Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back
The Slow Erasure of Diversity on Person of Interest
*First published in The Stake
Person of Interest’s first season did not start strong: in fact, it was one of the least compelling debuts I have ever seen. Its familiar premise centers on John Reese, a broken and violent white man down on his luck. Reese is ex-CIA, and on the path of self-destruction ’til Harold Finch, a fussy white computer genius, recruits him for a secret project. Finch, through unknown means, can predict which New York City residents will be involved in violent crimes. There’s a catch, though: a serious injury has left Finch disabled, and he must recruit Reese to be the muscle who saves the hapless souls. Alone, Reese and Finch are just two tortured men with troubled pasts. Together, they’re able to overcome their weakness and save the lives of others.
It’s a premise familiar enough to recite from memory. Tortured white men teaming up to save the helpless is one of TV’s favorite stories, and the splash made by True Detective is only the latest iteration. It’s been told so often and with such regularity, it seems only the names and cities change. Should any surprises crop up (excellent plots! quirky characters!) they’re just momentary twitches in a kicked-to-death storyline.
But after plodding through six or seven episodes, Person of Interest began to catch my attention. The first curve ball was the arrival of Agent Joss Carter, a NYPD homicide detective played by Taraji Henson. Carter was a Warrant Officer in the US Army before becoming a cop, and she’s a straight shooter — a devoted mother committed to keeping her life safe and sane. She follows after Reese’s strange trail of destruction, puzzling out why property is destroyed but suspects are never killed. She’s determined to catch him until the day her name comes up as one of Finch’s potential victims. Reese saves her life, and Carter becomes his uneasy ally. While she’s not keen on Reese and Finch’s vigilante campaign, lives are being saved. The two slowly win her over, and her friendship with Reese grows. By Season 3, it’s clear their relationship is heading towards romance.
Carter brings a humanity and a connectedness that the solitary Reese and Finch lack. She’s a divorced mother, raising a teenage son on her own. The show slowly reveals that she’s an exceptional person: she’s calm and grounded with a firm, loving moral center. She’s an unsung hero, and as a black woman, her story is particularly rare on television. But just as Carter begins to grow more complex — taking the law into her own hands when lives are on the line, exploring a romantic moment with Reese — it’s over. She’s killed off in a mid-season plot twist.
Showrunner Jonah Nolan stated in a TVLine interview that he warned actors from the beginning that major characters would be killed off at any time. “The promise we made to Taraji and all of our actors is we weren’t signing them up for a show where, even if everyone was wildly successful and the ratings were great, we’d have them spin wheels for 200 episodes,” Nolan said. “Keep it f–king entertaining,” he continues. “You’ve got to keep things moving. We have a bloodthirsty group of writers — you’ll walk into the room one day and they’ve devised a way in which Reese and Finch are killed in a fire… When they have the capacity to surprise us, we know that that will surprise the audience.”
There’s a difference, though, between keeping the audience surprised with fresh twists and snuffing out the character who is the heart of the show. Carter was the first recurring character to be killed — not Reese, Finch, or any of the show’s notoriously large supporting cast. Why her?
Henson weighed in on Carter’s ending: “She was never meant to last forever. Art imitates life, and sometimes the good guys don’t make it. Sometimes they’re the ones that lose in the end. Life is not that sewed up in the end. No, it’s messy and it’s ugly. Just when you got your life together is when you walk outside and catch a bullet. That’s life.”
When further questioned about the prevalence of black characters being killed off of in TV shows, Henson said, “I know….that’s why we’re talking, so that everybody knows it’s not like that at all.”
She viewed the impact of Carter’s presence on a TV show greater than her death, “We upped the ante for all the other shows. Like, “Come on, get on board! It’s too safe, it’s too safe, so shake it up a bit.”
It’s impossible to disagree. Henson breathed life and interest into an otherwise vanilla show, demonstrating that diversity is critically important. Person of Interestalso became a showcase for Henson’s acting skills: she stole every scene she was in and became a major draw for the show.
But after Carter’s death, it was hard not to notice a trend: the next character to go was Sameen Shaw, the show’s only other woman of color. Shaw was a testy assassin and reluctant ally to Reese and Finch. Her discipline, skills, and lack of emotion rivaled Reese’s own. In the middle of Season 4, literally moments after revealing she’s bisexual, she’s kidnapped by Finch’s rivals and never heard from again. She could reappear, but the actor’s personal decision to focus on raising a family suggest that Shaw will be gone for some time.
The final blow came at Season 4’s climax. For several seasons, the show developed a deadly rivalry between two compelling and complex characters. Carl Elias lived for years as a high school history teacher while patiently planning to overthrow the city’s mafia families. After consolidating his power, he succeeds and takes his place as the city’s kingpin. Pitted against him is Dominic, leader of the Brotherhood drug gang. Dominic rises from obscurity, emerging as a young but ruthless genius with a grand vision for a tech-savvy criminal empire.
Both men are well matched masterminds, intelligent and utterly ruthless but fiercely protective of those under their protection. It’s the Italian, middle-class Elias, though, who receives a rich backstory, complete with a murdered mother and a brutal father. African American Dominic’s climb from poverty to power is never explained beyond tantalizing glimpses.
“I had a math teacher once,” Dominic tells another gang member, “who said that all the world’s infinite possibilities rest within one simple circle. Including the possibility that the big quiet kid in the back of the class, the one that everyone always underestimated, could one day run the streets of New York.” Over the course of the fourth season, the charismatic and resourceful Dominic whittles down Elias’s criminal army and is poised to take control of the city.
By now, you can probably see it coming. In the finale of Season 4, both Dominic and Elias are killed off in a last minute twist. Elias’ death seemed inevitable, but with Dominic’s, the last person of color exited Person of Interest.
As fans wait for season 5, Person of Interest has washed away every one of its brown and black characters. The only ones left standing, good or bad, are white. The show still has interesting plots and mysteries to solve. What really set it apart, though, was putting dynamic characters like Carter, Shaw, and Dominic at the forefront, pushing the story forward alongside their white co-conspirators. When a show takes the time to build a promising and diverse cast of characters, then kills or removes them just as they begin to develop, what is there left to watch? No matter how interesting the plot twists are, it’s difficult to care.