Friday, June 17, 2016

The Capeless Crusaders of Person of Interest, Season Two and Beyond

Photo montage by Barsoom Design

by Gilbert Colon

Years before Fox’s Gotham, CBS’s Person of Interest was Jonathan Nolan’s “Dark Knight-without-Costumes.”  This article is a continuation of the season-one analysis “Jonathan Nolan’s Watchmen: Person of Interest, Batman, and Second Chances” begun at the late, lamented Hugo Award-winning online fanzine, SF Signal

“He’s like something out of a comic book.”
—Maxine, “Bury the Lede”

“No capes!”

Christian Bale as The Dark Knight
While J.J. Abrams was busy rebooting Star Trek and the Mission: Impossible franchise, as well as preparing the next batch of Star Wars sequels, he had all along been in the producer seat of CBS’s Person of Interest helping Jonathan Nolan to slyly “remake” and remold Batman into a television take on the Dark Knight films he co-scripted, minus cowl and capes.  (The Dark Knight Trilogy was already edging in this direction, years before Gotham’s similarly gritty imagining).  

As it fast approaches its series finale, creator and executive producer Jonathan Nolan’s Person of Interest has earned its place as a companion piece to brother Christopher Nolan’s film trilogy.  Jonathan Nolan told Tim Surette of that The Dark Knight Rises was “the end of the line for us with that character, and that’s a character I’ve enjoyed writing for the last nine years,” so he was thankful for “[t]he ability to stay in that space and sphere” and “bring a lot of [the] flavor [of] Batman…to Reese,” a central character in Person of Interest played by Jim Caviezel (The Stoning of Soraya M.) who in this series embodies many of the redemptive themes of the Nolans’ work.  

Person of Interest debuted on September 22, 2011, its premiere season ending around the same time as the release of The Dark Knight Rises in the summer of 2012.  At that stage Jonathan Nolan considered the trilogy unfinished business, explaining to Nerdist

“The one thing that we were never quite able to do in the Batman movies, you never quite got that quintessential Batman moment of him rescuing a person from a banal, ordinary act of violence ... So Batman’s choice [is] to get out there and intervene in these irrelevant crimes, crimes that don’t matter to anyone except for him for emotional reasons and the people who are involved with them.”  


The Batman references continued to pile up in the second season, from NYPD Detective Fusco (Kevin Chapman) beginning to call Reese “Wonder Boy” to a Bathound named Bear to a litter of would-be Catwomen.  Not only that, but at least one third-season episode (“Lethe”) had hints of the Christopher Nolan-produced Man of Steel (2013) – Finch’s (Michael Emerson) childhood in Lassiter, Iowa looked a lot like Clark Kent growing up in Smallville.  

Michael Emerson (l) and Jim Caviezel
Emerson, in the New York Daily News, took the superhero analogy even further.  “To me,” he said, “this show has more to do with Dick Tracy than with a lot of what you usually see on this type of show today.”  With its crime cases and gadgetry, the costumeless Dick Tracy is an apt comparison.  Just as the only way to approximate superpowers in a realistic milieu is to have the hero come from a special-forces background (Reese is U.S. Army Special Forces), a common device used in action films to explain near invincibility, technical prowess has always been a compensatory superpower as well.  One online commentator describes Person of Interest as “really a throw-back to the pulps like The Shadow, Doc Savage, Green Hornet, etc.”  And Batman.  All of those characters (the Shadow being a debatable exception) derive their “superpowers” from gadgets.  Deepening the pulp connections is The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media by Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, applying them to the original Batman: 

“[Bill] Finger’s depiction of the Batman as a figure of awe and mystery as well as a master sleuth and scientist owed much to the pulp magazine superstars Doc Savage and the Shadow [and] Chester Gould’s comic strip creation, Dick Tracy, provided a prototype for Batman’s square jaw as well as a model for Robin in Tracy’s sidekick, Junior.”  

Superficial nods and coincidences abounded in Person of Interest as well.  Reese, like accountant Coleman Reese from The Dark Knight, bore the name of a character rumored by fans to become the Riddler.  Meanwhile Finch, wearing an uncharacteristic purple scarf (“Zero Day”), seemed to have inexplicably stopped by the Joker or Riddler’s tailor.  (At around the time of season one, Emerson was even heard as the voice of the Joker in the two-part animated Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.)  Perhaps to balance out these wardrobe choices, in the third-season episode “Provenance,” Finch sees Reese donning his tuxedo and asks, “Is it butterfly or batwing?”  

