Image: John Paul Filo/CBS

With five episodes already aired and seven episodes left in Person of Interest’s final season, we’re getting a very slow burn that we know can only end in tragedy. It’s the most stressful show on TV.

Person of Interest has been one of those shows which has truly become greater with each passing season. Season one, with its mostly unconnected cases of the week and relatively low powered AI—in comparison with what’s developed since—moves much slower than the rest of the show. But we should have all remembered the show’s origins when the last season premiered a few weeks ago. Because, like the first episodes of Person of Interest, the last ones are taking their time, and the tension is becoming unbearable.

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The season premiere, “BSOD,” picked up where season four ended: a compressed version of the Machine is in briefcase while Team Machine is on the run from Samaritan’s forces. And there is no doubt that everyone is in grave danger. Without the Machine, they’re even more unprotected than ever before.

Image: Barbara Nitke/CBS

And yet, the macro-danger of Samaritan has continuously taken a backseat this season. “BSOD” was filled with action—especially as Root ran from Samaritan. And it was filled with narrative tension, as Finch worked desperately to save the Machine. But the real heart of the episode were the flashbacks to 2006. We saw Harold decide to wipe the Machine’s memory. More importantly, we saw the Machine ask, with a child’s simplicity, about death. And why Harold was killing him. And we saw Harold regret his decision.

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Sure, the Machine is in danger because there’s a bigger, badder AI out there trying to take over the world. But it’s because the episode showed us Harold’s regret that we understand why he’s fighting to save the Machine now. As high-concept as Person of Interest has gotten over the years, it has not lost sight of its characters.

That pattern has held for most of the other four episodes. “SNAFU” had a rebooted but glitchy Machine determining that its own team was a threat. Again, Samaritan faded to the background when the immediate danger was the Machine hiring a hitman to kill John Reese. The human drama focused on Harold debating morality with the Machine—morality he’d taught it in the first place. Harold told the Machine a decade ago that certain things were always wrong. Now he’s in the position of telling the Machine that people can change and that sometimes unforgivable actions are needed to stop even more unforgivable outcomes.

“SNAFU” also presents our team as it would look to outsiders. Root’s initial sociopathic murder sprees. Reese’s assassinations. Finch in a balaclava. They are criminals. But that doesn’t make them wrong.

Image: Giovanni Rufino/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

“Truth Be Told” was another character episode, with Reese’s number being the brother of a man he once investigated (and killed) for stealing a weapons shipment from the government. Reese saves the brother and lies to him, saying he was a patriot. Because that’s the closure the brother needed.

All of these character episodes would be just average episodes of Person of Interest if we weren’t constantly aware that this was the last season. Something big is coming for our team. And reminding us of Harold’s morality, Root’s evolution, and Reese’s desperate need to save people only underscores whatever tragedy is coming. We know it is. We see Samaritan recruiting people with violent tendencies. We see it evaluate Fusco—who still doesn’t actually know the depth of the fight he’s in—as a potential asset and potential obstruction. We are constantly reminded that homicides are declining, but suicides and missing persons are on the rise. (Which is Samaritan at work.)

Image: John Paul Filo/CBS

And then there was “6,741.” I’m not ashamed to say I was completely taken in by it. We’d known Shaw was returning. And the first three episodes had set up a major fall. So I believed every single thing we saw. A lot of that is on Sarah Shahi, who delivers a truly standout performance. I believed it was real because she believed it was real. “6,741" fed into every paranoid belief this show has stoked: that anyone can break, that Samaritan is unstoppable, that betrayal is inevitable. Of course, it turns out that “6,741" is Samaritan’s take on “If-Then-Else.”

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But instead of the Machine’s paint-by-numbers simulations evaluating strategies, we have Samaritan’s fully realized one. The Machine’s strategy was an objective attempt to predict outcomes. Samaritan is forcing this simulation on Shaw, hoping she’ll unwittingly tell them where the team is hiding. I don’t think there has been a better hour of television this year than “6,471.”

Image: Giovanni Rufino/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Last night’s “ShotSeeker” has the show finally moving on from character and into full Samaritan fight mode. But we’re still just setting up the board for an ultimate showdown. The number this week is connected to a disappeared researcher whose work could help feed the world. Samaritan—for some reason—does not want that research out there. Which has Finch curious, but they publish it all anyway.

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There’s also the reveal that Elias is alive, but even he thinks they’re all helplessly outgunned. He tells his friend Bruce to hide.

At the same time, Finch has a mini-Machine and a mini-Samaritan fighting each other in a Faraday cage. The Machine has lost billions of times. Just in case any of us were under the delusion that this was going to be a fair fight.

Even as my heart can’t quite take these episodes, they are technically brilliant. There are so many movies and TV shows with twisty plots and paper-thin allegories of important issues. Person of Interest balances those things while never forgetting to pay attention to the characters. We’re invested in a battle between two supercomputers because Shaw, Reese, Finch, Root, and Fusco are so well-established and well-loved.

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There’s a reckoning coming, and, with every reminder about the good the team has done, that reckoning gets scarier and more upsetting. There are only seven episodes left, and the tension is becoming unbearable.

It better snap soon. Or I will.