Within this episode, Person of Interest came as close as it could to reminding us of the sleek, elegant, tightly-plotted procedural we first discovered. There was a Number of the Week to be investigated, Alex Duncan (Stephen Plunkett), to be tracked and traced at close range by John Reese in a secure cover prepared in advance by Harold Finch. Why was he taking photographs of classified documents? Was he a spy, betraying people who will die? Was he in danger from his actions? Questions we used to relish finding answers to.
But this is season 5. It’s short. What would have been twenty-two, twenty-three episodes have to be got through in thirteen. Phantom branches, stories set in motion, have to be cut off. Nothing is what it seems to be any more. Even Finch’s monologue to introduce the episode is perverted, intercut with the voice of Greer, twisting the words to speak them from Samaritan’s perspective.
The episode started in flashback, to 2010, Reese still a CIA agent. He and Kara Stanton are assigned to investigate a Major in Afghanistan, suspected of involvement with a missing shipment of Stinger Missiles, Major Brent Tomlinson. They’re assigned by Special Agent Terence Beale (Keith David).
In the present, Reese is trying to lead a more normal life. He’s late for a lunch date with Iris Campbell and her parents because he’s punching out a would-be killer in the toilets. Then he’s trailing Alex Duncan, until the Number is picked up off the street. By the CIA. By Beale.
Root is working too. She’s sent by the Machine to become a UPS package deliverer, wearing those dark blue mid-thigh length shorts that could make anyone look ridiculous. Why is she doing that? Because a massive number of packages from electronics companies are being diverted to an incorrect address before being re-routed to their proper destination.
Reese has a problem. The flashback is moving forward inexorably. He and Stanton invade Tomlinson’s quarters. She does the talking. Reese stays still and silent. Tomlinson talks, cynical but straight, the innocent man, until he starts to bluster and Reese shoots him. Only afterwards does Stanton find the money. Reese didn’t know where it was, obvious as the hiding place had become. But he knew that Tomlinson doth protest too much.
And he’s determined to pull out Duncan, despite the fact that if Beale makes him – and we know he will – it will spell disaster. John Reese is dead, and he’d better stay that way. But Reese has a Number to protect. He will not be deflected by considerations of his own safety. He gets Duncan out, temporarily.
But for long enough to find out why Duncan was snooping. It was about his older brother, Paul, dying ‘heroically’ in action yet in circumstances the military won’t reveal. Why? How? Time and again the questions that demand answers. The answer was that Paul Duncan was on assignment under a false name. That of Brent Tomlinson.
It’s an answer Reese can’t give him. But it’s an answer Terence Beale might, capturing Reese, a Ghost, and Duncan, with intent to quiz. Beale taunts both, coming close to spilling beans that Reese is determined to keep in the pot. Duncan knows his brother was under investigation. Reese tells Duncan that his brother was innocent, and did die, heroically, in a late air-strike. Beale, for reasons of his own but, on the face of it, a mixture of surprise and amiration, backs him up. Alex has the answer he wants, the only one that will shut him down, end his quest, allow him to move on. Reese gets him away.
Root enlists Finch to check one of the packages now heading to the right address. They discover malware, serious malware, that steals all a computer’s data and sends it to Samaritan. It does more but what it does is unknown. Finch doesn’t want to touch it, fearful of the risk. But the Machine has sent another Number, a long one, all in binary. It’s an Emily Dickinson poem, about metamorphosis. About Change.
Root runs the malware on an isolated laptop, to see what it will do. They are in a War. They have to change. They have to take the Risk or they’ve already lost. A strand put in place.
Beale pops up at the end, on the street. Duncan is far away and if he’s ever hassled again, the story of ‘Brent Tomlinson’ will come out. As for Reese, Beale’s omitted him from his report. What for? Good question, to which there is no real answer. Respect for Reese. An understanding that what he is doing is not far removed from his old job but directed towards saving, not taking lives? Beale likes the idea of knowing that Reese is out there, a Ghost. Pity Beale never comes back.
One final flashback, to set up the ending of a phantom branch. Kara Stanton tells Reese why he was chosen: because he has had no family since his adoptive mother died. Because he has no-one to go back to. Neither does she. People like them, they don’t get to lead a normal life.
So John Reese puts an end to his attempt to lead a normal life with Iris Campbell. She accepts with rather more equanimity than I might have expected, but then she reads people for a living, and anyway, time is running short, both in this episode and in overall terms. No time for this story, a thread laid in planning for six seasons, to be cut off when all you get is four and a half. Mr Reese, we have a new Number. You don’t get to lead a normal life.