Can you hear me?

Person of Interest makes it difficult for fans to draw conclusions from its season finales. Its two so far have done more to upend its story than resolve it. Season two’s “God Mode” gave viewers a nice mix of excitement before a good cliffhanger left us with questions about what comes next in the story, not who may or may not be dead. Open some new directions, close up some old ones, that’s what I like to see from a season finale.

God Mode began with a vicious video game style shooting rampage directed by The Machine to enable Reese, Shaw, Finch and Root to escape the library where Reese and Root answered The Machine’s phone call. This and its subsequent actions directing them all to safety reveal the show’s most exciting new direction: The Machine’s emergence as a full character.

For most of the first two seasons Harold’s baby has been fairly static. In this episode it became true artificial intelligence, which is exactly how Shaw described it after Reese revealed it to her. Instead of just spitting out numbers The Machine is now a service for whomever it allows to access it. To illustrate this, the writers sent Reese and Shaw after some non-relevants as a way to show what the sentient machine can do. Need a car? Just ask. Need glasses? Just ask. The combination to Harold’s safe? Anything The Machine can know it can give you. Characters don’t just react to it, they interact with it. The Machine is not just numbers anymore.

The ensuing race to find The Machine supported an episode that threw a tremendous amount of storyline at its viewers and reshuffled its setting for next season.

Root leads Harold to a nuclear waste facility in Washington State where they believe The Machine is located. Finch warns her to keep her expectations under control and when the door opens we find out why: The Machine is missing. Yeah, missing. The largest, most powerful computer system ever developed ain’t where it’s supposed to be.

Or is it? Harold explains that he designed the virus Decima unleashed, which in itself was not a surprise to viewers. He goes on to explain how he programmed The Machine so the only way it would alter its code would be in response to an attack. By building the attack himself, he was able to implant instructions within the virus that directed The Machine to relocate, in essence teaching The Machine how to hide from its enemies. Putting the virus into the world with reliance on the fact that someone would someday unleash it shows how building The Machine dampened Harold’s faith in human goodness.

We learned where The Machine used to be, and chasing after it could easily be one of the storylines that bleeds over into the start of next season. But I hope the writers are approaching The Machine’s existence the same way Lost’s writers approached explaining their story. Darlton used the example of midi-chlorians in Star Wars ruining the mysterious nature of the force as proof of why they never wanted to fully explain the show. Star Wars sucks so I don’t know a lot about midi-chlorineians or whatever, but I feel the same way about The Machine. Don’t ruin it by trying to tell us every last detail.

After Special Counsel learns The Machine got away, a phone call from a woman we only know as Ma’am instructs Hersch to eliminate him. Knowing what was going to happen and resigned to the fate he long ago consented to, Counsel stared down the barrel of Hersch’s gun and said simply, “Fair enough.” Near the very end of the episode, Hersch (outlined with a yellow square) tells her The Machine has sent a new number, she instructs him to put a team together.

With Counsel gone we need a new figuree for the government’s use (or abuse) of Harold’s invention, expect Ma’am to fill that role. Now that Hersch knows Finch was the brains behind Ingram, Harold isn’t safe. I would look for next season to feature the paths that will eventually bring Harold face-to-face with Ma’am.

One of the things we are left wondering is what kind of number The Machine gave out? After the reboot and implementation of Harold’s new code, he explains that no one controls The Machine anymore. It and only it will decide if it keeps giving numbers and whether they will be relevant or non-relevant. Its decision – there it is being its own character again – will shape the show going forward.

To give us one last teaser going into the summer, a psychologically-broken Root wanders down the hallway of a mental hospital when a phone rings. She picks up the yellow receiver. “Can you hear me?”  This wasn’t like the call pre-programmed to ring in the library regardless of who would answer. The Machine located her in that hospital and called her specifically. Why? We do not know…yet.

The only small surprise in the finale was the way the wrinkly man and Decima Technologies disappeared. Instead of a real player in the future of the series and a rival to Finch it turned out to only be a storytelling tool for unleashing the virus. That would be too bad but there are plenty of other storylines, so it won’t be missed.

 

For Person of Interest to wrap all this material together without letting it collapse on itself is proof that it is one of the best shows on television. There’s every reason to expect it will continue to be in season three.

