Agent Donnelly, Reese and Finch’s official government nemesis, is a thankless role for an actor, and a moment should be taken to thank Brennan Brown for his skiful and selfless performance. Donnelly is like Inspector Javert—or Captain Ahab—without the powerful magnetism that is the upside of their pathologies. He may not be much less crazy than they are; he’s a graver threat to Reese and Finch than most law enforcement agents, precisely because he’s paranoid enough to believe in their existence, and to assume that they’re capable of anything. And, in the course of this episode, he demonstrates that he’s just as amoral in his willingness to do whatever it takes to get him closer to his prey.
But he’s not charismatic. He’s a zealot with the soul of a bureaucrat, and he’s driven less by passion than by fear. When told that he’s gone too far, he automatically shouts, “This country is under attack by invisible enemies!” Even then, he’s so bland that he doesn’t sound like a street crazy reporting on the latest transmission he’s received from his tinfoil hat. It’s just boilerplate, the magical invocation of 9/11 that’s supposed to be his license to do anything to anybody. Brown helps you understand how colorless men who claim to be concerned only for our safety can push the definition of what’s acceptable policy into the red zone, just be seeming too dull to be dangerous.
For most of “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” Reese is still in police custody at Riker’s Island,, along with the other three mystery men who were arrested in the basement of a bank. At Donnelly’s urging, Carter uses her skills as a military interrogation specialist to interview all four men, which gives her a chance to help Reese prop up his false identity while waiting for the clock to run out, or for a miracle to happen. Although Reese is pretending to be an investment banker named John Warren, his conversations with Carter inevitably touch on sore spots and lead him to reflect on his past, particularly his time as a CIA field officer with his old partner Kara (Annie Parisse). By the end of the episode, it’s clearer than ever that this job was basically that of a “professional murderer” on a leash.
It’s also clearer than ever that, if Reese’s military/intelligence career turned him into a robotic angel of death—a man programmed to wreak mayhem, with a piece of his humanity burned away for the sake of greater efficiency—Kara was a sociopath with a government contract. On their first mission together, she wastes an unarmed man after asking him, “Do you know the penalty for treason?” Reese, who’s taken out the man’s security detail, detects the glibness in her tone and says, “It’s my first triple homicide. I didn’t know I was supposed to prepare jokes.” It’s easy to see her as Reese’s role model, and after she’s told him, “You’re going to have to love your work,” he’s ready to parrot back to her that he does, he does love his work. But of all the characters here who are bloodying their hands for the ostensible protection of their homeland, she’s the only one who actually seems to be enjoying it.
“Prisoner’s Dilemma” is full of choice little touches of the kind this show excels at, such as the Machine sending up its equivalent of the Bat-Signal to Finch by setting off every public phone he passes, and Finch’s not-quite-timely-enough discovery of the latest number to come up. But much of the episode’s power comes from the sparks it strikes just by brushing these characters up against each other and savoring what they have in common, and what they don’t. Blind to the pain and mixed motives in Reese, Donnelly accuses him of having chosen to become a monster, just before he gets to see for himself what a fully self-actualized psycho looks like. And Jim Caviezel has never been more touching than in his interrogation scenes with Carter, trying to come across as a normal person. Reese does a decent job of simulating puzzlement over why he’s locked up, but he never seems panicked about it. His stoic fatalism reminded me of a scene from an old movie called High Wind In Jamaica, in which James Coburn, as a pirate falsely accused of a capital crime, says that he doesn’t want to be hanged for something of which he’s innocent, and Anthony Quinn, his captain and co-defendant, shrugs and tells him, “You must be guilty of something.”
- The Riker’s setting provides the chance for an appearance by Enrico Colantoni as Elias. The show stuck gold with this character and this piece of casting, and it’s impressive that the show has resisted the temptation to do anything with him but keep him in reserve. Elias makes a fleeting reference to his arrangement with Finch that the two of them meet to play chess, and another show would have used that as an excuse to throw Colantoni into every other episode. Person Of Interest understands that the more we’re deprived of him, the more we want.
- There’s a good use of the Who’s “Eminence Front” when Reese finally leaves jail. Whoever thought of using that song probably didn’t know that, by the time the episode aired, this would amount to subconscious advertising for the forthcoming FX series The Americans, which has been getting a lot of mileage out of it in its advertising.
- While the main plot is unfolding, the action occasionally cuts to Fusco, who is busy saving a beautiful woman from some trigger-happy Albanians. (She’s played by the Czech model Karolina Kurkova, who appears to be playing some version of herself: It’s her name that pops up on the computer screen when Fusco is receiving the pertinent information.) The cuts to Fusco shooting it out with the bad guys and receiving an adoring kiss from the damsel in distress are played for laughs, and I’ve become fond enough of Fusco as a character that I’m not sure how I feel about this. I have to admit, though, that the guy has been making out like a bandit lately.