SP: Person of Interest 121, Many Happy Returns

Summary

It’s John’s birthday! Finch gives him the day off and a mysterious key for a birthday present. We see that Reese plays xiangqi with a friend in the park and lives in a Spartan apartment.

Meanwhile Donnelly enlists Carter’s help to investigate the Man in the Suit’s first crime – a possible murder in New Rochelle. Because everything goes badly for John, always, Finch has given him the day off because their Number is on the run from an abusive husband. Carter’s investigation and flashbacks show us that the dead man (?) in New Rochelle was Jessica’s abusive husband Peter Arndt. She called Reese for help but he was delayed by the mission to Ordos. He arrives to discover that Peter has accidentally killed Jessica and then covered it up with a car crash.

The Number at first appears to be an identity thief and conwoman. But in fact, the warrants have been faked by her abusive husband who happens to be a US Marshal. After direct threats fail to warn him off, Reese kidnaps him and drives away. We hear that Marshal Jennings is imprisoned in a Mexican jail, possibly alongside Peter Arndt and Andrew Benton (the serial rapist from Cura Te Ipsum).

The episode ends with Finch revealing that the key opens a lovely new apartment for Reese.

 

Surveillance Report

This episode is like emotional sandpaper. It refuses to flinch in its portrayal of abusers and the way their obsessions destroy the lives of others. On a more personal level, we see that Reese doing one more mission contributed to Jessica’s death; that the normal man with whom Reese wanted her to be happy turned out to be lethal. His emotional cowardice at the airport was damaging to both of them rather than a sacrifice for her good.

 

The Man in the Beard

Who is Reese before Finch gives him a purpose? It turns out that’s exactly the question Reese is asking in the flashbacks:

I was the guy who left her behind, because I thought she deserved someone better than me. I thought she deserved someone who would look after her, be there for her. I thought she deserved someone like you. So, I don’t know. I was hoping you could tell me.

Reese’s whole life trajectory of dutiful sacrifice for the good of others has been a bust. The CIA has tried to kill him, both the system (Snow) and his colleague and lover (Stanton). The big personal sacrifice of leaving behind Jessica so she can be happy with Peter has only led to her suffering and death in an abusive relationship.

Reese fights Peter and may or may not kill him, but it feels purely reactive. Reese doesn’t even stand up until Peter picks up a weapon. It feels like this is the start of the Reese we saw in the pilot: a man seeking death but not ready to commit suicide, so he reacts to violent people with violence in the hope that he’ll come to the end of himself that way. Reese doesn’t fight Peter out of a desire for vengeance. He fights because Peter has re-asserted his own identity as someone who is fought by people like Reese. It’s just old impulses briefly asserting themselves.

 

The man who does what others can’t

The flashbacks show us a directionless Reese. The present-day story shows us a Reese who is crystal clear on his purpose: to be there in time to help others. That’s the job Finch gave him and Reese likes doing it. But the specific person he needs to help is a victim of abuse. This triggers the most extreme tactics from Reese, because he’s familiar with abusive relationships and because he’s determined not to fail this time. Reese is returning to the same situation as Jessica, but thanks to Finch and the Machine Reese both possesses a firm self-image and arrives in time rather than too late (exactly the thing Finch promised in the first episode). But we see that Reese is dancing on the ragged edge of his purpose. He takes extreme action without listening to Finch: first beating up Jennings in an office full of marshals, and then kidnapping him when that has no effect. Finch had ample reason to be concerned about Reese’s response to a Number who is being abused.

But it’s difficult to argue with Reese when he tells Carter that this is his job, that he picks up where the law leaves off – because that is the premise of the show. If Carter doesn’t trust him to make this decision then why is she helping him make all the other decisions? Reese ultimately doesn’t kill Jennings. He just imprisons him for life, which is…better? Reese demonstrates a concern for life that was absent from his work with the CIA, nascent in his time in New Rochelle (as it’s implied he didn’t kill Arndt) and fully-formed in his work with Finch. Killing people is bad. Important lesson, kids.