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Harold of Interest

Wow! The penultimate episode of season two was AWESOME! The only other episode that comes to mind as being near it is when the FBI shot Reese on the parking garage in season one, but still I would put this one ahead of that (the episodes share a director). I saw a tweet on Saturday, I forget from whom, saying how the episode felt four hours long because of all the plot development. Watching it on DVR I kept thinking, “I must be to the final break now” and only finding I wasn’t close yet. Outstanding television episodes fly to their final commercial break. Only the very, very best seem to take forever to get there.

It occurred to me later Thursday night that this was the kind of episode Lost fans begged for during its later seasons – heavy mythology and rapid plot development. Lost’s creative team was reluctant to deliver it because they felt fully explaining the show’s meaning would take away too much of the audience’s imagination. Darlton even noted their reluctance in The End’s script: And here it is. The closest we’re ever gonna come to actually describing it.  That was their very last chance, and they stuck to their core belief in their storytelling. Person of Interest ran this risk with all it crammed into last week’s episode. If the writers weren’t up to the task they would have undercut the finale, but they pulled it off in spades.

I won’t begin to attempt recapping the episode, you can get that here. Instead I want to look forward and see if there is anything that might give leads to what we’ll see this week.

Harold and The Laptop

Harold sold the the virus that Decima used to take down The Machine. The CIA sent Reese and Kara Stanton deep into China to steal it, leading to both of them being nearly killed before the virus fell into Decima’s hands. We’ve known it for a long time, Decima knows it and now, maybe most importantly, John knows it. We don’t know why Harold sold it.

Some possible answers?

He wanted to destroy The Machine. He was not happy about Nathan leaving the back door for non-relevant numbers, isn’t it possible that Harold so feared what he’d built and what Nathan had done with it that he created a way to destroy it and made sure it found its way into the hands of those who would want to?

He wanted to smoke out John. Harold knew he couldn’t protect the non-relevant numbers on his own, couldn’t he have manipulated the entire situation so the CIA would want to retire John, forcing him to escape and go the one place Harold knows he can find him: Off the grid? This one is a stretch, Harold would have to have his hands on an awful lot of moving parts to make it work. But remember when he and Agent Donnelly squared off while Reese was in prison? If anyone could pull it off, Harold could. There’s more here…

Remember Jessica? Jessica was John’s love before September 11 pulled him back into the military. He was about to leave the CIA to reunite with her when he and Kara got sent to China. How would Harold have known about her? Her number kept coming up because of her abusive husband, who eventually does kill her. When Reese learns this at the hospital, he fails to notice a man in a wheelchair who would soon become very familiar: Harold Finch.

That is some deep mythology and nothing in the lead up to the finale suggests it will come up again. But as Harold’s character is peeled back we are starting to see that he may not be the virtuous do-gooder we first saw him as. I’m also hoping for it because Jessica was played by the incomparably gorgeous Susan Misner, who delighted us all on ABC’s Nashville and FX’s The Americans this spring.

Harold and Nathan Ingram

I would be very surprised if the finale doesn’t show us how Nathan died. His number came up a split second before Harold’s script shut Ingram’s makeshift system down. Will it have something to do with Harold’s limp? It could. Although if I had to bet I’d put money on it having to do with him being in the wheelchair as mentioned above. It could also be what changed Harold’s mind about the backdoor. Recall their argument in the library when he told Nathan he would tell the non-relevant people that everyone dies and he can’t play god. Having one hit so close to home could change his mind.

Harold and John

They have been partners until now, Reese even credits Harold with rescuing his life after escaping China. Will John turn against him now that he knows Harold was responsible for the laptop? He didn’t express as much in their short interactions waiting for the phone call in the library, but John will put his personal feelings aside to finish his mission. I think he will have his word with Finch at the right time. Going into season three the show will need to change its dynamic. Finch and Reese at odds could be that change.

Harold

Like I said, Harold’s character is being peeled back as we get closer to the end of the season. Way back at the start of the series I observed they were featuring the more well-known Jim Caviezel’s character more than Michael Emerson’s, figuring he would draw viewers while Emerson’s Lost fans would be comfortable waiting for Ben to be studied. It really feels like we are at that point now. The writers ran Harold’s story up to the key moments in his life thus far: Separating himself from Grace, taking on The Machine’s non-relevant numbers, Nathan’s death, the laptop. All of this will come together, somehow.

