Person of Interest fans are probably still reeling from Tuesday’s gut-wrenching episode, which [SPOILER ALERT!] saw the shocking demise of Taraji P. Henson’s tough-as-nails cop Joss Carter.
So what does a set feel like when a show is filming one of its main character’s final scenes?
Hell if I know! Back in October, there are few if any signs of the typical sadness I’m expecting when I arrive on set for Henson’s last moment — a midnight shoot on Hudson and Houston, where few passersby are out strolling but security is tight nonetheless. It is, after all, a jaw-dropping spoiler for anyone who might see Henson and Caviezel sprawled out on a street corner.
When I arrive, the crew are hard at work planning out the shot, which itself isn’t particularly glamorous or expensive. Loud semis rattle in the background and every once in a while the crew has to allow UPS trucks to move through (the scene is being filmed right outside a UPS hub in lower Manhattan).
In the scene, Finch (Michael Emerson) gets out of his car across the street from the police precinct, just as Carter and Reese are exiting. A shady figure (Robert John Burke’s Simmons) emerges from a shadowy tunnel, a payphone rings, gunshots go off (the team calls them squibs), and Carter drops to the floor. The actors (first Henson and Caviezel, then Chapman and Caviezel) rehearse the movement with the cameras over and over again, to make sure it’s perfect.
Finch’s slow car exit doesn’t end up making it into the final episode. Nor does an entire alternate ending shot with Kevin Chapman, whose put-upon Detective Fusco was asked at the last-minute to come to the set. The reason? Throwing fans off the secret by filming another ending in which Fusco takes a bullet instead of Carter. Chapman is studying his script while creator Jonathan Nolan explains to me the parallel between alternate endings like this and, say, the “Who’s in the coffin?” cliffhanger from Lost. It’s all about keeping the experience fresh for the audience—shocking them but also giving them the thrilling TV show that, deep down, they really want.
But you want to know about what it was like for Henson. When I arrive on set, Henson is chatting with a trio of crew members before they launch into a shower of hugs and kisses. She’s laughing, though. “It’s bittersweet,” she tells them, echoing what she’ll later tell me (read the full Q&A here).
Henson has long known that her character would meet her end this year — and in such a dramatic way in the middle of the season, no less — but the actress doesn’t show any typical signs of sadness that you might imagine on her last night. She’s doing her best to keep it light and spirited. It won’t be until after her wrap that she’ll the tears flow. They’ll finish shooting around 3:30 a.m., and the cast and crew will head to the camera truck where champagne and music will await.
Only a handful of crew knew in advance that tonight is Henson’s last scene. Others showed up for work like always and didn’t find out until they arrived for the shoot. (I could say that the handful who knew are watching with a little glint of seriousness in their eyes, but that could just be my imagination.) Collaborating with the episode’s director Fred Toye, Nolan appears to give particularly close attention to the details here, like the angle of the shot that will show the Machine’s interface on the fallen heroes.
Nolan calls the atmosphere “ebullient,” and assures me that everyone is excited to be back on location where they shot the pilot, where Carter and Reese met for the first time. (Another fun fact: the precinct is actually the pilot’s production office, where around eight other pilots also set up shop before most of them were cancelled.)
“Watch this,” Nolan tells me. He makes sure I have a front-row view of the monitor, sits me down in his canvas chair and equips me with a cushy pair of headphones. The camera rolls, the actors act, and the final shot lingers on a wide view of the street: Finch is frozen in shock, Carter and Reese lay fallen on the ground, and the traffic light ominously turns red. Too many directors overuse wide angles of New York, he says, but this scene necessitates it. “That’ll be the last shot,” says Nolan, grinning. “Perfect,” I say. And really, for Nolan and Henson and everyone involved in this bittersweet scene, it is.
Oh, and there are free waffles.