Division of Interest: Partners

diciembre 6, 2016 at 7:21 pm (Television) (, , , , , )

While the parallels between Nikita and Person of Interest are not as easy to identify as those between Nikita and Alias, they are in some ways arguably more substantive. Produced roughly during the same period, the two series’ takes on the espionage genre not only feature similar tones and (to a degree) aesthetics, but also similar themes and concerns. Their core foci may be different—Person of Interest is chiefly about how technology changes the world, both by making possible and normalizing the surveillance state and by altering the definition of living thing, while Nikita is about abuse and dehumanization, and the possibility of reclaiming that humanity—but both also deal with themes like identity, redemption, corruption, rebirth, and rebirth—more than enough, in other words, to make comparing and contrasting the series both interesting and rewarding—hence what I hope will become a series. This is Division of Interest, and we begin with the two couples (hush!) with whom it all begins.

(Series spoilers for both Person of Interest and Nikita below.)

(Content Notes: Suicide, suicidal ideation)

While both Person of Interest and Nikita will eventually possess the ensembles which television insists are truly necessary in order to effectively fight crime, the two series actually start out as the stories of two people against the world, and the bond between them. Immediately, similarities are apparent. Both pairs consist of a senior partner (Finch, Nikita), and a junior partner (Reese, Alex). Both partnerships begin after the senior partner rescues the junior when they are at their lowest—Reese has spent several months a homeless drunk when Finch finds him, while Nikita finds Alex when she, an addict with nowhere else to go, is living with her rapist drug dealer boyfriend Ronnie—and offering them an opportunity. In both cases, the senior partner is indirectly responsible for the junior’s misfortune: Nikita killed Alex’s father and then left her with the person who sold her into sex slavery, while Finch is directly and indirectly responsible for the course of events that led the U.S. government to attempt to kill Reese and destroy his life as he knows it.

There are, of course, a few obvious differences. Nikita trains Alex and acts as a mentor / mother figure, while Finch seeks out Reese for the expertise he already possesses, so that he may serve as his employee. In Person of Interest, Finch starts out as the person in the office, while Reese is the person on the field, which is an inversion of Nikita’s set-up, where Nikita is the one doing the fighting, while Alex is  the one gathering intel and providing support (one can, if one were so inclined, argue that Alex is actually a counterpart for the Machine, at least at first). In both series, the division between roles eventually blur—particularly when it comes to who saved whom—but to a much larger degree in Nikita—not surprising, given that Nikita and Alex, as mirror images, share a jack-of-all-trades skill set, where Finch and Reese, puzzle pieces, complement each other’s specialties.

A more substantive difference lies in the way both partnerships change as the series goes along. While Person of Interest has little interest in creating lasting friction between Finch and Reese or in breaking the two up, the changing dynamics between Nikita and Alex are a key source of tension in their show, which features more than one extended period in which the two are simply not talking to one another. Part of it is, again, due to their respective skill sets, which allow Nikita and Alex to drive plots separately in a way Finch and Reese cannot, but also perhaps owes something to the way both relationships progress. While Nikita starts out with Nikita and Alex already sharing a bond and being willing to risk their lives for each other, Reese spends the entire first season knowing that he is being kept in the dark by Finch, and not-secretly attempting to undermine his employer’s attempts to continue doing so. When Reese discovers what Finch has been keeping, it’s not really a surprise the way Nikita’s secrets are, because Finch being a closed book was baked into their relationship’s cake.  Finally, storytelling structure plays a role here: while both series have procedural elements, Person of Interest is exponentially more attached to that structure than Nikita, making it far more reliant on having a consistent dynamic at its center.  Nikita, meanwhile, with no real understanding of what a status quo is, can afford to freestyle.

Ghost exorcists

Both Person of Interest and Nikita are fundamentally about ghosts, about people who remain here on this earth even after their lives are over. Nikita has officially been executed by the state, in accordance with the terms of her sentence. Reese was declared dead and disavowed by the C.I.A. Alex has died twice over, the first as modern-day Anastasia Alexandra Udinov, and the second as Alex, who committed suicide while in prison. Whoever Finch originally was still technically exists, but he’s long since abandoned that life in favor of others; his other chief identity, the one he once intended to use for the rest of his life, died in the attack that took his best friend’s life.

