Friday, December 18, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Joss Carter (Person of Interest)

Yes, chickadees, it's true. In the midst of all the other stuff I probably ought to be watching right now*, somehow this fall I've spent an inordinate amount of time catching up on Person of Interest, a show I was only vaguely aware of before tumblr started slapping me in the face with Shoot. Since I love both Amy Acker and Sarah Shahi individually, I decided to give them a shot together and I have not been disappointed.

The real revelation, though, has been Taraji P. Henson's work as Detective Carter on the show. Because she does what seems like it ought to be impossible: elevates a stock-level character to operatic intensity and makes Carter the heart of the show. That's damn good acting, and it's really really wonderful.

But I should back up a minute. What the heck is a Person of Interest?

Person of Interest is a CBS drama with a premise that was much harder to believe five years ago. According to the show, the government has a secret machine that watches everything we do and uses that data to predict terror attacks. But since the machine couldn't tell the difference between terrorism and violent crime at first (because the difference is so inherently human), it ended up predicting all premeditated violent crime. 

Eventually it was programmed to only care about terrorism, but there's still a list of "irrelevant" incidents created every night. Our heroes are the ones who programmed the Machine to send them that list and then use it to save people.

There is, of course, a catch. The information they get is far from complete. All our heroes receive is the number - a social security number - of a person about to be involved in a violent crime. They aren't ever told if this person will be the victim or the perpetrator of said crime, so they have to follow the person around for a while and try to predict what's going to happen. It makes for very fun television and enough of a premise that they're now entering their fifth season.

Detective Joss Carter (Henson) does not start out the show as one of our heroes. That's important to note. When we meet Carter she's actually kind of the antagonist. Not the bad guy, mind you, but the antagonist, the one working against the protagonist's plans. Carter is a detective and a damn good one. She meets our actual hero, John Reese (Jim Caviezel), when he gets into a fight in a subway car. Carter is kind and helpful and also strong and stern with Reese, which is exactly what he needs. But then Reese escapes and suddenly Carter finds his prints showing up at crime scenes all over the city.

From her perspective, that sweet, stunted homeless man she arrested way back when is actually a criminal mastermind who might be working as an assassin for some shady organized crime outfit. So Carter, being a good and honest cop, does everything in her power to bring "the man in the suit" to justice. Since Carter is a really freaking good cop, she gets damn close.

So close, in fact, that she manages to uncover who John Reese really is. She finds out about his past, encounters his former employers at the CIA, and eventually figures out what he and his friend Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) are up to. They're helping people, albeit helping people by breaking the law.

Obviously Carter has a choice to make. Either she can turn Reese over to people who definitely want to kill him, or she can turn a blind eye to his illegal activities and pretend she never found "the man in the suit", or she can help them. 

Guess which one she picks.

This is really just the first season or so of Carter's character development, but already she'd morphed into one of the most compelling people on the show. I mean, here we have this woman. She's a police detective. She's really well-respected. She's amazing at her job. She also happens to have a teenage son that she's raising mostly on her own, and that kid is fantastic. No behavioral problems there - the two of them are super close and love each other. Oh yeah, did we mention that Carter is a former military interrogator? That too. She's a bundle of righteousness and good intentions and she's scary competent. No wonder she's so easy to love.

The second season, then, dissects Carter's character in a really complex way. We see her become more and more invested in her search for the corrupt police known as "HR". In seasons two and three, HR is her big white whale, and just like the real Moby Dick, it tries to take her down with it.

See, Carter is an honest cop. Not just an honest cop, she's basically the honest cop. When we meet her at the beginning, she really and genuinely believes in law and order. She believes in justice. She knows that there are corrupt cops and that bad things happen - she's not naive - but she is also firm in her belief that the good outweighs the bad. The presence of a few bad cops doesn't mean that justice cannot be trusted. Well, over the course of seasons two and three, we see that belief really really tested.

