Every season of Person of Interest ends with some kind of apocalypse, some place to recover from. A lot of TV series do this, and it’s usually a trick – an “Oh man, how will they ever recover from this?” moment at the end of the season, which is as quickly as possible scrubbed over so the show can get back to doing the same thing again and again in the next season. Person of Interest, in contrast, has been quite good at making its massive earth-shaking decisions stick, and at the end of season three, they threw up a doozie.
For the uninitiated, the general series premise is that an artificial intelligence (the Machine) has been monitoring all of the USA since shortly after 9/11 to combat terrorism. Its inventor, Finch (Michael Emerson), cognizant of the ethical ramifications of such a device (particularly of the Machine’s rules which determine non-terrorist related crimes to be “irrelevant” and thus does nothing about them) has created his own personal vigilante task force to try and help the victims of these “irrelevant” crimes – as long as they happen in Manhattan. The Machine outputs just a social security number – it’s up to Finch to investigate who they are and why they’re picked out. To do so, he has enlisted John Reese (called Mr. Reese – mysteries? Get it? – played by Jim Caviezel) an ex-Delta Force killing machine to go about being Batman to his Oracle. More team members have been recruited as the show has gone on, including one-time villain super-hacker Root who has a direct brain-line to the Machine (Amy Acker, who also has the cutest nose on TV), second special forces super-killer Shah (Sarah Shahi), and a formerly dirty cop Fusco (Kevin Chapman).
At the end of season three, the Machine has been disconnected by the government in favor of a different A.I., Samaritan, who has many of the same capabilities as the Machine but far fewer ethical controls. In order to save our heroes, Root planted new identities for Reese, Shah and Finch in the Samaritan’s programming. It can’t find them, but they also can’t do the acts of derring-do and spectacular vigilante violence that they used to get up to without arousing A.I. suspicion.
Finch has become a local professor, Shah a perfume counter girl. Reese, in the most promising but least utilized of the new identities, has been made into a cop, Fusco’s partner. Arriving out of nowhere after being “undercover”, Reese’s cop persona is thin and the series barely goes out of its way to make it work. He basically does a lot of what he used to do and is reamed out for skipping work by a captain who disappears after a single episode.
The only aspect of this development for Reese that bears fruit is the police psychiatrist that Reese is forced to see after his dozenth shooting of a perp in the knee. (As an aside, Person of Interest suffers from the usual ongoing series squeamishness where, as a show goes on, our heroes become less and less likely to just go ahead and kill bad guys. It’s understandable given the amount of scrutiny that the characters are under, but when the entire point of Reese is that he is a bad-ass cold-blooded killer, taking away all of his bad-assness and then his cold-blooded killing leaves him with precious little to do.) Reese and the psychiatrist develop a relationship and start to really explore what happens to a man who has been asked, first by his country then by his employer, to do all kinds of bad things in the name of doing good.
Finch’s professor persona is more successfully used and better integrated into the series as a whole, but it is difficult to see how the entire fourth season could not have benefited from being more focused, and with less time to wonder about some of the implausibilities of the team’s subterfuges. Still, it’s all strictly within the thematic concerns that Person of Interest routinely raises about surveillance, safety vs. freedom and just how deeply manipulated our lives might be by forces outside cognizance and control.
The question of just what a real artificial intelligence would mean, and what it would be in a metaphysical sense raises Person of Interest from an average CBS action series to real intelligent television. The relationship between Finch and the artificial intelligence becomes a central figure in the season, especially since the Machine is now essentially a hunted animal, culminating in a surprisingly poignant and touching climax (amidst gunfire, assassinations and things exploding) in the series finale, “YHWH”.
The conflict between the Machine, now on the run, and Samaritan provide the background for all of the action this season, including a number of episodes which could fairly be called “Standard Person of Interest” stories – the Machine fingers someone, the investigators find out all they can about them, and then do hero stuff. Earlier in the series there was always the question of who did the Machine give them the number of, the perpetrator or the victim? Now it is nearly always the victim, so that level of suspense has been elided.
It is in the non-standard Person of Interest stories where the season packs in most of its interest, in particular in one of the best episodes of the whole series (and I’d say one of the best episodes of TV in the last year) “If-Then-Else.”
Our heroes perform a daring heist on the NYSE to prevent some nefariousness by Samaritan, and get themselves stuck in a desperate situation, shot at from outside, no escape, barely any hope of survival. Root is waiting for instructions from the Machine. We see the scenario play out, and our heroes don’t make it. There’s noble sacrifices, tragic deaths, some revelations that would be powerful series enders.
Then time goes backwards – what we’ve watched is a likely scenario played out in the Machine’s A.I. while it tries to game out the best-case for team survival. New scenarios play out, again and again, with different consequences. We watch the evolving situation as the A.I., in milliseconds, tries to play out hours of implications from its decisions. It’s not only a fun bit of TV (particularly when time is running short, and the Machine quits simulating realistic dialogue and just essentially has the characters declare stage directions) but it’s also an entirely new perspective on the situation. It puts us in the head of an artificial intelligence. Decisions and actions that feel like they would take hours or days play out in an A.I. in millionths of a second. What personality would arise from having that kind of knowledge and power, and glut of information? How could anything like that be able to make decisions that seem humane, or even sane, to the people involved? No wonder Root considers the Machine to be God.
But the real God in television is ratings, and the almighty schedule. While Person of Interest was a high performer in its early seasons, the fourth season took a bit of a tumble and it wasn’t renewed for a fifth until well after the finale of four aired. There’s so much story to be wrapped up, and a lot of plot points that have been raised which need real resolution. Jumping into the series here at the fourth season would make absolutely no sense – however many stand-alone episodes there are, so much of the interest is in the serialized material that I can’t think that anyone starting here would enjoy themselves.
For veterans of the series skeptical about continuing on, I found this season to be a bumpier ride than any of the previous ones- it has the most changes, and they are not always handled with elegance. Some of the decisions about characters I found questionable. But the main questions that make Person of Interest so interesting remain, and when the storytelling is firing on all cylinders it’s still one of my favorite shows on TV.
There were several episodes that stood out besides “If, Then, Else”: “Terra Incognita” where a former series star returns, at least in memory and flashback; stand-alone episode “Prophets” where John Ritter’s son Jason Ritter (star of my other favorite show currently on TV, Disney’s “Gravity Falls”) plays a pollster whose life is destroyed by Samaritan’s election rigging, is a classic Person of Interest story colliding with the implications of the new, much nastier A.I.; and the fast-paced, violent, and strangely touching finale, “YHWH”.
I reviewed the series on DVD, which had a few video extras on the last disc: a Comic-con panel from 2014, a gag reel, and a short tour of the new subway set where Finch has his new headquarters, hosted by the effortlessly charming duo of Michael Emerson and Amy Acker. The most interesting featurette is a 17-minute exploration of the show’s music with producer Jonathon Nolan (Christopher Nolan’s brother and frequent collaborator) and composer Ramin Djawadi. One of the seemingly endless group of former collaborators that Hans Zimmer has acquired, Djawadi has been the creator of memorable soundtracks for several TV series, particularly Game of Thrones and Person of Interest. His scores are often the most consistently excellent element of the series, and it’s fascinating to watch as he develops and changes music in spotting sessions to create just the right mood, right to order.