“Well, a guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.” — Bruce Wayne, Batman Begins.
“Time for you to work through some of your issues, Mr. Reese” — Harold Finch, Person of Interest.
Batman fans, take note — Person of Interest, a ratings hit when it debuted last year, returns for a second season in its original Thursday 9 pm/8 central timeslot this fall on September 27th. Creator Jonathan Nolan, the man who helped bring the Dark Knight back to the big screen, borrows from Batman for a disguised variation on the famous comic-book legend. Brush up on season one available on Blu-ray and DVD now, or plunge in Thursday before Executive Producer J. J. Abrams’ trademark penchant for elaborate mythology kicks in.
In what perhaps best sums up the two protagonists in the CBS series Person of Interest, a comic-book-obsessed boy (“Astro” from The X Factor) tells ex-CIA operative Reese, “You are a ronin … a samurai with no master.” Indeed Reese is, as is the new boss Finch who recently took him under his wing, and while the desaturated hues of Person of Interest bear zero resemblance to a colorful comic-book palette, this grittily realistic crime series has much in common with the recent Dark Knight Trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises). What is Batman, after all, but a masterless warrior trained in the fighting arts of the Far East?
To begin with, Person of Interest was created by Jonathan Nolan, who wrote The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises with his brother Christopher (the Trilogy’s director) and veteran comic-book adapter David S. Goyer. The parallels between Person of Interest and the Trilogy run deeper than the surface fact that the heroes in both are vigilantes. “A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. But … if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely.”
Some of Person of Interest’s similarities may be due to the archetypal characters it seeks to depict. The series’ crimestoppers are altruistic protectors derived from the Old West, the private-eye genre, and modern television reinterpretations (The Equalizer, Stingray, and Hack come to mind) of which Batman, “the Dark Knight Detective,” is one. Nolan confessed that he’s “always liked characters who … operate on the edge of the law” and said he “was interested in writing something … dangerous. I’ve always been drawn to that aspect of Batman … maybe we are tapping into some of that.” One cast member (Michael Emerson) hypothesizes “that American audiences have a hunger for avengers … — the vigilante, the lone operators that will cut through the red tape and set things right … That’s such a strong theme in the States, and it’s part of what we are delivering. It goes back to cowboy movies and everything like that.”
Fittingly, Batman began as a down-to-earth superhero character without superpowers, generally up against not evil scientists, alien enemies, or rampaging robots but common crooks, gangsters, and criminally insane maniacs, some of which today we would call serial killers. (In fact, the early comics were actually set in New York City until Bill Finger re-christened it “Gotham City.”) For Person of Interest, Nolan strips down the Batman legend by returning the mythic Gotham City to its real-world origins in the metropolis that Batman creators Bob Kane and Finger fictionalized, New York City.
The film Trilogy brought the Dark Knight further down to earth by taking a minimal approach to the comic-book hero trappings and bringing Batman into our world. The first film, Batman Begins, took a decidedly different direction from Tim Burton’s gorgeous Gothic fairy-tale Gotham (Batman and Batman Returns) and the garish kitsch of Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever and Batman and Robin). With the relaunch of the dormant Batman franchise, director Nolan and his co-writer, Goyer, reimagined how a comic-book character might actually function in the real world. They opted for a different approach to the Batman mythos — Kevlar Batsuit, the military prototype Tumbler Batmobile, and the rest of Lucius Fox’s defense contract armory. In other words, everything one could find in the real world, but carried into the superhero genre. “The world of Batman is that of grounded reality,” Christopher Nolan explained. “Burton’s and Schumacher’s visions were idiosyncratic and unreal … Ours will be a recognizable, contemporary reality against which an extraordinary heroic figure arises. ‘Deshi basara! Deshi basara! … Rise.’”
Person of Interest takes this pared-down realism even further. Early on it was obvious the series was Batman sans costumes, Batmobile, Batcycle, and other superhero trappings, and those intentions only became more pronounced over the course of the season. “It’s set in a real world. It’s New York City. It’s right now,” says Jonathan Nolan. M. Night Shyamalan’s film Unbreakable and Tim Kring’s series Heroes adopted uncostumed realism for their take on the comic-book genre, but there again they were superheroes with superpowers. True to the Batman legend, the non-fantastical villains in Person of Interest are the common criminal and crime both organized and unorganized.
