Cliffhangers, cult followers and Stan’s Soviet mole

I’m a lot better at season finale cliffhangers than I used to be. I’ll credit Lost for that. After all of those agonizing waits between seasons I learned to let a show recede from my memory. Besides, how could any show ever leave us hanging as hard as Lost did every May? Cliffhangers now are a cakewalk in comparison!

I also stopped watching previews for future episodes of the shows I watch. Those are done by marketing departments, not story writers, and are designed to leave you feeling anticipation for the next episode. If the show is good, you’ll want to watch the next episode. If not, you won’t. Ain’t nobody got time for marketing departments.

Here are some quick thoughts on a few shows I watched that ended with life-and-death cliffhangers. On The Americans we know that the Keri Russell character is not going to die. The Following gave us three life-and-deathers: Joe Carroll, Ryan Hardy and Claire Matthews. Carroll might actually be dead, but we can be pretty sure Hardy and Matthews are not. Is the point of a cliffhanger then to really leave us wondering if a character will survive? Most of the times not. Instead it usually leaves us wondering, “How will they get out of this one?”

The Following

I liked The Following from its beginning but was apprehensive about what would happen when the shock value from its brutal violence wore off. If you remember the first season of American Horror Story, The Following was similarly messed up in psychology but with a startling level of violence. The disturbing apex of that quality featured escaped serial killer Joe Carroll honor killing one of his cult members, followed by Carroll – covered in blood – having sex with a follower as two other followers achieved the mood by choking each other.

The show did lag in parts of its 13-episode first season, but overall The Following remained very strong. It has a similar feel to the early episodes of Revenge, a story fitting together so perfectly that it almost has to be being told in review. Former college professor, failed author and Edgar Allan Poe worshiper Joe Carroll is writing a new story  about the FBI agent who put him in prison and stole his wife.

The continuing revelations of more followers is something I will grant, for now. If they show up too conveniently too often they will cross the line from being part of the story to being a “hand of God” to bail it out. It got dangerously close to that point when people kept appearing out of the woods to help break out of the farmhouse.

How will the story change? Joe is dead, I will buy that for now yet not be surprised if he isn’t. He’s too good to remove from the show entirely, so some flashbacks wouldn’t be out of the ream of possibility. The scene of the girl in the restaurant reacting to news of his death might indicate some sleeper cells.

The Americans

I wasn’t wild about the pilot. I can’t quite put my finger on the uneasy feeling it left me with, maybe I thought it was a little forced. Having Stan suspect his neighbors of being spies to the point that he would break into their garage seemed too convenient to me. We can’t expect television to always portray realistic situations, but that felt like it went too far. In any case I wasn’t sure I would stick with the show and put it on the DVR level. An article detailing how the series creator had a background in intelligence convinced me to give it a chance. After a couple episodes I was not just enjoying the show, I was loving the drama. Most times a show generates its drama with action, but not The Americans. It carried drama throughout its episodes by placing the characters’ dialogue gently on top of its already tense Cold War setting. Very nicely done.

I didn’t like the choice of making Stan’s Soviet mole as someone so obviously sexy, I felt it undercut Stan’s reason for falling for her in the first place. He didn’t carry on an affair with her because she is gorgeous and he is horny. He couldn’t stop himself because spending years under deep cover with a white supremacist group cleaved his marriage. His wife hoped his new assignment in Washington would give her back the Stan Beeman she fell in love with. It hasn’t. Stan is as preoccupied with his work as ever, barely knows his teenage son and his wife dangerously close to leaving him.

He sees Nina as someone vulnerable who understands what it is like to live a lie, something his wife just cannot do for him. Had they cast someone less drool-inducingly sexy I think that would have played better.

(Stan’s wife is played by the perfectly beautiful Susan Misner, leading me to quip, “Yeah, I’d cheat on my wife Susan Misner. Sure I would, right after I spy for the Soviets.” Meaning of course that I would never.)

Otherwise I thought the show was pretty well done.

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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.