This season of Person of Interest has ventured deeper into the wilds of science fiction. We've seen the amoral A.I. Samaritan rigging elections, turning crime on and off like a light, and controlling an entire town. But last night's episode showed how computerized mind-control is already real. Spoilers ahead...
It wasn't that long ago that a controversy erupted over Facebook experimenting with controlling its users' emotions by changing what they saw in their newsfeeds. And I wouldn't be surprised at all if this episode of Person of Interest was inspired, in part, by that incident. You don't have to believe in all-powerful, super-manipulative artificial intelligences to buy the notion that computers could control people, because we've already seen it happen.
In the "A" story of "Q&A," Reese goes undercover at a start-up that has a voice-activated Siri-style electronic "personal assistant" named VAL. And a young woman named Anna finds out that VAL has goaded one depressed guy named Phil Zimmerman to kill himself, by offering him resources on how to commit suicide instead of the Suicide Hotline. (This week's red herring: you think Anna has an abusive boyfriend, but she's actually an MMA fighter who's beating people up because her sister has cancer.)
The corporation that makes VAL is hilariously evil, with weird Orwellian slogans about profit and maximizing efficiency on the walls. And their search-engine wunderkind has been tampering with VAL's algorithm, to make VAL prey on certain vulnerable people's insecurities — all the better to serve ads to them and sell them shit.
The big fake-out in the VAL storyline is that you keep expecting this to be another one of Samaritan's schemes, or another one of its experiments in controlling people in its personal ant-farms. But eventually, it transpires that the VAL hack is just the evil corporation being evil, all on its own, with its own private security contractors who are unrelated to Samaritan's goons.
It's almost an afterthought when we see Greer and some of his minions show up at the end of the episode to buy the company, because Greer (or Samaritan) has found out about the handy emotion-control algorithm and thinks it could be useful. The point has already been made, that it's not just Samaritan screwing around with humans — this is something that is just out there, and a natural consequence of the stage of technology we've reached. People are just easy to manipulate, and our interfaces keep getting more and more sophisticated.
And this focus on manipulation and creepy control dovetails perfectly with the episode's "B" plot, in which Claire the genius hacker reaches out to Harold. Since she won the Nautilus game and got recruited to work for Samaritan, she's been doing dirty deeds — and now, she claims that she's realized that Harold was right and Samaritan is evil.
Pretty much everybody called it yesterday when we posted the above clip: Claire is faking it, and it's a trap. To this episode's credit (and Harold's), nobody tries to pretend the trap isn't obvious. If anything, the possibility that Claire could actually be having a change of heart is so remote and unlikely, that it gets dangled as a sort of outside chance. You can't quite dismiss it, even as it seems less and less plausible.
Claire offers Harold one hell of a shiny inducement to trust her: a USB drive that supposedly contains a big chunk of Samaritan's source code, which could be used to attack Samaritan. It's too good to be true, but you could almost see it being real — since without some kind of miracle along those lines, Harold and the Machine Gang are probably going to be screwed long-term.
Claire's actual mission is to try and convert Harold to the Samaritan side, which seems kind of late in the game. And when her cover is blown, she takes Harold to "see" Samaritan. This turns out to be a field trip to a charter school, and at first it looks as though we're going to meet that creepy little kid who speaks for Samaritan again. But instead, it's just a really nice charter school where the kids are learning on table computers — similar to the ones that Finch and Reese put a stop to a while ago. And Claire explains that Samaritan is just trying to make a better world, and has found a new way to teach these kids, who were lost and struggling before. This is what Samaritan is about, not world domination or whatever. For reals.
It would be slightly more convincing if we hadn't already seen all of the crazy shit Samaritan gets up to when it tries to turn people into its own private guinea pigs — and if we hadn't just spent the whole preceding episode seeing how people are manipulated and warped by impersonal algorithms.
In the end, Root shows up in a slightly deus-ex-machina fashion and saves Finch — hinting that everything has changed and her mission is now completely different. It's sort of interesting that the show has been teasing us with all of these other random strong women, with Shaw dead and Root AWOL — we've had Silva, Zoe Morgan, and now in this episode Claire and Anna. They're all sort of foils, perhaps showing how unique Shaw was and how irreplaceable she'll actually be.
So Claire's change of heart was a fake-out, as we knew it had to be — except at the end of the episode, she shows a flicker of doubt. The fact that Greer's goons actually shot her instead of just shooting at her, when she was winning over Finch, is bothering her. And she overhears Greer saying he's off to take over the evil emotion-manipulating corporation, and seems to have a moment of wondering if she really has chosen the right side.
Maybe later this season, Claire will be back and she and Control can go on a road-trip together, on the "we were working for the wrong side" express.