Review – Persons Unknown 1.12/1.13: “And Then There Was One” & “Shadows In The Cave”

With not a bang but a whimper, it’s over.

We’ve come to the final two hours of Persons Unknown. I’m not even sure how many people I mean by “we” anymore, but I don’t care. It’s been a fun ride this summer. If you don’t believe me, ask Stephen King, who took the time to mention it as one of the things he liked about the summer in this week’s Entertainment Weekly. Or ask my colleague Michael, who will be recapping this on Monday since NBC made him watch preseason football instead. But never mind the football, the ratings or the Saturday time slot of doom – let’s go out in a big way, right? Right?

Um…

When last we left, everyone was going to be killed, except they didn’t know it yet. That’s a pretty big deal, but we’re not going to talk about it yet. Instead, we open with Ulrich talking to Janet while she sleeps. Joe finds him, grabs him and threatens him over it. This leads to a hallway discussion of how they’ve wasted their lives in the Program. The confused expression on Joe’s face when he sees what a sad puppy Ulrich has become is priceless. However, it’s Ulrich who finds out from the Director that the town is about to be obliterated, and that he has one last chance to save his own behind. Not that she’ll tell him how, of course.

Everyone else is waiting for the elevator patiently, except for Joe, who freaks out when he can’t find Janet. She’s in the Chinese restaurant where everyone has disappeared. Joe knows what this means, and tells everyone to check all the other buildings. All of them have been similarly abandoned. Erika/Teresa has a bit of a meltdown when she discovers six body bags. There are seven hostages left in the town. Doing the math, only one of them will survive whatever happens next.

Janet confronts Ulrich, who tells her that the body bags are there because they will kill each other until there’s only one person left standing. He says the Program believes she will be the sole survivor, and that he would save her and only her if he could, but she won’t leave without everyone else. She takes that information to Joe, who tells her that he believed he was the last survivor when he went through the Program until Ulrich showed up. That’s what the Program wants: the subjects doing whatever it takes to survive, manipulated to the end that the Program wants – in this case, Janet being the survivor. He tells her to take Ulrich’s offer and get back to her family, but she doesn’t answer him.

Kat and Renbe are still doing their legwork, and meeting with a medical examiner, who tells them the guy whose thumb they have in their possession is alive.

Ulrich calls the Director asking to get out of the town, and she tells him that he’s not going back to his old job. This apparently sets off an alarm in his head, because he grabs Janet and not only that, calls for everyone else to come with them. He’s able to deactivate the electric field surrounding the town, at least for him, as Blackham runs right into it and gets jolted. Unfortunately for Ulrich, the Director is watching all of this, and his head literally explodes (thankfully off-screen). There goes my theory that he had a major part to play in the finale. This only makes Janet more determined to get everyone out alive. She, Joe and Moira find Ulrich’s desk and all the security cameras. Following Erika’s movements, they find a loophole in the cameras’ range.

Kat and Renbe go to visit their guy in a hospital in San Diego. When they question him about the Program, he has no idea what they’re talking about. However, when he starts throwing around the word “vocation” and how he’s part of something greater, they start to think he’s been brainwashed. They do some research leading them to the Mansfield Institute, which just so happens to have also bought the Register. Spooky.

Everyone else has a team meeting in Ulrich’s office. McNair tells Moira he can’t stay with her because they wouldn’t work out in the real world, and breaks her heart. Charlie says he’ll stay with her, which makes Blackham annoyed that Charlie isn’t with him. Erika decides to plant one on Janet. Seriously, what is with everyone falling all over Janet? Thankfully, Janet’s attention is distracted by Blackham getting himself killed. By the time everyone else gets there to help him, his body is gone. Everyone naturally suspects Charlie, who tries to choke Janet when she goes to comfort him. Everyone’s already getting testy.

Kat and Renbe go to visit the Mansfield Institute and see what they can find out. They question a rep about the town and all the things they’ve found out so far. Renbe starts talking to the security camera, which looks exactly like one of the cameras in the town. The two of them cause a major scene before being dragged off by security. Not the way I’d have played it, but no one asked me. The Director ends up alerted to their existence, which can’t be a good thing.

Back in town, Erika baits Charlie, who tries to choke her too whie he’s at it. He doesn’t get far before he just drops on the floor. Erika tries CPR but to no avail; he’s dead. That was sudden. Joe notices injection marks on Charlie’s hand, and Moira deduces that someone drugged him to induce his death. They could all be similarly fated, and decide to start drinking whatever they can in order to dilute anything that might be inside them. At least, that’s what I presume since no one says anything about it. Either that, or Joe is a big fan of pickles.