What remains in Person of Interest from Batman’s world of gadgetry is in essence a Batcomputer, here called “the Machine,” which is part Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence, part Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. This surveillance supercomputer monitors the populace with hidden cameras while calculating its observations to anticipate homicides before they are committed. It is this sole piece of science fiction that serves as the “high concept” premise upon which the entire show is constructed. Its inventor, Harold Finch, built this counter-terrorism device for the government as a national-security measure to predict and preempt another September 11th attack. Because individual casualties did not fit the intelligence mandate — “crimes the government considered irrelevant” — they were deleted. To Finch, these generated Social Security numbers represent “lost chances,” victims of violent crimes that could have been stopped. “What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?” This inaction did not sit well with Finch’s conscience, so he decided to take those Social Security numbers upon himself personally.
But what if Bruce Wayne was a man with a limp, as he is at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises? What if his injuries were permanent? In the opening credits, the handicapped Finch says, “…I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene.” As a wealthy recluse best behind a computer, this secretive, solitary tech genius needed a lethal legman who could deal with the fieldwork this crime prevention required. Enter John Reese, a former Special Forces and CIA operative with all the skills to get the job done.
While this Dynamic Duo is not quite Batman and Robin, combined they do share many of the characteristics of those two classic crimefighters. Nolan mixes and matches character traits and roles to create archetypal protagonists and antagonists that are familiar yet unfamiliar. In Person of Interest, Batman and Bruce Wayne have essentially been split into two distinct characters. Reese is the brawn of the operation with Finch the brains, though both possess formidable intelligence. Finch is clearly the Bruce Wayne billionaire part of the equation, running his own company to fund his vigilante activities, much the way Bruce uses Wayne Enterprises in the Batman universe. And Reese, with his weapons training and hand-to-hand prowess, is the Batman of this partnership. Both are possessed by a past as haunted as Wayne’s, elements of which we have only glimpsed so far in season one. Like Batman and Robin, they share a loss that binds and drives them, “that impossible anger strangling the grief.”
There is even a “Batcave” of sorts, an abandoned library that serves as a hideaway base of operations from which the two can conduct their covert war. Like Batman in The Dark Knight, they are “hunted by the authorities [and] work in secret.” The authorities in Person of Interest are virtually ripped straight from the pages of Peter Maas’ Serpico and Robert Daley’s Prince of the City, with NYPD Detective Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson) a lone honest cop. “But the Batman has a talent for disruption. Force him outside, the police will take him down. Go.” This leaves Carter with few friends, no pull, and only her wits and integrity. The outsider status among her fellow officers corresponds to Detective Gordon’s in Batman Begins before his promotion to Lieutenant and later Commissioner. Nolan acknowledged, “we talked about her participation evolving from the Tommy Lee Jones role in The Fugitive to ultimately a Commissioner Gordon place.” Last we left Carter, her rank was still Detective, so perhaps Nolan is hinting at the course her career may take in episodes ahead.
Carter differs from Gordon in one significant way — though sympathetic to Reese and his cause, she pursues him because she disapproves of vigilantism. Yet both Carter and Gordon, surrounded by corrupt colleagues, are in the end forced to make a vigilante their ally. “I think you’re trying to help … but I’ve been wrong before.” Before this Batman-Gordon relationship between Reese and Carter develops, their dynamic resembles more that of Dr. Richard Kimble and U.S. Deputy Marshal Sam Gerard in the aforementioned Fugitive film. Carter is blue through and through and upholder of the law above all else, so when she does eventually side with Reese, it is still an uneasy alliance. “Because we have to chase him … Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.” The cat-and-mouse tension between the two dissipates to a degree when, to quote CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler, Carter is brought “into the superhero cave,” though it never entirely disappears. Tassler herself even goes so far as to call Carter “sort of the Commissioner Gordon” of the piece.
Nolan again mixes up the Batman template by giving Reese a different inside man with a badge. Unlike Gordon, the last “Untouchable” in Gotham who corresponds to Carter, Reese’s mole is Detective Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman), a crooked cop from whom Reese extorts favors in exchange for keeping his dirty secrets, as well as sparing his life. Under threat, Fusco does Reese’s bidding, eventually seeing it as an opportunity “to go down doing something good.” The turning point comes during one of the ongoing subplots involving a corrupt cabal of mob-connected cops within the department called “HR,” which Reese charges Fusco to infiltrate.
