As someone heavily entrenched in the mental health field, I’m particularly sensitive to topics surrounding mental health in shows, film, and media as a whole. I can’t help it. Whether it is the portrayal of those with mental illness, or the professionals who try to help people, I’m always keeping an eye out for media’s representation of a field I care for greatly. Generally, I shrug off a lot of the misconceptions and poor writing surrounding storylines that integrate these topics into them. It often isn’t worth the fight, and most shows and film get things correct enough that I can let it slide.

However, in the latest plot arc on Person of Interest, they took a turn that irritated me. Though I hope this particular plot point with justify itself later down the line, right now as it stands it isn’t looking pretty. Not only did the writers demonstrate an unethical relationship and spun it to be romantic, but they did so in such a bland, boring, and typical way that it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I’m especially disturbed because this show has such generally high quality writing that this particular plot point seems out of place.

I’m constantly exhausted by storylines that romanticize the therapeutic relationship. It is dangerous because it perpetuates a false dynamic, one that is avoided at all costs by most ethical practioners. The therapeutic relationship is supposed to be a safe relationship, where the client can be open and honest with the therapist without the heavy weight of expectation that comes with everyday relationships.

In therapy, the client is never expected to engage in the usual give and take. Rather, all they have to do is give. That’s sort of the point of therapy. The relationship provides a place for an individual to unpack their thoughts and be gently (or not so gently, depending on the modality) guided by a therapist who doesn’t have a dog in the fight. Clients get to engage in a relationship where they are not expected to ask how the therapist’s day is going. They are not responsible for the emotions of the therapist. All the client has to worry about is working through their own stuff.

That’s the beauty of therapy.

Instead of upholding the dynamics of this relationship, the Person of Interest writers had Iris do exactly what therapists are never supposed to do: engage in a romantic relationship with a client. She took advantage of an emotionally compromised individual in her care, fell for his dark and mysterious nature, and then shattered the client/therapist boundary with a kiss. While she took a step in the right direction when she terminated their therapeutic relationship, it was all for naught because she decided to pursue him anyway.

Even putting the ethical implications aside, the fact the Person of Interest writers would go with such a cliché storyline was disappointing at best. ‘Innocent, unknowing career woman falls for tall, dark, and handsome client who returns her affections and sweeps her off her feet into a taboo relationship’ is so dull I expect to only see it on poorly written dramas and in afternoon soap operas. Even the flip side, ‘tall, dark, and handsome client falls in love with his therapist because she’s someone who knows him without running away,’ is just as dull. There’s a constant power imbalance, based in the therapeutic relationship, which makes me roll my eyes and sigh.

Had the two of them met on the street, there would have been a chance for a different dynamic based on genuine interest. The very fact that they met in a counseling room, however, negates it. The only reason John met Iris was because he had mandated therapy sessions due to his line of work. He continued to see her after he was cleared because there was something beneficial to the meetings. He had begun to open up, which was a testament to Iris’ skills as a counselor. She was firm enough to impart to him the importance of opening up without being extremely overbearing.

Now, I don’t think John was an innocent here. He had his own motivations for continuing the therapy sessions. I do believe part of it was the fact he finally had a place to share some of what he was feeling. It was a port in the Samaritan storm and a place where he could open up without compromising himself. However, as their therapeutic relationship developed, it would be neglectful to not mention the writing on the wall. Their interactions, on both sides, clearly switched gears from “client/therapist” to an interest in a different sort of relationship. I think this switch happen during the episode titled “Karma,” when Iris got John into a banquet in order to follow a number.

While it was obvious the writers were building toward the eventual kiss seen in “Skip,” I hoped all along the way that they wouldn’t do it. It just seemed so out of place in the midst of solid storylines and character interactions. They’ve built such a complex universe where no relationship is wasted, yet this one feels like a waste. It is a throwaway relationship, because the endgame is never going to be “John and Iris live happily ever after.” Thus leading me to my hope that this storyline will end up justifying itself in the end.

There are two lines I see this taking. The first is boring and a less interesting replay of what’s happened in the past. Since we’ve established that the series will probably not end with John in a happy relationship, it is safe to say something is going to destroy the bond between him and Iris. At the very least, they’re going to kill her off at some point. They’ll kill her off, and John will slip back into his brooding, moody self and have another body to add to the list of “people John loved that ended up dead or missing.” Why not keep kicking an already down dog?

On the flip side, instead of killing her, John’s Detective Riley identity will have to be destroyed. That would leave Iris believing John to be dead, forcing her to move on with her life without him. It would probably result in the same outcome mentioned above for John, who would always be moody and sad over the latest loss of someone he cared for.

