Person of Interest: “Asylum” and “YHWH” and the Shape of Story

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The last two episodes that make up the fourth season finale of Person of Interest, “Asylum” (Andy Callahan & Denise The) and “YHWH” (Dan Dietz and Greg Plageman), are another crisis point, which brings up the problem of the long-running series: How much worse can things get without the turning point of the season finale being just one more horrible thing that happens to people we love?

I’ve always thought the four-act structure (three-act screenplay structure, five-act television episode structure) was arbitrary because the turning points depend on the length of the story. Go too long without something to make the story new (a turning point), and it becomes the same-old-same-old. But add too many turning points and the very things that make the story new become the same-old-same-old. If your story is based on the same-old-same-old, say NCIS or Murder She Wrote, you’re fine because the people who like that kind of story go to it because it’s comfortable. But if your fan base likes a story that progresses, then you have a problem if you don’t know how long it is.

The essential thing about structure is that it shapes the story, and if you don’t know how long the story is, you can’t shape it. Some showrunners like John Rogers of Leverage just plan each season as its own novel, but some, like the Nolans of PoI, plan each season as an act. It’s planning for acts that can bite you in the writing butt.

We talked about the crisis point in the Season Three finale, a wrenching episode that evicts our Gang from the library, stripping away their identities and leaving them separated in a cold city with antagonistic eyes everywhere. It’s a true crisis, shattering their world. But now at the end of Season Four, we have another true crisis, this time separating them from the Machine, and the story is getting a little fried around the edges. Watching the last two episodes again tonight, I could hear the creaking of the plot. Greer is still a bastard, just like he was last year. Samaritan is still entrenched in the US government, just like it was last year. Shaw is still missing. Control is still being a bitch. Even though technically things are much worse, they don’t feel much worse. In fact, for most of these two episodes, it feels tired.

I think that’s because the stakes just aren’t there, or rather they’re there, but they’re being reheated. I found myself fast forwarding through anything with Greer in it (until the part where Root takes out Martine, that’s a keeper), fast forwarding with anything with Control in it (although I take guilty pleasure in watching her shoot that zealot), and slowing down to watch Root and Finch reconnect with his old student (I love that scene), and Elias manipulate Dominic, and Reese and Fusco outsmart everybody. The truth is, I’ll watch the same-old with very minor changes, but I need the same-old with the characters I love. Greer is one-note and boring (not the fault of the actor, who is excellent), ditto Control (ditto), but Root is forever fascinating, Finch forever vulnerable and endearing, Fusco forever the heart of the series, and Reese forever badass (Reese thanking Fusco is a lovely note in this, too). In these two episodes, Samaritan isn’t just taking over the world, it’s taking over too much of the story, making it feel cold and chaotic.

Until the end. I don’t care how many times I’ve seen this, I weep when the Machine calls Finch “Father,” thanks him for creating her, and apologizes for failing. I weep when I see Finch’s horrified face as he realizes he created a living entity and treated it like a machine. And I am completely rooting for them as they head out into Samaritan gunfire, implacable once again. As long as this show focuses on its people, there’s nothing better on TV.

Having said that, I think it’s good that this is the last season. It pains me to say that because I love this show, but I think a third crisis, a third “oh my god they killed Kenny the world,” would be a death blow. Having been given the gift of knowing this is the end, they can write a real climax and resolution, giving a coherent shape to five acts of amazing story and catharsis to viewers, and letting our Gang go out in a blaze of glory.

I hope.

Links to all the PoI posts.


6 thoughts on “Person of Interest: “Asylum” and “YHWH” and the Shape of Story

  1. I agree with being sad to see this go, but it should definitely end here. I really struggle to think of any show that went six seasons or more that would have probably been better ending on the fifth. The only way for it to go on would be, I think, a complete re-inventing of itself, perhaps going for a more [i]Global Frequency[/i] style story with the Machine activating different assets (often previously saved individuals) each week to help with the new crisis. I actually wonder if that may be where this season will head: recruiting the old Numbers and revealing the full story to them to take on Samaritan all together.

    1. That’s a really interesting take. A kind of Angel “I want to kill the dragon/Let’s go to work” open ending (which I thought was brilliant). It’s probably the only way they can go unless they manage to poison Samaritan with a supervirus.

      I was thinking the Machine would take down Samaritan in a suicide mission; something about the way Nolan talked about the majority of the major characters dying and said “depending on how you define ‘major character'” makes me think he’s referring to the Machine dying.

  2. I’m reminded of Angel. As per 5-act, Angel’s 4th season was truly a spiral season. Everyone ripping at each other, the core relationships getting torn apart, Connor being a fun-suck, the @#$%ing Cordelia plot…The final stretch of Jasmine episodes were quite strong, but that was because they all but retconned the reunion of the community, ignoring all of the backstabbings preceding. Even if there are select good moments, Angel S4 is a miserable experience.
    The problem of pulling a “death and rebirth of community” storyline, no matter how artistically compelling that seems, is that you still have to kill the community for the death part, which audiences won’t like. (See also Buffy S6) Plus, the rebirth is usually saved for the climax, which means there’s a whole season of death, for a 1-2 episode payoff in the finale. STILL A MISERABLE EXPERIENCE.
    Thankfully, PoI S4 didn’t pull any character/relationship assassinations on the main cast, though they came close a couple of times.

    The front half of S4 was great slow escalation, with the audience getting confident that the team can beat the odds, climaxing with If-Then-Else. But then, the back half is just stomping out potential solution after potential solution, extinguishing hope. No finding Shaw. No Trojan Horse. No bringing fresh recruits to the team. No Machine. It reminds me of the rumors that in the original S1 outline, Carter wouldn’t get read in on the team until the S1 finale. Thankfully, a CBS exec told them to move that timeline up. The back half of S4 feels like they fell into that trap, where no one told them to stop pushing any meaningful plot developments off until Shaw comes back.

    On rewatch, the crime plot was more interesting for the majority of the finale, because it had the fresh characters and storyline of Dominic, Harper, etc. And it’s the finale storyline that gets all of the reversals the show is so good at.

    1. Those idiots cancelled both Galavant and Agent Carter. Screw you, ABC.
      I’d heard about the live show before, but I wanted Madalena learning the dark stuff and Gareth and the crew going to save her. I’m bummed. Where’s Netflix when you need it?

      1. They cancelled both shows! Stupid people. Grrr. I’m going to go read a book.

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