Yet despite its depiction of law enforcement awash in a sea of corruption, Person of Interest is no exercise in cynicism and hopelessness. “The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming.” For one thing, not every cop is on the take, as demonstrated by the case of Carter. This is a city in need of a hero, and it gets two in Finch and Reese. “A hero. Not the hero we deserved but the hero we needed. Nothing less than a knight. Shining.” In actuality it gets several as even characters with checkered pasts get a second chance. Even the heroes themselves need second chances which they in turn give to others. “And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
Reese is played by Jim Caviezel, best known for The Passion of the Christ, which may explain the fleeting background Marian imagery that follows him, not to mention his thirst for redemption — at one point he says, “I wanted to say thank you, Harold, for giving me a second chance.” Reese begins as a lost chance, a renegade agent tortured by a shadowy past that hints at personal loss and an intelligence failure, before Finch proffers for him his second chance.
Starring as Finch is Michael Emerson, famous for his role as that other man of mystery, Benjamin Linus on Lost, a show also produced by Person of Interest’s Executive Producer, J.J. Abrams. Finch too is tormented by mistakes made and friends lost. Though it is through his genius and largesse that Reese gains his opportunity for redemption (and in turn offers this gift to Fusco), it is also the means with which Finch aims to set things right, for himself and others.
Of course names like Reese and Finch, in keeping with the rules of the genre, are likely secret-identity aliases — what else to be expected from Alias creator Abrams? Finch’s aviary of aliases includes “Wren” and “Nightingale,” but so far not “Bat.” At one point Fusco says of Finch, “this guy spent so much time being someone else, he probably doesn’t know who he is anymore.” This line will resonate with fans of Batman in any of its forms, be it comic book, film, or television. Emerson “see[s] … an underpinning of superhero iconography in the show.”
Person of Interest shares with the Dark Knight Trilogy common themes such as heroism, sacrifice, and redemption. These heroes risk life, limb, and even loved ones to save their city from the villains seeking to do it harm. “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss … I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy …” In the case of the Dark Knight films, the evildoers are bent on razing Gotham to the ground — September 11th and the War on Terror loom large as themes in the Nolans’ universe. “Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Goyer boldly states about Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins: “We modeled him after Osama bin Laden.” “Now you understand Gotham is beyond saving and must be allowed to die.” The post-September 11th concerns addressed by Jonathan Nolan in Person of Interest focus more on an era of perpetual surveillance.
Nolan himself admitted that “the Batman analogy isn’t that far off,” particularly when comparing the “Bat-Sonar” system used at the end of The Dark Knight with Person of Interest’s own apparatus. Nolan says that the “[vast surveillance network in Gotham City] was part of a storyline … in the comic books, when they examined Batman and the lengths to which he would go, and there are some connections there.” Nolan remarked how “everyone has a device in their pocket [which is] a live microphone for the government … a location tracker … all this information is out there … It’s your cell phone.” His stated inspiration for the Machine was London’s “ring of steel” and its extensive spy-camera network.
Person of Interest probes the sociology of surveillance in our culture by letting those concerns shape rather than hijack action, story, and character. In one episode, Finch claims to have invented online social networking because “The Machine needed more information [and it] turns out most people were happy to volunteer it.” Never mind the Patriot Act — Reese agrees that Facebook, Twitter, etc. “used to make our job a lot easier at the CIA.” Although the show has been described as science fiction, Nolan prefers to think of it as “science fact,” a five minutes into the future that “maybe [is] right now.” Nolan goes so far as to call the Machine “the fifth character of the show,” which — considering some of the intimations sprinkled throughout episodes — might be construed or misconstrued as a literal description. At least one scene hints at nascent self-awareness. Perhaps Finch will one day need to dismantle his HAL in future episodes. These clues are either seeds for seasons to come or elaborate red herrings.
Though the “case-of-the-week structure” renders the ongoing storyline far less demanding than Abrams’ Lost or Fringe, the later half of season one of Person of Interest slowly parceled out a mythology for the Machine. Person of Interest’s second season premieres Thursday, September 27th, so tune in and watch the watchers, before the mythology thickens.
Gilbert Colon, currently a County Clerk’s Office employee, has contributed to periodicals such as Filmfax, Cinema Retro, The New York Review of Science Fiction, as well as the book Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute (Stark House Press). A guest post of his is slated to appear on the author blog Bradley on Film.