey, Finch. How much do you know about chemistry?” “Enough.”
• Carter in the bar, the baddest of bad ass moments, using Lasky’s gun to own him. “You work for me now.” Gorgeous writing and great acting.
• “Don’t sell it, okay?”
• That hug.
It’s always bad when Root tasers you while you’re sleeping.
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April 13: 3-6 Mors Praematura (Helen Shaver): Fusing Multiple Story Lines
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10 thoughts on “Person of Interest: “Razgovor:” Establishing Character Through Relationships”
I just happen to be rereading your delightful book about the Depressed Divorcee . . . .
Me, too! Or, rather, listening to the audiobook.
Heh, I agree with you on the flashbacks this time. The one in The Devil’s Share conveys the same point much more effectively, and is better integrated into the episode structure.
I’m ambivalent about Gen’s speech at the end.
Good: Not having Shaw exposit about herself in a way that breaks character.
Good: Impetus for the hug without having Shaw break character.
Bad: Some people have interpreted it like Shaw didn’t know those things about herself.
Good: Helps clarify things for the audience, show that Shaw’s self-descriptions are unreliable narrator. Sometimes audiences don’t pay attention to what’s on the screen, and need someone to verbally state things explicitly.
Bad: That still means that we’re getting a verbal reiteration of what’s been shown to us on screen the entire episode. The speech is on-the-nose.
But in the end, I do think that it was required for the hug, which justifies it. This was just two episodes after Shaw’s “Men wanna be held” speech in Lady Killer, and so seeing just what kind of person Shaw will bestow hugs upon is brilliant characterization.
THE CARTER SUBPLOT. Beautiful. That final scene in the bar gives me chills, second only to her tour de force interrogation in Prisoner’s Dilemma.
The note about the isolation is interesting, because Lady Killer demonstrated how this team is way too competent and powerful if they work together all of the time. So for the rest of the season, they have to ensure that various members are kept separated. Carter’s demotion and self-determination to take down HR alone, Harold and/or Fusco working a secondary number, Root is locked up, and then has to take on relevant numbers, Shaw gets waylaid by Vigilance, the limitations imposed by Samaritan in S4, especially after Shaw’s cover is blown, etc. And then, ultimately, Carter and Shaw are removed from the team via death and capture, respectively.
That way, they don’t have to keep invoking the Big Bad to raise the stakes, and risk the Worf Effect of the Big Bad being continually defeated by the team. Instead, the reasons for the teams occasional defeats still feel reasonable, without diminishing their competence.
Similarly, the conflict between the various crime factions (Elias, HR, Russians) allows for the enemies to be formidable without getting Worfed. Simmons’ defeat here doesn’t diminish his menace in future episodes, and Yogorov’s encounter with Shaw actually makes him more interesting.
(In that sense, I’m a little worried about S5. If the AI plot completely takes over, I can’t see the Decima crew staying impressive for long. Martine already was reaching the limits of her menace, which was probably why they offed her. There’s no good antagonist-foil to Samaritan, like the crime factions had in each other.)
I think Decima is impressive. They win pretty much every episode.
What worries me is the title of the last episode: “Return 0.”
I know you don’t like the flashbacks, but, given that they are there, I’m curious about what you think of the mechanism that they use to implement them (the Machine going back through archive footage, presumably to gather more information for her analysis)? I like it, in the same way I like when the machine occasionally disrupts the opening credits, or the on screen graphics giving a Machine point of view.
I very much like the Machine PoV; I think the way they use the Machine PoV is brilliant.
I do not buy that the Machine has that footage most of the time. Look at the accident flashbacks; there’s no way the Machine has that footage. That’s just a flashback.
I think they just use the timeline at the bottom to show it’s a flashback, not to show it from the Machine’s PoV.
I think the timeline is the “here it comes” warning of a flashback. The machine resets every night so it wouldn’t have old footage.
Excellent point. She’s keeping her memories through artificial means, though, and I’m wondering if that didn’t go in the re-set, since Thornhill Industries is probably defunct at this point.
I’ve taken to assuming that while the Machine obviously wasn’t online in the 90s, it has access to any archived security camera footage from before it was born. (It has access to all other kinds of records, so why not? Granted, being only just into my late 20s, I don’t have a great sense of how widespread security and surveillance cameras were and in which sorts of environments prior to 9/11.) Of course it wouldn’t have a camera that would give a nice shot of kid-Sameen’s face from the fireman’s POV, but that’s a fudge that happens all over the show no matter the temporal location or the situation, and thus I’m willing to handwave it as part of the larger syntax that I have to accept to buy the show.
“The grim bitch we love.”
She really nails it, too.
I love that show don’t tell is revealed in relationships. All that banter in my fave books are good for something.
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