But even though he tries not to kill Reese remains an extrajudicial force. He takes care of what the system can’t, like abusive US Marshals. Note that once again the normal systems of governance and justice are shown to be corrupt and incapable – especially incapable of policing themselves. But the very fact of Reese being outside the system means that he is outside the system, not just of laws but of other people’s moral judgements. Other individuals cannot restrain Reese’s action without obviating the physical and moral independence that lets him carry out his new purpose.

This is a basic part of the Western justice/vengeance construct. We can put it like this: Batman doesn’t care about what the cops think, because if he did he wouldn’t be Batman. Rejecting the system means accepting your own judgement as a replacement system. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy that “The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men.” In the same way, a criminal violates one law but the vigilante violates all laws, because he sets himself up in their place. We may say that the vigilante is only saying that their personal judgement is closer to justice than the abstract judgement and application of the system. But the confidence required to keep on being a vigilante means the faculty of self-correction becomes dangerously weak.

Reese (and Finch) cannot be restrained. But they can be influenced by those who do not seek to restrain them with force; that is, by those who love them. I think the episode gives no clear answer as to why Reese does not kill Arndt. But we do know why he doesn’t kill Jennings – his new purpose, his new friends, have made him not just a man who doesn’t necessarily kill but a man who doesn’t want to kill. As the show goes on and Our Heroes become more numerous and more complex this web of friendship will become a team – almost a sub-system of its own. Reese has friends. Batman needs Alfred, and Robin, and so on. Because without love, without a sub-system, those seeking justice outside the system are fascists or would-be gods.

Empty signals

When you read an article on church planting and it says “Don’t worry about your numbers,” but two paragraphs later mentions the size of the author’s church…

When you hear a sermon where the preacher affirms a certain life circumstance as godly, but later only applies the passage to people in other situations…

SP: Person of Interest 120, Matsya Nyaya

Summary

Our Number is Tommy Clay, a family man who works for an armoured car company. Reese takes a job there to prevent what Our Heroes expect will be a robbery. It is – but the thieves have an inside man. Clay shoots Reese and kills another employee, kills his accomplices later, is killed by the mistress with whom he planned to run away, she is killed by an HR officer who wants the stolen goods, and Fusco kills that officer to protect Reese.

 

Surveillance Report

As Finch says near the end, “Did we actually accomplish anything here?” The title of the episode refers to a concept in Hindu mythology with which I am unfamiliar, but the Internet tells me it refers to the natural tendency of the strong to prey upon the weak – rather like the law of the jungle. This episode is a chain reaction of selfishness. Our Heroes don’t get to do much more than clean up the aftermath.

I think this episode only works because it’s a reflecting pool for Reese’s massive emotional trauma. We aren’t invested in Tommy and Ashley and their stupid plans, but we are invested in the way Reese is invested.

 

Polarity

In this episode we see what actually went down when Reese left the CIA: his partner was ordered to shoot him in the back and the Agency cleaned them both up with a cruise missile. Reese is understandably sensitive to Tommy betraying his workmates and family. But the whole thing is made worse, because Reese isn’t just betrayed by the CIA – he is betrayed by them after choosing them over going to Jessica. He chooses one more run of danger and duty over helping the person that connects him to the world.

Tommy has everything Reese wants: normal life, wife, children. And yet Tommy gets sick of all this, of the danger and risk that come from working an armoured car for other people, and he throws it away. Tommy’s selfishness leads him into criminal waters, where he gets sucked down by the undertow of the law of the jungle. Untrustworthy people tend not to trust people. And so Tommy is betrayed, and Ashley is betrayed, and HR is betrayed (though we don’t care so much about that).

Past-Reese commits himself to serving his country selflessly and is betrayed. Tommy et al commit themselves to selfish gain and are betrayed. What alternative does the show offer us?

 

Selflessness conditioned by relationship

The alternative the show offers us is to become Fusco. He’s the one that stops the endless cascade of selfishness, and he does it because of how he’s changed this season. Carter stands in the same place but she has never really stood anywhere else. Fusco shows us the journey from a lack of objective morality to possessing a renewed moral code. But this journey isn’t about him learning something or discovered something himself, but about him being almost co-opted into Our Heroes by Reese.