Throughout, Nolan and Abrams took apart the Batman legend’s cast of characters only to reassemble them in fresh and interesting ways.  Det. Carter (Taraji P. Henson) is Commissioner Gordon, and Reese is the Dark Knight, but Reese is also Robin to Finch’s Batman.  Reclusive billionaire Finch is Bruce Wayne, but briefly he shares that role with another, Nathan Ingram (Brett Cullen).  

Brett Cullen as Nathan Ingram
Finch’s partner, the technology tycoon Nathan, originally envisioned the Machine as a means to preempt another September 11th, but later as a chance to save all people, perhaps to atone for an ignominious personal life.  In a Batman: Year One moment Nathan, discontent that Finch is paying “non-relevant” numbers no mind, resolves to go it alone as a solo crimefighter (“One Percent”), just as a plainclothes Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) did in Batman Begins – all that is missing is a ski mask.  Unbeknownst to Finch, Nathan secretly took to a “bat cave,” an abandoned library (“Zero Day”), where he accessed the “irrelevant” list on his “Bat-computer,” the backdoor to the Machine.  Up till this point we were led to believe that Finch, not Nathan, was the idealist in this partnership.  

The second season gave several glimpses into Finch’s darker nature.  Deposed crime boss Elias (Enrico Colantoni) says to Finch’s face in the recent “Reassortment”: “Underneath all that intellect, you’re the darkest of all of us.  It’s always the quiet ones we need to be afraid of.  I just hope I’m not around the day that pot finally boils over.”  Thinking like a machine himself, he tells Nathan (in flashbacks from “Ghosts”), “We didn’t build this to save somebody, we built it to save everybody.”  It is only after the death of Nathan, the friend who convinced Finch that “Everyone is relevant to someone,” that he takes the mantle upon himself to save the “irrelevant numbers” he initially programmed the Machine to delete every midnight.  

Other characters in these worlds occasionally take up the Crusade against Crime.  In “Pretenders,” an ordinary citizen, physically resembling Gary Oldman in the Dark Knight films, moonlights as a fake cop because, he tells Reese, “the city needed somebody to keep up the fight, so…I invented Detective Forge, all because The Man in the Suit went away.”  (“The Man in the Suit” being Reese’s “superhero identity,” essentially his Batman persona sans Batsuit.)  In this regard he is only slightly different from Batman pretender Brian Douglas when Gotham wonders in The Dark Knight, “WHERE IS THE BATMAN?”  Asked by the Joker (Heath Ledger) why he dresses as the Caped Crusader, Brian – before his murder is aired on Gotham Cable News as footage suggestive of the decapitation videos of jihadist savages – answers with as much courage as he can muster under the dire circumstances, “He’s a symbol that we don’t have to be afraid of scum like you...” 

Amy Acker as Root

Like the Joker, Root (hacker Amy Acker) – who basically sees the Machine, not man, as perfection, calling it “God” – tested human nature to confirm how fallen it is (“The Contingency”), explaining to Finch, “No one designed us.  We’re just an accident, Harold.  We’re just bad code.”  (“See, their ‘morals,’ their ‘code,’ it’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble.  I’ll show you.  When the chips are down, these, ah, ‘civilized people’?  They'll eat each other.”—the Joker, The Dark Knight.)  Later in “Triggerman,” Finch caught himself falling into the trap of describing a human being as “bad code” and, taking the opportunity to distance himself from Root’s nihilism, told Reese, “The term applies to machines, not people.  We have the ability to change, evolve.”  In stark contrast Root, before her own conscience evolves, believes that “The universe is infinite and chaotic and cold (“/”),” a similar line of thinking to that of Two-Face in The Dark Knight who believes “The world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance.  Unbiased, unprejudiced, fair,” the philosophy he learned from the Joker, that “agent of chaos” who taught, “you know the thing about chaos?  It’s fair.”  

