Person of Interest "Prisoner's Dilemma" Review: Past, Present, and Prison

By Tim Surette

Jan 11, 2013

Person of Interest S02E12: "Prisoner's Dilemma"

Here's an instrumental version of The Who's "Eminence Front" to listen to while reading.

Guys, last night's Person of Interest. Was. So. Awesome. "Prisoner's Dilemma" was easily the best episode of the season and joins the pantheon of the series' greatest episodes that also includes "Firewall," "Many Happy Returns," "Flesh and Blood," and yeah, I'll say it, "Baby Blue" (for the lulz of course). Except there's a distinct possibility that it could have been even better than those.

This episode was so dense that three-quarters of the way through it, I stood up and gave it a standing ovation because so much had happened that anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours could have passed. "Eminence Front" by The Who started blasting, Reese was walking out of jail, and it just had that feeling of an epic ending. Except it wasn't over yet. And that perfectly encapsulates what this episode accomplished. SO MUCH STUFF was happening at once that undivided attention was mandatory just to keep up. But there was no struggle to keep your eyes fixed on the TV because the density wasn't overwhelming (as the show can be at times). Instead, it was enthralling. So many parts worked together in unison, and the tone was excellent, resulting an episode that all episodes of Person of Interest can learn from. I want to run this episode on repeat on every single television in my house non-stop for the next week. I have an unhealthy appreciation for "Prisoner's Dilemma." It was *gulp* perfect.

If you hang around these parts then you know that last week, my big complaint about the Finch-centric and Reese-less "2πR" was that it was a missed an opportunity to examine who the Finch really is through flashbacks or backstory. That's something that Person of Interest did so well in its first season, but that it's slowed down on in Season 2. "Prisoner's Dilemma" had a similar setup to "2πR" but flipped it; Reese was the main focus and Finch, though integral to the story, mostly chilled in the background while showing off his 1337 hacking skills. But "Prisoner's Dilemma" didn't shy away from flashbacks, allowing us to get to know Reese—and his old partner Kara Stanton—a little bit better. Despite the proliferation of knee-cappings, exploding cars, and throat punches, Person of Interest is never better than when it shines a little light into the dark corners of Reese's past, and it was so sweet to have that back after a long break.

Unlike just about every other single episode of Person of Interest, "Prisoner's Dilemma" wasn't about a number (though the writers found a really fun way to stick it in there; more on that later). It was about getting Reese out of FBI custody. Clueless FBI goon Donnelly tasked Carter to use her experience as a military interrogator to question the four suspects the FBI was holding in hopes of weeding out "The Man in the Suit." And man was it tense! Here were four guys in the custody of the FBI who were all lying about their identities, so it was a game of whose fake alibi could hold up the longest. Suspects were slowly taken away as their true identities surfaced, limiting the options for who the man in the suit could be.

On top of that, Pennsylvania Two (the government dude who wants to clean up lingering evidence connected to the murder of Alicia Corwin) wanted the Man in the Suit dead and knew only that the FBI had four suspects in custody. He speed-dialed his henchman Hersh, who—completely batshit goon that he is—walked into a park and fired his gun in the air so the cops would throw him into the same prison that was holding Reese and the three other suspects. Was it ludicrous? Yes. Was Hersh getting tossed into jail and wandering the prison yard later ready to shank Reese later that afternoon ridiculous? Absolutely. But it was perfectly in bounds for Person of Interest, a series that knows its audience forgives small leaps of believability.

It was walls closing in on Reese, which is how it should be, with Finch maintaining Reese's alibi through pretend offices and MS-Painted legal documents and Elias (ELIAS!) keeping Hersh off Reese in the yard because as it turns out, Elias is one cool dude who knows which slices of bread to keep buttered. And then there was Carter, who had to walk the line between convincingly putting the clamps on Reese to keep Donnelly satisfied and not prodding too much so as to expose Reese.

But the writers didn't waste the situation and instead turned it into one of the most revealing moments of the show. The alibi Finch crafted for Reese was so effective because it's similar to Reese's true past, meaning Reese could simply tell the truth (or close to it) when asked about his life to support his alibi. Carter picked up on this, and curious kitten she is, used the opportunity to learn a bit more about the mysterious man she's been working with. It was riveting television watching this game-within-a-game, and just to keep us off our toes and keep the mystery alive, we're still not actually sure whether the stories Reese told are true. Did we get to know him better, or did we just fall deeper into the mystery? That's the whole point, and the ambiguity is vital to Reese's character and our appreciation of him. IS THIS GUY BATMAN OR WHAT?!?!