Other potential changes could be evident after the finale. It is only one hour, which is disappointing, and maybe nothing can live up to the excitement of last week’s lead-in. But The Machine is off, Root has the Northern Lights director tied up and Decima is closing in. This should be great.

Revenge needs a date

In the spring of 2007, Damon and Carlton did something few executive producers do with their television show: They told ABC they wanted to end it. They needed to assure Lost fans – and themselves – that the ever complicated story would some day achieve a satisfactory ending. ABC obliged and gave them 48 more episodes over three seasons to bring the epic to a close.

Halfway through its second season on the same network, Revenge feels like it is going through the same uncertainty. The clear presentation of Emily Thorne’s mission to take revenge on the family who framed her father as a terrorist has given way to a blurry mix of storylines that has viewers frustrated. Ratings have been consistently down since the return from its holiday break, and while that is in part due to the NFL playoffs the decline can’t be dismissed.

To ensure viewers they won’t be seeing Revenge’s equivalent of Sawyer and Juliet cracking rocks on Hydra Island, the minds behind Revenge need to sit down with ABC and decide how much longer their show will be on the air. Creator and Executive Producer Mike Kelley has to already have some plan for how the show will end, if he can get a firm answer on when that will happen he and his team can plot out how they will get there. Season three of Lost was panned at the time, and in many ways it deserved it particularly during the fall portion of the season. But if you re-watch it now it actually contained episodes that moved the story as swiftly as any before or after. Hopefully working out an end date for Revenge can provide the spark its laborious second season needs.

To the season itself, I think it is fair to assert that Revenge hasn’t been as good as last year. Part of the reason, I believe, is because the show hasn’t adapted well to a change in the way its episodes are built. Much of the first season gave us Emily’s takedown of the week as she went after people who played a role in the framing of her father. It was a great structure for telling all the back story behind Emily, Grayson Global and what happened to David Clarke. But it could only last for so long. The characters are established and new details only come as the show needs them.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the show has to be worse, but it does mean we are less surprised when one Grayson turns on another and less swept away by the luxury and excess of the Hamptons lifestyle. The writers have yet to figure out a way to replace the thrills those dramatics gave us last year, and the show suffers.

Whereas last year the smart, surprising and Machiavellian characters drove the plot, this year it feels like the needs of the plot are driving the characters. Nolan Ross is a prime example. He’s gone from a key player in Emily’s plan (thanks, we learned, to his close relationship with her father) to an unmanned drone deployed as the story needs him. First for Daniel’s takeover of Grayson Global. Then he abandoned all business sense in naming the vastly unqualified Padma as NolCorp’s CFO. It was wildly out of character for him to do something that ill-thought-out to his company, but the story needed her in place to find a piece of software Nolan was hiding.

Conrad is another case of a character seeming to lose his purpose. After being charged with Gordon Murphy’s murder and released, Daniel ousted him at Grayson and the Initiative dumped him. So, naturally, he’s plotting a political career. Why? I don’t know. It isn’t in concert with anything he’s done as a character thus far so presumably the plot needs him to run for office for some reason. So he is, with Ashley as his chief advisor. You know, the chief advisor who he slept with when she was dating his son. Uh-huh, riiiiight.

Meanwhile the really intriguing aspects that closed season one have played out flat. The finale’s shocking revelation that Emily’s mother is still alive was a complete dud. Instead of her mom being a dynamic character who can drive the story she is a psychological mess who did virtually nothing for the show and hasn’t been seen for months. A total waste of a character. The mysterious Initiative has been equally disappointing, although that might be changing now that we know its plan is to create and then profit from a disaster in New York City. Still, it doesn’t feel like one of those secretive world dominating conspiracies that only exist in televisions and movies (as far as I know). If both were better characters (literally or figuratively) the story would be making up for some of what it has lost.

