Person of Interest is a show that changed from being less than the sum of its parts, to something much greater. A crime drama that has always, in a way, been shackled by its need to satisfy the middle-aged, compulsive NCIS watcher demographic due to the very nature of the channel it airs on, watching Person of Interest break these restraints has been an immensely satisfying journey – and with 5 stellar season finales under its belt, the show doesn’t look ready to disappoint in its final moments.
Person of Interest started as not much more than a unique twist on the popular ‘case of the week’ format of US network television – instead of a police procedural about catching murderers, the characters of Person of Interest prevent crimes before they happen. Harold Finch’s (Michael Emerson) Machine sends him the social security numbers of anyone that may be the victim or the perpetrator of a planned crime. He recruits the former CIA hitman John Reese (Jim Caviezel) in order to help him prevent these crimes, as he is less able to do so on his own. In this regard, the two main characters could be likened to street level comic book heroes, such as the likes of Daredevil or Batman – albeit split into two characters, equal and opposite of each other.
Finch is kind, cautious, supremely intelligent yet paranoid while Reese is more reckless, skeptical and more than a little tortured. Jim Caviezel’s acting style baffled critics at first, appearing a little bored and bland – but as the show gives more information on Reese, it becomes more clear that his stoic nature is the result of an extremely dark past. The two characters are equally broken, and this shared tragic history results in an unlikely friendship that permeates the show. However, this bond stays mostly in the background – these are two people that have devoted their lives to a reckless and doomed cause, there’s not always time for small talk. But that makes it all the more powerful when the two decide to share.
In addition to Reese and Finch, the show introduces a multitude of characters that have constantly evolving relationships with the main pair – the dynamic of the show changes in spectacular fashion in the season 2 episode ‘Relevance’, Jonah Nolan’s first scripted and directed episode of the series and the most radical departure in style that the show has had in its whole run. The episode steps back from Finch and Reese’s ongoing story and shows us what happens to the “relevant” numbers The Machine hands to the government and introducing us to Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi) – a sociopathic government assassin that Finch describes as a “hammer” in comparison to Reese the “scalpel”. Additionally, Amy Acker’s ‘Root’ shows an immense amount of growth over the course of the show, turning into a dependable source of intensity and mayhem, and a fan-favourite.
Despite Person of Interest’s strong connections to comic book style storytelling, Nolan and Plageman aren’t concerned with creating heroes that are simply good or bad – and often debates whether what the protagonists are doing is even an absolutely good thing. Our ‘heroes’ are broken or reformed people, with two former government assassins, the creator of a machine that violates everyone’s privacy simultaneously, a former corrupt cop, and even a couple of the rag-tag team’s former enemies. From the very first episode, the extent to which the two main characters violate the privacy of the very people they intend to protect becomes uncomfortable as Reese describes his surveillance tactics in immense detail – even in protecting these people, “Team Machine’s” tactics can feel somewhat illicit.
But that’s one of the best things about the show. It maintains an absolute belief that there’s no binary, no black and white – Reese spells it out fairly explicitly in the fourth episode of the first season (while deciding whether or not to murder a rapist in the show’s first truly great moment), saying that there are “no good people, just good decisions”. The show takes this to heart throughout its run, taking characters that could well be cut-and-dry antagonists for the team, and complicates them by changing their motivations.
Under the surface of what started as a better-than-average crime procedural, was a poignant and paranoid science fiction tale that probably has the best debate over both mass surveillance as well as artificial intelligence that I can recall airing on an American network channel as commercial and soulless as CBS. Finch created a machine, that spies on everyone every day. The Machine is essentially a benevolent deity that has been programmed to intervene, and Finch often struggles with how far he should allow the machine to intervene – the worst case scenario of this decision making up the narrative for the majority of seasons three through to five (the final one).
[MILD SPOILERS AHEAD]
While the first season is certainly light on science fiction and the AI question, the main questions of the show surround that of artificial intelligence and its potential relationship with mankind, this question explored in full with the show’s introduction of its longest and most dangerous threat, a separate artificial intelligence known as ‘Samaritan’. Samaritan essentially has the same end goal as The Machine, but none of the strict morality and limitations that Finch taught and imposed on his creation.
The result is an all-seeing AI that believes it is the absolute solution, and sees deviants as something to be corrected permanently – a blunt and logical where The Machine is more emotive and careful. More importantly, the main difference between The Machine and Samaritan, is the Machine’s humanity. In episodes such as ‘If-Then-Else’, we are shown that the Machine understands its acolytes and humanity in general far better than they could ever fathom, and in a key flashback of the episode, Finch actually has to teach the Machine objectivity through a game of chess.
In the rare instances that we see its process of thought, we get to see how The Machine views, values and interacts with its ‘assets’, its familiarity with them eventually becoming something that resembles friendship. Nolan and co take care to slowly peel back the layers of mystery and ambiguity surrounding The Machine, eventually revealing its inherent humanity and reflection of human kinds’ best impulses. It’s a touching and surprising subversion of the typical AI discussion – but this is not to say that Person of Interest shows fluffy ideals. The show is consistently paranoid, if anything – and it shows through Samaritan and its ongoing quest to suppress the protagonists and anyone else it considers a ‘deviant’.
That’s not to say that The Machine isn’t questionable or worthy of fear at certain points – it is ‘wonderful and terrible’ as Harold says, often causing characters (with the obvious exception of John Reese) to quake in fear or awe at the very sound of its voice. Nolan and co. refuse to provide any easy answer to the questions that Person of Interest poses about its subject matter, even in the penultimate episode, the Machine itself shows us that the world is no better or worse with its existence or non-existence, just different.
A show that is in equal parts about the value of life, artificial intelligence, the morality of mass surveillance and also kicking ass, Person of Interest, much like its Machine, evolved from something simple into an extremely complex and human work that defied expectations at every turn. It improved and changed every season all the while staying true to its core themes, and longtime fans of the show, even after 5 years, all struggle to predict how it may end. Person of Interest was a brilliant, unpredictable beast, and it’s ending too soon.