Person on Interest 4×09 The Devil You Know – A Review
REESE AND FINCH ARE CAUGHT IN A POWER STRUGGLE FOR CONTROL OF THE CITY’S GANGS WHEN ELIAS’ NUMBER COMES UP, ON “PERSON OF INTEREST.
“The Devil You Know” – Reese and Finch are caught in a power struggle for control of the city’s gangs when Elias is targeted by Dominic, the ambitious leader of the Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Root and Shaw disagree over how to handle a new threat from Samaritan.
I was reading some reviews of The Devil You Know to kind of get a feel of what I wanted to say about this episode. I came across this piece written by Whitlocki Enterprises on Tumbler .com. I am sure there are many who have a different take on this episode, but in my opinion the main cast of characters took a backseat this night. It was owned by Carl Elias (Enrico Colantoni) and Anthony ‘Scarface’ Marconi (David Valcin).
My kudos to the writers for making me care so much for some really bad guys and mourn the death of one of them. I have no doubt Finch and Reese will get caught up even more when Elias exacts his revenge. I’ll worry about them while at the same time wanting Dominic to regret the day he decided to go up against The Old Lion.
I will be working on my own video recap for The Devil You Know and have it up in a day or so. Until then I give you the following. (*Minor Editing)
It’s been nearly a week now, and I’m still feeling deeply affected by Person of Interest‘s latest casualty. This show has killed a LOT of recurring characters in its run thus far (literally about half the cast, in fact), but this one has unexpectedly proved to be the most emotionally powerful loss, for myself and for quite a few other fans as well. So of course, I have to write up a bit on what I think makes this death work so (*) well. Spoilers under the cut, obviously.
The high likelihood that dear Anthony ‘Scarface’ Marconi was not long for this world was something I had clocked some time ago, considering that Elias was suddenly plot-relevant again this season after going unseen since The Devil’s Share, back before mid-season 3. The resurgence of an old plot thread means the stakes have to be raised in some way, and that way is usually to kill someone important to the character(s) in question. Elias himself can’t die, because it’s his story that is being moved forward, but Scarface? By giving him some increased screen time – and even some actual lines – and having him basically play for the heroes’ team in the first handful of episodes of season 4, the show had him primed to be just important enough for the audience to get attached, without actually becoming a vital, indispensable character to the plot. Scarface was basically marked for death.
As such, as much as I didn’t want it to happen, I was pretty (*) sure Scarface was about to bite the big one, so the fact that the story went in that direction didn’t exactly take me by surprise. Not in the fact that it happened, anyway. The surprise was how (*) much they managed to make us all care before he went, taking a character who had barely even spoken before and successfully painting him up in full 3D splendor without leaving the audience sighing at how the show was only now trying to get them invested. I’ve seen it done oh-so-many times before, the “minor character shares personal information, dies” trope, and usually it’s a source of eyerolling at the cheap attempt to generate drama. Not so for Anthony Marconi. So why the (*) did his death work so well?
Well, for starters, I had forgotten that one of the things I admired about this show in the beginning was its ability to take common clichés and either subvert them in ingenious ways, or play them totally straight but in an astonishingly refreshing manner, proving that just because something has been done before, doesn’t mean it can’t still be done uniquely. In fact, The Devil You Know racked up another couple of notable clichés, by having Elias and Scarface return to their origins, as characters (the action taking place in the former Boys Home where they met as children) and from a narrative viewpoint (numerous callbacks to their first episode, Witness). (*), it even played in to the ‘Fridged Girlfriend’ trope, killing off dear Anthony essentially for the purpose of facilitating a manpain reaction in Elias. The thing about clichés is that they are not just some sort of warped thing that exists purely in fiction – clichés occur in real life as well, not because they’re narratively predictable or convenient, but because life doesn’t freaking care about that kind of (*). The key to playing clichés right is treating them like they’re incidental, naturally occurring, not ACME anvils labeled ‘NARRATIVE SYMBOLISM’ that the characters drag around the plot with them. You have to convince the audience that this cliché isn’t happening because it’s a cliché, it’s happening because sometimes life goes that way. They key to THAT is sincerity, and the key to THAT is in your writing and your acting.
I’ve always been a firm believer in the idea that while a terrible actor can trash great material, a great actor can take terrible material and make it bearable at the least, memorable and even touching at best. What a great actor can do with great material is at times quite miraculous. So, while Erik Mountain had written a gorgeous script for The Devil You Know, the success of the episode still lives and dies on how well the rest of the creative team pulls it off. And the thing about this episode that is really wonderful – and kinda gutsy – is that the A plot hasn’t been entrusted to any of the lead characters. It has been given to two recurring characters, one of whom has never really been given an opportunity to shine before, and they’ve been trusted to carry the entire episode on the strength and emotional resonance of their performance. And (*), does it pay off.
