The first time I saw two women kissing onscreen in a scene played for their love of one another, as well as their passion, I experienced such a flood of light and warmth in my heart that it lasted for days. I had to wonder if TV, movies, advertisements, which leave me cold, have that effect on straight people all the time, because they portray straight relationships. I expect that can be a two-edged sword, but overall, it seems very lucky to me.
So you might think that a show like “The ‘L’ Word” would have opened up a new world for me. And it did: the world of shutting down completely during romantic lesbian scenes on the first viewing because there was nearly a one-to-one ratio of the scenes being shot from angles that deliberately reduced their emotional power, or the couple was interrupted in some way that shattered the promised arc of emotional connection. (Sarah Shahi played “Carmen” in “The ‘L’ Word,” and deserves praise for putting her heart into the role.)
There’s added incentive not to get too attached to any lesbians in TV or film: “kill the lesbian” syndrome. This is closely related to “kill the quadriplegic” syndrome now in the news because (spoiler alert) the new movie “Me Before You” has a wealthy quadriplegic man find a worthy woman who reciprocates his love, but he goes through with his planned assisted suicide due to his disabilities. Both syndromes are caused by the inability of screenwriters to imagine their subjects having happy lives. So they will build up to a happily-ever-after moment, then drop the hammer.
I find both syndromes irksome because I am a lesbian who had a quadriplegic life partner. She had multiple sclerosis and could still walk with assistance when we met, but later became paralyzed and then quadriplegic. I was 12 years and four months younger than she was. When we met, it took me all of four days to decide I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. Next I had to prove to her I’d read up on what I was getting into, and that I needed her at least as much as she needed me. And then we had over 20 happy years together, despite great adversity, so don’t tell me fairy tale romances don’t happen to lesbians and people with disabilities.
Our success wasn’t just because we had all the important things in common. She had the most amazing gaze of love, which always filled my heart with joy. Now it’s going on 12 years since she died. In that time, I’ve felt that my heart had dried and cracked and would not easily open again to love.
Then Amy Acker as Root poured out her terawatt gaze of love on Sarah Shahi’s character of Shaw at the end of the episode “Sotto Voce,” in “Person of Interest,” and Shaw stoically acknowledged it. Out of nowhere, the floodgates of my heart opened. Light poured into my body. My heart became open and warm, no longer dry and cracked. In just a few seconds, my heart became healed and ready for the love of the rest of my life.
I am a late comer to “Person of Interest.” I enjoyed Sarah Shahi’s work in “Fairly Legal” and when it was cancelled I noticed she was in “Person of Interest,” but I found it hard to follow the show without knowing its backstory. I stopped watching because she didn’t have many scenes then. But when I needed something to watch in January to keep me awake in my vigils over my father when he was dying, I found “Person of Interest” on Netflix and viewed it from the beginning on my iPad.
“Person of Interest” began with the premise that a billionaire, Harold Finch, single-handedly programmed software he calls The Machine, which is an all-knowing artificial intelligence that can synthesize surveillance data from thousands of sources and predict terrorism and other premeditated crimes. Resenting that the government only uses The Machine to protect its own interests by fighting terrorism, while letting “irrelevant” people suffer preventable deaths, Finch has gathered a team to prevent the premeditated crimes against or by a “person of interest” whose identity is sent to him by The Machine. But by the time Acker and Shahi were fully on board, it had morphed into a sci-fi show with The Machine battling a similar machine called Samaritan, which is bent on using its powers to impose a supposedly benign tyranny.
Acker plays Samantha “Root” Groves, a hacker who is the analog interface to The Machine and speaks with Her (!) directly. Acker brings a depth and range of emotion to the role that is mesmerizing to watch: an amazing mix of fey brilliance, sardonic glee, humor, and grim determination. She’s a joyful warrior who strides into battle firing pistols in both hands. She’s also a skilled chameleon, handling with wry aplomb the humorous range of identities The Machine assigns to Root to keep her identity hidden from Samaritan. And it will be a long time before anyone matches Acker’s badassery in the car chase that leads to Root’s death.
From their first moments together onscreen, when Root flirts with Shaw as she prepares to torture her, Acker and Shahi have a powerful chemistry together. Shahi plays Sameen Shaw, who was an ISA government assassin taking out “relevant” threats on orders from The Machine. Shaw is a sociopath, capable of few emotions. The restrictions on Shaw’s range of emotions would sink a lesser actress, but Shahi wisely digs in and goes deep instead, giving Shaw an ironic sense of humor, and profound stoicism coupled with boundless courage. This makes the contrast when Shaw finally acknowledges she reciprocates Root’s attraction by kissing her all the more an engaging and astonishing revelation. Acker and Shahi later use that chemistry to have the funniest and most romantic banter during a shoot-out ever. Although for my money, their most endearing moment is when Root takes Shaw’s hand and says it’s the first time she ever felt she belonged.
While I’m primarily concerned with Acker and Shahi because they played the lesbian characters in “Person of Interest,” show creator Jonathan Nolan and his writers made the straight female characters of Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson) and Zoe Morgan (Paige Turco), just as strong. Henson and Turco were brilliant in portraying them.
Every day there’s something I want to write about here, but I haven’t because I write from the heart. With my heart feeling dried up and sore, it was just too hard. But Root gazed at Shaw with love and Shaw answered her gaze with all the love she could manage. I can’t thank Acker and Shahi enough. My heart is healed. I can love again. I can write again.
And I want to praise and thank Amy Acker and Sarah Shahi here because of the following passage in the book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, by “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams. He is writing about the effect that words of praise from an instructor had on a woman who could barely get out a few words in her first effort to speak in their Dale Carnegie course. The instructor said, “Wow! That was brave!” (boldfacing mine):
There are several things to learn from this story. The most important is the transformative power of praise versus the corrosive impact of criticism. I’ve had a number of occasions since then to test the powers of praise, and I find it an amazing force, especially for adults. Children are accustomed to a continual stream of criticisms and praise, but adults can go weeks without a compliment while enduring criticism both at work and at home. Adults are starved for a kind word. When you understand the power of honest praise (as opposed to bullshitting, flattery, and sucking up), you realize that withholding it borders on the immoral. If you see something that impresses you, a decent respect to humanity insists you voice your praise.
‘Wow, that was brave,’ is the best and cleanest example I’ve seen in which looking at something in a different way changes everything. When the instructor switched our focus from the student’s poor speaking performance to her bravery, everything changed. Positivity is far more than a mental preference. It changes your brain, literally, and it changes the people around you. It’s the nearest thing we have to magic.
I would love for Hollywood to stop with the “kill the lesbian,” “kill the quadriplegic” stories and learn how to imagine the happily-ever-afters of our lives. I see I have a duty to tell my own story to show them how.
But right now, to encourage Hollywood down that road, the most important thing I can do is to say thank you to Amy Acker, Sarah Shahi, Jonathan Nolan, and the writers of “Person of Interest.” You told a lesbian love story and thereby healed my heart. I am profoundly grateful. Thank you.