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Person of Interest and the Twenty First Century

on Mon, 12/12/2011 - 00:00

The first decade of the Twenty First Century contained more than its fair share of trials and tribulations. After the initial tragedy of 9/11, the United States was drawn into a war under the false pretext of destroying weapons of mass destruction, deployed its military into Afghanistan and invoked deep divisions within the nation regarding the wisdom and moral right of such actions. Then there was the economic crisis that began in 2007, which spawned the collapse of long-standing financial institutions, pushed various companies and industries to the brink of bankruptcy and left millions of Americans unemployed and struggling to survive. In the aftermath, another growing division erupted between those pushed to the economic sidelines and Wall Street executives who emerged even wealthier despite the upheaval.

It is within this world of dramatic change and uncertainty that the CBS series Person of Interest was born. Although following the familiar format of procedural dramas that identify a weekly crime and resolve it by the end of the hour, Person of Interest clouds its narratives with moral issues surrounding its basic premise and main characters who simultaneously act as heroes and anti-heroes. “You are being watched,” the elusive technological genius known as Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson) states at the beginning of each installment. “The government has a system, a secret machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it.”

The implication of such an Orwellian Big Brother device is never outwardly debated on Person of Interest. “There are exactly eight people in the world that knows this thing exists,” Finch comments in an early flashback sequence. “If anyone else found out, there would be such an outcry they’d turn it off. The intelligence the machine produces has already foiled a half-dozen major terrorist plots.” The remark is the lone commentary that the series offers in regards to clandestine surveillance, but the show’s use of various sequences highlighting the numerous hidden cameras recording every movement of every inhabitant of New York City speaks volumes about the restriction on personal freedom that the Twenty First Century has already witnessed.

Then there is the question of Mr. Finch and his former espionage partner Mr. Reese (Jim Caviezel) as they bring their own form of vigilante justice to the multitude of violent criminals that walk the streets of the city. In many ways, the premise of such lone figures protecting the innocent while operating outside the restrictive laws of the land is an alluring American attribute that has been personified in such comic book superheroes as Batman, big screen characters like Dirty Harry and even Jack Bauer from the FOX television drama 24. That Reese follows in the footsteps of these cultural icons should be of no surprise since the primary creator of Person of Interest, Jonathan Nolan, is the brother of Batman director Christopher Nolan and co-wrote the screenplays for both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.

Reese is indeed an amalgamation of such past characters. His espionage background and penchant for expensive-fitting suits brings to mind the James Bond of Sean Connery, while his quiet demeanor and low murmur of a voice can be traced to Batman himself. Reese is also not above using violence to gain information or protect the innocent. “I don’t particularly like killing people, but I’m very good at it,” he casually states at one point. In this sense, he is a lot like Jack Bauer of 24. It is alluded that Reese operated on the outskirts of the law on behalf of the United States government during his time as an agent, and performed many morally questionable acts in the process. The same is true of Bauer, who had a “whatever it takes” attitude in regards to preventing terrorism over the course of eight seasons on FOX. While Jack Bauer was more emotional in his endeavors, however, Reese has a more cold and calculating aura about him.

Mr. Reese also has a benefactor in the form of Mr. Finch. The machine that Finch built for the government was initially designed to detect acts of terrorism but it also gathers information about more “generic” violent crimes involving ordinary people. “I had to teach the machine to divide the things it saw into two lists,” he explains in the pilot episode of Person of Interest. The first contains “events that would cause massive loss of life” and is passed on to the NSA or FBI, while the second is considered irrelevant and deleted at midnight of each day. “It was only later that I realized my mistake,” Finch confesses. “That irrelevant list was eating away at me.” He thus recruits a drunk and homeless Reese to assist, giving the former espionage agent a new mission in life.

Reese and Finch each have numerous secrets surrounding there past, as well the distinction of being officially deceased in the eyes of the world at large. 9/11 had an obvious fact on both men as well—it was because of the tragedy, after all, that Finch invented his spy device while Reese was ready to leave his Army Rangers life in favor of love and happiness, only to be drawn deeper into the realms of national security after the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center fell. Fate has now thrown these two polar opposites together to patrol the streets of New York City in anonymity and prevent potential crimes from ever taking place. It turns out that Finch built a secret backdoor into his machine, and each week he retrieves the social security number of someone it has detected as being involved in an act of violence. Whether they are the intended victim or the perpetuator is unclear, but Reese inevitably follows the person and briefly enters their life in order to ascertain the truth and stop the pending criminal act.

Just as Person of Interest paints the moral implications of a secret government surveillance device in various shades of grey—as well as the issue of two vigilantes enforcing their own form of justice—the same can be said for the “mystery-of-the-week” storylines of its episodes. In the installment “Cura Te Ipsum,” for instance, the “number” for Dr. Megan Tillman leads Finch and Reese to Andrew Benton, an investment banker who seduces women, injects them with roofies and then takes physical advantage of them. While there have been numerous complaints of stalking, harassment and sexual assault in his past, Benton has never been charged with an actual crime. It turns out that one of his victims was the sister of Tillman, and the emotional consequences of his actions led to the sibling’s suicide a year later.

While Reese is able to prevent Megan Tillman from killing Andrew Benton as revenge, the question of what to do with the serial rapist afterwards is another matter. “What do you think I’ll regret more?” Reese asks him. “Letting you live or letting you die?” The answer is never given, however, as the screen turns to black without confirming which scenario Reese eventually decides upon.

In the episode “Mission Creep,” meanwhile, a former soldier named Joey Durban becomes involved with an elite group of bank robbers that Reese likewise infiltrates. One of his Army comrades was killed in Afghanistan, and Durban feels obligated to care for a now fatherless daughter. “Six years and all I dreamed about was coming home,” he tells Reese. “Finally I come home, and there’s nothing. No money, no jobs. Banks gone and lost it all, robbed the country blind. It’s like, what the hell are we fighting for? The joke’s on us.” In the end, Reese is able to take down the robbery ring, but he also assists both Joey Durban and his girlfriend leave town and avert arrest by the police.

“First and foremost, this is drama,” creator Jonathan Nolan told the Huffington Post in regards to Person of Interest. “We’re asking questions, not providing answers.” Many of those questions are masked within the basic blueprint of a television procedural, some are on the outskirts of the main narrative and merely alluded, and still others are left hanging in the air long after an episode concludes. All of them, however, directly relate to life in the Twenty First Century, a time period that has resulted in cultural change, social divisions, economic upheaval and shifts in the philosophical meanings of such terms as freedom, justice and ethics. As Nolan states, Person of Interest does not answer these questions, but simply raising them is sometimes more than enough.

Anthony Letizia (December 12, 2011)

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