I figured it out tonight, watching Finch talk his way out of a confrontation with Detective Carter: Finch is Benjamin Linus from Lost, only Chaotic Good instead of Chaotic Neutral. This isn't a comment on Michael Emerson' acting abilities; the character is designed to be ambiguous, only where Ben was motivated almost entirely by self-interest, Finch is trying to save others. During his conversation with Carter, he lies and lies and lies again, with an ease which should be unsettling but isn't. Given how little we still know about Finch's history, what's impressive about Emerson is just how trustworthy Finch seems. Characters who offer good deeds without asking for much in the way of reward nearly always generate too-good-to-be-true suspicion, but Finch hasn't yet. Neither does Reese, but that's because Reese is a bad-ass with nothing else going on for him. If Person Of Interest has anything going for it, it's that its two heroes, as somewhat outlandish as they are, never seem too heroic or noble. The show has often been painfully shallow and thick-witted in its brief run, but it makes sense that its leads do what they do: They have nothing left in the world but this.
"Cura Te Ipsum" represented a big step up for POI, and while it's too soon to tell if this is a fluke or the harbinger of things to come, it's gratifying to know that the premise and characters can deliver, when the writing is up to the task. Reese is still problematic. No, scratch that. Jim Caviezel is still problematic, bogging down his scenes in the episode's first half with his turgid delivery and blank stare. But Emerson is as strong as ever, and the Person of the Week, an ER doctor on a quest for vengeance, finally lived up to the series' title. As Dr. Megan Tillman, Linda Cardellini was a legtimately interesting person, a committed physician who spends her off hours trolling bars, determined to murder the rapist she holds responsible for her sister's suicide. It's a decent storyline, and Cardellini invests it with a substantial amount of pathos; for maybe the first time in the show's run, I was invested in seeing if Reese and Finch would successfully save her and neutralize her target. A case like this gives the show a chance to demonstrate its morality. Last week, we saw that shady guys can still get away if Reese thinks they deserve to, and this week, he manages to talk Tillman out of pulling the trigger (and dissolving the body in lye), and then he takes the real bad guy to the house Tillman had rented specially for the deed, and… well, we'll get to that.
This isn't to say "Cura" was perfect. There was a fair amount of clunky dialogue, and as mentioned, Caviezel was a problem for a large part of the episode. One of the big flaws isn't even really his fault. Both Reese and Finch are required to choke down some truly overwrought one-liners, but while Emerson is an old hand at making even the most mundane line seem a little skewed, Caviezel just keeps talking in that flat rasp of his (he's basically a hung-over Batman), and the words die on the screen. If you're looking for a specific example of this, in tonight's episode, Emerson gets the line, "This isn't an accidental overdose, this is… This is suicide." It's a bland, unnecessary piece of clarification. The set up (Reese just described how Tillman's sister was raped by a Wall Street asshole named Andrew Benton, and how a year later, the sister died of a drug overdose) has already made it obvious what happened. But Emerson changes the line from exposition into a character moment, speaking as if he's so saddened and horrified by what he's seeing that he can barely get the words out. Contrast that with Reese's "He isn't stalking her; she's stalking him!" or "She's a doctor who saves lives; she doesn't know what it's like to take one." It's cheesy melodrama, and Caviezel flounders.
This makes it all the more impressive that in the episode's final scenes, when Reese finally confronts Tillman and then Benton, Caviezel finally comes to life. Before we get there, though, "Cura" takes some time to try and build the show's world a little, and the results are, while unspectacular, competent enough. Detective Lionel Fusco, the crooked cop Reese first met in the pilot, is back and on the run from some drug dealers who want the case they were screwed out of when Fusco's fellow crooked cops stole their stash. The dealers are boilerplate thugs, but instead of dragging the episode down, the scenes with Fusco had life to them, in part because he's such an odd character for a show like this. He should, by the usual morality of cop dramas, be dead or incarcerated by now, especially after he turns Reese over to thugs near the end of the episode. But this being a superhero show, he's still around, and Reese is still intent on using him, getting him reassigned (via blackmail) to Detective Carter's precinct, presumably to keep an eye on Carter's investigation of the POI team. It may be a little early to start developing secondary characters, given how little we still know about the leads, but there's an unpredictability to this that's making it work so far.
That unpredictability also helps "Cura's" climax. First, Reese is grabbed by the drug dealers (he beat the crap out of them earlier and stole their coke to plant on Benton), just as Tillman kidnaps Benton. Reese gets free of the dealers (apparently he knows a lot of people) and manages to catch up with Tillman just as she stops at a gas station/diner to fill up her kidnapping van. (With Benton still inside, which seems like a stretch, considering how planned out everything else was.) Reese and Megan talk about consequences, and while the dialogue isn't suddenly amazing, it picks up; more importantly, Cardellini and Caviezel sell it and turn what is in many ways a pretty outlandish scene into something moving about loss and raw grief. Reese convinces Tillman to give him the keys to her van, and then he drives Benton to the murder house, and they have their own chat. There's a terrific intensity to both these conversations, because the stakes are clear and immediate (will Tillman give up the keys, is Reese going to shoot Benton), and because Caviezel finally seems to have found a bead on his character. I honestly didn't know what was going to happen in either scene, and for once, I was very, very interested to find out. The fact that the episode ended with the question of Benton's fate still up in the air is a strong choice, as it forces us to engage with the story; for once, the writers aren't force-feeding us the answers. "Cura" is still lumpy in places, but it has a clarity and a purpose the show has been lacking till now. It could be a fluke, but until next week, I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
- The cold open, which has Finch visiting the ER to meet Tillman and swap out her beeper, also worked. The two played off each other well, and it's a shame this was their only scene together.
- So, what was the support group Tillman was visiting? It's funny that Reese is the point man for getting closer to the latest subject. The guy's more creepy than charming.
- I'm not sure I entirely understand where bar-trolling falls into Tillman's plan. She already knows who Benton is, and it couldn't have been that hard to find out where he lives. Was she trying to establish a relationship, and then Reese's attempt to frame Benton threw off the time table?
- Do you think Reese pulled the trigger? (I don't think he did, but then, it's hard to imagine any situation he'd feel comfortable leaving Benton alive.)