PERSON OF INTEREST: Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman Talk the Carter Twist in ‘The Crossing’ and What Comes Next
November 20, 2013 by Marisa Roffman
[This post contains massive, massive spoilers for the PERSON OF INTEREST episode, "The Crossing." If you haven't seen it, please go watch the episode before you read any further.]
PERSON OF INTEREST delivered arguably its strongest episode of the series with last night’s hour, “The Crossing”…while simultaneously breaking our hearts by killing off Taraji P. Henson’s Carter.
To get a little insight into the decision behind Carter’s death, I spoke with PERSON OF INTEREST bosses Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman about saying goodbye to the character, the unexpected change the actors brought to “The Crossing,” where the team goes from here, and more…
It’s the day after you killed off Carter — what kind of reaction have you been seeing to her death?
Jonathan Nolan: [Joking] We’re speaking to you from an undisclosed location!
Greg Plageman: I think the feedback has been overwhelmingly powerful. It’s been something some people are calling the best episode they’ve ever seen, and other people are incredibly traumatized by the loss of Carter. Which were all things we knew were going to happen.
JN: It’s exciting. This is why we do this job. We don’t do it because we have nothing else to do or we want to spin a little story each week. We want people to invest in our characters and invest in our stories, so it’s incredibly gratifying to have people this invested in them. Whether they’re upset with us, or not, it’s a measure, I think, of their investment with that character. And there’s something really special about spending three years collaborating with an actor on a character that people care about this much, that there’s this level of passion when she goes.
At what point did you actually decide that you’d be killing off Carter?
JN: All of our actors understood from the beginning that this was not your conventional procedural. We would not be asking them to do 10 seasons with no character development, no change, no risk, no stakes. So we told all of our actors upfront that this was a gig where anything could happen. Michael [Emerson]‘s character announces it in the pilot. At the end of the pilot, Finch says to Reese, “If we keep doing this, we’ll probably get killed.” And he wasn’t kidding.
Specific, in terms of the arc we designed, I flew out earlier in the year and sat down with Taraji and it was a great, bittersweet conversation. Because actors, like writers, are driven by great material. You get excited [by things like this]. I was excited to write this arc, and she was incredibly excited to take this character on this journey. But bittersweet, because we loved working with Taraji, she’s an absolutely incredible actor, a friend, and a professional. And that’s tough. So many of the actors in smaller roles in the show over the year, when we’ve had to make those painful phone calls, to be, “Sorry, [we have to kill you off] but we loved working with you.” But Taraji, obviously, was on a completely different level. It’s almost like family. So it’s bittersweet. But we all were excited. She was excited by this material, by the prospect of doing something that really fucking hit people. The whole show was excited by the idea of surprising the audience in this way. And I’m so excited and proud that we were kind of able to pull it off.
Right. Even though you guys had sort of teased someone might die and there was a bit of foreshadowing — especially with the Carter flashback last week and some of the comments in “The Crossing” — it was still a bit of a shock to see you guys actually took the step and killed Carter off.
When you were crafting these last run of episodes for Carter, did you always know that you wanted her to have those heavy moments with Reese where he told her how much of an impact she had made on him? Or was that something that came to be later in the process?
JN: Well, we always intended they have a real moment there. Denise The — who wrote the episode — we kind of talked straight-forwardly about the moment and these two very tough characters bonding over the fragility of human existence, that at any moment, anyone can fucking bite it. Which set a couple of things in the audiences’ minds: that Carter was aware of this, and somewhat comfortable with this from her time in the Armed Forces and had come to peace with.
As for the intimacy of the moment, that’s actually an interesting story. One of the things I was most drawn to and excited about television where you have this long-form collaboration is that you can be a control freak all you want, but after three years, the narrative belongs not just to you [but] the actors and the audience and the crew and the editors and everybody who works on the show is contributing in a way to where the story is going. We’ve talked a couple of times about how Root became a more prominent character — we hadn’t even cast Amy Acker in the role — we brought the character back because the composer had come up with such a fucking excellent theme that we wanted to hear it again!