Nikita and Finch, in particular, remain on this Earth due to past mistakes. Finch, in addition to the act of sedition which initially made him a fugitive, is also haunted by his decision to create the Machine and hand it over to the government, and by his role in his best friend Nathan’s death. Having seen what the wrong people could do with power, he has crafted a code for himself and his creation, which determines his approach to everything.  Nikita, meanwhile, deals with the ghost caused by a lifetime of abuse, and most notably the abuse she suffered during her time in Division, which blackened her soul under the guise of love and redemption. Both, then, seek to exorcise these ghosts by doing good, Nikita by destroying her abusers with the skills they imparted upon her and preventing them from ever being able to abuse again, and Finch by taking on Nathan’s mission.

Given these similarities, it is not surprising, then, that both of the characters’ final stories are the same, as circumstances lead them both to release release of the parts of themselves they’d been keeping locked up, nor is it surprising that their final rewards are the opportunity to return to the lives that they’d lost, Nikita being able to become Nikita Mears on her own terms, and Finch, more abstractly, being able to return to the life he’d abandoned after Nathan’s death. If there is a key difference, it is in execution: where we see exactly what Nikita’s ghosts are, what her darker self is capable of—killing, torture, indiscriminate destruction—and how it existed before Division, Harold’s dark side remains much more theoretical.  Perhaps due to the strands of super-hero narrative in its DNA, Person of Interest is less willing to truly commit to a Harold who does terrible things: his “dark” self, in the end, is pretty much him on a normal day, and while the series has him unleash a global catastrophe as a sign that he’s changed, the series can never quite sell it, perhaps the main flaw in what is otherwise a fantastic finale.

Digging deeper, it’s worth noting how both characters’ experiences have shaped them in ways that have led them to favor opposite approaches. Finch’s self-imposed quest is in key ways a compromise, something he came up with after having taken stock of his limits. His crusade is not an attempt to save the world or to undo his past mistakes or have it all; he’s saving people one at a time because that is what he can do. By the time the series begins, he has abandoned his identity again and keeps his fiancée at arms’ length; after Samaritan comes into power, he remakes himself again, because he has no illusions about being able to do anything else. Nikita, meanwhile, thinks big: she doesn’t want to chip away at Division and weaken it; she wants to cut off its head. And while she’s not inflexible—she stops sabotaging active Division missions as soon as she loses her people on the inside, for example—her belief that she can complete her mission never really wavers.  As she narrates in the intro, the last world the enemies will breathe before the end will be her name, and by god, that’s what she makes happen.

And yet, despite these differing biases, the two characters share a preference for being in control. Within the barriers he’s erected around himself, Finch insists on setting the terms of the job in accordance to what he believes is correct. Reese and his predecessor Dillinger both know only what he wants them to know.  The Machine, despite being an intelligence with her own will, has the limits he has set. Finch’s story is in many way the story about how he comes to accept that he can’t control there world. Nikita, to use a loaded term, is bossy. She will tell people what to do because she’s the best there is at what she does and that’s the way things are. Again, she’s not inflexible, but over and over again, she insists in having the last word. If Finch is stone, seeking to be unmovable, Nikita is the flood, carrying everyone in her wake.

You want to invade the moon, and I will find the next rocket ship 

I mentioned earlier that both partnerships begin with the junior partners being rescued at their lowest points, and it is that rescue which informs the two couples’ dynamics, and most notably, the way they lead the junior partners to sublimate death wishes into almost fanatical devotion to their saviors.

If there is one thing which defines Reese, it is his death wish. His time as a homeless man was nothing more than an attempt to die the slow way. In the simulation seen in “.exe”, we learn that in a world where the Machine didn’t exist and he never met Finch, he committed suicide after his relationship with his love Jessica collapsed. Even after meeting Finch and becoming invested in his work with the numbers, his suicidal ideation remains: he’s willing to die for his revenge after Carter’s death and that he’s able to die so that Finch may live, is, despite everything, a happy ending for the character.

