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.
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.