Heath Ledger as The Joker
The positive change in Finch’s outlook can be directly traced to the death of his friend and partner, Nathan.  In a flashback from the second-season finale “God Mode,” Nathan and Finch were targeted for assassination via a suicide bomber who exploded the Staten Island Ferry, just as the Joker rigged a ferryboat with “enough diesel to blow us sky high” in The Dark Knight.  Nathan was killed and Finch hobbled into the shadows, alone and presumed dead to the world.  Using his “death” as a cover, thereafter he limped through life, like Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises, a sacrificial victim whose living martyrdom was known to no one but himself.  (“And you can strap up your leg and put your mask back on.  But that doesn’t make what you were.”— Alfred, The Dark Knight Rises.)  Like many a superhero’s, Harold Martin’s identity was forever after an avian alias – Starling, Whistler, Cardinal – in order to protect those he loved from retaliation.  In “Razgovor,” Shaw tells an orphaned ten-year-old girl who Finch has taken under his wing: “Not every kid gets to become the ward of a reclusive billionaire.”  

“Editor’s Note: The Batman Never Carries or Kills with a Gun!”

Frank Miller,
The Dark Knight Returns
Finch, like Batman, exhibited an aversion to firearms and voiced his objections to Reese in the first episode: “I don’t like firearms.”  (“No guns.  No killing.”—Batman, The Dark Knight Rises).  Reese however had no such compunction.  (“Where’s the fun in that?”—Catwoman to Batman in response.)  By the time of the second season, though, he surprised everyone by utilizing his “ability to change,” making the effort to aim for the legs.  

In “Flesh and Blood,” Finch very reluctantly came around to Reese’s position that “if someone’s going to have them, I’d rather it be me,” even offering in a pinch, “Show me how to fire one of these and I can help.”  Still Finch, as a policy, maintained, “You know how I feel about guns!” and upheld a strict standard – “I know they encouraged a certain moral flexibility when you worked at the CIA, but I like to think we’re reaching for a higher standard.”  Come season two, Reese ceased executing bad guys, instead only killing in self-defense, and aiming to kneecap bad guys and imprison any apprehended ones in a Mexican prison.  

In “God Mode,” a heavily-armed Shaw remarked about Root, “Next time I see that woman, I’m shooting her.  And not in the knee.”  Between Shaw and Reese – and later in the series, unlikely ally Root – poor Finch’s gun-control politics are sorely tested.  (“The whole no-guns thing?  I don’t feel as strongly about it as you do.”—Catwoman, The Dark Knight Rises.)

Weapons of Mass Surveillance 

Person of Interest complements the Dark Knight films in a way that goes beyond Batman.  It had been said that the Dark Knight Trilogy, in particular the second film, were metaphors for the September 11th terror attacks and post-9/11 America.  With Person of Interest, September 11th was at its heart from the beginning – the original purpose of Finch’s Machine was to anticipate another September 11th.  From this September 11th response stems the premise of the series – the Age of Surveillance.  

This thematic element was touched upon in The Dark Knight with that film’s “Bat-Sonar” system, “a storyline that ran in the comic books,” Nolan told Collider (not specifying which ones, but possibly Batman #647), only in Person of Interest the citizenry bear, in Nolan’s view as stated in an io9 interview, a measure of complicity in their own surveillance, having voluntarily given up their privacy to social networks: “I’m…talk[ing] about the world being bats--t crazy, and everybody is embracing these technologies . . .”  

After the first season of Person of Interest, headlines quickly caught up with the show and its prescient themes.  In early 2013, CIA system administrator Edward Snowden leaked NSA documents and fled the country, and in May of 2012 the episode “No Good Deed” featured its own NSA analyst on the run from the government for sharing state secrets with a journalist.  (This prophetic storyline did not escape the notice of The New Yorker which made it the subject of their article “The TV Show That Predicted Edward Snowden.”)  In another coincidence of interest, the real-life Snowden escaped to China-controlled Hong Kong – per the fan page Pedia of Interest, the shadowy “Decima [Technologies] is connected to a covert group in league with the Chinese to steal U.S. data, and is based in Shanghai.”  

