Why Person of Interest is one of those rare shows that deserves its popularity

Illustration for article titled Why Person of Interest is one of those rare shows that deserves its popularity

Last week's episode of Person of Interest basically brought together everything I love about this show: the brooding paranoia, the weird alliances between criminals and cops, the strange moments of humor, and the unapologetically intense violence. Now that this series' first season is nearing its final few episodes, it's time to assess. Unlike many of the new shows that excited us this year, including The River and Awake, Person of Interest is a bona fide hit, pulling in 14.1 million viewers last week for CBS. With its jaundiced view of government agencies, and a mile-wide subversive streak, Person of Interest is the kind of show that offers escapism to audiences who cry out for justice that's even darker than what Batman dishes out.


The episode that aired Thursday, "Flesh and Blood," wrapped up two plotlines featured in several episodes this season, and it proved that Person of Interest has come into its own. Strap yourself in and get ready for gun-blasting awesomeness.

Spoilers ahead.

What I really liked about this episode was that it clarified for me the insanely complicated web of alliances controlled by brainiac Finch and his badass sidekick Reese. Basically the point of this show is that good crime fighters exist both inside and outside law enforcement agencies. And so do evil criminals. So we've spent most of the season sorting out who among the cops, spies, crime bosses, and mercenaries are good guys and who is bad. We know that up-and-coming crime boss Elias is partly good and mostly bad; we know that corrupt cop Fusco is partly bad and mostly good. We know that the CIA are selling drugs to fuel the war on terror, and that the only guys we can really trust are vigilantes Reese and Finch, two half-mad weirdos who will stop at nothing to prevent crimes.

We also know that the Machine, a device Finch invented to help US intelligence predict where crimes would happen next, is a kind of metaphor for the ambiguous nature of crime itself. Each week, the Machine spits out the social security number of a person who will be at the center of a crime. We don't know if the number is going to be a victim or perpetrator — and often, as we learned when we met Elias for the first time, the number may be both.

Anyway, on Thursday night, Elias finally made his move to wipe out most of New York's mob bosses (yes, all five of them were this week's numbers). And to make sure things would go without a hitch, Elias dumped piles of cash on NYPD's corrupt gang of cops known as "HR." Plus, he hired a bunch of low-down criminals to shadow the HR guys so that he could wipe them out once he was done with the mobsters. Elias is a purist. He loves crime, but he hates corruption. He values loyalty. And that's why he's even helped Reese in the past (though the "helping" involved a certain amount of being locked in a freezer truck, which wasn't very nice).

But last week, Elias turned up the evil knob by kidnapping non-corrupt cop Carter's son. This set up a really interesting conundrum. See, Reese and Finch forced Fusco to join HR so they could keep tabs on them. But HR wants Fusco keeping tabs on Carter, so they can figure out who those mysterious guys are that she works with (AKA Finch and Reese). And given that Finch and Reese just got all the mob bosses' numbers this week, their priority and Carter's is to protect these scumbags at all costs — mostly because if Elias becomes Big Boss things might get even more horrific in NYC. So Carter and Fusco have their mobsters in a hidden warehouse — but somehow HR gets wind of where they are and they send out some guys to help Elias and his assassin break in. As they drill their way into the door, Elias is telling Carter by cell that if she doesn't give up the mobsters her son will die.

Luckily she takes another call from Reese during this mobile phone standoff, and he assures her that he's about to fuck shit up majorly to get her son back safely. And we know he will, too.


The result of all this tangliness? A seriously awesome payoff where Finch pays a visit to the guy who heads up HR, and shows him surveillance photos OF THE SURVEILLANCE PHOTOS that Elias' paid creeps are taking of HR guy's family. See? Elias is tracking HR guy's family so that he can kill them later! Basically, Finch's meta-surveillance convinces HR guy to stop helping Elias so that the good cops can bring backup to Carter. On top of that, HR spills the location where Carter's kid is being held. Within minutes, there's this epic shootout where Reese breaks into the place where they've got the kid, and cool music plays while Reese does his stony-face "I can kill you with my elbows" routine.

Illustration for article titled Why Person of Interest is one of those rare shows that deserves its popularity

And Fusco gets to be a hero when one of the mob bosses reveals that he's already in Elias' pocket and says, "Hey I know you're in HR, Fusco, shoot Carter and let's get out of here." Instead, Fusco shoots the scumbag, and the good cops come to arrest Elias. That's right — Elias is in jail! Luckily, he's still got enough corrupt cops on the inside that he's able to use his mobile to call his half-brother and evil mob boss dad to wish them goodbye before they die in the car bomb he rigged for them. Woo! Elias got his revenge for that time his dad killed his mom and tried to murder him too! I love Elias as a bad guy. How many mob bosses launch their careers by becoming high school teachers for at-risk youth, in order to befriend the children of mobsters and find out what's going on inside the crime organizations. It's like Dangerous Minds crossed with The Godfather, and I can't get enough of it.

Despite its flaws — like really clunky dialogue — I feel like Person of Interest is one of the best original ideas I've seen for a spy-fi series in forever. The Machine, with its Department of Pre-Crime capabilities, is a fantastic mystery to place at the heart of this show. The idea of a geek with a badass sidekick is terrifically appealing. But most of all, I love how this show is like 24 in reverse. In this world, some of the worst acts of terror are perpetrated by the government and its intelligence agencies. And of course one of those crimes is ignoring all the dangerous situations that Finch and Reese are trying to prevent.


I also like that this show doesn't have the mystery-wrapped-in-a-mystery format that's become frankly tiresome in the wake of shows like Lost and Fringe. Every week, we have the satisfaction of seeing the number saved or brought to justice. And the ongoing plot arcs return in order to be solved, or to advance in a meaningful way. It's interesting that a show whose DNA is basically paranoid conspiracy stories manages to deliver narrative resolution on a regular basis. Maybe that's the secret of Person of Interest's success. It manages to convey a strong sense of right and wrong, despite offering characters who come mostly in shades of gray. And it shows us a world where pervasive surveillance can be a force of justice, rather than authoritarianism.

If you haven't been watching, it's time to start tuning in. This show is the perfect dark pleasure in an age of uncertain politics and surveillance follies. And the chemistry between leads Finch and Reese is superb.



James Ryan

My only semi-real gripe is the "camera back in time" trick for flashbacks. On occasion, they give us a piece of history where the machine goes back a few years, say to 2007 or 2004, to give us some sense of history for the characters and make us think that the machine/algorithm/narrative trick somehow had been keeping an eye on everything up until now, as it's all POV machine.

The last episode, though, we got camera flashbacks that came from 1993 and 1981, well before Finch built the machine and before there was enough information infrastructure in the US to support an AI of any sort. That seemed a little off to me; sure, we may have needed these flashbacks, but this was a little over the top.

I'm not ready to abandon the show for this yet though. I'll wait until it gets really out of whack, say the episode where they go to the camera mounted at 46th and 3rd to give us some particular details about how the cops folded during the Draft Riots of 1863...