But, as they say in infomercials, that's not all! Reese's flashbacks shed light on his dysfunctional partnership with Stanton, and if we weren't sure already, we learned that Stanton makes our psycho ex-girlfriends look completely sane. She's equal in super-spy skill to Reese but just a wee bit wacky and up for total immersion in her role, which may or not mean banging Reese senseless. This woman has all the stability of a can of Dr. Pepper used as a Shake Weight, and in the present time she had revenge on her plate too as she hunted down those responsible for her attempted murder. You know, back in China when the government sent a couple hundred tons of explosives to meet her and Reese at their last-known location in the excellent episode "Matsya Nyaya."

So it was hardly shocking that after appearing in a series of flashbacks throughout "Prisoner's Dilemma," Stanton would show up to free Reese after he was re-captured by Donnelly. BANG BANG a couple slugs in Donnelly's head, and the episode ended with Stanton tranquilizing Reese and hauling him off for who knows what. I probably missed something, because I still don't know exactly what Stanton wants with Reese. Her first priority is with the government jerks that tried to kill the both of them, but she's probably none too pleased with Reese because he's guilty by association and because he never said anything about his orders to kill her. It sets up a third straight episode in which Reese will be held prisoner, but I have no problem with that because the story, which has been dormant for so long, is moving forward fast.

And I haven't even gotten to Fusco, who had the greatest two-minute fractured storyline in television history. Seriously, this guy wasn't even on screen for the length of a commercial break and it was one of the best things ever. Fusco was tasked with helping the episode's person of interest, real-life leggy blonde supermodel Karolina Kurkova, and the amount of trouble he got himself into during his interstitials as Finch checked in with him was hilarious. The first time we saw him, he was complaining about babysitting some number until he saw who it belonged to. Later, he was being maced by the supermodel because she thought he was stalking her. Then he was in the middle of a firefight with Armenian mobsters while bravely protecting her. Finally, he was thanked with a kiss for saving her life and his abbreviated hero's arc was complete. All this while Finch ended every conversation he had with Fusco by hanging up right when Fusco needed help the most. This was Person of Interest embracing its cartoonish side and providing the comedy that it does so well without invading the intensity of the main story.

But where "Prisoner's Dilemma" really impressed was with its ability to use its network of good guys, bad guys, and sorta-good guys to its advantage. The web of villains and heroes the series has been spinning for a season and a half isn't an easy one to navigate, but every time an episode strengthens the network, it becomes easier to understand. We've endured a lot of establishment (Snow! Quinn! Root! Pennsylvania Two! Elias! Stanton! Ingram! Corwin! Donnelly! Simmons!), and now it finally feels like the show can move forward with confidence because all the pieces are firmly in place.

"Prisoner's Dilemma" was as complete an episode of Person of Interest as there's ever been. When the show is at its best, it's entertaining from several different angles. It's intense, whether the intensity comes from action or interrogations. It's expansive, unraveling the complex story and mysteries behind its central characters. And it's damn funny, surprising its audience with self-aware humor that's disarming. "Prisoner's Dilemma" hit all these marks without wasting a second, creating an episode with a forward momentum that could not be stopped by anything. Simply outstanding, and right up there with "Firewall."


– Though Fusco's storyline was great, the single funniest part of the episode was Finch armed and ready to bust into prison and break Reese out. It looks like he's gotten a little familiar with the ins and outs of grenade launchers!

– Awwwww, Bear misses his daddy!

– If I'm 'shipping this show, I make Reese and Stanton a couple over Reese and Zoe Morgan. Stanton may be 10 types of crazy, but she's hawwwwt. And their kids would be ass-kicking superstars.

– Carter opened up a bit in the interrogation, talking about her past. Was she telling the truth? Probz.

– I'm really going to miss Donnelly—he's like the bumbling Charlie Brown of the FBI. But it was his time to go, and the series is in no shortage of potential enemies for Reese and Finch.

Follow writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

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  • elizabethrobi4 Jan 26, 2013

    The rapport between Carter and Reese during the interrogation scenes were outstanding. If Reese or Carter ever get a serious love interest, it should definitely be one another. Carter/Reese may temporarily be paired with others during the show's tenure but it would be a waste to not eventually capitalize on the hotness that is Careese.

  • Suncatcher1 Jan 24, 2013

    Wondering if POI will be able to keep Annie Parisse as Kara Stanton now that she's a regular on "The Following" with Kevin Bacon which premiered this week.

