Spiritual Poverty

SP: Person of Interest 123, Fire Wall

Episode Summary

Our Number is psychologist Caroline Turing. Someone has hired HR to kill her. As Our Heroes try to protect her, Reese gets trapped in a hotel with both FBI and HR closing in. Carter and Fusco realise they are both on the side of Our Heroes, and as the episode closes Finch is confronted by a figure who wants to know more about the Machine…

 

Surveillance Report

AMY ACKER BABY!

This episode shows a kind of narrative self-awareness that is not common in procedural television, and is very fun to boot. It doesn’t advance the themes of the show but it serves a stark warning that those themes are more than the balance between liberty and security. There are stranger things than patriots in these waters.

Spoilers coming…

SP: Person of Interest 122, No Good Deed

Summary

Our Number is Henry Peck, an NSA analyst with so little personal life that it’s difficult to imagine him as a victim or perpetrator. Then Peck is framed for drug possession and run out of his job. Turns out that he has been asking questions about certain details that get added to his reports and end up exposing terrorists. This is of course how the Machine’s relevant Numbers are being disseminated.

ISA gunmen show up hunting Peck and Reese has the difficult job of protecting a Number without revealing his presence. After Peck goes in and out of police custody, Finch turns up and confirms Peck’s suspicions that the Machine exists before giving him a new identity. Corwin listens to their conversation.

In flashback we find out that Finch was quite happy ignoring the irrelevant Numbers, and that Nathan Ingram coded a backdoor into the Machine.

 

Surveillance Report

This episode works pretty well because Finch’s emotion gives foundation to Peck’s. But Peck himself doesn’t contribute much to the proceedings. He drives the plot, yes, but his reaction to what is going on doesn’t show us anything new about the themes of the show. Slight missed opportunity.

However, the show starts gearing up for the big arc across its five seasons; and it is both appropriate and good storytelling to explore this arc through the procedure of saving Numbers. The episode also draws a number of parallels between characters in different timeframes, helping us understand one through the other.

 

Ingram and Peck

Both Ingram and Peck are good men whose virtue places them in danger. The morality that governs the shadowy group trying to discredit or kill Peck is a totalising one – it does not allow other approaches to right decisions, it does not even obey the laws of the country they seek to protect. There is no idealistic understanding of the USA in play here, only a brutally realist and humanist one. America is the people. So do anything to keep more people alive – even silencing inconvenient good people.

This materialist-patriotic kind of shadow will gradually be replaced across the course of the show by a super-national that does not care about ordinary people or their safety or even the present state of the human race. The threat in this episode treats people as something to be conserved as a whole; what matters is that the USA as broad institution is not destroyed by terrorist attacks. The new threat will see people as a whole as something to be transcended and revitalised through submission to AI.

In both cases the focus on abstract universals rather than individuals leads to tyranny and a free use of violence. It is only by applying abstract ideals to real people that Our Heroes can provide a counter-argument.

 

Ingram and Finch

We find out that it was Nathan Ingram, Finch’s friend and cover story, who couldn’t handle the irrelevant Numbers and started to do something about it. The ironclad commitment to helping Numbers, the sense of universal justice applying to every individual, is something Finch learned from his friend. Once again the show says that morality is as much about the right relationships as the right beliefs; being friends with good people makes you better, as both Reese and Fusco have shown.

 

Finch and Peck

Finch sees a great deal of himself in Peck. Ingram wanted justice and that led to a desire for truth, but Peck is purely interested in truth and understanding. Like Finch he is a natural system-thinker. And that has put him in the same place as Finch: on the run, hiding in the shadows from others who live in the shadows.

This episode shows us the normal life that Finch (like Peck) has lost: a relationship with a woman named Grace. He isn’t bitter because he got far more time with her than Reese ever had with Jessica. But connecting these two relationships can’t help but critique Finch. When Reese left Jessica behind out of a desire to protect her, out of emotional cowardice, that led to her death. Giving up life and love to live in the shadows is a bad thing so far in this show. I wish that it remembered that more often.

