Reese is still locked up at Riker’s, along with the three faceless men who were milling around with him in that basement when Agent Donnelly got lucky, sort of, at the end of the last episode before Christmas break. Finch has smuggled a cellphone into the cell where he’s placed, because of course he can, but while this enables Reese to communicate with his friends and taunt organized crime figures by calling them in the middle of the night to ask if they have Prince Albert in a can, he has no means of escape. Maybe, at some point in some upcoming episode, the writers will make it easy on themselves by having Reese suddenly remember that he’s mastered some mystical Tantric exercise that enables him, by sheer force of concentrated will, to pee nitroglycerin. But for now, Reese is stuck. But, as Finch reminds us, the numbers never stop coming.
So, for the moment, Jim Caviezel gets to take five, and we get to watch Michael Emerson, action hero, limp into action. The setting is a high school. Finch goes undercover—not as a student, not that this wouldn’t have been something to see, but as a substitute teacher, filling in for one Mrs. Bentham, who was called away to “a last-minute opportunity to attend an all-expenses-paid teaching seminar in Maui.” He’s there to keep an eye on a student named Caleb, whose most distinctive features include a drunken mom, a big brother who died under mysterious circumstances in a subway accident years ago, and an academic profile of surpassing mediocrity.
Mrs. Bentham left behind a remedial math exercise that she inflicted on her class as, someone explains, a punishment. The very concept makes Finch feel as if the Earth beneath his feet had turned to marsh gas: “Math,” he exclaims, “is not punishment!” He puts an equation up on the board and tries to engage Caleb, but homeboy ain’t having it. It’s only until the class period is over and Finch retrieves something Caleb has tossed into the wastebasket that the Good Will Hunting moment arrives and Finch realizes that, of course, Caleb is a genius. He even seems to have some kind of rapport with the only other teacher in the school, Mr. Beckam, the computer guy. Except for his class and Finch’s, the school seems to have been built so that trainee drug dealers would have a place to learn their craft. Fusco, who works closely with Finch on this one, warns him that schools are a different place than he might remember, that they’re dangerous places where bad things happen and people can get hurt. Finch readily agrees. How old are these guys supposed to be again? They talk as if they went to school before The Blackboard Jungle came out.
Finch is perplexed by the whole Caleb situation. “Why would you hide the fact you’re a genius?” he wonders aloud, conveniently ignoring the fact that he himself is a genius whose work has made him feel it necessary for him to cut off contact with everyone he cares about and pretend to be dead. It turns out that Caleb has invented a new compression algorithm that’s going to change the world, or at least make it possible for me to store all my Richard Thompson albums and Julie Klausner podcasts on the same computer without getting that “Sorry, cannot complete backup” message every five minutes. But it appears that Mr. Beckam is plotting to steal it and sell it to the High Tech Mafia. Meanwhile, Fusco thinks there’s something fishy about the brother’s death and prepares to sweat the transit cop who filed the report, whom he figures must be covering for some powerful bad guys. As if that weren’t enough plot, Caleb is also the Keyser Soze of the school narcotics operation, secretly running the operation and saving the money for some grand plan. This gets him in trouble with the “real” leader of the “real” local drug business, who demands the profits from Caleb’s operation and threatens violent retribution.
The surplus of plot seems to be the show’s way of compensating for the relative lack of violent action, an area where Michael Emerson may not excel. On Lost, whenever his character wasn’t outthinking, outplaying, and outmaneuvering people, he served the same function that a stuffed dummy used to sometimes serve in sketches on SCTV. (A friend of mine once said that, when Benjamin Linus died and his life passed before his eyes, it must just be one ass-whupping after another.) It actually makes for a very pleasant change of pace: Instead of Jim Caviezel going through his enemies like a walking wood-chipper, there’s Emerson reaching out to the lost, confused Caleb by rhapsodizing about the wonders of pi, while soaring music rises on the soundtrack.
Of the two lead characters, it’s Finch who’s the idealist, and his spirit gets to dominate the show for a little while, to the point that both he and Fusco, in what has to be a record for this show, misjudge a couple of characters by wrongly assuming the worst of them: The computer teacher really does have Caleb’s best interests at heart, and then some, and the transit cop was only trying to cover up the fact that poor Caleb had reason to feel complicit in his brother’s accidental death. The dramatic climax is Finch using his own experience to talk the suicidal, self-hating Caleb back to solid ground. Presumably in the expanded director’s cut on the DVD, the drug dealers will recognize the error of their ways, apologize for having threatened anyone, and start an experimental dance troupe to raise money for rehab centers.
Carter takes no part in the high school confidential story. She’s occupied trying to get Reese out of jail, because somebody has to. The way to do it seems to be to be sure his DNA sample doesn’t I.D. him as The Man In The Suit, so, in a sequence that must be somebody’s Christmas present to Taraji P. Henson, she gets dolled up, hits a club, picks out a himbo whose looks and medical history seem about right, slips him a mickey, and swabs his inner cheek to obtain a sample she can swap for Reese’s. There has got to be a simpler way of doing this, but that way probably wouldn’t have allowed for the irresistibly silly little giggle that Henson gives up as she’s luring her target into his car. Girls just want to have fun, and sometimes, so does Person Of Interest.