    Also wondering if we'll see more of the wonderful Enrico Colantoni as Alias now that his 5 year series, "Flashpoint", has ended.

  • raymondmwale3 Jan 22, 2013

    As if hersh got himself into prison only not to kill reese! then how is he gonna get out? its not prison break!

  • LeeCuttler Jan 22, 2013

    His boss is the head of the Office of Special Council. I'm sure he has some way to get him out. But I'd love to think he's stuck there anyway.

  • leslieatkinson Jan 22, 2013

    Shipping Careese all the way. you have to be blind not to see the chemistry between these two.

  • leslieatkinson Jan 22, 2013

    Best show on tv in 45 years.

    Let me get to the point. Really, shipping Reese and Carter is like asking Reese to kill Finch to save that HR cop that's a thorn in Fusco's side. From the very beginning of POI a special relationship is being developed between Carter and Reese that will go much deeper than friendship. With the mystery of the machine and the untold stories of the four key players is a future love connection being woven between Reese and Carter. Which TV drama have you seen where the two lead detectives not ending up together?

    There is stiil this taboo in Hollywood if you will about having a solid romance between a black actress and the handsome leading actor, especially of the caliber of a Jim Caviezel. Those who refuse to see that these two will eventually end up together choose not to belive it because Carter is black and Reese is 'A' list material.

    Can't wait to see how it all pans out in the end.

    And i hope Reese has a bullet with Cara's name on it thus she won't be disappointed when this time he does blow that psycho away.

  • leslieatkinson Jan 22, 2013

    That should be shipping Reese and Cara-- not carter in the second sentence.

  • abdulay31 Jan 19, 2013

    Great Review and a Fantastic episode of Person of Interest. I was among those complaining of the lack of Reese in "2 PI R" but this episode was mind blowing with some great performances form Reese and Carter. POI is at its best when delving into his past and focusing the entire episode on the interrogation really did it for me. Finch's Plan B to go gung ho in rescuing John was Hilarious.

  • klotensen Jan 15, 2013

    Tim Surette often writes what I think and feel about a show - if it's Fringe or Alphas or Justified or SoA ... or like now, POI. It was perfect, and yes I was ashamed to admit that to myself while watching - because, c'mon its Person of Interest.
    And then there are these strange attacks of wussyness for example when he trashes Banshee for no real reason whatsoever. I think this is his deliberate plan to avoid stalking fans.

  • CathodeRoy Jan 15, 2013

    The Fusco storyline struck me as a kind of twisted version of the Xander-centric Buffy episode "The Zeppo." And any Buffy comparison is obviously praise of the highest order.

  • SeerMagicX Jan 15, 2013

    that's exactly what I said when we was watching this!

  • preferanonymous Jan 15, 2013

    Kara should team up with ROOT. They're both the psychotic hot chick versions of Reese and Finch respectively, it stands to reason they'd make a great team too. And even though they're not currently aware of each other they're hunting the same targets.

  • nemosnanny Jan 15, 2013

    As the producers lamented recently, it is getting more difficult to cast the recurring players because their appearances on POI have made them more marketable. Anne Paresse is in the new midseason Kevin Bacon series, so a story line with Root would be difficult. People like Root and Stanton do not have to trust each other in order to use each other. It then becomes a race of who can kill whom first after the mutual usefulness if over. And that makes things very intriguing.

  • nemosnanny Jan 15, 2013

    That would be "is over." I hate this mobile app.

  • Lyta_499 Jan 15, 2013

    These two would kill one another before we had time to blink our eyes just once :p

  • LeeCuttler Jan 15, 2013

    They would never trust each other (no honor among thieves) and one would kill the other in short order.

  • Glimmy Jan 14, 2013

    One of the funniest yet most endearing scenes of the episode was Harold dressed up in a uniform two sizes too big, holding a giant grenade launcher gun thing, looking terrified and completely out of his depth yet still ready to go to battle to save Reese. Now that is what I call loyalty. It is also a wonderful illustration of how far those two characters have come since we were first introduced to them back in the pilot episode. Excellent writing, excellent acting, who could ask for more.

  • Sunny-B Jan 15, 2013

    It was a nice contrast with the scenes from the premier of Reese researching with dusty old books and drawing out link analysis diagrams.

  • NeeUyank Jan 15, 2013

    the "I am going to save my friend no matter what" attitude melted my heart, too:) I just felt like hugging Finch:)

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