 

Finch and Corwin

By empathising with Peck (the main way Our Heroes save Number, it seems) Finch reveals himself to Alicia Corwin. She has also been driven into the shadows. Becoming aware of Finch’s existence will bring her back next episode…

SP: Contemporary pop culture is incomple

Some passages from Lionel Trilling’s chapter on Mansfield Park in the Pelican Guide to English Literature vol 5 (and then some development of his point):

The concern with the profession was an aspect of the ethical concept which was prepotent in the spiritual life of England in the nineteenth century, the concept of duty. The Church, in its dominant form and characteristic virtue, was here quite at one with the tendency of secular feeling; its preoccupation may be said to have been less with the achievement of salvation than with the performance of duty.

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.

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.

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.

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.

SP: Person of Interest 116, Risk

Summary

Reese poses as an asset manager to surveil Saunders, a proprietary trader for a Wall Street bank. Saunders is a rags-to-riches Type A adrenaline junkie. He turns out to be targeted by hired muscle to cover up a massive short-sell scam by a trader and a crooked SEC investigator. Saunders uses Finch’s massive capital to buy up the shares and stop the price from cratering, as well as stopping the culprits from covering their tracks (by covering their earlier shorts).

 

Surveillance Report

Like Dr Megan Tillman (the vengeful doctor of Cura Te Ipsum) this episode gradually peels back layers of our Number. Not only do we learn more about them but this information casts more light on how they respond. In the episodes of PoI that focus on Numbers (that’s most of them), the episode needs either good chemistry between the Number and Our Heroes or a great mystery – ideally a mysterious Number. This episode does a pretty good job of unravelling Saunders; and because we understand his personal investment in the game of banking, it charges what is kind of a boring plot with character-based interest.

 

Looking clever and wearing the right clothes

This episode makes no bones about its opinion that banking is a massive financial game where rich people play roulette with the lives of others. Reese and Finch have both experienced certain kinds of massive privilege: Reese in his cavalier extralegal operations, and Finch by virtue of being an incredibly wealthy tech magnate. This gives the episode plenty of room for dry sarcasm about the fecklessness and moral indifference of the banking world. Reese takes the opportunity to drag Saunders through the world of the down and out, and Saunders’ uncle represents the ordinary people just trying to work hard and make a living. And it certainly seems that Saunders has Learned A Lesson by the end of the episode, as he stops the scam from fully working (with Finch’s money) and brings food and secure shelter to the homeless community that sheltered him.

But the financial and social machinery that let the scam happen and almost succeed still exists. And the whole episode draws on the lingering resentment of the GFC, partially a result of a kind of legal scam that went unexposed for decades. It’s fitting that the scam in this episode ends up being funded by Elias who is literally a gangster. But it’s also a kind of escape hatch for the depiction of banking. It means the viewer doesn’t have to reckon with the fact that socially accepted professions and motivations can lead to this kind of result.

There’s no resolution for the injustices and immorality that let banking descend so far. And maybe there shouldn’t be. But I can’t help thinking of a show I love called Leverage, about a group of criminals who run complex scams on oppressors and crooks who can’t be touched by the law. Leverage took the never-ending nature of human selfishness and made it not just a constant source of new plots but part of the show’s statement about society. The rich and powerful are exploitative and self-serving and that’s never going to change. But Leverage also showed us a corresponding altruism that is deep and pragmatic.

Person of Interest can’t help but make a similar observation. Across our Numbers, we’ve already seen so many different shades and causes of violence. Vengeance to justice to greed to ambition to heartbreak. What kind of response does the show make to these systemic evils, like the adrenaline-soaked greed that underlies Wall Street? Well, the answer doesn’t lie in any of the characters you see on camera. Watch for the character that is the camera, the person (?) who is the viewpoint through which you are seeing this whole show. Person of Interest does something that is almost as clever as it is slow to pay off: its literal point of view and its main character are largely identical. The premise of the show is the both the central character and the show’s response to the evil that we see.

But that character (and response) emerge very slowly; tentatively. Even most of Our Heroes are ambivalent about it. This is something you can only really do in a pulp serial that lets you stretch character reaction across a great deal of narrative space. Though I have to admit, it’s questionable whether PoI’s thematic content is worth four and a half seasons of time. Don’t expect an answer this episode; we will see only the barest hints of it in the closing moments of this season.