Episode Study – Person of Interest “If-Then-Else” – Using Set Design, Blocking, and Cinematography to Underscore Themes

Person of Interest‘s “If-Then-Else” is often considered one of the best episodes of the series (and I’ll argue, easily one of the best network episodes the last decade). The writing is clever and tight, playing with form and plot and time, bringing to bear character traits painfully established and romantic pairings long in the making, the arcs and show style and format all working together.

It is not a standalone episode in that the show’s throughline, goal and overall plot are relevant. It does, however, work somewhat as a short film in there’s a self-contained objective, we follow a core group of characters, the self-contained conceit makes itself clear (in this case through repetition, trial and error), and the form is unique this episode.

While 22-episode shows often use a big writer’s room and bring in guest directors, “If-Then-Else” is a showcase for many of the show’s themes, as well as a large step towards its endgame; to pack that all in 40 minutes of harder sci-fi structure means using a lot of shorthand: on the page whether in dialogue or ‘big print’; in the acting and how characters respond to each other physically as well as emotionally; in all the visuals down to wardrobe, set design, fight choreography; and in post including the way scenes are intercut, how framerate is manipulated, colouring, audio effects, and more.

An episode like this requires ability to tell a tight story, but also extensive understanding of the series and characters as a whole. For “If-Then-Else” they tapped staff writer and legend Denise Thé, with series 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 framing, and dozens of other stylistic specifics work together to underline bigger motifs.

*/ begin narrator aside

Why am I attributing the whole to the director. Because even though TV is much slower to pin an episode’s success or failure on a director than film, the blame here goes on Fisher if this gamble doesn’t work. Because I love the craft of a director. Because often people think a director just tells people where to stand or to “act sad harder,” and there are a billion more choices which go into it. Because to make not just good art, but art which clearly and coherently tells one story (or sometimes a few) and says a message (or sometimes two) is their job – and thus the bulk of the director’s work boils down to not ‘have a vision!’ but ‘bring together the skills of other people all very good at their jobs to tell a good story, conveying its plot, stakes, emotions, and themes, clearly.’

The actors know what their characters’s motivations would be both overall and within individual scenes. The Director of Photography will have suggestions on how to make a particular shot look superb, the hair and makeup artists will suggest ‘so and so has their hair UP here to mean X and down in this scene to show Y,’ the wardrobe and set designers will need to find or make locations to fit a brief in some cases, and suggest off the wall locations to enhance a scene in others. The editor, the colourist, the score and soundtrack team, all have a lot of input in the ‘third write’ in post.

That “third time the script is written” is partially set by what was shot. For example, there are selveral ultra-slow-mo shots, which had to be shot at a specific frame rate. You’ll note drastically different colouring from scene to scene; strong blues for a lot of ‘current day’ scenes with Finch/Root/Fusco/Reese, more muted blue-and-yellow and their intersecting sickly green subway colours for Shaw until she gets to Root, desaturated flashback scenes, etc. This is striking for its own sake, but helps the viewer quickly pick up on who they are with and when, especially as the episode starts getting more frenetic and intercutting more. That all had to be decided beforehand, often by the director in conversation with showrunner (in this case, himself) and DP, and for a TV show usually based around the show’s established aesthetic. Then the set designer would find the right set (or paint one), wardrobe would make sure nothing clashed too much (though on POI, the only real variation from “suits and black leather” is usually Finch), the DP would light a certain way, the colourist would bring it all to life in post.

A good director – and by all accounts Chris Fisher is that – knows how to take this collaboration and make firm choices, putting many in the stew while turning others away or suggesting changes from what’s presented to him by the team. By halfway through season four all these crew know the show style as well as characters inside out, and would have strong thoughts on all these millions of tiny choices. So while it’s attributed to ‘the director,’ it is always a team effort.

/ end narrator aside

Chess had long been an established Person of Interest touchstone, but this episode emphasies it in several ways.

1. Plot.

The plot involves an intelligent Being considering the potential outcome of millions of different moves and their consequences, including the countermoves of a brilliant Oppontent.

