I was almost halfway through tonight’s kick-ass, game-changing episode of Person Of Interest when it suddenly hit me that the backstory that has been developing about the end of Reese’s CIA career, and that’s been fueling this particular storyline, is awfully similar to the starting premise of Burn Notice. I can scarcely think of anything else the two shows have in common, which just goes to show how much comes down to finding the approach that best suits the talent at hand. There was a time there where Burn Notice came about as close anything on the air to replicating the relaxed, funny, old-school hangout vibe of a show like The Rockford Files on a slow night. Person Of Interest is more intense and pressurized even on those rare nights when it gives itself a case of the giggles, and this isn’t just the difference between a show where the hero is “retired” by getting bonked on the head and regaining consciousness in Miami with his identity wiped off the grid, and a show where he and his partner were retired by their bosses with a cruise missile. It’s also about the difference between a hero who spends his time hanging out with Bruce Campbell and one who favors the company of Michael Emerson. Bruce Campbell and Michael Emerson might as well by totemic representatives from different universes, though both are about the best at what they do, and let’s all be thankful to inhabit a cultural landscape that has room for both of them. (If the lifeboat were getting crowded, I can see myself voting to ditch Jeffrey Donovan and hang onto Jim Caviezel.)
It says something about Person Of Interest’s notion of heroism that, since being picked out of the gutter and given a life’s mission by Mr. Finch, Reese has scarcely allowed himself to be distracted by thoughts of tracking down the people who set him up and left him for dead. Personal revenge is the province of punks and sociopaths—which means that it’s all his ex-partner, Kara Stanton, has had on her mind for the past couple of years. Tonight, in flashbacks, we finally see what happened to Kara immediately after that missile hit. She comes to in a hospital bed in Dongsheng, where she has epigrammatic conversations with a Well-Manicured Man wannabe who’s so clipped and proper that he pronounces “Mandarin” with the accent on the last syllable, which for all I know is the correct way. He pulls out the MacGuffiny laptop that her handlers wanted destroyed and croons that it possesses “the answer to a very interesting question. Would you like to what know what that question is?” “I don’t care,” she says. “No, you don’t, do you?” he says. “That’s why you and I are going to get along.”
The only question that Kara has is, who does she need to kill to right the score. This is why Reese, whom Kara took hostage at the end of the most recent episode too many moons ago, wakes up on a New York City bus sitting across from his old partner, and next to their traitorous former boss, Mark Snow, who, like Reese, is strapped into a bomb vest. (This scene will have a sobering effect on anyone who’s been aboard public transportation in Manhattan and found themselves wishing they had some dynamite.) Taking in the situation, Reese looks at Snow and says, “Mark,” to which Snow replies, “John,” because no matter what your history with a person might be, it never makes things better to discard the basic pleasantries. Kara, who wants Reese and Snow to break into a Department of Defense installation and steal a cyber weapon capable of “killing the entire Internet,” first takes them to a diner, where Reese declines her offer of lunch. She tells him that she knows what he’s going through. “You can’t control the situation, so you fight back in little ways that you can, like refusing to eat.” “I’m just not that hungry,” Reese insists, smiling, “But when I do fight back, you’ll know it.”
I suppose you could chalk this up to my being nuts, but as far as spy thrillers about chickens coming home to roost go, I enjoyed this hour of television more than I did Skyfall, with its unfortunate last-act development of the villain turning into a suicidal, blubbering mess of mommy issues. If “Dead Reckoning” goes soft in its last act, it’s in the focus on Reese’s self-sacrificial nobility, as, the minutes ticking down, he forsakes both revenge and human contact, preferring to go hide on the roof so he can blow up without hurting anybody. Of course, Finch is waiting for him up there, and eager to try his mechanical expertise at defusing suicide vests. “It appears,” he says, “that she’s wired the phone to a capacitor-based trigger. If the phone is called, it will charge the capacitor, which will in turn release its charge in a single…” “Finch…” says Reese, whose expression is that of a man who can’t decide if he’s more miserable because he’s about to die, or because if only he’d died a few minutes earlier, he wouldn’t have to be listening to this. “I’m sorry,” says Finch sheepishly, “this is my process.” “Dead Reckoning,” which wipes a fair amount of the show’s narrative slate clean, for now, moves like greased lightning, and it strikes some surprising notes: Snow, who is a craven scumbag, is given a first-rate exit scene and a first-rate last line. In this kind of thriller, that’s a real grace note.