A few months ago, a number of fans on Tumblr dedicated a week to sharing their reasons for appreciating the newly ended CBS show, Person of Interest, with each day dedicated to a different sub-heading. The below is adapted from my own contribution for the first day, detailing just some of my reasons for enjoying the show. Needless to say, it contains spoilers for all five seasons.
This is meant in reference to both the show and the characters on it. The protagonists on Person of Interest represented a spectrum of moral and emotional expression, but they were never judged for who they were or how they expressed themselves. Instead, they were allowed the chance to observe others, learn from them, and grow in whatever way they each could. Root succeeded in her goals as a villain, but then she was taught by The Machine to diversify her moral code and she came to recognise the value of human life and its complexities. From then on she repeatedly put herself in harm’s way in order to protect others, be they friends or strangers.
John Reese was emotionally intelligent in a way that so few straight, white, male lead characters are allowed to be; he recognised the intricacies of emotional expressions and how they manifest differently in different people (such as when Shaw was quietly grieving the loss of Root) and he gave them the time and support they needed to process whatever turmoil they were going through. When he found people who needed help, he offered to do for them that which they could or should not, and though he had a tendency to wade into danger alone, he also recognised when he needed to accept help or stand down, and acknowledged that there were some decisions he could not make for other people. He had a hero complex, but his demeanour was subdued, not gung-ho.
In a wider context, the characters did not belittle each other. There were no frustrating moments where they said offensive things about one another for the sake of drama. They had huge respect for one another despite whatever differences may have existed between them, and the disagreements they had. Indeed, their disagreements all operated on either an intellectual or operational level; they were never personal. Person of Interest eschewed the conventional character and narrative developments that are commonplace in network dramas, refusing to escalate tensions for the sake of it, but instead doing so only when the story required it.
Character moments were intense but subtle. The protagonists rarely went out for drinks together at the end of a mission once the bad guy was caught and the victim had been saved. You would not find them hanging out at each others’ apartments with beers, pizza, and a DVD, unwinding after a difficult day. Most of them probably did not even own a DVD player. We didn’t even see them hanging out in their own apartments. With the exception of perhaps Finch, and Root with the aid of The Machine, none of them really knew where any of the others lived. When John investigated a sparsely furnished studio loft that Finch had sent him to, he had no idea that it was in fact Shaw’s residence, until Finch informed him (though the small armoury stored in the fridge is a tip-off). In the season 5 episode, ‘6,741’, within a virtual reality simulation Shaw imagined herself in Root’s apartment, but the disconnect between how she expected the decor to look, and Root’s actual sleeping quarters in their subway base of operations meant it was obvious Shaw had never visited any of Root’s residences, and had no idea what her taste in decoration was like. Certainly, as of the season 3 finale, Root did not have a fixed address – a result of how frequently she exhausted her identities – and likely had little opportunity to set-up anywhere permanently.
If it seemed like we didn’t see these characters socialise much outside of their work, that’s because their work was their life. Not quite so much for Detectives Lionel Fusco and Joss Carter, who both independently had an official job and a child connecting them to some semblance of a normal life, but even they both referred on occasion to the difficulty they experienced in regulating a work/life balance. Still, for Finch, Reese, Shaw, and Root, a ‘normal’ life was unattainable whilst they continued to work with The Machine. Each of them had carved an existence defined by two simple objectives: 1) survive, and 2) help others survive. And the numbers never stopped coming.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of their group dynamic was their commitment to clear communication. One of the many reasons they worked well together is because they were truthful with one another when it mattered. Harold Finch had secrets and held back personal information, but it was because he was an intensely private individual and had suffered great personal losses – not because he wished to mislead out of spite or selfishness. John did not react with anger to Harold’s tendency to withhold information; instead he met him in the middle and gently but persistently tested the boundaries of Harold’s willingness to share, when it was pertinent to their work. When Shaw first met Harold and John, she was immensely distrustful of them, but that was because she had spent the past 24 hours being hunted down by her employers, and no longer knew who to trust. After they saved her life, and once she had time to watch them from a distance, she became more amenable to the idea of working with them. Also she really liked their dog.
There were many things the characters undoubtedly did not know about one another but they all respected each other’s hesitancy to divulge. On occasion, Root was willing to share her most intimate thoughts with Shaw, and though Shaw could not reciprocate in the same way, she listened, and understood – and that was enough for Root. They accepted and appreciated one another as they were, and their respective limitations only made their bond stronger.
Person of Interest avoided the oft relied-upon interpersonal tropes of miscommunication and this maturity in the writing benefited the show, preventing it from falling into the usual narrative contrivances. Visually, with phones and earpieces commonly featured in the mise-en-scène, the show conveyed just how frequently the characters were in contact with one another: almost always. The characters knew that communication was key to working well together and achieving their goals, and they also knew that even if they were having what seemed like a private conversation, there was nearly always somebody – or something – else listening. On the rare occasion that one of them misled another, it was in the interest of protection, such as when Root purposefully led Shaw to the wrong location and then drugged her to keep her off Samaritan’s radar, or when John allowed Finch to believe he was sacrificing himself, in the series finale, when in fact it was John, by way of private arrangement with The Machine, who made the ultimate sacrifice.
FOCUS & COMMITMENT TO STORY
What started off as a seemingly straightforward crime-fighting story – episodic in structure with its case-of-the-week formula – developed over time into a one-woman takedown of a city-wide corruption ring, and then into an all-out war between two ASIs (Artificial Super Intelligences). The story wasn’t rushed, but rather plotted carefully and executed organically. Rich with thematic depth, the show explored many big ideas, and in its final moments committed itself to a positive, life-affirming message which delivered a huge emotional payoff.