Erika goes to comfort Moira, who isn’t taking Charlie’s death well. However, she notices that Charlie’s body has disappeared. When she asks Moira about it, Moira decides to beat her to death with the door instead. Everyone else turns up at the racket, she insists that she did it believing Erika killed Charlie and Blackham, but no one believes her. With them in hot pursuit, Moira takes off, despite McNair’s best efforts to get her to calm down. He finds her on the hotel balcony, threatening to jump, and manages to talk her down. He finally tells her he loves her. Moira’s response? She throws him over the balcony to his death. Well, isn’t that lovely. Her next target is Janet, who clocks her with a fire extinguisher and then strangles her with the hose.

In the last fifteen minutes or so, we’ve lost three people, and everyone in the town except Janet and Joe has died in forty-eight minutes (counting commercials). That’s a bit harsh, considering we have a whole hour-plus left to fill. So what’s the show going to do now? Give us our third Undercovers promo, apparently.

Just as Joe and Janet realize they’re the only ones left, they’re startled by sirens and red lights. It doesn’t take a genius to guess what that means. They check the body bags and of course, there’s only one left. She asks what happens to the bodies and he tells her that he has no idea, and that the Program is probably coming to get them. They hug, while she asks what they’re going to do, and he says he doesn’t know. Except for that he’s totally lying, because he poisons her. We find out that apparently his re-education (from “Saved”) must have stuck, because he tells her corpse about how the Program is his vocation and how he could never have chosen her over it. Well, there goes the last reason I had to care about anyone on this show. Count me as one of the people who got totally suckered by his character. I’m actually kind of hoping he gets his after that. Therefore, I don’t care too much when he gets tased right after disposing of Janet’s body. Any show that makes me hate Jason Wiles automatically loses some coolness points.

But what, what’s this? Janet is in her body bag and she’s alive! How’s that? We see in flashbacks that no one’s really dead. Everyone worked together to do a masterful job of faking the whole thing in order to convince the Program that the experiment was over. Everyone’s just been hanging out in their body bags waiting to see what happens next. One by one they emerge in the back of a van which they quickly hijack…or attempt to, because they only succeed in rolling it off the road. At least it lands right side up!

Janet’s wandering the road alone, in the pouring rain, because that’s a really smart thing to do when your life is in danger. She’s also talking to Joe, who is just in her head. Also a good sign. She collapses, and we see a flashback to her life with Renbe. He wants to get a boat when they haven’t even unpacked their apartment yet. She tells him that she’s pregnant. He throws a fit. On that note, Janet wakes up in a hospital. Thankfully, she is not missing either of her thumbs. She finds out she’s back in San Francisco, just before she’s dragged back to her room. She believes she’s still a captive of the Program…but is she? Probably, or this would be a boring last hour, wouldn’t it?

When she wakes up again, she’s met by Detective Gomez, whom Renbe had to deal with last week. He asks her what happened to her, and about her ex-husband. Curiously, he refers to Mark as Mark Cooper, which makes me wonder why he changed his name (unless it was explained in an earlier episode and I missed it, which is entirely possible with this show). Janet wants to know what happened to everyone else, but she just gets knocked out again. This means it’s the perfect opportunity for the show to tell us what happenend to everyone else.

Moira and Erika are in Morocco. Charlie and Bill are on the road (and driving right by Kat and Renbe) in a stolen car. The idea of the two of them stealing a car makes me laugh. Renbe finds out from Gomez that Janet has been found, which is awkward when standing next to one’s current girlfriend. We don’t yet know what happened to McNair or Joe. Meanwhile, Janet has a visitor – who happens to be the Director, who is playing doctor and doing everything she can to discredit Janet’s story as a delusion. Janet overhears all of this and makes her angry face. She later attacks the nurse and tries to make her escape, at the same time that Kat and Renbe turn up at the hospital to see her only to be told she isn’t there. Their subsequent attempt to run from the cops brings them right into Janet. The reunion is short-lived, as Renbe gets tasered and tells Janet to flee.

We end up with some weird camera effects as Janet unwittingly tells the Director about the town and their escape from it. She says she was “sick to my stomach” at having to leave Joe behind, and that she guesses she had feelings for him. After all this time, she still doesn’t have a clue how she feels about him? Joe’s confronted with this footage by the Director, who tells him that Janet is alive as she promised. Joe corrects her that Janet might be alive but she’s not free. She’s trying to get information out of him, and he tells her that he can take whatever she dishes out, because the hostages didn’t tell him anything about the escape attempt on purpose and he wanted it that way. “This one you won’t win,” he says. “Trust me on that.” Not thirty seconds later, Neil the Ex-Night Manager tells the Director that they have a problem. That problem is probably Janet, who has escaped the hospital and made it to her parents’ place to be reunited with her daughter Megan.