Other aspects of this season’s story just aren’t interesting. Emily’s partnership with Aiden isn’t anything and his pursuit of his sister is totally irrelevant. In fact, the two of them making out in public after pretending to split is totally out of character for Emily, she is never that careless. It took way, way too long for Jack selling the bar to the Ryans to work its way around to Conrad’s usefulness. With new characters on the way such as Conrad’s ex-wife (not Victoria, his other ex-wife) there’s a chance yet we could get something interesting.

It might sound like I haven’t enjoyed this season, but I have. I have always been more open to the patience it takes to let a serial drama unfold (probably thanks to years of grooming from daytime) so these less-than-spectacular story lines haven’t turned me off. Revenge still serves up good excitement from week to week. I expect it to continue to ramp up the drama as it races toward May.

To have loved and Lost

Was it better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all?

I should have seen it coming.

One of the first big mythological reveals Lost doled out on its path back to the bamboo field came from Eloise Hawking in season five’s 316.  Having gathered Jack, Ben, Desmond and Sun around a giant Foucault pendulum in the basement of the church, she explained how the island disappeared at the end of There’s No Place Like Home and how the Oceanic 6 could get back to the island to rescue the ones they left behind.  At the time I felt the scene was forced, hasty and artificial.  But, because there were still so many answers to come, I figured they would get better at dishing them out.  I was wrong.

With a final season that featured remarkable acting and a musical score that should be a shoe-in for an Emmy, Lost still limped to its conclusion because what had been its strength for five years broke down and became its weakness.  The superior story weaving that the writers unwound since day one collapsed under its own tremendous weight. The writers found themselves having to close five year’s worth of lose ends and revealed themselves as better at posing questions than answering them.

This played itself out in a repeat of the pendulum room often during the final season, especially the reveal of the whispers heard in the jungle since season one.  Six years of mystery explained away in one brief exchange between Hurley and a dead guy, then on to the next thing.  Six years littered with 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 explained with an almost dismissive “Jacob had a thing for numbers.”  With it, one of Lost’s earliest and eeriest mysteries is shown to be as important as the numbers on the bibs handed out to track runners before a race, which is to say they weren’t important at all.

I suppose this should have come as a surprise.  Writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse warned us in the run up to the final season that they would not answer every question, pledging to tie up only those they deemed important to what they felt the show was about: the characters’ respective journeys.  My views of season six and the finale are and will continue to be enormously critical, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for demeaning the writers’ enormous skill.  I fully understand what they did with the end of the show and why they did it.  Judged in only the light of what they wanted, the show’s end was brilliant.  I’m not knowledgeable enough about television history to judge The End against finales past, but I find it hard to believe that any of them could have been more complete and beautiful.

Watterson, you’re being bipolar.  No, I’m not.  (Okay, that part was probably bipolar.) I’m explaining that I understand Lost and its finale and I appreciate it for what it is, but that I don’t like what it is.  I’m comfortable holding those seemingly opposite beliefs at the same time because I know there is a difference between what I ultimately wanted the show to be and the story the writers wanted to tell.  The part of me that understands the writers’ intent is okay with the inadequate answers and unsolved mysteries and I love the ultimate resolution to the characters’ lives in that light.  But the part of me that wanted the end of the series to be so much more is bubbling with discontent, which it is time to investigate more deeply.

First, to make it understandable, I need to explain the Lost I came to love.  My Lost was a Lost built with layer upon layer of mystery, mythology and missing pieces.  Some layers stood on their own, others built a symbiotic relationship with each other so deep that it led to the breakdown I wrote about above.  In the Lost I loved, a deeply flawed and miraculously healed character named John Locke literally dug up a sci-fi treasure that would shape the show for five seasons.  Those two elements – character and mystery – depended on each other for their own advancement, and the show was at its best when they developed together.  By the same token, the ultimate ending I was looking for was one in which they ended together – character and mystery.  We know now that didn’t happen. The writers went characters first and now fans like me are left with our discontent.

Going character first meant no epic, mind-blowing revelations or plot twists that Lost pulled off so well so many times.  I remember drawing forward in my seat watching Ben turn the frozen donkey wheel at the end of season four, the pain of willingly leaving the island he so obsessed over clearly evident on his face.  Character; mystery. Perhaps there is no better example than my favourite scene of the series: Sawyer gripping Juliet’s hand as she dangled in the hole dug at the Swan station.  Heart wrenching character-driven emotion layered on top of the sci-fi elements sewn with the Dharma Initiative’s quest to reach the pocket of electromagnetic energy.

