I’ve made a lot of predictions in my time watching Person of Interest. I even tried to make some predictions about the finale, most of which were wrong. I still have a lot of catching up to do in terms of television analysis. However, the thing I was wrong about ended up being one of the most poetic character arcs I’ve ever witnessed on television.

The character of John Reese (Jim Caviezel), headliner with Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) had been an enigma from the start. He was a rogue CIA agent, burned by the agency, unable to save the woman he loved, ready for death, until he was given a purpose. His development throughout all five seasons was perhaps the most compelling of all the characters, and his end fitting.

Contemplating John Reese is a difficult thing to do, because the character is tragic from the start. Through the first few seasons the audience meandered through his life and began to piece together what put him on Finch’s radar. Carter pegged him in the first season, pointing out that she had a suspicion he had been on his way to the Brooklyn Bridge to take a dive off of it when they first met. The Machine summed it up in .exe perfectly: John was always on borrowed time.

It was so disgustingly poetic and predictive, I should have seen it coming.

During his borrowed time, he shifted and changed. A man who began as an empty soul started to come to life right before our eyes. Beneath his coy exterior and desire to needle at Finch until some piece of information popped out, he began to settle into a sense of belonging. Purpose looked good on him, as did the suit, when he finally committed to delving deeper into the world of Harold Finch’s Machine.

He nearly died on more than one occasion, often with the reminder to Harold that he was living on borrowed time. If it hadn’t been for Finch, he would have been dead already. That theme was threaded carefully through the series, keeping Reese always on the edge of suicidal, though pulling him back further into the embrace of new family relationships every time he made it to the edge. The CIA couldn’t kill him, Agent Donnelly couldn’t keep him down, and Kara Stanton was no match for John Reese’s new purpose.

For a while, we could forget that he was even suicidal to begin with, until Carter’s death. Only then did the audience get a taste again for Reese’s tendency to make poor choices when it comes to his well being. In the face of losing someone he cared about, he risked his life and limb to bring her justice. Again, I should have seen the finale coming. It fit the pattern that I had gleefully ignored, overwhelmed by the Samaritan plot line.

Bring it in to Samaritan, and the audience watched as Reese entered survival mode. Buried in the NYPD as John Riley, he was not satisfied with the life the Machine gave him. He needed the numbers. They were what gave him purpose and kept him alive.

When Finch appeared to lose sight of that, Reese did everything in his power to bring him back in. When they faced Samaritan in the final wild arc of season five, Reese did so head on and again, and we could almost forget that he was a dead man walking from the beginning.

Borrowed time. I can’t get over that line.

The final episode then, return 0, wasn’t simply a series finale. It did not just aim to wrap it all up in a pretty bow and deliver a happy ending to the audience. No, it looked to round out the story of John Reese. All along I believed the finale would show us that this story was about Harold Finch the entire time, and some grand revelation would be seen in his sacrifice as he and the Machine went down to protect his friends.

Instead, that role went to Reese, and it turned out more perfectly then I could have hoped. It clicked, it fit, it was a final end to a character that had been the core struggle of the series. Harold Finch always knew who he was and what he was capable of. He was always self-aware.

It was John Reese who was on a collision course with his purpose. John Reese, who the Machine chose and directed Harold to. Why? Because she knew what he was made of. She broke down the pieces of people’s lives, extraordinary people’s lives, in order to better understand who they were.

The Machine saw the little boy standing at his father’s grave, who heard the men behind him talking about how he had been a hero. His father had run back into a building while hell rained down to save his friends, and that became the beat that drove John Reese and remained consistent through everything he did.

The Army, the CIA, special operations, nearly to suicide when he failed that core mission, then straight to Harold who helped him achieve it again. He was always living on borrowed time, and in the end he was able to give the greatest gift he could to protect the ones he loved.

As the saying goes, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I believe John Reese’s story was tragic, yes, and he met his end. But it was also beautiful, because he met it on his terms, for good reason, to lay his life down.

The man living on borrowed time used what he was given to make the biggest impact, and accepted the end when it was presented to him. There was no end game for John Reese, no true future, because he had given it up long before.

He gave it all up to lay his life down for his friends. He had nothing else to lose but them.

There’s nothing more tragic or more beautiful than for someone, with everything on the line, with the ability to make a difference choice, to choose to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.

Rest in peace, John Reese.

2 thoughts on “The Tragedy (and Beauty) of John Reese”

  1. Not to be that guy, but “Greater love has no man than this: to lay one’s life down for one’s friend” isn’t just a saying, it’s a direct quote from Jesus and the Bible.

    Reference is John 15:13

  2. I find it sad that it needed to be pointed out that giving up your life to save another life is a core principle of Christianity. Christ gave up His life for the sake of all mankind.
    Thank you, Logan Hollis

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