Fusco is what he is not just because he does the same thing as Our Heroes, but because he does it with them. Reese can be brutal and judgemental towards Fusco. But he doesn’t look down on him. Fusco has returned to goodness through relationships, and Finch and Reese have both been driven out of what they thought were good decisions by personal loss or betrayal. They lost their old lives because of the human element – because John trusted people who didn’t trust him, because Finch didn’t share the values of his partner.

The enterprise of saving Numbers is a rejection of abstract objective morality. Our Heroes do not fight for a flag or any principle; they help people. This is, of course, its own kind of objective morality – the idea that everyone matters. What has changed is a move from the abstract to the individual and concrete. At their best, Our Heroes show us a kind of selflessness that is not abstract but deeply connected to how objective goodness is manifest in their relationships with others; the ways that people around them display the best of the universe.

This is the kind of selflessness that we call love. And it’s the only way to live.

SP: Person of Interest 119, Flesh and Blood

Summary

Five Numbers for the heads of the Five Families: Elias is making his move for control of New York’s underworld. He has bought HR’s protection and is also surveilling their families. Carter and Fusco get (most of) them into one of Finch’s safe houses. To get leverage on Carter, Elias kidnaps her son Taylor. Finch convinces Simmons to withdraw support from Elias because he threatens families. Reese gets Taylor back and Elias is arrested in the act. But even from prison Elias orchestrates the murder of the last few dons.

One of the dons mentions Fusco’s history as a dirty cop and Carter becomes suspicious of him.

 

Surveillance Report

This is a tense episode but lacks the twistiness Elias usually brings to his episodes – a sting in the tail, like holding the baby hostage for Moretti’s location. This one is just…fine. I like how the ending shows that going to prison doesn’t take Elias out of the picture.

Understudy Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is enjoyable and amazing all the way through. It ping-pongs between comedy and tragedy and heartwarming Found Family love with effortless grace. It is the closest Marvel have come to making their Terminator 2; that is, a legitimately great genre movie that will still be worth watching when its originating cultural moment has passed.

But Vol 2 is not quite that movie. Vol 2 is a little long and a little unbalanced; not defined or incisive enough in its themes. It does at least have something to say and that something is backed up by what happens in the movie (which more Marvel movies could try).

If you liked the first movie, you will love this movie. If you’re waiting for the Marvel Shakespeare, keep waiting. If you want to have a fun time at the movies and can hold your bladder for two and a half hours, see this movie. If you want to take kids to the movies, pick something else.

Spoilers aren’t real.

SP: Person of Interest 118, Identity Crisis

Summary

Our Number is…two people? Our Heroes race to discover who is the real Jordan Hester and who is an identity thief. Jordan Hester at first appears to be a drug dealer who has stolen Jordan Hester’s identity to buy chemicals in large amounts without attracting suspicion. But then Jordan Hester doses Finch with LSD and leaves him to die in a burning apartment, and we find out that the real Jordan Hester is stealing fake Jordan Hester’s criminal identity to expose how she stole his legitimate identity. Jordan Hester.

Does Finch collect these like trading cards?

Meanwhile in Copland, Carter feels pangs of…something as she has to go back to cleaning up after violent crimes rather than helping prevent them. Special Agent Donnelly returns and shows Carter their investigation into the Man in the Suit (who they believe is working as a mercenary). Fusco does some fine police work to expose Hester’s scam but Reese still wants him undercover with HR.

 

Surveillance Report

“You wanna hack the Pentagon?”

Finch on ecstasy is worth the price of admission. The fact that other good things happen in this episode is just icing on a bird-shaped cake.

The text for my eventual funeral

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This post written 22/4/2017. NB: this is not a cry for help. I am, broadly speaking, fine. I have never been, and can’t imagine ever being, in danger of suicide – for reasons I should probably explain in a post at some point. I am just trying to be honest about my emotional states.

I am very sad today.

This is hardly unusual. I have depression. Now my depression is certainly distorting the way I think and feel. Perhaps I should not write anything today, or not publish it until I am in my right mind.