Three years in, the narrative starts to take you in interesting directions. So what happened with that kiss is it wasn’t scripted. Denise wrote — and we collaborated to create — a scene that was characters who draw into this moment to create an intense connection in which Reese explains that Carter has meant this much to him. In which we fully see in three seasons that these people have a deep, deep emotional connection and bond, which is very far from where you find them in the pilot. And what happened is [Taraji and Jim Caviezel (Reese)] were doing this scene, and two or three takes in, this [kiss] kind of happens.
And at first, I didn’t want to see the cut because I didn’t want it to undermine this friendship we had built between these two characters. And then we looked at it. And we pulled everyone else in and had them look at it, too. And by the end of it, half of the writers and editors were sucked into this edit suite looking at this moment between them. And from that moment on, it was impossible to take it out of the cut. Because it didn’t feel lascivious, it didn’t feel untrue to the audience, where it was going to be like [us telling you], “They just connected and they’re in love and then she dies and Reese is pissed off because she’s his girlfriend.” She’s not his girlfriend. She’s a fucking police [officer], she’s a flesh and blood character, who is not reduced [in definition] to that moment. So we saw the kiss, and it felt powerful, and it felt like the actors, in character, in that moment, found a way for this emotional connection in which these two very broken people have found each other as friends. And maybe there’s more to it than that. But, unfortunately, the characters don’t get to explore it, because of where we took the narrative. it’s just one of those fun things that happen when you’re making a TV show.
What can you share about where our team goes after Carter’s death?
GP: Well, I think obviously Mr. Reese has a beef and so do all of our characters. Officer Simmons’ number comes up and it becomes a question of who is going to get to him first. It’s a rather dark, intense episode, but I think another thing that comes out of this loss is a question, a point of divisiveness between Reese and Finch, in terms of what the Machine knows and how it wouldn’t allow them to save their friend, Carter.
Will that lead to either more tension or perhaps a collaboration with Root, given her relationship with the Machine?
JN: Well, certainly a lingering question coming out of last night’s episode is going to be, “What if Finch had trusted her? Would she have been able to make a difference?” We’re going to put another one of our heroes in extreme jeopardy next week, and Finch is going to be confronted with the same question. Root is someone that has an all-access pass the Machine, with almost God-like powers. But he sees her as a villain.
GP: Whether he’ll be able to trust her like he trusts the Machine will be something that drives next week’s episode.
What can you tease about where Fusco and Shaw go from here? Things seem to be shifting for them a bit, especially when she saved his son’s life, even while being apologetic that she knew it could lead to Fusco’s death…
GP: I think the interesting thing about that relationship is that they’re somewhat contemptuous and the two of them not really seeing eye-to-eye up to that point, but when Fusco’s son was in peril, that [past] was water under the bridge, that Shaw was willing to do what it took. She had to make a choice there, and that given the choice, [Fusco] would always have her save [his] kid first. And I think we’ll show a progression in that relationship.
Before I let you go, given how flashbacks are utilized so often with the show, is there any chance we’ll see Carter pop up before the season is over?
GP: We’ll see what happens. Taraji is up for it, and if we can find the right story that tells about a chapter we haven’t seen, that feels like a revelation for that character, we’ll definitely go there. We point out that in this show, when we met Reese and Finch in the pilot, the two people they cared the most about were already dead — that was [Reese's ex] Jessica and [the Machine co-creator] Nathan Ingram — and yet we were able to show those bonds in flashbacks and people found those characters really rewarding. And I think if there’s an opportunity where we can do that with Detective Carter, we’ll do it.
So, how are you feeling about Carter’s death? Are you still heartbroken? In shock? Anyone else need a hug?
PERSON OF INTEREST airs Tuesdays at 10 PM on CBS.