In last night's episode of Person of Interest, "Ghosts," we learned more about our mysterious vigilantes, the ninja Reese and the hacker Finch. Unlike the pilot, which was occasionally uneven, this episode was fast and fun — we got more interesting back story on Finch and his surveillance superpowers, plus this week's mystery was a sturdy tale of real estate market crime. This show is shaping up to be one of the season's tentative winners already.
If you missed last week's episode, all you really need to know is that the hacker Finch designed a supersecret, super powerful computer for the NSA called simply "the machine." The machine tracks the movements and conversations of everyone in America (possibly the world?), trying to figure out where crimes will happen next. But the NSA only cares about crimes of terrorism, so it's up to hacker vigilantes with backdoors into the system — like Finch — to find and solve all the irrelevant crimes. With the help of his trusty ninja Reese, Finch pilfers the Social Security numbers of potential crime victims from the machine, giving our crimefighters something to do every week. Created by Dark Knight scribe Jonathan Nolan, the show does have a distinctly Batman feel — basically, Person of Interest asks whether total surveillance can ever be used for the forces of good. We don't get any hard and fast answers to that question, but one thing I do know for sure — it can be used for the forces of making a good show.
In this episode, we also got a sense of the pacing that the show will have, which is a lot zippier and funnier than the pilot. Within the first five minutes of the episode, Reese has quickly dispatched some goons sent to assassinate a philandering businessman, and then he's out on the street chatting with Finch about their next move. Turns out the machine has thrown Finch for a loop, spitting out the Social Security number of a dead teenage girl, supposedly murdered by her father when he went nuts after losing money in the real estate market collapse. Of course, the machine sees all — so we know young Teresa is still alive out there somewhere, needing Reese's help.
As we get the proverbial detective montage, with Reese and Finch trying to figure out where Teresa might be, we are introduced to some of the visual tropes of the show. Often, we view the world through the machine's eyes, looking at people as little boxes of data. Although this could be really cheesy, it actually works quite well. You sort of get the feeling that just as Finch and Reese are watching over us, the machine is watching over them. Fairly soon, we discover that Teresa is actually doing pretty well on her own, skimming data off bank cards and selling it online. I love that this is the kind of show where teenage girls living on the street become carders, instead of prostitutes or drug addicts. There's something sort of William Gibsonian about it.
As Reese uncovers the dirty dealings that led to Teresa's family being murdered — while she was somehow spared — we get a few enticing peeks into Finch's back story. We see him in the early stages of the machine's development, talking to a character we've never met before about their secret project. Basically, both of them know they've developed something that Finch's partner calls Orwellian, but they also see some good in it. There's a truly chilling moment when Finch gestures at the monitor, showing a swarm of dots in Manhattan, and says, "That's everybody." From this scene we also learn that the NSA commissioned the machine.
In another flashback, we see French a couple of years before he faked his death in 2010, having his first doubts about the machine. Interestingly, none of his doubts have to do with privacy invasion. Instead he's upset that the data isn't being used more broadly to spot crimes other than terrorism. Also, we find out that the machine has helped the government stop half a dozen major terrorist plots before 2007. So like I said, this show isn't too concerned about surveillance undermining our privacy — it's about how tragic it is that the government hoards all that surveillance data for itself. David Brin would be proud.
I'm still very curious about whether the machine is a form of artificial intelligence with its own opinions and thoughts. Maybe this will get developed later.
It seems that Reese is going to play double duty as detective, investigating both our number of the week and Finch himself. Somehow, Reese figures out that Finch's cover story is that he is a low-level software engineer in the company that he secretly owns. This leads to a semi-hilarious scene where Reese shows up in Finch's cubicle, walking past all these people who think that Finch is just a little dweeb in a suit. Partly this scene is fun because Michael Emerson as Finch is such a great twitchy actor, but also I like this fantasy of his secret identity. Like Anderson in The Matrix, Finch has superpowers in cyberspace but looks like a Dilbert character to everyone else.
I think the main thing this show needs to work on are its numbers of the week. This episode gave us a pretty satisfying story, but it still felt a little pat. Some of this will probably be solved once we get to know the supporting cast better, including corrupt cop Lionel and hard-working fed Carter. But also, as we get deeper into the mystery of the machine, I suspect that our numbers of the week may become relevant to the main characters' lives in a way that they aren't right now.
One thing that I did really like about the subplot with Teresa was the way at least half of the action was accomplished via surveillance and phone tapping. Even petty criminals are using information warfare. That's the kind of show this is, and I like it.