With Amy Acker’s misanthropic, evil-genius hacker and one-person wrecking crew, “Root”, Person Of Interest has come up with a nemesis for Michael Emerson’s Finch every bit as tantalizing as Elias (Enrico Colantoni), the crime boss with the warped sense of honor who messed with Reese’s head in some of the strongest episodes of the show’s first season. Reese initially took both Elias and Root for imperiled victims rather than threats, but even after Elias’ true agenda became clear, he was able to tip Reese off balance and make him feel uncertain, in ways that other targets never could; Reese saw something admirable in Elias, and that got under his bionic skin and made him vulnerable. Elias is the kind of arch-enemy who illuminates the hero’s areas of weakness.
Root is the kind who illuminates the hero’s virtues, by providing a twisted mirror image that gives you some idea of what the hero would be like without them. Dragging the captive Finch from New York to her old stomping grounds in Bishop, Texas, she continues to treat him to little lectures designed to illustrate her worldview, like an Orson Welles grotesque discoursing on the scorpion and the frog, or how the people down on the ground far below just look like little dots. Anything can set her off. “Amazing,” she purrs, framed in a window and holding up an apple as if she were posing for Cézanne. “We’ve managed to perfect the apple, a genetically modified version that never goes brown. And yet, we still haven’t upgraded human beings. The human race has stalled out, Harold.”
Finch, who is understandably resistant to the idea that he and this psychopath have a lot in common, only speaks up to insist that the two of them “differ in our views of humanity,” and to request that she kill him, so that he won’t have to listen to any more of her crap. At first, it’s easy to think that Root’s monologues, delivered with a mean-pussycat smile, are sadistic in their intent. It’s only after Finch has watched her torture and brutally subdue a man that she leans in close and tells him that she could be his best and most natural partner—“and the most fun”—that you can really see how badly she wants the approval of the man she regards as some kind of lost twin. Both Finch and Root are socially maladroit, practically autistic. But where he’s never bothered to overcome his social awkwardness, she’s a smoothie with strangers, because it’s in her interest to be able to seduce and manipulate people.
When Root thinks that Finch is trying to psychoanalyze her, she laughs: “You think that I was damaged by some childhood trauma? That is so sweet!” But the origin story that Reese and Carter stumble across when they follow her to Texas reveals that she began her self-transformation after losing her best friend—probably her only friend—when she was 12, and it’s easy to believe that she hasn’t been herself in front of anyone since, until she met Harold. There are fleeting moments in Acker’s performance that make you think about just how lonely Root has been all these years, moments when the character is suddenly almost as sad as she is scary.
After her friend was killed by a pedophile, the precocious Root used her computer skills to set the man up to be murdered in an especially unpleasant way, and every year since then, she’s sent the widow (Margo Martindale) a copy of Flowers For Algernon, the last book her friend checked out of the library on the day she died. Martindale, who has always known, in her bones, what her late husband was up to without ever allowing herself to acknowledge it, expresses disgust at the cruelty of whoever has been sending her those books, but what she sees as cruelty clearly represents both justice and an act of remembering. Of course, because neither the dead man or his victim will ever know about it, it’s also an act of pointless cruelty. Martindale doesn’t understand the intent behind the practice, because she isn’t privy to the big picture, and if Root hasn’t thought about what it’s doing to Martindale, she also likely doesn’t care. The numbers that the machine feeds Finch don’t give him the big picture, either, but because he cares about other human beings, he’s the man to be trusted with them.
On one level, getting Reese out of New York and into a small Texas town makes for a change of pace: He gets to beat up shitkickers this time. (For the second time in two weeks, a Person Of Interest bit player is made to exit a building via a closed window, moving at high speed in a horizontal position.) The episode also features flashbacks to 1991, when Root was 12, and this allows for an even greater contrast: You have to appreciate the brilliance of someone who, at that age, at that time, could already use facility with computers to remake her life from the dirt up. (It also allows for a funny line involving the “educational” computer game The Oregon Trail.) What separates Root from Finch comes down to empathy; brains have never been her problem.
In its first season, brains were sometimes Person Of Interest’s problem. In its determination to be sophisticated and elliptical, the show was often too spare and cold. It’s warming up a bit; Reese and his helpmates inside the police department get together and even yuck it up a little, and Bear, the Dutch-comprehending dog introduced last week, appears to now be a series regular. It’s often a bad sign when a show that wants to be hard and tough softens its edges like this, with or without a dog. But for right now, the balance feels just about right. Considerable credit has to go to Michael Emerson, an actor so magnetic yet so heroically self-effacing that he can make self-sacificial nobility look sort of creepy.
- Besides Margo Martindale, notable guest stars tonight include Cotter Smith as one of Acker’s victims and Loudon Wainwright III as the sheriff of Bishop. I’m not sure what Wainwright is doing here, and whenever he’s onscreen I did kept expecting him to pull out a guitar and sing his dialogue, but it’s always nice being reminded he’s out there somewhere.