Most of the testing comes from HR, sure, which presents her with the frustration of trying to get good policework done when none of the cops around her are on the straight and narrow. But a lot of it also comes from her connection to Reese and Finch. Carter thinks what they do is ultimately good, even if she really wishes they would stop shooting people and breaking the law. Her conflict comes when the FBI comes knocking and wants her help to find Reese and stop him. It's not like she can say no, but it's also not like she wants to see her friend, a man she believes is doing the right thing, be punished for it.

And this is where we see Henson's best acting work. As she struggles to hold the threads together, it's clear in her desperation that Joss Carter is a whole hell of a lot more than just a cop who follows orders. Carter is a true believer. But she's a true believer in Justice, not necessarily the effectiveness of the police force.

This becomes incredibly true in season three, when Carter has lost her chance at working for the FBI, lost a man who she might have been able to love, and then lost her detective's badge. Demoted down to beat cop, Carter has to figure out how she can still work for Justice in a precinct and a police force that rewards corruption and punishes those on the straight and narrow. Her solution? A one-woman assault on HR that is way more effective than I think anyone anticipated.

Carter's transformation through the seasons is perhaps the more interesting because of how subtly Henson plays it. There are very few expressions of intent. Mostly, we see Carter's transformation in her actions and her emotional state in the droop of her shoulders. The first time she does something she genuinely doesn't know is right, we see her bone-deep weariness. Henson just seriously nails it every time.

And that's a lot of why I picked Carter for SFC Friday this week. Not so much because she's a really unusual character. Strong black woman in police work is actually a not-uncommon trope. Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad trope by any means, though much smarter people than me have written reams about the problems with only ever writing "strong" black women. It's more that between Abbie Mills on Sleepy Hollow, Lt. Reece on Forever, and a whole host of other black women in positions of authority in fictional precincts, there didn't feel like there was much new to be said with Carter's character.

Hence the brilliance. Henson takes Carter, a by the books cop stereotype, and elevates her into a woman with feelings and passions and a complictated backstory who serves as the moral compass of the show even after she's gone. That's really impressive, and frankly, really good.

We need more characters like Carter - not in the sense that we need more characters exactly like Carter, but more that we need more characters who are developed and complex and breeding ground for interesting and nuanced acting like Carter. That's what I'm getting at here. I want better writing, but I also want room for better writing to inspire better acting. I want more Carters and Mills and Reeces and I want them all to feel unique and new.

Admittedly, I am sad that Carter is no longer with us on Person of Interest. Sure, it's in no small part because Taraji P. Henson is making headlines over on Empire now, but I can still miss her here too. But at least we got Carter. At least we got seasons of Carter and her life on her own terms. That is definitely something to be happy about.

*Don't worry. Articles on Jessica Jones and Star Wars and Supergirl are all forthcoming. Plus Mockingjay, Part 2, Suffragette, and more stuff you know I like.


  1. At least we got seasons of Carter and her life on her own terms. That is definitely something to be happy about.


    One thing I really liked about the way Carter's death was handled was the way manpain-vengeance was denied. Finch reminding Reece how much Carter had risked to bring HR down legally - and accomplished it - and that killings it boss in revenge could never be honouring *her*.

    1. Yes! I love that the story never lets us forget who Carter actually was. Her storylines remain hers and the other characters mourning her is not a sufficient excuse for them to go against her work.

  2. YEEEEEEEEES I AM SO GLAD YOU ARE WATCHING THIS SHOW. And that you are as obsessed with Carter as I am and everyone else should be.

    I think the fandom doesn't talk about her as much because her story ended in a way that felt right. Fandom generally focuses much more on characters whose fates are yet to be determined (ahem, Shaw) or characters that they feel need more depth, rather than characters that came and left fully formed and perfect. But I'm glad that you're reminding the world of how perfect Carter is. :)

    (Also, I'm chiltongirlsdoitbetter on tumblr and I take full responsibility if I was the one who got you to watch this show.)

    1. I think that's a really good point. Fandom in general tends to focus on stories that need emotional resolution, and for all that this ends sadly, it doesn't end in a way that is really that shocking. Carter is from the start a really compelling well rounded character, so I suppose I understand why people might not be as focussed on her.

      (Oh my gosh, this is all your fault. I blame youuuuuuuu.)

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