And yet, Reese also lives for Finch. It’s worth remembering that Harold’s initial terms are, by most accounts, unworkably unreasonable: Dillinger may have been an ass, but he wasn’t wrong to be frustrated. And while Reese doesn’t acquiesce to them without question—he gets Finch to tell him about the Machine soon enough, and not long after gets him to agree with employing others—he agrees with them when almost nobody else would have, initially because he has nothing better to do—he can always commit suicide later—but eventually because of Finch himself. Despite his initial suspicions, Reese’s dedication towards the numbers eventually transfers over to his employer, to the point where, after Finch is kidnapped, he threatens the Machine in order to get him back. Even the successive revelations about his employer, no matter how unflattering, are enough for Reese’s commitment to waver. More importantly, he cares. His concern is expressed in muted and very male ways (more on this later), but it is unmistakable and very real.

Alex, while less consistently so—again, there are extended moments in which she and Nikita are at odds, and these tend to coincide with moments where she has her own independent goals, i.e., something to live for—is equally devoted to Nikita: it is she who suggests going undercover inside Division, and that her relapse into addiction occurs after she is injured and forced to consider the prospect of not aiding Nikita. After all, she has no sense of self: after retaking Zetrov, avenging her father, and rescuing her mother, what else is left for her? Like Reese, she also deals with a death wish—one leading to an actual suicide attempt—borne out of a combination of loss and survivor’s guilt. Somewhat ironically, the thing that destroys Reese, his time in black ops—is what allows Alex to be saved.

It is here where we get one of the major points of divergence between the two series. Despite all the crap in Alex’s life, Nikita is a series that allows Alex to choose living and to make something for herself that exists beyond Nikita —not only does she end having chosen a career as an anti-human trafficking activist, she also asserts that she is, above everything, a survivor. Where once she would consider this her curse, she ends the series having figured out that it is her blessing. Even then, however, she remains devoted to Nikita, risking everything to clear her mentor’s name; if asked to, she would have helped Nikita burn down the world. Reese never really gets there. He tries—see Campbell, Iris, as well as his at-arms-length relationships with Carter, Fusco, and Shaw—but attempts to do so are half-hearted at best, and never really take; in the end, if he changes in some way, it’s because he comes to see satisfaction in a good death rather than ambivalence. It’s not unimportant—just the opposite—but it does, in a key way, prove his mentor Kara Stanton right: he walks in the dark.

Gender and emotion

In the end, it’s almost impossible not to read Reese’s relationship with Finch, and Nikita’s relationship with Alex, as love stories. Not romances—we can blame heteronormativity for that—but stories of people who love each other truly and deeply, and what makes them interesting when placed against each other is the different forms that these two stories take, and how gendered those differences are. Nikita and Alex’s relationship, when they’re not placing bullets in each other’s non-essential areas (not a euphemism) is very affectionate—lots of hugging, lots of talking, lots of processing. They know exactly how they feel about each other, because they’ve told each other exactly how important they are to each other. Reese and Finch, meanwhile, express their affection in much more oblique ways, never verbalizing it unless they need to, and preferring gestures, like bringing tea and trying to undermine the other’s efforts to sacrifice himself. Their personalities —Finch, which his paranoia, Reese with his reticence—don’t allow them to do things like, say, tell each other how they are dealing with trauma in an attempt to process. It’s notable that Finch’s prescription for a drunken, about-to-go-commit-suicide Reese is to put him to work immediately.

This isn’t to say either approach is better: as executed, I am very much into both relationships, even as I note that the one which involved hugs and talking about feelings  is the one where both people went on to embrace living. I do wonder, however, how the shows have read if the approaches had been switched. Would Alex and Nikita’s relationship (and, in more broad terms, Nikita’s relationship with everybody else) had been as compelling and worth-rooting-for if they had both treated each other with Reese and Finch’s distance, or would they have read as inauthentic or even abusive, given their age differences and contexts?  Would the stories of Very Private Person Finch and have worked if he’d also been someone who easily formed an affectionate bond with an emotional, needy Reese, or would have it read as paradoxical, even oxymoronic? That their counterparts exist and tell their stories very well suggests that it would have been possible, and yet…

In any case, we got what we got, and what we got was great. While both series would eventually expand their scopes and introduce other equally rewarding relationships and dynamics, neither forgot how they began, and each series’ final episode pares things down to the original partnership, two people not against the world, but for it.

 

 

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