This past Tuesday night saw the season finale of Person of Interest, a show that premiered in 2011 as basically just a high-concept vigilante show. By the time it ended, it had transformed the one of the best science fiction series ever broadcast. And it did it without ever losing its primetime, network-friendly premise.
When Person of Interest began, the basic premise was that a mysterious rich computer nerd, Harold Finch, recruited a former black ops operative named John Reese to save people’s lives. The high concept part was that the missions of the week—that of saving lives—were given to them by the “Machine.”
That was it. The Machine was plugged into every camera, microphone, database, etc. in existence and designed to predict harm. On a macro-level, it predicts terrorist attacks for the government. On a micro-level, it predicts murders of people in New York City and feeds social security numbers to Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) and John Reese (Jim Caveziel). The number could be anyone—the victim, the perpetrator, or someone else involved in the imminent crime.
The first season of Person of Interest was basically just a crime-fighting show with a kind of nifty plot device in the form of the Machine. It even had the prototypical New York villain groups, such as corrupt cops and politicians and the mob. It seemed like exactly the kind of procedural that fit in easily on CBS.
The catalyst for the show’s change was the hacker Root (Amy Acker) in the first season’s finale. Root was initially introduced as a hacker obsessed with the “perfect” intelligence of the Machine. She also started out as an antagonist, kidnapping Harold in order to get to the Machine.
Root’s introduction did two things: 1) it put the Machine, its intelligence, and the ethics of the U.S. government using it at the center of an ideological battle 2) it inadvertantly gave the Machine a voice. Forced to find a way to communicate with Harold, the Machine uses a pay phone and some sound bites from other sources to pass Reese information. The idea of the Machine as neutral or just a plot device kind of ended, because suddenly it started directing the action.
In retrospect, that’s the exact moment the show stopped just being a crime show with a clever conceit and became a great hard science fiction show. But when season two premiered, it still seemed like a network-approved procedural because that season continued to largely focus on human threats. Meanwhile, Root, new code being introduced into the Machine, and what would happen if the Machine stopped sending numbers operated as the background thread. The show was asking questions about the duty Finch had to his creation, and about the mission he had given himself to save the “irrelevant” numbers the Machine had begun providing (i.e., the victims of smaller crimes) the moment Root arrived.
It was at almost the exact halfway point in the series, in the middle of season three, that Person of Interest took advantage of all the build-up about AI it had meticulously laid out. That’s when Samaritan was activated. Samaritan was a much slicker, much more powerful AI than the Machine. And while the Machine only produces numbers when there’s a threat, Samaritan targets problems before there’s a threat—in its mission to bring “order” to mankind.
Of course, the Machine and its team (now expanded to include: two hackers, Root and Finch; two hitters, Reese and Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi); and a dog, Bear) became the challengers to the order of Samaritan.
The battle between the Machine and Samaritan is an amazing feat on the part of the writers of Person of Interest. It’s really, really hard to make two computers battling each other work on screen. And it’s also difficult to make a clear distinction between two computers that both hear and see everything you do. They are battling over thevery fine line of when surveillance technology is benevolent and when it’s oppressive.
And that’s where the two earlier seasons of the crime-fighting formula became so important. The Machine only gives out people’s information in order to save them, and the show’s early incarnation made that clear. The later episodes spend a lot of time showing the rigid set of ethics that Finch teaches the Machine—about murder being wrong, and about what constitutes a real threat.
Samaritan’s goal isn’t something so rigidly defined as preventing bodily harm. It’s control and order, so it’s willing to rig elections, hire assassins, and eliminate anything it deems “deviant.” There’s no higher morality value in Samaritan’s goal. And, even more than the Machine, being an “open” system, it is much easier to abuse.
Then there are the other things the show did to dramatize this conflict. The Machine has affection for its team, Samaritan has pawns. The Machine has a small, scrappy band with a dog. Samaritan has Decima Technologies. The Machine provides comfort to the man who created Samaritan. Samaritan tries to kill the man who created the Machine.
Person of Interest inherently understood that there was more drama in AI than the typical man versus machine battle; this was man and machine versus man and machine. It’s important that Team Machine kept getting the numbers and kept helping people throughout their battle with Samaritan. Not just because the show never abandoned that format, but because it was a constant reminder of the small, human good the Machine did, as opposed to the system-level devastation of Samaritan.
Person of Interest was one of the smartest shows on television, turning a fairly pedestrian format into a kind of modern cyberpunk. It asked nuanced questions and tried to give nuanced answers (that’s how Root went from being an antagonist to an ally. She wasn’t always right, but Finch wasn’t always right, either). And that was what the show did: find the line in the murky world of surveillance technology and artificial intelligence.
And because Person of Interest’s protagonists were so often the underdog, it was kind of surprising that the show ended as positively as it did. There were deaths, but there was also a pretty clear victory for the Machine. Which is fitting, I guess, to the original iteration of the show: they intervened and the threat was neutralized.
Person of Interest is a great science fiction show not just because it tackled a complicated issue with nuance, but because it created great characters. It had humor (poor Leon) and standalone episodes that make it accessible to new viewers. It did a little bit of everything to make sure that it wasn’t just a polemic, it was a good story. It deserves to be an icon.