This is a story of how Person of Interest worked three long seasons to earn its surveillance dystopia, when other shows of the genre failed to show their work.
This week, Person of Interest returns to the screens for its fifth and final season. After a four season emotional roller-coaster, fans are eager but understandably apprehensive about the conclusion. No one promised us a happy end. In fact, as the show wore on, it became clear that its premise, which initially relied on crime drama with a thin dusting of ambiguous sci-fi, had become radically transformed. Viewers entering the fourth season now knew that the show’s world presents a freshly budding dystopia dominated by a conscious and independent artificial intelligence.
Among fans of Person of Interest, the first season of the show is often maligned. The first half of the season especially gives off the impression of being a bog-standard procedural show. A reclusive tech billionaire and an ex-special forces soldier with unresolved trauma; they fight crime! They stand up for the weak and the innocent! The government considers you irrelevant, but we don’t. Although the reality of 9/11 and the USA PATRIOT Act loom over the deus ex machina that moves the plot, they seem doomed to fade into the background and keep to the backstory.
Certainly there is very little hint of the series meta plot, where it intends to go, and how far it’s willing to take what is admittedly a very ambitious conceit. The elements of the puzzle are slotted into place with exceeding care. We begin with a mysterious “machine” which could arguably be called an AI. The creation of a brilliant and conscientious programmer, it encapsulates the act of surveillance, producing actionable data in the form of social security numbers, their owners fated to be victims or perpetrators of violence. Created to address threats to national security, it disregards civilian threats until instructed otherwise by its creator, Harold Finch.
To begin with: Finch, a master-hacker and information broker, Reese, a tormented ex-soldier looking for meaning and purpose, and Carter, their suspicious but semi-oblivious police contact. Late in the first season the show begins to hint at the government body behind the machine, but the Northern Lights project isn’t introduced until the second season, along with ex-operative Sameen Shaw and, eventually, its shadowy director, known only as Control. Decima Technologies, the independent corporate interest which threatens the machine, doesn’t reach its full fruition as an antagonist until season three.
There are two major shifts in balance that underscore POI’s careful transformation. Decima and its director, Greer, is one such. His relentless pursuit of surveillance technology puts him, at the end of season three, in control of a rogue AI with no ethical protocol. Samaritan, even in being given an explicit name, is set up from the start as the machine’s opposite number (so to speak). Finch built his machine while being conscious of the unprecedented power it exposes. As a black box process, his mechanical treatment of the process encourages the viewer to see it likewise. The second shift comes with the introduction of Root when this balance is upset for the first time.
Root’s distinction in the narrative is that she unfailingly regards the machine, which remains unnamed by its creator Finch, as a reasoning being. Her introduction into the narrative is intrusive as she conspicuously calls the machine a god and refers to it for the first time by female pronouns. Early in her arc she serves as an antagonist and her conflict with Finch serves to frame her approach as a self-serving psychological projection. Later in the story as their aims begin to coincide it’s more difficult for the viewer to dismiss her.
The conflict between Finch and Root perfectly frames the show’s gradual shift in narrative and genre. Throughout the first season Harold persistently avoids anthropomorphizing the machine, although later flashbacks show him holding entire conversations with it. He takes technical steps to restrict its autonomy, as well as reduce the exploitable power that it exposes to the government agency that commissioned it. He never names the machine, and in his interactions with it, never identifies himself as anything but “admin”. Discovering that the machine is communicating with Root, he regards it as a security breach and declines to acknowledge any emotional impact.
The machine’s increasing autonomy of action, first through Root as her analogue interface and later under its own power, is the turning point that the meta-narrative requires to progress. Dragging its team of operatives into direct conflict with governmental as well as corporate power structure, the machine is just as complicit in season four’s doomsday war as any other character. Finch and Reese both begin the show as two characters looking to hide from the world. This is a state of mind that the story will not suffer.
In the current creative climate, where dystopias spring up like glossy teen mushrooms after the rain, Person of Interest in its ultimate incarnation is a throwback. Its nightmare phantasm is uncompromisingly rooted in concrete historical events that occurred a neat decade before its debut, and it remains relentlessly political even (and especially) at its most sci-fi. Though the transition from season three’s peerless finale “Deux Ex Machina” (only two years ago, though it seems like longer) into the hard dystopian reality of season four was rough, the show retained its edge.
The show’s most critical moments are much easier to identify in retrospect, certainly throughout seasons two and three. Our protagonists live their lives and do their jobs and don’t always pay the due attention to the gears of history clicking into place around them. In this way, POI sets the viewer in an ugly, complacent place, where one as an ordinary citizen realizes that one has handed the reins of power to the wrong people, but much too late to do anything about it.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.