Person of Interest: s01 e21 – Many Happy Returns

“When you find that one person who connects you to the world, you become someone different, someone better. When that person is taken from you, what do you become then?”

This is how this episode begins, with John Reese’s voiceover accompanying a brief montage of scenes, flashback scenes, from throughout the series, scenes of Jessica, who he loved. We’ve heard the first part of that quote before, but the final line is new. It will all be repeated, late in the episode, at the point where those words were firsst said. We understand them already. Now we understand why.

I’m unsure whether to describe this episode as a web or a mosaic. Both are true. Both are cliches. But the whole story is made up of details, past and present, everything interlocking with precise assurance so that each step matches another, elsewhere, or elsewhen, and at the end there isn’t a crack into which the tip of a penknife blade could be inserted.

We gein with a flashback, to February 2011, maybe eighteen months before the present day of the series. John Reese in a subway car, with a beard, as we first saw him. Not the wild, long, tangled beard of then, the product of four months careless growing, nor the bum’s clothing: a suit, a shirt, all respectable but for the bloodstain on the left stomach. A kid asks if he’s alright. After a time, John says he thinks he’s quit his job.

John’s on his way to New Rochelle, upstate. We’re going to New Rochelle too, in the present, with Detective Carter and Special Agent Donnelly, on the trail of the Man in the Suit, investigating his first job (?), an assassination of a man deep in debt, a man named Peter Arndt. A sloppy job, a messy job. Peter Arndt. The man who was Jessica’s husband, because John Reese wouldn’t ask her to wait for him, because he thought se deserved someone better than him.

And in the present, John’s going nowhere. There are no Numbers, he can take a day off, besides, it’s his birthday. Finch’s present is a key. But there is a number, Karen Garner (Dagmara Dominczyk), dark-haired woman, attractive, late thirties, very nervous. Finch will handle her himself, with Fusco.

Why so? Because Karen Garner, or Sarah Atkins, or Sarah Jennings, is on the run, fugitive wanted on charges of cheque-kiting and other stuff. She has a US Marshall, Brad Jennings (Jeremy Davidson), trailing her. The coincidence of names is no coincidence. The charges are phoney, the Marshall is her husband, andwhy she’s running from him. That’s why Finch doesn’t want John in on this one.

In the past, John arrives at the hospital where Jessica works. It’s two months since she left that voicemail that, last week, in that flashback, he wanted to follow up before he and Kara Stanton were sent to China. He’s here at last, but she isn’t. She isn’t any more. Two months ago, she died, in a car accident. John leaves the hospital, bumping into a man in a wheelchair whose face we don’t see, not until the end.

In New Richelle now, Carter gets further than Donnelly in finding out what went down, because she’s interested in listening and looking and he’s got a fixed idea ofwhat to look for. Even then, talking to Peter’s mother-in-law, it’s only as a parting thought that the lady, defending Peter, mentions how he was better for Jessica than her previous boyfriend. The soldier. Who was away a lot. Leaving Jessica alone. Carter’s a good detective. She finds a photo, she gets a military contact to send her confidential records on a soldier named John. And she shreds everything. Except the photo.

John’s on the case now in the present. Not just following Finch, not just suspicious, just… bored, without a Number. He’s angry, silently, hard-edgedly, angry. And unsubtle. He warns Marshall Jennings by walking into the Marshall’s Field Office and administering a beatdown. It doesn’t work. Jennings gets his woman, drives north with her. Reese flows alone, refusing to allow Harold in on this. He knows what needs to be done, knows the only answer. Harold alerts Carter, who trails him. Sarah/Karen’s gone, set free, saved from the death her husband intended. Carter can’t divert John from the death he intends.

The death he’s already delivered to Peter Arndt. Carter’s already found the trail that points to Jessica’s death occurring before, not in the car accident, the flashback confirms the moment of domestic violence, the twisted wrist that had already been broken, the spin round and throw that has a head hit a desktop, a neck break, and John Reese needs no such evidence to tell him how wrong he was to let Jessica find a good man, a safe man.

There’s a sting, for Carter, a sop to her conscience. ‘Marshall Brad Jennings’, a man in a suit delivers a prisoner and half a ton of heroin to a Mexican prison, and asks them to notify the arresting officer, Detective Carter. The prison has one or two other Americans. Carter feels happy, she knows now what happened to Peter Arndt. Like Donnelly, she sees and hears what she wants to see. I see otherwise.

There’s a conversation, in mid-episode, between Finch and Reese. The former explains how, when he was building the Machine, he was worried how numbers kept turning up again and again, sometimes close together, sometimes months apart. Until he worked out these were women, living with the person who would one day kill them. At the end, John asks Harold if Jessica was one of those numbers. Finch half-replies that this took place before their partnership began, that there was nothing either of them could do. There’s a final flashback, and flashback to a flashback, Reese leaving the Hospital, stunned by the news about Jessica. He bumps into a man in a wheelchair. The man is Finch.


7 thoughts on “Person of Interest: s01 e21 – Many Happy Returns

  1. Many Happy Returns is a stellar episode of tv drama on just about every level. Its twists land, the drama never feels unearned, and its structure leads to a devastating conclusion. This is how you do flashbacks right-most tv shows just can’t do them. The penultimate episode of The Americans-a highly respected prestige drama that got more acclaim than POI ever will- “Jennings, Elizabeth” hinges on a major character shift from one of the two protagonists. There’s also a flashback that halts the momentum of the episode and serves no purpose but to tell us something that could be conveyed in ways far more subtle-in short a textbook example of how to do a flashback wrong. Many Happy Returns is, as you say, a work of art. The insights into Reese’s past are beautifully done and extremely informative of the events happening in the present. The ‘number’ is also very compelling, and engenders a great deal of sympathy from the audience almost immediately-just like Cura Te Ipsum. That’s not even mentioning how the development of Reese and Finch’s friendship continues-we’re getting to the point that now Reese will absolutely chase after him if, say, he happens to be captured by an old enemy.

    1. Yeah, I think the episode we got is better than that alternate pilot. Nolan didn’t know how to write television at the time-he’d only written movies before-Memento, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight. I think The Dark Knight was the biggest influence on POI. But the plot twist-heavy narratives could come from his other work.

  2. Like I said, without our knowing this pair as well as we do, this story blows it. As we got it, it arose from the natural combination of who each man is and what they do. There is no contrivance to create this. Nolan learned fast.

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