My right mind? Why do I have to be happy to be normal? We never seem to err on the melancholy side of the ledger. I wonder if any service leader or worship leader, on a normal week, has looked at their intended liturgy and said “No, it’s way too peppy.” The natural impulse is to run towards the sombre tone in times of disaster. Being natural (i.e. built into us by God) this is not something to be demonised. But it’s not the fullness of Christian grief. “I do not want you to mourn as those who have no hope,” Paul says to the Thessalonians. We need to mourn as those with hope. There is something distinctive about Christian mourning. Do congregants know that? Has anyone ever told them before the moment?

We can’t start training Christians in godly sadness at the moment of loss. If our lives as churches are always happy and upbeat, no one can get any practice being sad. There are many people whose happiness is as weird and distorting as my depression, rising from nowhere and leading them nowhere. And people who are sad need to be led by the hand towards Jesus’ comfort. Shallow sadness and happiness are both weaknesses in the life of the church. Being happy and being sad are crude games, the human equivalent of a child’s sporting league: meant to prepare you for something grander and more difficult.

I am speaking of joy and sorrow: the divine affections that pierce the soul, that make mourning sweet and turn earthly pleasures to ash in our mouths. The forces that have an emotional edge but aren’t only emotional; that are felt by humans, but come from God. Joy and sorrow are available to all Christians at all times because they do not come from the world around us. Sorrow comes from the presence of sin, which is with us until Jesus returns. Joy comes from the favour of God, which is with us forever. Both are available and both are essential to the Christian life.

But we need to keep them in perspective: sorrow is temporary, joy is unending. Sorrow is going to end when Jesus returns but our joy will only increase. We should mourn over the state of the world and the state of our hearts. But we mourn with an awareness that our mourning will be short-lived. In order for me to look forward to my funeral, I need to know that my brothers and sisters in Christ aren’t going to suddenly forget about the resurrection. We are already saying the words that others will repeat at our funeral. We are already practicing the songs they will sing. Let’s start training for the finish line.

Teach me to not be sad – teach me to mourn, pastor. Teach me to weep like Christ. And find his joy through weeping.

SP: Person of Interest 117, Baby Blue

Summary

Don Moretti (Elias’ father) gets out of prison. Reese and Carter stop an attempt on his life and Carter takes him into protective custody. But Our Heroes are concerned with toddler Leila, who was abandoned outside a hospital. Who could want to harm a baby? Finch kidnaps the baby to protect her from Thugs Inc while the matter is investigated. Turns out that businessman Adnan Petrosian had an affair with a receptionist who recently died in an “accidental” fire, and his wife contacted some vaguely Eastern European group to kill the receptionist and dump the baby in a foreign orphanage.

After Our Heroes lose Leila, Reese goes to Elias for help tracking down the handover. Elias delivers but puts Reese and Leila into a freezer truck until Reese gives up Moretti’s location. He does. Moretti is taken and a good cop named Szymanski takes a bullet in the stomach. Frustrated with Reese’s refusal to contact the police about Leila (leading to Szymanski and Moretti being endangered), Carter ends her association with Our Heroes.

 

Surveillance Report

Alternately very funny and extremely tense, this is one of the best episodes so far. We know who everyone is and the season’s plots have all been set up. That means the show can stop explaining and start pulling triggers.

 

Elias is a bastard

He has a lot of respect and affection for Our Heroes, and their interests may temporarily align at times, but never think that Elias is on the same moral page as Reese and Finch. He’s not. In this episode he holds a child hostage to get information from John, has a cop shot, and abducts his hated father for Nefarious Purposes. He says he would never hurt a child – but he’s already hurting her. The only reason she doesn’t die is because Reese values her more then Moretti, as Elias expected.

Elias is fundamentally a self-centred character. This doesn’t mean he is always selfish. But he does things because they make sense to him, because they demonstrate the virtues he values in the world. He is not really moved by the moral intuitions or expectations of others. His mother was killed on the orders of his father, he grew up in foster care, and went undercover to prepare to rule the criminal underworld of New York. Elias is a man apart from society. He is the definition of criminal: one who lives outside the law, not just of men but about men. He defines and measures himself.