The reverse is true too as Person of Interest kept pace with current events.  For instance, it was only a matter of time once President Obama approved domestic drones via the FAA Reauthorization Act in February 2012 that one would turn up on Person of Interest – Nolan’s post-September 11th War on Terror fears overlap with age-of-surveillance paranoia.  In “Zero Day,” which aired on May 2, 2013, an armed drone blasts a person of interest’s car off the highway, though it turned out to be a Decima drone and not governmental.  

Other news events also came into play.  “If-Then-Else” takes the action to Wall Street as rival supercomputer Samaritan attempts to engineer a global financial meltdown at the New York Stock Exchange.  (“It’s not our money, it’s everyone’s!”—Security Chief, The Dark Knight Rises.)  In The Dark Knight Rises, the revolutionary terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy) occupies the downtown stock exchange, holding the economy hostage.  (“If you don’t shut these guys down, the stuffing in that mattress might be worth a whole lot less, pal.”—Security Chief, The Dark Knight Rises.)  Finch says, “This is the calm before the storm, Miss Shaw.  The only question is, when will the sky open.”  (“There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne.  You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”—Catwoman, The Dark Knight Rises.)  

In “Deus ex machina,” the fringe group Vigilance, many in Bane-black masks, held a kangaroo trial in a seized courtroom like the Scarecrow’s (Cillian Murphy) in The Dark Knight Rises.  In the same episode, Decima Technologies operative John Greer (the Nolan brothers’ uncle John Nolan, Wayne Enterprises senior board member Fredericks in the Dark Knight films) detonated a downtown Manhattan courthouse which pancakes like the Twin Towers.  In The Dark Knight, the Joker similarly collapsed a hospital.  As Ross Douthat in the New York Times observed, the Dark Knight films know “The Way We Fear Now” – as does, apparently, Nolan’s Person of Interest.  


Shadow of the Cat

As noted, Person of Interest has made a universe out of disassembling the Batman mythos’ cast of characters and putting them back together in novel ways, and Catwoman was the second season’s contribution to the ensemble.  “C.O.D.” teased viewers with an all-in-black Estonian assassin named Irina Kapp (Irina = Selina; Kapp = Cat) suggestive of Catwoman right down to her moves, but it is instead La Femme Nikita-ish agent Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi), often dressed in form-fitting black, who assumed the Catwoman role.  

Sarah Shahi as Sameen Shaw
Introduced in “Relevance,” Shaw begins as an Alias-like ISA operative who goes rogue, and this unusual episode trumpeted the significance she had to the series as a whole.  For one thing, Nolan personally directed “Relevance” (in addition to co-writing it), an episode which departed from its format not only by breaking into the standard opening credits – “[!]:./condition.ANOMALY.DETECTED” – but also by not featuring any of its regulars till close to halfway through, and then only offhandedly.  

Bringing Root (who tortures Shaw) into the mix only underscored the importance of this new character, and the two joined forces later and shared the Catwoman role (Root, once she joins the right side, wears cat-burglar black).  

Final Chapter

There was a “life beyond the cave” for Bruce Wayne after The Dark Knight Rises, just not one shown onscreen except for the briefest glimpse of its beginnings come the end.  If there is a life on the small screen for Person of Interest’s Capeless Crusaders beyond their subway lair, it would fall to another network to pick up the cancelled show, by all reports no longer a prospect at this point (though after the airing of episode “Synecdoche,” spinoff rumors surfaced).  CBS gave Person of Interest this final abbreviated season to wrap things up, and when that news was announced, Abrams publically stated, “The only heartbreak there is how much good story there was to come if it were to have continued.”  Nolan for his part, before this season aired, said “We’re going to tell the end of this story, in such a way that doesn’t slam the door shut on the universe of the show.”  Tune in to the finale on Tuesday, June 21st to see just how much they keep that door open.  


GILBERT COLON interviewed “Nolanverse” novelizer and New York Times bestseller Greg Cox (The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel) for SF Signal and writes about pulp-era fiction at Marvel University and bare•bones.  He is a contributor to St. Martin’s Press newsletter, his work appearing in a range of other publications: Filmfax, Cinema Retro, Film.Music.Media, Crimespree Magazine, Crime Factory, The New York Review of Science Fiction, among others.  Read him at Gilbert Street and send comments to  

1 comment:

Jack Seabrook said...

I have watched every episode from the beginning and I never even considered a Batman parallel. Thanks for the thought-provoking article!