Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Person Of Interest: “Lethe”

Illustration for article titled Person Of Interest: “Lethe”

This is probably the closest thing we’re ever going to get to a Person Of Interest Christmas episode. There’s an opening scene of Finch out walking the winter streets, telling Shaw that things have gotten so peaceful in New York that The Machine hasn’t been sending him any numbers. It turns out he’s lying through his teeth, but that’s because it’s still Person Of Interest. There are touching, even sentimental flashbacks to Finch’s younger days, which illuminate his relationship with his father, and which also reveal that the adolescent Finch looked more like Matthew Modine than one might have guessed. There’s even a guest appearance by Camryn Manheim. I was hoping that, in the spirit of the holiday, she’d have a scene where she piloted a steamroller, but I respect the writers’ decision to not include such an image when they found that they were unable to find a way to have it rise naturally from the narrative.

The episode also guest stars Saul Rubinek as Arthur Claypool, a brilliant techie who once worked for the N.S.A. Laid low by a brain tumor, he’s now hanging around a hospital, losing his grip and waiting to die. (Shaw, who’s posing as a doctor, asks him how he’s doing. “I suspect more honeybee than dragonfly,” he says, meaning that what’s left of his life span is ticking away rapidly. You may have to hear what he does with it to appreciate what a great Saul Rubinek line this is.) The tumor that is killing Arthur has, in Finch’s words, corrupted his file system, and his memory has gone haywire, and swamped him. The present is one of the things he’s lost his grip on, and he’s mentally stranded in 2005. He can’t always restrain himself from talking about the things he was up to that year, which is why he has a heavy security detail, composed of secret service agents, and why someone, who may or may not include his security detail, wants to kill him.

It turns out that Arthur was one of several geniuses who, in the wake of 9/11, were working on various information-gathering systems intended to help the government ferret out potential terrorist threats. Arthur, whose program was called Samaritan, had the insight that the system would only work if it had the ability not just to collate data, but to understand it—if it were possessed of Artificial Intelligence. In other words, Arthur, independently of Finch, had come up with a plan to create something very close to The Machine. At the end of the episode, it’s an open question whether he did in fact perfect his plan, or if he was shut down when he was on the brink of making it work. Arthur himself doesn’t remember, if he ever knew for certain.

He does remember Finch, though; the two of them were buddies as students at M.I.T., and at one point they sit side by side and belt out their old school song, which makes for the only performance of a school song I’ve ever heard that tests my loyalty for the anthem of Bullwinkle’s alma mater, Wossamotta U. This touching scene takes place after Arthur, Finch, and Shaw have fled the hospital, with Manheim, as Arthur’s doting, troubled wife, in tow. She has a scene with Shaw in which she tests her new friend’s extremely finite capacity for empathy by talking about how Arthur’s top-security clearance gradually drove a wedge between them; there were so many things he couldn’t talk to her about, and “then, we stopped talking altogether.” “Talking’s overrated,” says Shaw. “I mean, that must be really hard.” It made me laugh, in spite of the heavy music on the soundtrack.

True enough, the only things Arthur wants to say to his wife now are “Who are you?” and “Leave me alone.” He can’t for the life of him remember who she is, even though he’s not the least bit foggy about Finch. Maybe a genius like Finch and a shrewd tactical thinker like Shaw should have picked up on that as a clear sign that Manheim’s character is not exactly as advertised, but hell, I’ve learned a lot about anticipating plot twists by watching TV for 75 percent of all the waking hours of my life, and I was sure as hell surprised. Cliffhanger accomplished. The show returns a week into January, at which point everyone who was watching tonight will suddenly exhale.

Stray observations:

  • It seems that with every new episode, I grab a hold of one line as the scariest thing that you could possibly hear Shaw say, but I real mean it this time: “Should I be looking for some action elsewhere?”
  • Finch’s dad seems like a nice old guy, a little unimaginative compared to his offspring, but proud of his smart son and wanting nothing but the best for him. It’s a relief to see that a horrifying childhood isn’t an absolute necessity for growing up to be a Michael Emerson character.
  • Reese is off somewhere, getting plowed at a bar once frequented by his old man, a Vietnam vet he refers to, self-laceratingly, as “a real hero.” He is accompanied, against his will, by Lionel, who has been dispatched to keep an eye on him. Macho squareheads that they both are, the two of them end up duking it out in the snow, which, again, counts as a Christmassy set piece for this show. Happily, the cops arrive before the fans are subjected to the trauma of seeing one of them decisively kick the other’s butt.