I could do a whole thing about how community and real human connections are integral to exercising a healthy conscience, but at this point you can probably connect the dots yourself.

 

Children

Reese: Be nice to have a child. Think that’ll ever happen? Probably not.

Finch: Think about children is…you never know how they’ll turn out.

This is some impressive dual-transmission action here, suddenly directing all the humour and pathos of Reese and Finch attempting to take care of Leila towards both Reese’s stunted longings for a normal life and Finch’s complicated relationship with his creation: the Machine. We’ve talked about Reese so much already this season, so let’s think about Finch this time. His main contribution to the world has always been technology and mastery of systems. This carries through to what he brings to the narrative of the show: he can access and control basically any digital system. He is at home with pervasive surveillance and digital footprints.

His main contribution to the world is an entity that surpasses Finch’s own digital mastery. It is more than him; and his attempts to limit the Machine are morally and practically difficult, not to mention ultimately ineffective. But that’s where we strike the show’s conceit. Children do need limits and guidance (though they don’t appreciate it). But Finch’s child is an artificial super-intelligence rather than a human being and cannot be approached like a normal child. The Machine is more than its father.

Finch is rather like a gender-flipped Mary. He bears a child that not only exceeds him but puts the entirety of human nature in a new light. Jesus restores human nature; the Machine seems to transcend it or at least put it rather in the shade. But the parental relationship is based upon a natural connection between parent and child. Not a relationship of blood but one of the possible extension of sympathy. A parent is trying to raise someone who is not them, and they are raising something that is them. And yet Finch has a meaningful personal relationship of some sort with his “child”.

By putting Finch in this parental role, the show is focusing upon humanity as a fundamentally technological and intelligent thing: we are our world-governing systems and minds. Any relationship between Machine and human has to narrow its focus in this way because those attributes are what the Machine shares with us. If the show focused on the Machine as something greater than human ability, or on Our Heroes as embodied and delimited creatures, the connection between the two sides of the show would collapse.

This is actually the thing that made me want to write about PoI’s use of spiritual categories. The show starts using divine categories to talk about the Machine while at the same time depicting it as Finch’s creation and child. In the Christian tradition these two categories meet in the incarnation, where the Son takes on human nature and fully restores it without confusion or change between divine and human nature. I’m still thinking about how the show’s two categories connect – or don’t.

But at this early stage, I’m thinking that the show never actually meant to depict the Machine as a god. It just wanted to show us a person that wasn’t a human being, and wasn’t representative of some higher spiritual reality – and ‘god’ was the only word that sort of fit.

That’s a sad but incisive way to describe modern popular culture: unintentional theophany.

The Sinner’s Guide to Pornography Part I

Initial Repentance

Introduction

Jesus calls every one of his followers to a life of continual repentance. This life consists of confessing our sins and then fighting them with all the helps God has given us, both spiritual and physical. Our ongoing confession is more than a simple acknowledgement of sin before God or the people around us. Confession means identifying yourself as a sinner: someone who is spiritually weak and whose perceptions and desires are not entirely trustworthy. It means probing the sources and nature of your spiritual weaknesses and finding in Jesus both the forgiveness that wipes away your sins and the new human nature that leads you forward to how you are meant to live. All of this is constantly happening within each individual Christian and within each congregation of the church. It is a constant bittersweet tide in our hearts: the Spirit floating us back towards the character of Christ. Repentance is not a moment but an ongoing function of the Spirit. And this function will not end until Jesus returns.

But we can also talk about a moment of repentance: the beginning or the first outward sign of someone turning away from sin and towards Jesus as the personification of God’s mercy. A great many of Jesus’ followers seem to have answered the call in one encounter: James and John leaving their father with the boats, or Matthew walking away from his tax collector’s booth. A life collides with Jesus and begins to move in an utterly different direction.

In this first post I will consider initial repentance in the specific area of pornography use. I can’t make anyone have such a moment – that is the work of the Spirit. But I will try provide some mental and theological support for what happens after that moment. When you collide with Jesus and realise that you can’t view pornography any more, what happens next?