The Director has an emergency meeting at the Institute with a bunch of creepy-looking people, including some guy who looks like he’s channeling Christopher Lambert in Mortal Kombat sans the hat and lightning bolts, and doesn’t like her very much. We learn she’s been running things for 25 years, so presumably this has all been going on for quite some time. We also learn that she can call Janet’s mom and refer to herself as “an old friend.” After that phone call, Janet’s mom tells her that everything she knows is true, and gives Janet her daughter and tells her to leave immediately. Obviously, Mom was in on the Program, but was she in on Janet’s abduction?

We cut from there to Kat waking up in a cage in God knows where, surrounded by armed guards. She’s not the only one either. Tori’s father is also in another cage of his own. That fate might not suck as much as the one doled out to McNair, whom we finally see only to realize that he has to be stuck in the white room, presumably pending reeducation like Joe endured in “Saved.” Meanwhile, Charlie and Bill’s Excellent Adventure has them sans car, in the middle of nowhere, talking about how the whole experience has changed them. Charlie realizes Bill is not quite right when Bill knows Charlie’s wife’s name. Awkward.

Janet and her daughter get dropped off at a cheap motel, at least for the time being, because the plan is for them to leave there at daybreak and continue on. I don’t even want to know how Janet is going to explain any of this to her daughter when she gets old enough to start asking questions. There’s another moment where Janet is talking to Joe, wanting him to come to San Francisco and meet Megan. It’s almost kind of cute except for that we know Joe isn’t really there, and that I’m still not convinced Janet really cares for him. Janet wakes up in the hotel room alone. She looks up into a camera before saying, “How could you?”

Joe wakes up himself in another hotel room back in the town. Both of them find Bibles with their room keys in them. Joe is back in the town, and this time, so is Renbe. When he asks where they are, Joe tells him that he doesn’t know. Renbe knows who Joe is and wants to know what happened to Joe. Joe is speechless. The two start to round up whomever is in there with them. Meanwhile, Janet, Moira, Charlie, Blackham and McNair have all woken up in their town together. Everything that they did over the past thirteen episodes was for absolutely nothing. This is only made weirder by the fact Joe discovers Tori is the new Night Manager in his town, and Neil the Pirate Guy has brought Janet, Moira, Charlie, Blackham and McNair to something called “Level Two,” which looks like it sucks a whole lot more than Level One…because it’s on a boat in the middle of the ocean.

I’m going to give everyone a second to process that before I attempt to say anything about it.

Frankly, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around this, and not in a good way. The show was conceived as a thirteen-episode miniseries, yet by episode thirteen we really have no closure. We have some ideas of how the Program works and who’s behind it, but with every answer there seems to be another question. I’d forgive this more if the show didn’t essentially just loop around itself to come back to the beginning. We spent thirteen weeks getting to know these people and rooting for their escape, only to have them end up captive all over again, some of them right back in the same town. It’s almost worse because now Renbe is stuck in the town and Kat is presumably still in a cage somewhere, so who is supposed to be looking for them? This is to say nothing of this new “Level Two,” which begs two questions: what are Levels Three through Seven (desert? submarine? space? who knows), and what exactly is accomplished by putting people on a boat in the middle of the ocean? This certainly isn’t Deadliest Catch.

Therein lies my frustration with these episodes, and I suppose you could say with the series as a whole. The show did a great job of getting the audience invested in these characters, and wanting them to succeed and be free of the Program, yet the show not only denies us that, but essentially just makes having watched the thirteen episodes worthless as everyone ends up pretty much right back where they started. I could see a cliffhanger, or maybe even some of the characters not making it out alive, to build some suspense or some dramatic weight, but to condemn everyone to a perpetual cycle of…we don’t even really know what? It’s just maddening. The only way this ending would make any sense was if there would be a second season, but we already know there won’t be. This makes me keep asking myself, what was the point? We didn’t really get many answers, and our heroes didn’t get anything in the end. Neither do the viewers with an ending like this.

All in all, Persons Unknown was a pretty cool show. It had a great writer, and a pretty cool cast. I’ve spent a long time defending it against detractors, and heaven knows I’d love anything with Jason Wiles in it. I’ve given it the benefit of the doubt in all respects. However, these last four episodes seemed to implode the momentum the show had built up, and these last two leave me feeling more annoyed and frustrated than anything else. I knew it was going out, but I had hoped it would go out so much better than this.

ETA: We’ve been seeing so much debate over the finale that it’s opened up a postmortem analysis. You can read that postmortem here.

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