Person of Interest: The Fifth and Final Season DVD Review: Goodbye to the Machine

Disclaimer: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided Cinema Sentries with a free copy of the DVD reviewed in this post. The opinions shared are those solely of the writer.

Person of Interest has had a strange trajectory. As its themes and storylines became more relevant to real world fears and concerns, its audience has eroded. What was once the fifth-highest rated show on network TV has been unceremoniously burnt off, 13 episodes broadcast in eight weeks, in May and June of this year. What had been a bright spot in CBS’s rather staid lineup became an afterthought.

The premise behind Person of Interest has not shifted overmuch even as the story has developed. Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), master programming genius, created an artificial intelligence that was designed to surveil the populace and keep them safe from terrorist threats. Codenamed “Northern Lights,” but more often referred to as “The Machine,” Finch built it with specific safeguards to keep it from becoming a tyrant, including limiting the information that any official could get from the Machine to a social security number – that would tell human authorities who to watch, without telling them why.

Of course, once the CIA had their hands on the Machine they tried to kill Harold and take it over. In response, Harold fakes his own death, and while living in hiding hires a mercenary to try and salvage some good out of his creation, to protect people that the government deems irrelevant. The mercenary is John Reese (Jim Caviezel), tall, dark, and deadly. That’s how Person of Interest started, at least.

By the fifth season, a new AI without restrictions has taken over, and is ruthlessly worming its way into all the systems in the world it can: financial, medical, research, military. This AI, Samaritan, has decided that it alone can help the human race survive The Great Filter. The Great Filter is a counterpart to the Fermi Paradox – the question of why the universe is not apparently teeming with life. The Great Filter, simply and slightly erroneously put, hypothesizes that between modernity and space colonization, something happens to intelligent civilizations that destroys them. When a society becomes too advanced, it creates and deploys the means to end itself.

Samaritan sees this coming, and believes that it can prevent it – that only through its central control can mankind have any real kind of future. To that end, it is routinely finding assets that it can deploy to do its bidding, often by means of killing those it predicts can thwart it. The world at the beginning of the fifth season of Person of Interest is a dark and disturbing one, both geo-politically and for our heroes.

The Machine is crippled, and almost destroyed. Ex-dirty cop Fusco is under investigation for the murder of a pair of crime lords, and is also pretty damn tired of being kept in the dark about how Reese and Finch know what they know (for his own safety, the existence of the AIs has been kept from Fusco). Root, the former hacker/assassin/crazy chick who has a deep personal relationship with The Machine, is desperately missing Shah, the other super Special Forces killer whom Samaritan had apparently killed in the middle of last season, though Root has not given up hope.

It’s a dark time, and as this is the last season by design there’s little that the series does to lighten the mood… except, somewhat inexplicably, spend a lot of its remaining few hours on the same rather plodding procedural elements that were the show’s bread and butter in the earlier seasons. The formula goes like this: the Machine spits out a number, our heroes investigate, figure out if they’re looking at a good guy or a bad guy, then foil what can be foiled. Which is all well and good, but seeing as things have gotten rather existential in the show’s world, doing the small jobs (including a rather inexplicable episode where Finch has to pose as a long lost Irish uncle at a society wedding) feels like it’s a bit of a waste of their, and the audience’s, time.

Some interviews with the producers (including John Nolan and Greg Plageman) have shown that CBS insisted the procedural elements remain in place, so I can’t blame the showrunners entirely, but it is frustrating that when Person of Interest is in its final hours, we’re watching storylines that could have been on The Mentalist.

What makes it frustrating is that the show’s characters and premise are so rich, and on the episodes that deliver that combination of modern espionage with sci-fi craziness, it tends to hit a home run. In “SNAFU”, when the rebuilt Machine is taking its baby steps and re-learning its programming, trying to determine the good guys from the bad ones, it sees all the violence and mayhem our heroes have been involved in and makes the rational decision that they are terrorists, and acts accordingly. The final four episodes are particularly strong with action and ideas, and include Finch finally making the decision that he can’t let his sense of principals doom him, his friends, and by extension the whole human race, so he weaponizes his Machine with deadly results.

Production values on Person of Interest has always been quite high, with most of the location shooting taking place in New York and Washington D.C. This extends to the music, both Ramin Djawadi’s score, and the song choices. In past seasons, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, The xx and Massive Attack have been used to add depth to certain scenes. The tradition continues and is amplified in this season, particularly in the episode “The Day The World Went Away”, which perfectly uses the Nine Inch Nails song of the same name in the aftermath of Finch’s fateful decision.

Person of Interest is not a perfect show by any means. It has a definite narrative trajectory, but its earlier seasons were rather languidly paced with the serialized information, and even as the show’s concepts were revealed to be weightier and more complex than they appeared, its attachment to the procedural formula and some of the tropes 21st century network television made it pokier than it had to be.

Still, it isn’t every network TV show that could be reviewed with a serious discussion of the Fermi Paradox, the surveillance state, and the future of mankind while remaining grounded in characters. And it was (perhaps along with Strike Back) the best action show on TV. It was also genuinely thought-provoking about the trade-offs between privacy and security, about the limits of government power, and about how our desire to be protected may lead to terrible things we can’t even imagine. On top of all of that, with this final season, and particularly those final four episodes, the show also ended well, with a mix of triumph and tragedy, without excess sugar-coating but without being depressing, either.

This DVD release of the fifth and final season of Person of Interest contains (of course) all 13 episodes of the season, as well as a trio of extras. There’s a filmed Comic-Con panel from 2015, which was before the decision to make this the final season was made official, and a pair of discussions that were filmed after the show’s finale. Both of these discussions are between an IGN reporter, producer John Nolan, Greg Plageman, and Denise Thé, and actor Michael Emerson. They talk about their story choices and the vagaries of filming in New York (including two scenes this season that were shot at night in Times Square). They’re interesting discussions, though strictly for fans only. The same might be said for the season as a whole, but not meant negatively. Person of Interest season five provides fans with one of those very rare things in network TV: a satisfying ending.

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Kent Conrad

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