Tuesday night's Person of Interest confirmed that this story isn't just set five minutes into the future — it's actually taking place in an alternate timeline, where Snowden's NSA whistleblowing happened in a very different way. And that allows us to see how powerful political science fiction can be.
Shaw and Reese gave us some comic relief rescuing some suburbanites from each other at a high school reunion.
Meanwhile, Finch and Fusco's mission took us deep inside the intelligence community and their black operations. Chief among those black ops, of course, is what Control and her intel gang call "Northern Lights," the code name for the being we know as the Machine.
What's fascinating about the way this black ops plot unfolds is that we slowly realize that the show is taking place in a world where Snowden never leaked those NSA documents about the US government spying on us. (Finch's old colleague did mention leaks early this season, but dismissed them as "distraction" from the real stuff.) Instead of Snowden, we have Collier from the "privacy terrorism" outfit Vigilance. This episode is set in the days leading up to a giant leak that reveals government spying to the American public.
A Fantasy of Competent Anti-Terrorism Programs
There's a great bit early in the episode where Control is arguing with a senator about Northern Lights, telling him that his job depends on the Machine feeding them accurate intel. The implication is that the Machine has successfully quelled dozens of terrorist acts by foreign agents (though not, apparently, from Vigilance). Control has this senator under her thumb because her relationship with the Machine is actually providing a valuable service.
So one of the fantasies at work here is that the NSA's surveillance scheme was actually highly effective — something that does not appear to have been true in real life. The other fantasy, of course, is that people like Edward Snowden were actually part of an organized privacy terrorist underground that could sneak into the FBI and steal documents. Of course in real life, there was no need for this level of sneaking around. Snowden simply sat down at his computer and used grep or something to snarf up a bunch of documents. He didn't even have to be in a government building, because the NSA's security was so bad that contractors had access to these sensitive documents.
The world of Person of Interest assumes a lot more competence on the part of everybody. We have an artificially intelligent (and benevolent!) surveillance system, and intelligence operatives who actually stop terrorism. But more importantly, though, we have an organized resistance with a strongly-felt political purpose. There are at least analogues of the Machine and Control in real life. I would hesitate to call Snowden an analogue of Collier or Vigilance.
The Future of Political Revolution
And this is why Person of Interest continues to be one of the most fascinating political shows on television, as well as the best example of science fiction on any network. The most science fictional question that this episode is asking is, "What if there were an armed, organized resistance to the government invading our privacy?" This political movement is something that might exist in the future, however, and it's a smart move to imagine a world where it already does.
That's why the scene where Collier and Finch have their showdown was so incredibly effective. They're both on the same side, as Finch says, but have chosen different methods. We watch as Collier puts the pieces together after seeing the "Northern Lights" line item in the staff list he's nabbed. And then he recites the premise of the show, which is that the government "has a system that watches us every hour of every day."
For Collier, this isn't about futuristic technology or AI. It's about politics, and authoritarianism. For an instant, we're forced to remember that the Machine doesn't just represent the next step in human evolution. It also represents a step backward for democratic freedom.
That said, Person of Interest also exists in a reality where Snowden's revelations appear not to be having the same public impact that they did in real world.
When Vigilance releases the documents they've stolen from the FBI, we don't see reporters investigating and verifying Vigilance's claims the same way, for example, the Guardian and Der Stern did with the Snowden documents. They ask a few half-hearted questions at a press conference which the senator dismisses.
But maybe that's because in the alternate timeline of Person of Interest, these leaks come from "privacy terrorists" and not a young white man who looks good in front of the cameras.
At the same time, the Vigilance leak effectively shuts down the secret Machine program. So maybe we're not seeing the same media uproar over this surveillance scandal, but we're seeing decisive action from the intelligence community. As the episode closes, Control makes a call — I was really hoping that it was to the Machine itself, but apparently not — and shuts down the Northern Lights program.
What this means is not that the Machine itself has been shut down — after all, nobody knows where exactly it has located itself. It just means that Control's team will no longer be acting on the "relevant" numbers it gets. Which sounds like bad news for everybody, frankly.
But the Machine quickly reroutes its priorities, and appears to be assigning those "relevant" numbers to Root. Which makes sense, given that she's now become an FBI agent.
Let's think about what that says about the Person of Interest alternate timeline, though. It means that the American public is aware that the NSA has a surveillance system that watches everybody. But now that "system," the Machine, isn't working with the government at all. It's feeding non-relevant AND relevant numbers to the Machine Gang now. Our national security is in the hands of a gang of vigilantes. Meanwhile, privacy advocates have been politicized and armed.
It's a future/alternate present that extrapolates from today's politics as well as our technological innovations. And I'm very curious to see what happens to the NSA leaks in this parallel universe, where the government shuts down its surveillance operations and privacy terrorists are out for blood.