Taraji P. Henson‘s character’s death on “Person of Interest” Season 3 is something fans have had a hard time wrestling with, even if she saw it coming and has come to terms with it. Joss Carter was killed at a high point in her arc, and many viewers have expressed outrage that she was offed and even said they won’t continue watching this show without her on it.
Zap2it had a chance to speak with “Person of Interest” showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman about why Carter’s death wasn’t so surprising after all. They also reveal that the kiss between Carter and Reese wasn’t planned and almost didn’t make the episode’s final cut, and that Henson could be back in future flashback sequences.
Zap2it: Though Carter’s death was a surprise to fans, this seems like it was a decision you both made a while ago.
Jonathan Nolan: From the beginning, we promised all of our actors that this could happen. In the pilot, Michael [Emerson]‘s character Finch said to Jim [Caviezel]‘s character [Reese], “If we keep doing this, we’re going to wind up dead.” You understand from the beginning that it’s a suicide mission. They’re trying to fight inevitability; they’re trying to fight the irrelevance, the now constant, persistent f***ing entropy, the course of the universe. It’s a fool’s errand. It’s heroic, what they’re doing. And we said from the beginning, we sort of made this pledge not only to our audience but to our actors that anything can happen.
We always promised the audience the show wouldn’t just spin its wheels, it wouldn’t just be one thing forever. There’s some great shows that have done that; durable shows that have hung in there for 15 seasons doing exactly that, but we’re not interested in making that kind of show where it was the same thing every week.
So it wasn’t something where Taraji came to you and said that she wanted to leave the show to pursue other projects?
JN: We told all of these actors from the beginning, we didn’t say “buy the apartment,” we said “rent the apartment” for everyone on our show. We wanted to commit to the idea that anything can happen on this show and really get people to a place where we’re challenging the audience. We didn’t lay out a specific time table with anybody.
I went out early in the year, sat down in Taraji, and told her what we were cooking up, the direction we were planning. It was a really wonderful, bittersweet moment where we all engaged to do this in this way, this almost reckless way. You get people this invested in these characters, that the TV playbook — the broadcast TV playbook — you don’t f*** around with it. You don’t change anything. We wanted to shake it up.
We sat down early in the year and talked about how this was going to play out and built constantly with Taraji this climactic storyline. It’s been really, really a privilege working with her, obviously, and one we hope to do again. The nice thing about flashbacks in our show is everyone kind of gets to live on forever.
Most shows like this you’d think the central cast of characters would be safe. Does this mean your killing streak is over for Season 3?
Greg Plageman: Our bloodlust will never be sated. If we’re real a**holes, we’d kill off Reese next episode.
That’s what I thought was going to happen last night, because Fusco seemed too obvious.
GP: That’s the sort of interesting part, that everybody sort of knew these sort of sign posts, of “Oh that clearly means the character’s going to die, they just spoke to their child or they said goodbye or they found out the big secret,” and so everyone’s sort of tuned to it. The thing about broadcast television is it becomes an expectation of what to expect. As much as that becomes comfort food, it also becomes stale.
You give people exactly what they expect every week, you can only eat that Chipotle burrito so many times before you need to switch it up. We like to keep people guessing. We like to surprise them. We need a show with real stakes where real things can happen to our characters who are running around with guns every week.
JN: Of all words in the English language, “safe” might be my least favorite.
Though so many people are upset that Carter died, it also was in her best moment. Was it important for you to have her go out on a high point?
JN: This is sort of part of it. We’ve seen shows along the way where when they know the end is in sight for a particular storyline or character, the entire f***ing show, it breathes power and confidence into the narrative. We know what we’re writing to. This is one of the challenges coming into television from film was a film gets two and a half hours and at the end of it, you know, the story has resolved itself and there’s a body count and you sort of move on.
In television the idea is much more complicated. On the one hand, you’re free to explore these characters for 100 hours, which is incredible. It’s an incredible luxury to be able to work with actors for years developing characters. On the flip side, the model, for the most part — and the cable model is challenging this somewhat — nothing can really change. There’s a stasis there. So we promised all our actors, “We’re going to give you good material.” The good material doesn’t necessitate the character meeting a tragic end, but it sure helps when you know you’re moving towards [death].
If you don’t have stakes, if your narrative isn’t moving somewhere, you don’t really get great work. You don’t get great work out of anyone. You want everyone to feel like you’re pushing towards a big bold narrative. And the actors, they feel that. They want their characters to go places.
That moment where Reese kissed Carter came as a bit of a surprise, even though it was being built up to for a while. At what point did you decide to have him consummate that romance?
GP: We ran the same gamut of emotions [over the kiss], and to be honest with you, it wasn’t scripted. There was a moment between them, obviously, in the scene where they’re sort of divulging their scars and their prior histories, and what we always felt with these two characters is that there would be feelings towards each other. That was never any question from the very beginning, from the pilot, the moment she sat down. We had a nice callback here to that moment.
We felt like it was evident how much these two characters cared about each other and that was the intent of the scene was, and then when we got back, this version of it, the first time Jonah and I even heard of it, we hadn’t seen it yet. We’d heard it, and we were like, “Oh, that’s not happening. We’re not doing that.” And we viewed the episode and we made the mistake of going in and looking at the takes where he actually kissed her, and what was amazing was the way Taraji reacted. In her eyes you saw there was surprise but there was also a moment where it didn’t feel like, when we watched the two of them, that it felt unearned. It felt like the two characters wanted to go there. The kiss, it was something; a burst of emotion and feeling that he had for her, perhaps the impending stakes of the moment and understanding what was about to transpire.
We got to the end of the episode and we watched it with and without it, we dragged everybody into the editing room and we debated this for hours, maybe three days. We realized when we took the kiss out, it didn’t mean as much. … The actors felt it in the moment, and we were going to take that away, so we decided let’s leave it in.
“Person of Interest” airs Tuesdays on CBS at 10 p.m.