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Person Of Interest: “Terra Incognita”

Jim Caviezel (CBS)
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Originality isn’t the key to what makes this a great episode of Person Of Interest. There’s a number of the week involving a man who was falsely accused of murdering his entire family, which is a storyline that’s par for the course for network dramas. The case is a red herring that serves as a catalyst for the episode; it adds some excitement and leads to Reese’s fateful injury, but it isn’t the point. There are the usual hallmarks of thrillers like chases, long shots into dark rooms, and jump scares. The intricate, purposeful structure interweaving Detective Carter’s original investigation into the murder and Reese’s present day reopening of the case is effective because the episode hinges on an intimate reunion between the two, but this approach isn’t exactly new. It doesn’t come as a huge surprise that scenes featuring Carter are hallucinations instead of memories because audiences have been trained to read odd details, like fluctuations in a car’s temperature, as indications that something about a storyline is off. Said hallucinations turning out to be a dead character (Carter) encouraging a living character (Reese) to fight for survival isn’t a new narrative, as proven by a certain recent movie I won’t name for fear of angering spoilerphobes. Reese’s hallucinations of Carter are used to explore his psychology, a psychology that resembles that of a troubled superhero, a narrative that has been repeated time and time again, and is currently keeping The CW in business. “Terra Incognita” recycles these conventions, but it does so with purpose.

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Comparing these last two episodes of Person Of Interest is a study in range that only a few well-rounded shows can exhibit. Last week’s “Search And Destroy” featured a particularly rich number of the week that incorporated the great sci-fi and thriller elements that make Person Of Interest so exciting to watch. This week, “Terra Incognita,” meaning “unexplored territory,” actually treads some well-traveled ground, namely Person Of Interest’s complex character studies of its principal players and philosophical debates. The fact that one of the principal players in question is Carter makes the episode even more special. Taraji P. Henson returns this week, fresh off of the premiere season of Fox’s hit, Empire, and a hosting stint on Saturday Night Live; the executive producers claim that this episode was a long time in the works, and their timing is impeccable.

Reese’s conversation with his hallucination of Carter is the climax, or a climax, to his psychological arc throughout the season and the series as a whole. No wonder Reese has been speaking fatalistically as of late; preparing Finch for the possibility that he may find himself on his own at some point was a creepy dose of foreshadowing. The true depth of Reese’s pessimism is explored in his dialogue with Carter. Reese gets little joy out of saving people’s lives; he does so because he feels the need to do penance and he can no longer see the point in straying from what he knows. Reese might experience some peace if he saw a light at the end of the tunnel but, unlike Carter, he can’t imagine a normal retirement, as there’s no retiring from the sights he’s seen and the things he’s done. I don’t want to throw clinical terms like depression and PTSD around casually since I’m not qualified to do so, but the episode delves into topics concerning both in a way that’s specific but digestible to viewers regardless of their personal experiences. Superhero sagas have expanded on comparable themes, though not always as successfully. Arrow is a fantastic show, but the writers could use some of the specificity and follow through shown in this episode instead of relying on repetitious theme-related buzzwords like “protect,” “family”, and “this city” in order to communicate the show’s main interests, including Oliver’s demons. Whether or not a viewer has tracked Reese’s psychological journey throughout the length of the series doesn’t even matter; Caviezel’s shift from his usual stoicism to sudden vulnerability when Carter confronts Reese about why he left Jessica says everything anyone might want to know about Reese and his relationship with Carter. Impenetrable Reese is an odd choice for a quasi-lead, but the show’s commitment to this character pays off when his walls recede entirely, if only for a brief moment.

Thanks to “Terra Incognita,” it’s now apparent that all of his trips to the psychologist were about more than just delivering internal exposition and finding Reese a new girlfriend. Okay, those two advantages were convenient, but the therapy sessions were also important because they showed Reese opening up to a stranger more readily than to his own team. It’s not the violence he faces every day protecting numbers, but the isolation—or the cold, as Carter refers to it, that truly threatens his life. The guilt Reese feels about abandoning Jessica is powerful, but it’s also an excuse to wallow in misery instead of opening up to others. He doesn’t even remember how much he opened up to Carter about Jessica, and the blurring of the true memories and hallucinations in this episode suggest that it’s easy to confuse good intentions with actual action when the former start to outnumber the latter.

Isolation is killing Reese as readily as his gunshot wound and low temperatures did before the inevitable rescue by Team Machine. This group is important to Reese, but he can only fully open up to Carter, and only imaginary Carter at that, because dark experiences are especially isolating when there are few people to go to who can really understand. By now, it’s apparent that Person Of Interest episodes that go heavy on front-seat car conversations between colleagues feature great writing and character work, and “Terra Incognita” is no exception. Police officers see action, but they also see large amounts of downtime with their partners, who they rely on for company. This episode explores this relationship between two of them—well, one real ghost cop and one living faker, but it still counts.

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Carter and Reese engage in a debate worthy of Finch and Root as to whether people can change or if people are destined to their fates. Carter’s decision to pursue law enforcement despite her other choices may have led to her death but she argues that change is possible based on the changes she’s seen in John since they met. Reese doesn’t see it that way because the blinders blocking other people from his view have also blinded him to his real self; his self-imposed isolation has also deprived him of others’ perspectives, stunting his development. Carter’s last words to Reese were, “Don’t let this change you.” The problem is that it’s difficult to change someone who’s already numb. The falsely accused Chase Patterson, who waited to fight his addiction until it was too late to reconcile with his family, is proof that it’s worth trying, and sooner rather than later. Like Carter said, you’re running out of time.

Stray observations:

  • This episode didn’t make me cry in any way whatsoever.
  • Of course, great direction is a key part of great execution and this episode is no exception. There are some especially scary and beautiful moments in “Terra Incognita,” many of which occur in a car. Pulling that off is impressive.
  • I want another episode devoted to Root’s adventures with Operation Wedding Dress, but at least I have my imagination.
  • Bring on the series finale so that Jim Caviezel can find the Cookie Lyon-like role he was born to play!
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