I know I said this last week but I’m going to say it again: pure thriller, but pure with both undertones and a leavening of mythos, and massively good.
Let’s not forget: Person of Interest was ordered as a procedural with a twist, and in this season that’s exactly what it is. Each week a new Number, each week a new story, about what circumstances or devils threaten a person’s life, or turn them into someone intent upon killing. But behind that there are a number of ongoing themes, building into something we haven’t yet begun to see the shape of.
This week’s number was one Wallace Negel. He was played by Alan Dale so immediately you knew he would be a heavy: Dale can play menace just by standing there, looming rather, and using something in his eyes. Negel hasn’t made an electronic transaction since 1987 so that establishes two things: he’s a cover identity for a spy, and Finch can’t track him by his normal methods.
In fact, Negel is a former Stasi agent, used to kill East German defectors when there still was an East Germany: his real name is Ulrich Kohl. We will learn that he has been in prison, in a literal hole, for 24 years, in Russia. He’s back in New York to kill the other members of his four-man team, for revenge, revenge both for betraying him to a captivity in which he has not merely been officially dead but officially non-existent, and revenge for his wife, Anya, killed in a car accident. There is a twist already constructed in there.
The thing about Kohl is that he’s a professional, a soldier. There is little or no difference between him and Mr Reese, a fact that Reese uses both to anticipate Kohl’s moves and, when taken captive and tortured, to try to get into Kohl’s head and deflect him from his course. But the similarity between them means that Kohl is well aware of what Reese is doing and can shrug it off.
The series is being very bold in this move because it quite deliberately does nothing to distinguish between Reese and Kohl. It doesn’t try to sell us that Reese is different, i.e., less dangerous or compromised because some specious reason. Any difference to be drawn betwen the two is drawn solely by the viewer.
This is further emphasised by an extensive flashback scene, viewed in The Machine’s archives, in 2006, split into three sections, just as was the flashback to Reese’s final parting from Jessica. It follows directly on from that meeting. Reese, immaculately tuxedoed (man in a suit?), has arrived at his assignment and is meeting his new superior, Kara Stanton, a first appearance in a recurring role from Annie Parisse. We watch Stanton cynically laying down the rules of their trade. Reese has gone into the dark, he has crossed a line that ceased to exist the moment he crossed it. There is no going back because there is nothing to go back to. He has no old friends. He and Stanton are about answers, not questions. They execute who they are told to execute. Their tips come from an anonymous but very reliable source (clearly an at least partially functioning Machine).
It’s Reese’s introduction to his own dehumanisation. And the name by which we know him is given him by Kara Stanton.
In 2012, Kohl shoots his former team leader after torturing him with needles, inserted into nerve clusters. Next, he approaches their former forger, sliding a needle into his neck byway of greeting. It’s coated with poison, somthing reasonably fast acting (though something Reese recognises, and can administer an anecdote to). That doesn’t negate an extraordinary moment. These men were a team, agents in a foreign country, bound to one another. The three betrayed Kohl to escape, given asylum, new identities, a soft life by American Intelligence in return for giving Kohl,the monster, up. Wernick recognises Kohl’s need for revenge, takes his death philosophically, and as he slips into unconsciousness, manages the last words, “Be at peace, my old friend.” Extraordinary.
The twist, as I’m sure you have foreseen, is that Kohl’s wife Anya is not dead. She too sold him out, accepted a new life. The force of this hits Kohl like half a brick between the eyes. Reese and Finch spirit her away, but Reese is captured and tortured. He doesn’t give anything up, but Kohl accidentally discovers the other twist: Anya has a daughter. He has a daughter.
Kohl finds Marie at college. When he admits to having known her father, Marie repeats what her mother had told her, that he was a soldier, that he was a hero, that he impliedly died to get them to safety. This last was true, albeit in a back-handed manner, and the first was what Anya Kohl originally believed about her husband.
But in a late-night meeting in Central Park, to which Kohl brings Marie and Anya brings Finch and Reese, whilst Carter and Fusco bring dozens of cops to the perimeter, Marie begins to realise who this man holding her really is, and Anya tells Ulrich of how she was shown photos of his killings, evidence of his monsterdom, evidence that she had never truly known the husband she had once loved and by whom she was pregnant.
Kohl takes all this in with no more than an outward show of resigned regret. He lifts his gun and fires at Anya’s face. Reese fires simultaneously. Anya is unhurt, and Finch gets her and Marie away, before the cops arrive. Kohl is fatally wounded. His gun’s magazine was empty. He still loved Anya, and could not have hurt her. And he knew Reese was a soldier, who would shoot to kill if Kohl threatened his ex-wife. Kohl manipulated Reese as the agent of a suicide he could or would not perform. For 24 years he had planned for this day of revenge. He had never planned for the day after.
If all drama series were this good, simultaneously tight and fast-paced, but with this depth of story, and the slow construction of a bigger, over-arching story, I would be forced to consider getting a television set again.