To begin with, let’s just focus on David Valcin for a moment. The man had a (*) of a tough role to play, with his character finally stepping out of the shadows to play a central role and die a hero’s death after years of mostly just sauntering about looking kinda smug and occasionally doing some crime. However, despite the minimal exposure to his character, Valcin had managed to build a fairly impressive fanbase, making Scarface something of a fan-favourite (I still remember my horror at the end of season two when Carter said Elias’ lieutenant had been gunned down, and for just a moment there (before she said he was in the hospital) I thought the show had had the audacity to unceremoniously kill him off without so much as letting us see him die). And what really makes Scarface work is that, despite seemingly not being given much to do with the character at any point previously, Valcin has couched his performance in the unspoken bond between Anthony and his boss. I am one of those who has believed adamantly ever since their first episode (even back when I was a naive young ingenue who barely knew what shipping was) that there was waaaayy more going on between Elias and Scarface than just a regular ol’ boss/henchman schtick: that was love they had there, plain and simple. And whether you interpret that love as romantic or platonic (either option is equally as likely based on existing evidence), The Devil You Know made it 100% canon that that love was very real. Everything we learn about Anthony Marconi in his final episode works because it’s not coming out of left field at all – it’s all based on a solid relationship foundation that has existed since his first episode, and we the audience have absorbed an understanding of it, either actively or passively. This isn’t some kind of shock twist to the characters or their history, it’s simply illuminating what Valcin had carefully cultivated, and allowing us to experience his character on a new height and believe wholeheartedly in his inner life, despite having such limited exposure to him before.
Of course, the forging of this foundation has not been Valcin’s work alone – he and Enrico Colantoni have built this thing together, through that subtlety and trust that you just can’t force; actors have either got that chemistry together, or they don’t. Together or apart, Valcin and Colantoni have got the chops to play the emotional depth of their characters’ bond and shoulder the weight of the episode without ever leaving the audience wondering why we’re spending so much time with these guys suddenly instead of with our leads. The ever-present undercurrent of Elias and Scarface’s relationship is brought to the fore, and we as an audience are reminded that they don’t exist purely for the moments when they can help or hinder the main characters – they have lived a full and varied life together, they have history, memories, and journeys of their own.
I’ve gotta point out a very important thing Elias does in this episode: he calls Anthony by his name. Though we had heard that this guy’s name was Anthony Marconi back in his first episode, no one EVER called him that to his face (in fact, I don’t think anyone ever actually called him ‘Scarface’ on screen prior to Reese in this episode, acknowledging that he’d never really known Anthony by any other moniker – the character was for all intents and purposes, nameless). Scarface was always credited as Scarface, and so that’s what we called him – Elias, of course, calls him Anthony, repeatedly, in tones of distress, of nostalgia, of tenderness. Anthony, Anthony, Anthony. It is, very simply, humanizing Scarface as a murderer in a leather jacket who wears a lot of hair gel and carries a Big (*) Gun. Anthony is a person. Anthony was a child whose face got marked up by the violent father he killed to protect his mother, a child who met Elias in an abusive group home where they became the most important people in one another’s lives, and he was the man who had Elias’ back through thick and thin, the one person he could trust above all others (Bruce may have been the third of their number, sure, but Elias wouldn’t have expressed concern that The Brotherhood may have gotten to Bruce if he trusted him as implicitly as he did Anthony). These characters may be mobsters, but The Devil You Know makes sure we recognize that they are, first and foremost, people.
And dude, think of what this episode has really told us about these people, about what was going on in their heads all this time. Remember the trouble Elias went to to acquire his father, the man who had his mother murdered when Elias was a small child, the trauma that lead to him bouncing around foster care and winding up in that Boys Home where he and Anthony met, where they bonded over the similarities in their circumstances and endured whatever (*) was visited upon them there? Remember how Elias’ father had tried to knock him off too when he was all grown up, and think about this in context with Anthony, and the father he killed. Remember when Elias exacted his revenge against his father at last – an act that Anthony carried out in his name? What about when Anthony was shot at the end of season two, and the first thing Elias (in jail at the time) did was leave himself vulnerable by having his own bodyguards paroled so that they could watch over Anthony in the hospital? What about Anthony thanking Carter for looking after his boss while he was out of commission? And how do you think that conversation might have gone, when they decided to pay Carter’s murderer a visit and even the score?
Let us not forget (praise be to Erik Mountain, again, for his writing) that even though they are the A plot of the episode, Elias and Anthony still manage to achieve this transcendent emotional history in a bare minimum of scenes. It’s in the way Anthony is shot and captured ensuring Elias’ escape (a cliché, again, but he sells it). It’s in the way Elias cries out for him, and how visibly shaken-up the Big Bad Mafia Boss is over what has happened to his Number Two. It’s in the back-story Elias shares with Reese about how he and Anthony met, neglecting to mention at the time that the Boys Home he speaks of and the building they are presently trapped inside are one in the same (and boy, it hits a sensitive nerve for me that Anthony ultimately dies in that place). It’s in the talk Anthony has with Link about how being Number Two ain’t easy, but hey, Anthony has a boss he’s happily laying down his life for, and maybe Link should ask himself if he can say the same. It’s in the way Elias escapes Reese’s protection in order to go back and trade his life for Anthony’s, because the love and loyalty goes both (*) ways, and Elias cares more for Anthony’s safety than he does for his empire. And of course, it’s in that gorgeous, gut-wrenching conversation Elias and Anthony have over the phone, in Elias’ desire for Anthony to be let go, in Anthony’s request that Elias stop trying to save him because “please Boss, I just want it to be done”, and in the tears they both shed as Elias accepts Anthony’s choice and gives up the trigger code to the bomb that will end Anthony’s life. Dominic may call his organisation ‘The Brotherhood’, but he has no notion of what that really stands for – Elias and Anthony do. And when Elias declares at episode’s end that he will make Dominic answer for Anthony’s death, no one is doubting his sincerity.
Person of Interest CBS Tuesdays 10/9c
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