This positive message was not confined to just the final episode, however; as we saw from flashbacks peppered throughout the five seasons, Finch spent years teaching The Machine to care for and protect all people, not just Her creator. Even before he took on the task of helping the Irrelevant Numbers, his friend and co-worker, Nathan Ingram, advocated for their protection. Indeed, Nathan was the one who spoke the immortal line “everyone is relevant to someone.”
Similarly, Detective Joss Carter spent every day fighting to do good, protect the innocent, and mete out justice to the corrupt officials and service members who impeded the rights of others. John was quick to notice that due to her great strength, altruistic nature, and desire to help the downtrodden, she stood out from the majority.
The writing on this show was imbued with ambition, employing different narrative structures in certain episodes, such as ‘If-Then-Else’, which stood out to fans and critics alike with its exploration of possible outcomes for one deadly scenario and ultimately illustrated that some variables can never be accounted for. The season 2 episode, ‘Relevance’, deviated from the show’s usual focus on the activities of John and Harold and their detective friends, by presenting the world from a new player’s POV; finally audiences were treated to how the Relevant Numbers were dealt with, thanks to an explosive introduction to the character of Sameen Shaw.
‘6,741’, though perhaps predictable for some audience members in its revelations, nonetheless took a new approach to storytelling, giving us an entire episode from the point of view of one character, as Shaw attempted to navigate and stay afloat in the murky waters of Samaritan’s virtual reality simulations.
And in season 3’s ‘RAM’, the heroic escapades of Reese and Shaw were put on the back-burner, whilst we instead learnt about Finch’s previous partner, Rick Dillinger, and how Dillinger’s actions connected to John’s earlier CIA mission in Ordos, Shaw’s ISA operations, and the mysterious Decima corporation; neatly tying together multiple converging plots.
The story did not get side-tracked by pettiness. There was no interest in placing love triangles or affairs in the protagonists’ lives, nor contrived betrayals. The tone was serious; the stakes were high, and the threats to the characters were terrifying. We feared for their lives. We valued their love. We supported their cause, and we hoped they would succeed.
Most notable were the philosophical debates between Root and Finch, the embodiments of the Prophet and Architect archetypes respectively. When they first met, they were very much at odds, with Root murdering a woman in cold blood in front of Finch and then holding him captive, and for some time after this Finch suffered from PTSD related to Root’s actions. Their animosity towards one another took a long time to clear, but clear it did and by the end they exhibited enormous respect and admiration for one another. Yet their outlooks on the world still did not always align, and they continued to regularly disagree on what was best for humanity, and best for The Machine. Sometimes other members of the team also got involved in these disagreements, though it was usually either Finch or Root who got the final word.
As a group they often faced moral conundrums: should they kill a particular person for the greater good of humanity, or let that person live despite knowing the events such an action would put into motion? Much later they would often be faced with the consequences of the decisions they made in these difficult moments, but they confronted the consequences with maturity, focusing on what they could do for the future rather than wondering how they could change the past.
Root liked to discuss metaphysics in times of distress (and when flirting with Shaw). Her explanation of these ideas to others was used to present a worldview that we as an audience could take comfort in, knowing that there was some value to be found in our existence, even if it is simply as a shape or a sound or a minute pressure against someone else’s life. Root was not afraid to share her strong opinions and cynical view of humanity with others, whether she was torturing them, or they were torturing her. Her God, The Machine, observed the world and learnt from everything She saw. She found comfort in the lessons that She learnt about life, and shared this information with Root, and Harold, and Shaw, but also with us. She asked Root to remind us that even when the worst has come to pass, still there remains hope.
We were asked to consider philosophies alternative to those we were comfortable with, even knowing who espoused them. Whilst it held Shaw captive, Samaritan attempted to sway her and bring her around to its line of thinking. It showed her a window into a world where it operated without interference, showing the good it could do, and the nefarious schemes of corrupt people that it could prevent. Although Shaw appeared to agree with Samaritan’s analysis of certain scenarios – and certainly the analyses were sound -, she remained unconvinced by the immorality of its methods, just as she had been unconvinced by Vigilance leader, Peter Collier’s own methods when he had attempted to appeal to her. Though undoubtedly physically and emotionally strong, it was Sameen Shaw’s mental fortitude that meant Samaritan was unable to break or brainwash her.
Where Samaritan saw people as cattle that needed to be herded and coddled, The Machine believed it was important that everyone be allowed to express free will, even where it directly affected Her. She saw the value in each person as an individual, and the potential they held, and She recognised that they were not interchangeable. Root and Harold argued continuously over whether or not The Machine loved them, but it was The Machine Herself who demonstrated how much She cared, when She surrendered Herself to Samaritan in order to save them both, and also when – in commemoration of Her Analog Interface – She took on Root’s voice as Her own.
Surveillance was undoubtedly the show’s longest-running preoccupation, and it was the cause of discomfort for many characters, including the NSA Analyst who realised that the government had finally managed to acquire the AI they so desperately wanted ever since 9/11. It’s no surprise then that governmental overreach was another concept the show concerned itself with, and no faction was more resistant to this threat than Vigilance, the group of anarchic revolutionists who held their own televised ‘trial’ of important figures in an attempt to learn who had built the Machine. Their leader, Peter Collier, came with his own compelling story and yet ultimately proved to be an unwitting pawn in the chess game of a far greater foe.
When re-watching episodes we are presented with information that we find newly relevant with hindsight, and it becomes easier to piece together the timeline in a chronological order. The narrative and character parallels made throughout become more apparent, and the show’s passionate engagement with continuity rewards us continually. This is a show that always gave us so much to think about, and though it has now ended, there are still lessons to be learnt from it, and we can still find reassurance in it. After all, that is what The Machine would want for us.