The second, more interesting plotline that I’m crossing my fingers for would be the one where Iris is actually an agent for Samaritan, part of the Brotherhood, or otherwise associated with a bad-guy agency. I want her to be the villain, because then this whole storyline might actually hold my attention. It was something I thought of when we were first introduced to her, before it took a turn down the lovey-dovey path. She was in the perfect position to earn John’s trust and begin to chip away at him to reveal his secret. If she’s working for an agency with an interest in him and Team Machine, then her actions have real purpose.

I think that may also be why it bothers me so much that it appears that the writers are taking them down the path to romance. The motivations align with a potentially malicious person. Even though this take on the relationship would still be one where a therapist exploited her position to gain power over a client, it would at least be justifiable. After all, she’d be the bad guy. Bad guys are allowed to use their positions to do bad things because it is in their nature. One of my biggest beefs with the dynamic as it is, is that a supposedly “good person” is doing something bad and there isn’t an alignment of motivation and character. There’s discord, leading to a boring and cliché storyline.

It would be a heck of a lot cooler if she turned out to be a bad guy. Person of Interest writers, take my word on it. Please.

At the end of the day, I’m hoping that the Person of Interest writers, with the bigger picture in mind, have an interesting and redeeming outcome for this plot arc. I have a difficult time believing they just threw it in there to give John yet another love interest. Then again, the way they’ve carried out the plot so far has pointed to that being the main motivation. Give John someone to be interested in, rip out his heart later when he comes to realize he cannot safely engage in relationships because of the work he does. I hope that’s not the case, and that Iris turns out to be a kickass bad guy.

Until then, I’ll grit my teeth, scowl, peek out from between my fingers, and deal with the plot as it comes.

11 thoughts on “Person of Interest: Exploring the Misuse of the Therapeutic Relationship”

  1. It’s still a bit too simple for the show is it not ? Remember it’s Reese who asked to go on, not her. If he hadn’t, their relationship would be over. Maybe he wants to use her in some way ? Or knows she’s involved in something ? In any case I don’t buy the psy/patient relationship at all, just like you.

    1. That’s true. I hadn’t considered the fact that she was ready to end the therapeutic relationship back when he was cleared for duty. TM has got to be involved somehow, either in keeping him in therapy or keeping her near him. It is also curious that Finch hasn’t discussed it more with Reese which seems like something that should have happened. Finch isn’t dumb and no doubt continues to keep tabs. While he might respect Reese’s privacy, I would think he’d still be interested to make sure the therapist/client relationship would compromise their entire mission…who knows. The writers will hopefully rectify this.

  2. Then there’s the whole issue of “informed consent” – Iris may be willing to compromise her ethics and risk her career (blah!), but I can’t believe Reese would risk her life by letting her get involved with him when she has NO CLUE about the activities of Team Machine and the danger they and everyone they associate with is in. As far as Iris knows (unless the writers are indeed planning her as a Bad Guy Plant, which is also painfully transparent) she’s dating a cop with a hero complex and some anger control issues. When she finds out she’s really involved with a vigilante who’s being hunted by every government on the face of the earth … Ugh. It’s just a dumb choice, and I’m pretty certain one of them will end up in the fridge by the end of the season. POI used to be better than this.

    1. The only other option, which I didn’t think to include in this piece, is that John is somehow playing her. Though I highly doubt it, it would be a possibility. Another thought I had would be that she is somehow another part of The Machine’s plan, much like TM brought Harper into the mix in this very same episode. All in all, though, I’m disappointed at how cavalierly they’re treating the patient/therapist relationship.

  3. I too really, really, really want Iris to be bad code! It’s the only way I can accept this pitifully hackneyed storyline.
    This whole “John in therapy” plot just gives me hives…and not just because of the ethical issue (which is a BIG one!) but because if/when Reese reveals his secrets he puts all his friends at risk. And for what? A doomed romance? Puleeese…!

  4. I wish I could hope for her to be a plant for Samaritan or the Brotherhood, but they could have snapped him up from her at any point by now if that were the case. We were given the tools to suspect Root right off if we’d known to be looking at Caroline in that light, but there’s been no hint that Iris is anything but what she says, and Reese has been the one to pursue her when the relationship would have ended naturally, with no urging or set up on her behalf. TWICE EVEN!

    I’m hoping the writers have something amazing for us re: this story arc, but for now I’m going to shuffle Reese and his outside-the-team occupations down in my priorities and hope the rest of the team and show make up for it if there is no significant uptick in this particular vein.

    1. So I guess the question is: does Reese have some sort of plan involving her? I swear if they just kill her off to further his “man pain” as people call it, I’m going to be so disappointed. They brought in a sharp, clever, insanely intelligent and intuitive woman who managed to gain Reese’s trust and who jives well with the story line. They should use her as something more than just a love interest.

    1. Less simple given the entire context of the show. Nothing in Person of Interest is simple, and their relationship is not going to be normal in any way, shape, or form. Not when there’s an evil supercomputer looking to kill Reese and all his friends the moment it gets a chance. Not simple, and clearly part of some sort of bigger plot line.

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