Person of Interest has been getting darker and darker as the show delves deeper into its premise about artificial intelligence. And even though we want these tortured heroes to find happiness in the end, star Michael Emerson tells io9 it’s probably not going to happen. He also told us what to expect in season five.
“I never expected for the show to end happily,” says Emerson, who talked to io9 on the phone yesterday. “I mean, when and if the end comes, I expect it to be ambiguous.” And the ending may actually be a downbeat one. Because with artificial intelligence unleashed onto the world, “Pandora’s Box is now open,” he argues. “It cannot be undone. It may not even be manageable.”
Emerson believes the show’s central concept is getting closer and closer to reality. “There’s a lot of scary talk about artificial intelligence now. I think we’re right on it.”
Person of Interest starts airing in syndication on WGN America on Monday, Aug. 31 at 7 PM, paired with Elementary. That, plus the show coming to Netflix in September, means a whole new audience will be discovering the show.
What kind of arc does Emerson expect people to see in Finch over the first few seasons of the show, and how does he think Finch grew as a character over those early seasons? “I don’t know that Mr. Finch grew much. I think I grew into the role, maybe. I figured out what his parameters were. It was an interesting process. It was fun to try out a new character,” says Emerson. “To see where you can go with it and where you can’t.”
Coming off Lost and the deceitful character of Benjamin Linus, Emerson took a while to get used to the idea of playing someone who is basically straightforward and honorable. “I’m so programmed to play deceit or deviousness—just gamesmanship, in general. But I find that Mr. Finch is a great game-player. He’s just an honest guy. And he’s not without mystery. I guess that’s the thing that I always enjoy: a bit of mystery.” And even though the audience may have warm feelings about both Reese and Finch, they still have unanswered questions in their past, says Emerson.
Where Emerson does think you see a progression in the first few seasons of Person of Interest is the relationships among the main characters, which evolved a lot. “Reese and Finch fell into a kind of jokey-but-grave, Odd Couple kind of relationship,” says Emerson. “It was good. It played well. You can’t tell how those things work [until you try them], because it’s over the course of time that things evolve.”
And in recent seasons, Reese and Finch have actually become closer to being friends. “It was a surprise,” Emerson says. “It happened despite us. I never would have guessed that we would get to be so, I guess, collegial or fraternal, with one another. And need one another, and have a whole warped family life together. That’s all been just an interesting development, that I could never have predicted.”
And one character who isn’t there in the first season, of course, is Bear the dog. Does Emerson think Bear was instrumental in cementing the chemistry of the main cast? “Maybe the arrival of the dog sort of coincided with the gelling of that dynamic between the two leads,” says Emerson. “The dog was just the right sort of domestic touch, that made it seem like real regular people, but with a difference,” he laughs.
Meanwhile, Finch and Root have bonded in spite of everything. “They’ve come a long way since she kidnapped and tortured him,” he laughs. “There’s something about her that fascinates him, and I think he feels protective of her, because on some level she’s pure and innocent. I know that sounds strange to say.”
What does Emerson mean by saying Root is pure and innocent? “Her love for the Machine is pure, and she is vulnerable with the Machine. The Machine can hurt her feelings. The Machine can cause her despair. She’s vulnerable.”
In general, whenever Finch is around other smart computer people, he becomes a different person than when he’s around Reese or Shaw. Around hackers, “He become more human, more enthusiastic, more fun-loving,” says Emerson. “He blooms, blossoms.”
Finch and the Machine
Speaking of relationships that have gotten more complicated, the past few seasons have given us a closer look at the father-child dynamic between Finch and the Machine, especially when Finch was creating the artificial intelligence for the first time. “I think it’s a really interesting development and an exciting one, and I wish I could say I saw it coming,” says Emerson.
He’s enjoyed shooting the flashbacks showing the “childhood” of the Machine, and how Finch taught it, and he thinks we’ve seen the development “of a really nice gray area” around the question: “Does the Machine have personhood? Is it sentient? How do we treat a machine that’s as smart as we are, or smarter? I think it’s really an interesting problem, and I don’t know any shows that have explored it previously, the way we are doing now.”
Adding to this conundrum, we’ve seen how Finch tried to stunt the Machine’s growth and limit its potential. “That policy of his gets called into question in season five,” says Emerson. “Because what we learn is that in limiting the Machine’s power or ability to grow and change, he may have crippled it in a battle with an all-out artificial super-intelligence.”
“At the beginning of season five, it will be a process of Finch and Root trying to revive the Machine,” adds Emerson, who’s currently filming the third episode of season five. “And of course, they have philosophical disagreements about what form the Machine should take, and what limits—if any—are placed on it. So I think that is the dynamic of the first few episodes of season five. Those are the big questions.”
Speaking of which—as of season five, episode three, Sarah Shahi (Shaw) hasn’t returned yet. “I hear that we’re going to see her. I think that’s further down the line,” says Emerson. “I should confess to you that I am always the last person to hear anything.”
Now that the show is coming to WGN and Netflix, does Emerson hope it finally reaches the computer-savvy audience who were always its natural viewers? “Maybe. I always thought we did surprisingly well with CBS’ older audience, who I would not have expected to like the show. But the younger people, who I think these questions are more naturally entertaining for—I don’t think we’ve found as many as we can, and I hope that one of the things that happens when it’s out in syndication and when it’s available streaming, I hope that audience will grow. Because I think they will enjoy it.”