From Bitcoin millionaires to robot philosophy, on Person of Interest

One of the never-ending joys of Person of Interest is watching its writers turn recent news into an intense, paranoid story. Last night's episode was a standout in that department, giving us the tale of a Silk Road-esque online drug market and its mysterious connection to national security.


Oh, and there's your weekly dose of Bear. You're welcome.

Spoilers ahead!

Many of us have been completely obsessed with the unfolding drama of the Silk Road, an online marketplace where people could buy anything from drugs and sex, to assassinations, using anonymous crypto-currency Bitcoin. Led by a mysterious figure who called himself Dread Pirate Roberts, the Silk Road flourished for a couple of years before the Feds shut it down. Dread Pirate Roberts was unmasked as Ross Ulbricht, a twenty-something entrepreneur who started the site on a lark but eventually went nuts, even trying to kill one of his colleagues by hiring an assassin through Silk Road.

In the Person of Interest version of the story, we have a mysterious figure known as the Sphinx running the "Black Market Bazaar." And the Sphinx turns out to be a lot more, well, interesting than Dread Pirate Roberts ever was.

Relevant vs. Irrelevant

The Machine has continued to evolve, and in this episode it breaks one of its cardinal rules. Previously, it handed numbers "relevant" to national security to Control, Hersh, and their secret team; "irrelevant" numbers went to Finch and the Machine gang. This time, however, the Machine rigs things so that Reese is on a plane to Rome with a relevant number, whose seat number it sends to Reese. When Reese calls Finch to complain that the Machine didn't get his resignation message, we find out why the situation is so urgent.


Somehow, the number will be responsible for the deaths of everyone on the plane.

So a reluctant Reese agrees to help out, and discovers that the number is a nerdy guy named Owen (played by Samm Levine from Freaks and Geeks, now a snacky, snarky grownup). He's being escorted by federal marshals out of the U.S., even though he insists to Reese that he's guilty of nothing more than being a web designer for "Black Market Bazaar."


Why would some black market eBay coder be a matter of national security? To find out, Finch sends Shaw on a mission to talk to her old boss Hersh. Which she does with pleasure — and some mind-altering drugs. After dosing him with something to make him compliant (and amnesiac), Shaw finds out that Owen is important to national security because his company has been funding it.

"The black budget only goes so far," says Hersh. "So we took 30 percent off the top." This is one of those themes that Person of Interest likes to toy with — in a previous episode, Reese revealed that the CIA sells drugs to fund the war on terror. So Control's gang is bringing drug money together with the intelligence community yet again. And they're worried that Owen is going to tell the world.


Black Market Bazaar

And of course, it turns out that Owen isn't just a low-level coder. He finally reveals to Reese that he's "the guy," Sphinx. I love when Owen gives Reese this "fresh outta Y Combinator" speech about how great the Black Market Bazaar is because it's disruptive, with its international reach and ability to cut out the middle man.

Owen claims his startup isn't just making money — he's got "100 million in Bitcoins," he boasts — but is cutting drug violence in half. Reese has just saved Owen's ass from like three different assassins from drug cartels and intelligence agencies, so he's not buying it. He growls that techies are always building things that they don't take responsibility for, and that they aren't making the world a better place.


As we cut to Finch, looking stung, it's pretty obvious that Reese is talking about the Machine, not the Black Market Bazaar. Even Owen figures that out, snarking that it doesn't seem like Reese is angry at him, but somebody else.

So after dispatching all the bad guys, flirting with a brave flight attendant, and getting Owen through customs in a giant suitcase, Reese has saved the day. I love that Finch and Reese's goal here is to help Owen get free and stay that way. No judgement about the whole Black Market Bazaar thing — just respect for a hacker who took the network into his own hands, and wanted to be free from the tentacles of national intelligence.


I Will Choose Freewill

Once Owen is sent on his merry way with his Bitcoins, Reese and Finch meet in a cafe. For their reunion, Finch wears possibly his greatest suit ensemble yet. In fact, I have vowed to figure out how to recreate this amazing getup.


After talking about Reese's frustrations with the Machine, and the ways that it communicates, the two old friends come to an understanding once again. Finch explains that he designed the Machine to communicate so minimally — just using numbers — because he always wanted a human to be part of the process of determining another human's fate.


"We have freewill," Finch says. "And with that comes great responsibility, and sometimes great loss." OMG are you crying a little bit yet? Because I am. All my philosophy and and comic book nerd buttons are being punched at the same time and Finch is so creamy and yellow and Reese is all weepy and SHOW, I LOVE YOU.


Needless to say, it's a subtle and genuinely heartfelt way for Reese and Finch to patch things up. By the end of their talk, Reese has agreed to come back to work again and Finch is as overjoyed as we've ever seen him.

I think what makes this final scene so great is that it actually deals with something I talked to economist Brad DeLong about a few months ago, which is whether robots and AI will ever steal our jobs. Finch is suggesting here that they never will, even with their greater capacities for data analysis, because a human must always be in the loop to deal with human problems. This is also what DeLong and other economists have argued. Even if we develop AI, certain decisions are just a human thing, and the Machine wouldn't understand.


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