Person of Interest: Analysis of a Silent Scene

I’ve been rewatching Person of Interest this year. While after its original run I was prepared to call it one of the best network shows of the decade . . . now I’m quite confident it’s full-stop one of the best TV shows of the Aughts.

Does it have a rough start? Does it often find itself fighting the constraints of the procedural it sold itself as (and CBS insisted it keep the format of) even when it’s trying to explore much more serialised stories and philosophical tangles ancient and new, all wrapped in hard-genre trappings? Does it manage to create some of the most transcendent stand-alone episodes within a strict timing confine (one not faced by the likes of The Americans or most notably The Sopranos, which could run anywhere from 45 to 72 minutes on a whim)?

Yes, yes, and yes, and then some.

This rewatch I’ve been particularly watching how it uses tropes and leans into genre conventions, from the multiple Hitchcock homages to showing its X-Files heart on its sleeve.

From a more practical standpoint I enjoy seeing how they work within the notoriously tight budget and schedule of network TV to create action setpieces, from super-slo-mo-sequences to chess imagery and choreography to machine-gun-shootouts to musical sequences complete with jawdropping needledrops.

The end of 5.09 “Sotto Voce” is ‘just’ a few people standing around a park; entirely wordless in one of multiple plays on the episode’s title.

Yet in its simple compositions and thoughtful construction, it conveys as much as one of POI’s most famous cold opens which had everything from slo-mo to blood splatters to a spiralling car crash.

Video above and screenshots with breakdown below for each shot change / significant change within shots.

The whole sequence is set to The National’s “Fake Empire”

1. A surveillance camera POV. A car arrives at a park, and out step Reese and Fusco: in sync again, partners again.

The surveillance angle is three-fold:

– it’s in keeping (though not necessary) with the show’s format to open a new scene / location with it – it reminds us of the omnipresent danger our heroes are in, and also (next shot) signals they’re probably meeting ‘off the grid’ but not in the subway, for reasons (reason to become apparent in shot 7) – most importantly, it’s the first time we see Fusco with a yellow square! [insert all the feels here]

2. Cut to the same car and people in a wide establishing shot, switching away from the surveillance angle. We won’t see a surveillance shot/angle again, so we can assume the team is gathering in a blind spot.

The colour goes from washed-out and grainy to simulate surveillance feed to crisp and more saturated.

3. Cut to Finch, alone, overlooking the city. How he started.

He turns as two suits enter frame . . .

4. Cut to the opposite angle as Reese and Fusco join Finch.

We start with these three partly to prolong the suspense of what has happened to Root and Shaw, but also because they are the only surviving original Team Machine members. Seeing them reminds us Carter is there in spirit, the same way seeing empty chairs at the wedding table a few episodes prior reminded us of the fallen and missing members.

5. Closeup on Finch. He lowers his gaze, starts to turn. The camera pans to follow his motion, L-R (which generally indicates forward progress).

Finch leaves Frame Left as

6. Root walks in Frame Right. Remember, we left her and Shaw at an impasse in a dark park. By now we know these characters so well, Root’s appearance tells us how that ended. But we still need to see.

As Root turns (the opposite way Finch turned, but keeping her body open to him), so does our expectant gaze as

7. the camera continues its L-R pan and with a smooth, mostly imperceptible rack focus off Root, we land on Shaw standing, in a medium shot, alone, a little hesitant.

DP David Insley, a series regular, shoots this episode spectacularly, from a cold open in POI-atypical, Breaking Bad-esque yellow and chartruese haze, to getting this scene with natural lighting on TV schedule. The end of the shot looks a little soft, but guessing they didn’t have time to go a second – or perhaps by then, fifth or sixth – time.

Shaw is touching the area under her ear where her chip was implanted (as her earlier conversation with Root in this episode reminded us of the events in “6,741”), where now would be a tender scar.

A beat on her, as her eyes move:

8. Cut to a shot from Shaw’s general direction / POV*

(*not a ‘true’ POV shot, as everyone here is looking at Shaw but Person of Interest doesn’t break the fourth wall unless talking to an AI or in a specific, usually surreal sequence, which this explicitly isn’t. This shot is a great understanding of what the scene requires, incorporated with the show’s overall stylistic specificities.)

Another L-R pan, moving from Root’s loving welcome to Finch’s slightly incredulous mixed emotions of joy and pain: remember, he had his doubts of her survival, and now would tell himself he should have done more, believed more.

9. Cut (well timed against the music) to Fusco and Reese.

Together because that’s been their journey this season.

Accepting and stoic and stalwart because they always are.

10. Back to Shaw, closer than the first shot. It’s possible they’re just closer because it was an alternate shot as they’re losing the light (note she’s less backlit, the sun-halo effect drops so quickly!) but I think it’s intentional, visually representing she’s closer to knowing she’s safe and OK, mentally accepting this is real and she is back to her team, her family.

They’ve all seen her, she’s seen their responses. She’s not touching her scar any more.

She takes a breath. Takes a step towards them, then half another, as we go

11. back to something close to the earlier establishing shot, but even wider, more open, without the car and lampost intruding.

Shaw slowly joins the group to make it a full Team Machine once again.

Five humans as small black silhouettes standing Seventh Seal – style against a massive city under siege, facing death alone, together.

12. Cut to black.

One Response to “Person of Interest: Analysis of a Silent Scene”
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  1. […] EP Chris Fisher to direct. I’ve talked about how POI uses a moving camera as well using shot choice and editing to give extra layers of meaning to a silent scene. Now let’s look at how directorial choices* from set design and lighting, to blocking and […]

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