Person of Interest creator Jonah Nolan says that when he rounded up his cast almost three years ago, the message was clear: “Nothing lasts forever.” That in unspooling this tale of two men, a Machine and the others in their orbit, the mandate was to keep the stakes real.
That much was confirmed this Tuesday night, when the CBS drama killed off, in the episode’s final moments, the character of newly re-minted Detective Joss Carter, played by Taraji P. Henson. Here, Nolan and EP Greg Plageman reveal all that went into that difficult but preordained decision, share a secret behind Carter’s kiss before dying and succinctly tease Reese’s reaction to the loss.
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TVLINE | For starters, there’s some confusion out there, some debate about who knew what and when. Did Taraji sign onto the show knowing it’d be just a two- or three- year run? Did she find out after? At some point down the road…?
JONAH NOLAN | We didn’t have any explicit plans when we began the show in terms of, “Oh it’s going to happen at this moment,” but 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. Greg and I talked a lot about shows like The X-Files – a show that I loved because you often got a satisfying self-contained story of the week, but there was always this this larger tectonic rumbling of “Anything can happen.” Same thing with 24 – in fact, I kept waiting for the episode where Kiefer Sutherland’s character bought it, in part because at the end of that run where Tony Almeida died, I read an interview where Kiefer said, “Someday they’ll write me out of the show,” and he was excited to see that.
TVLINE | Right, I even remember speculating that they were grooming Rick Schroder to be the “new Jack,” that they were ramping up to killing off Kiefer. But they never did.
NOLAN | I’ve worked in film for most of my career — this is my first experience with TV — and the tension in film [spans] two hours, especially in one of my films where everyone is dead at the end, story’s over. [Laughs] It’s a totally different format. On television, the emphasis is more like comics. In 70 years of Batman, no one has ever died, except for the second Robin — and he only, and tellingly, died because the readers voted for him to die. On some level, your viewers, even though they say they don’t, they want s–t to happen. They want drama, they want real stakes.
GREG PLAGEMAN | It’s funny you mention Rick Schroder because I came onto NYPD Blue when he came on to replace Jimmy Smits, and if you recall, [Bobby Simone's] death on that show absolutely crushed half our audience — and they still watched the show, because they knew that anything could happen. And then [Danny] died! On that show there was a Case of the Week, but there was also the larger serialized story. The relationships between the characters mattered because you knew that they could die. It made it a richer show.
TVLINE | All of that said, when it came time to pull the trigger, were there any second thoughts? Possibly a concern about preserving the diversity of the show’s cast?
NOLAN | There are a million concerns that go into this — from us, the network, everybody else. The primary concern is to tell a compelling and entertaining story. Everything else is secondary. I flew out early in the year to sit down with Taraji and say, “OK, here’s where we’re going,” and she knew [it'd been a possibility]. It was a wonderful but bittersweet conversation. These shows are hard to make, so when you find a great collaborator like Taraji, the last thing you want to do is shake it up — but the thing driving us from the beginning is that mandate of “Keep it f–king entertaining.” 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. [Laughs] But what’s great is you’re sitting there confronting the possibilities of what the show could be. When they have the capacity to surprise us, we know that that will surprise the audience. That’s also why it’s great fun talking to you – because you, like us, watch a lot of TV, and the idea that we kept you on the edge of your seat for an episode, that’s the whole thing. That’s where broadcast has some lessons to learn from cable, in terms of stakes.
TVLINE | The kiss John gave Joss — what all was that about? Merely emotions in the moment, or romance, too?
PLAGEMAN | I think it was both. Carter and Reese had a very special relationship from the very beginning, from the moment he was fished out of the subway. You really felt that this was a deep relationship — that Carter cared about him on a different level, and that he came to care about her on a different level. The interesting part about the kiss is that it actually wasn’t scripted. It was just a swapping scars moment. So when the actors went there, it was all of their own volition, because in that moment they both felt it. And when you removed that element, the scene didn’t feel quite the same.
TVLINE | Wait, so Jim [Caviezel] and Taraji did it on the fly?
NOLAN | They just did it. What’s fun about that is I’m a bit of a control freak, so I get squirrelish when things happen on our set that aren’t scripted. And when I started hearing rumblings that the scene was “very powerful”…. I’ll be honest, Greg and I were not terribly interested in seeing that take because the moment on the page was about the enduring friendship between these characters. Yet from the beginning, I was kind of always rooting for that connection, that spark, so finally we sat down and looked at the take like, “Aww….” It’s very earned. It’s very real. And to answer your question, it’s a bit of both. It’s not a lascivious moment, it’s not a moment of seduction. We sort of crammed the edit suite with our writers and editors, like a clown car, making them watch this moment, and everyone agreed that it wasn’t unraveling three years of building a connection between them. The look on Taraji’s face, her reaction to it… a bit of surprise, a little bit of, “Oh!” She’s completely present in that moment, and the second we cut it out you could feel the power go out of it. For all the people like me who were rooting for these two people to find each other, you got a little moment of that. We didn’t want to deny them that.
TVLINE | And moving forward, how would you sum up Reese’s reaction to losing Carter? Especially coming off him opening up to her about losing Jessica?
NOLAN | Messy.