Without tying the end of the characters’ journey to the remaining mysteries of the island, the finale lacked previous seasons’ ability to grab us by the heart and the mind.  The end went almost exclusively for our hearts, and though it succeeded in that regard, it failed to fully tap into everything that made Lost so great.

That leads into my biggest disappointment, which is that the final season was poorly executed.  I justify my assertion with one word: Dogan.  Remember Dogan?  Instead of wasting our time with him and the temple (which itself was never a great Lost mystery) they could have gone deeper into the history of the island and fleshed out Jacob and MiB to make Across the Sea more meaningful.

Measure it this way: how much of what happened at the temple was relevant to the finale? None of it.  At its core, all the main characters did was go to the temple and runaway before Smokey wiped everyone out. It was a setting for no significant storyline progression that couldn’t have been done otherwise.  After five years of accepting the island’s magical healing powers (also never explained) fans would have accepted Sayid surviving and falling into MiB’s camp for what would have been obvious reasons.  Instead we got week after week of muddy water, clamps to the nipple and a Japanese guy with a thing for his baseball.  Precious time wasted.

Applying the same standard to the season’s major narrative device yields a different result but brings the same disappointment.  The purpose for the flash sideways is obvious now, as is the reason it had to figure so prominently in the season.  The revelation that all the characters were dead was huge, and it had to be earned.  Fans would never have bought into it if the flash sideways wasn’t given the attention it received before the finale.  But we were left to linger for too long with no sense at all of its purpose.  Had the diversionary storyline of Desmond trying to connect all the passengers for Oceanic 815 been introduced earlier than the eleventh episode of the season, the pace and path of the season would have been less frustrating, especially early on while the island timeline was bogged down with the temple.  Again, very heavy on character, very light on mystery.

I am also disappointed that the construction of the season and the finale put the flash sideways revelation as the last big element of the characters’ journey to fall into place.  The specific information that the sideways represented a sort of heavenly waiting room was wholly confined to the developments of season six.  The writers tried to tie it to the rest of the series with the conversation between Christian and Jack, but it didn’t work for me, again because it was too character centric.  Look at all the questions left unanswered: Why can’t women carry a baby to term; Why 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42; Why all the hieroglyphics; Who built the plug; Who found the island in the first place; and so many more.  None of those questions are relevant to the way the writers chose to end the show, but they are why I and so many other fans obsessed over it.  To not build them into the ending does indeed leave us feeling like we got the middle finger from a creative team willing to give it high and hard.  As I said above, I respect them for having the guts to do it, I just wish they hadn’t.

I wish they had given a better payoff to the fans who picked the show apart frame by frame.  The fans who poured over every detail of the blast door map, researched every name and anagram and found every Easter egg deserved a better end than they were given.   There turned out to be no magic bullet that they all missed, no clue that turned out to be bigger than all the rest.  As far as these fans are concerned, the series may as well have ended after Juliet smashed the hydrogen bomb because very little of what they loved about Lost – what I loved about Lost – made it through to the end.  Their fanatical loyalty was not given due reward, and that is too bad.

ABC’s marketing and promotions department deserves some of the fault here.  “The time for questions has passed. The time for answers has arrived.” went the pre-season tease.  The writers play no role in those promotions.  Those who do are either willful liars or completely detached from the show they promoted.  Their material helped build expectations that those involved with crafting the show knew would never be met.

Yet there are things I think fans can assume even though they weren’t ever addressed.  I’m comfortable saying the plan to reset the timeline by blowing up the hydrogen bomb didn’t work.  The flash sideways turned out not to be the reset timeline, and on the island all it did was flash the characters forward to 2007.  (Though one would think this would have been significant enough to the surviving members of the Dharma Initiative to earn further exploration in the storyline.)

So it ends with the same question we ask ourselves after any long relationship runs dry: Was it better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all?  Did thick heartstrings keep me from fully foreseeing this disappointing end as it began to unfold last season?  It’s a question we can only answer for ourselves, and my answer is yes.