2. Setting.

The episode’s flashbacks are Harold in a park, teaching the Machine to play chess.

The A and B stories take place in small, claustrophobic spaces: a lunchroom, a basement, a subway car, the back of a cop car, a dozen interchangeable corridoors, but all small and contained, claustrophobic, containing their pieces between moves.

3. Dialogue.

Harold explicitly teaches the Machine the rules, and emphasies that while the game’s origins reflect a categorisation of human life which existed at the time and sadly lingers today, he doesn’t believe on person is ‘worth’ more than another. Though Harold struggles with this idealism through the series, he sincerely believes and attempts to live by that ‘all human life deserves equal consideration’ ethos, and this is the clearest verbal statement of such.

4. Plot and Character.

Meanwhile in the A-plot (or B and C plots, depending how you look at this episode), Martine and Shaw are the foot soldiers, and treated very differently by Greer and Harold (depending whether you read them as the Kings or the players). Greer sees Martine as a means to his end, and while less expendable than some others because of her skillset, ultimately he will sacrifice her to achieve checkmate. Harold sees Shaw as equal with every member of Team Machine, but more than that she is a whole, valid, human who should be given equal consideration to every other.

5. Setpieces!

An episode which is so stylised as this gets to have a little fun! Several scenes are seen multiple times, with variations each time.

Below are two similar-but-different sequences (out of three variations of this scene) which combine many of the elements mentioned earlier:

  • Set Design The floor is literally made of squares large enough for each character to stand in.
  • Framing and Lighting We (IE the camera) are on a high enough angle to see the floor squares and how the ‘pieces’ moving, but not so high the fight moves and gun shots are obscured. The saturated blue with one bolt of yellow from which our heroes emerge looks good, continuing strong use of the two main colours in this episode.
  • Blocking and Choreography While the actions (set to music which draws on both the show’s overall score and the tinny tunes of early computer games) might seem unnatural, they are in keeping with Root being able to make precise movements on the Machine’s recommendations . . . and also reminiscent of chess patterns, where pieces can move diagonally, in straight lines, in L shapes, etc.
  • Post Production These sequences involve editing (in and out is also an important edit, friends), and also colouring, scoring (the wonderful Ramin Djawadi), sound mixing (put in gunshot noises, take out distracting clacking from Root’s boots, emphasize the gun skittering across the floor, temper the music levels around all those noises, etc), CGI (for the muzzle flashes as well as probably dozens of little bits you don’t notice), and more painstaking work, all of which the director will be involved in.
  • Thematic Underlining These sequences are similar in start but quickly deviate, and then the outcomes from there become drastically different with probabilities in the billions, also like chess games.

This action sequence isn’t the only shot reminiscent of a chessboard; many elements, framing, and editing clearly underscore this war is a game stakes and consequences.

6. Framing and Editing.

One of my favourites is a simple shot [below] where Harold is a piece on a chessboard made of chessboards; the camera (on a jib) moves up from a simple closeup to this framing

reminiscent of the angle the Machine has seen him from all episode:

the God’s eye view.

Time then slows down and other shots from around New York – often used as establishing shots around the series’s ‘modern’ stories and flashback framing – are shown in slo-mo as well. The Machine can see all the pieces.

Which brings us back to the end sequence, tying it all together. After sequences of more strong blues and yellows, gunfights, John moving himself in front of Finch to protect him, dialogue such as “all games, must come to an end”, and intense end-of-world flirting, it ends with a shot of Team Machine helplessly looking on as pawn Martine moves across a square to end footsoldier Shaw.

The same floor squares which were used as ‘chessboard squares’ in the above sequences (and several more, many from the God’s Eye POV), are shown again from this framing, where one piece vanquishes another.

Or rather, a piece who made a choice to sacrifice herself.

It’s as clear as this iconic “TV show uses chess to spell out its core themes” scene, but “If-Then-Else” extends the game a whole 40 minutes, using dialogue, plot, set dressing, and visuals – from the flashback to Harold standing alone in the park, to sequences verging on magical realism – to bring the analogy to life

and death.

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