Just in time for midterm elections, Person of Interest pulled out all the stops with a story of vote tampering, political corruption, and the real difference between good and evil. This was seriously punch-you-in-the-gut storytelling.
Our number of the week was Simon Lee, a pollster for a political campaign, whose shoo-in candidate somehow lost the New York gubernatorial election. Lee couldn't believe it — he'd never gotten the numbers wrong in any election before, and it just didn't make sense that his guy could have lost to someone who had been lagging so far behind in the polls. As Lee pored over the data — while Shaw watched with a gimlet eye from the campaign volunteer pen — he realized that thousands of votes appeared to have been lost. Exit polls were wildly out-of-sync with votes; plus, he found that thousands of calls they'd made to voters to remind them about voting had been met with an unprecedented number of busy signals.
Crying conspiracy, Lee races around New York, trying to get someone to believe that the election was rigged. Using a "shadow map of New York" that shows all the surveillance-free zones, the Machine Gang tracks Lee. They're racing to prevent Samaritan's awesome ninja Rousseau (or one of Samaritan's carefully-chosen crazies) from murdering Lee. Because of course, Samaritan itself rigged the election. But why?
We begin to understand the answer after the Machine brings us a series of flashbacks about its birth. We watch as Finch destroys version after version of the Machine — first, because it lies to him; and later, because it actually tries to kill him by tampering with the building's ventilation system. As he tells Ingram, he's trying to teach the Machine ethics. But the Machine keeps resisting, making its own decisions, rewriting its own software.
Finally, as we already know from previous seasons, Finch finished the Machine only by making it "crippled." As he recalls while talking to Root in this episode, he could only trust the Machine when he forced it to erase its memories every night so that it wouldn't start making new and potentially unethical choices. And then the Machine figured out a way around this forced forgetting (aided in part by Root) — which is how it finally broke free and hid itself.
Root suggests that they can use their understanding of the Machine to figure out why Samaritan is acting the way it is. Finch ponders the way AIs, unlike people, operate from a set of goals rather than from feelings or beliefs. Root disagrees — she believes that the Machine loves humanity — but Finch has always viewed the Machine as, well, a machine. But one that can be very dangerous and devious in attempting to realize its goals. And, as Root admits, they still don't know what the Machine's goals actually are now that it's free.
But there's one thing that Root is certain about. "The difference between Samaritan and the Machine is you," she says to Finch. Which I think is actually a fascinating idea. She's suggesting that what allows the Machine to be good, or at least prosocial, is its relationship with Finch. I am really intrigued by the idea that the Machine's social connections are what shape its ethics more than its programming.
And it makes perfect sense when you compare the Machine with Samaritan, whose closest social connection is the power-hungry, surveillance profiteer Greer. While in a relationship with Greer, Samaritan has decided that what it really wants to do is throw a bunch of local elections. The evil AI is very crafty about it, too. For instance, it didn't want to support the gubernatorial candidate who it helps to win in New York — it actually wants to support her deputy governor. So Rousseau assassinates the governor elect, and Samaritan's candidate Dawson steps up to the plate.
After an amazing shoot-em-up scene between Rousseau and Root, we watch as Greer fills Rousseau in on his future plans. We've already seen him meet with Dawson, and feed him some lines to say when Dawson claims his role as governor. And now he tells Rousseau that Samaritan got 58 candidates elected around the country. Like Dawson, he notes, they have "no guts or backbone." They are basically the perfect template of corrupt politicians. "It was Samaritan's idea," Greer continues. "Humanity must be carefully governed."
What does Samaritan want now? "Find the Machine," Samaritan types on its big screen monitor to Rousseau and Greer.
Meanwhile, Finch is doing his best to protect Lee by essentially lying to him and destroying all the evidence that the election was rigged. Lee winds up thinking that he's had a kind of mental breakdown, and confesses that he was wrong about the "conspiracy." So the number of the week has been saved, but at great cost. Now the young pollster will has a black mark on his record that can't be erased.
Meanwhile, the Machine Gang has to figure out what to do about the Machine. Finch seems to have been swayed by Root's argument about what makes the Machine good. As the episode comes to a close, Finch stealthily approaches a surveillance camera and says, "It's time we had a talk you and I." We know the Machine hears him because the little gold "asset" box is hovering around Finch's face.
This was definitely the standout episode of the season so far. We were introduced to the true malevolent power of Samaritan, who is now controlling U.S. politics. Plus, there were smart, meaty ideas about ethics and artificial intelligence (or any kind of intelligence really). I love the idea that the Machine's ethics grow out of its relationship with humans, which makes perfect sense. We aren't born knowing the difference between right and wrong. We learn it from the people we grow up with. And so has the Machine.