We Were Being Watched: A Farewell to Person of Interest
I learned everyone dies alone. But, if you meant something to someone, if you helped someone, or loved someone, if even a single person remembers you, then maybe you never really die. -- The Machine
September 11, 2001 changed us as a people. For those within America's borders, we remember exactly where we were when the first plane struck the World Trade Center. For those in nations around the world, it was one of "those" moments, those most rare, where everyone stopped and watched. For our military, they watched with the knowledge of an immediate shift, a priority change about to affect their lives. Families embraced one another, bickering neighbors suddenly forgot what the fuss was all about, and for the briefest of periods, we were in fact one nation, one group, united behind the flag.
In the aftermath of the attacks, questions would arise as to the scope of the government to wage war against Iraq, to send uniformed personnel into Afghanistan, and to engage in nation building in the Middle East. Locally, the debate over privacy's subservience to larger security interests took center stage, with the Patriot Act and the expansion of the NSA among the century's grandest sources for disagreement.
Some looked at it through a political prism, unable to shake the "R" or "D" that defined their very being, but others began to look for an answer deeper in their hearts, whether it was listening to a religious figure, an activist, or a scrawny hacker who was willing to put his life on the line to do what he thought was right. My purpose today is not to provide my opinion on these matters or to stand behind a pulpit of any type, any size, or any shape. This is the backdrop that led Jonathan Nolan to search for a story. This was the global climate that allowed CBS to green light an ambitious project, one where surveillance and artificial intelligence were dissected in a form not attempted on television before.
Person of Interest ended its five-season run last night in a stunning 44-minute finale that tied up the fates of the characters we've come to care about, while leaving just enough of an opening for our imaginations to challenge Usain Bolt on a track. In its first season, the show introduced us to eccentric billionaire Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), who we find out was instrumental in creating a large-scale computer system for the government. This "Machine" could detect terrorist activity before the crime occurred, but he recognized it could also predict more ordinary scenarios as well. His supervisors aren't concerned with the smaller crimes, but he becomes obsessed with the idea of stopping them. He finds John Reese (Jim Caviezel), a former Green Beret and CIA operative, barely functioning on the streets of New York. John is struggling with the death of a very important woman in his life, and Finch recruits him to assist with the prevention of these instances.
The Machine provides social security numbers, one at a time (at least initially), through a back door Finch placed inside it, and the hook for the weekly "crime of the week" stories was the system could not pinpoint whether the subject was a victim, or a potential perpetrator. This was what made Person of Interest viable for CBS, a network that has long sustained itself on crime procedurals and dramas that can be run in varying orders. These are the kind of shows that will exist in syndication for as long as it takes to replace them with new variations of the exact same thing. And, if that were all Nolan's show ended up being, it still would have been entertaining each week.
However, I'm relatively certain I wouldn't be taking the time to write a novel about it right now, because there's no reason to spend time breaking down NCIS.
The first season is fun, with some episodes better than others, but there always felt like a little something was missing. There was more to be uncovered in this sphere, and my mind kept telling me to stick with it, to trust my instincts. We meet Samantha Groves (Amy Acker) by her hacker nickname, "Root," when it illuminates a computer screen in Episode 13. Little did we know that it would be that character that would help Jonathan Nolan fully realize the depth of his concept. Without Root, I'm not sure what Person of Interest would have been, and without Acker in that role, it's unimaginable how well it would have played out. Both of those are thankfully realities we won't ever have to experience.
In the seasons that followed, Root went from the show's greatest villain to its Catwoman, but a version that played for the side of right more often than not. My comparison for Person of Interest has always been Batman, which felt even more correct due to the name attached to it. Reese was the Caped Crusader of the series, but with far more reliance on his Oracle, Harold Finch. Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson) was Jim Gordon, who progressed from someone who chased the "Man in the Suit" to one of his closest friends and biggest allies. The darkness surrounding the show had a Gotham tinge to it, and as time went by, Reese and Finch invited others into their world.
Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman) didn't necessarily fit into the Batman analogy, but he was the corrupt NYPD officer who, first through force, then through will, joined the team. Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi) was almost a second Reese, but was unique enough that the two were easily discernible from one another in action and response.
John Reese in a cape and cowl just wouldn't have worked. Person of Interest thrived because of the sense of realism that helped push the post-9/11 paranoia and aided the technical jargon that might have otherwise been too much to handle for an ordinary viewer. This was a superhero show for anyone willing to look beneath the sheet, but it didn't have to be. Unlike so many of its colleagues across the vast expanse of television, there were different ways to enjoy it. The violence and action suited some, the science fiction elements others, and those who allowed themselves to sink into Nolan's New York fully walked away from the finale with their jaws on the floor.
I know why I watched it, and I also know what I hoped it might become, but I had no idea just how much I would come to love it as the main story unfolded. The Machine helped stop crimes and our heroes narrowly escaped many tough situations, but as a resistance to surveillance, denial of rights, and cronyism became paramount, everything that preceded it became prologue. The story of Collier, whose brother committed suicide after being falsely accused of terrorist activities led to his revolution - leading an organization known as Vigilance - was another strong turning point. The manipulation of his emotions and his desire to strike led to the Samaritan arc, which carried the show to the finish line.
The Machine's origins and strength were kept secret, as Finch was willing to do anything to ensure it never fell into the wrong hands. Stopping criminals was a positive outcome, but imagine if something evil controlled a faceless, unchecked artificial intelligence? Worse, what if that A.I. became the deity itself, rather than the employee. He feared the possibilities, but it was inevitable someone would discover the truth and would make a play on his power, or would create a challenger to the original system.
As Season 3 ended, Samaritan came online, and John Greer (John Nolan) gave it ultimate authority, asking for it to give him and his team instructions. Many of the motives were good, but there was a sinister nature to playing god in this way, and Machine v. Samaritan became the show's focus, progressing along with the Vigilance arc in the third year. The final two years were depictions of the war between those working for each side, and later between the two A.I.'s themselves, while their foot soldiers attempted to fight for the world they wanted. Throughout the struggle, citizens lived their lives entirely oblivious to what was taking place above their pay grade. Sadly, we can relate to this, because we always question the motives of key decision makers and those with the authority to help or harm our loved ones.
This continuing, serial narrative that made sure we were always walking on solid ground inside Nolan and co-showrunner Greg Plageman's universe, is among my favorite experiences ever watching television. Up to and including the gorgeous finale, the writing, the acting, the pacing, and the intensity were truly fantastic. Outside of the weekly stories, which made it network-friendly, the vision was far above what's expected on one of the big four. Those who wrote it off because of where they found it on their television dial did so at their own peril, and hopefully they've had the opportunity to right that wrong now that the series is available on Netflix.
It was one of the highest tested pilots of the century for CBS, which led to CSI's move from Thursday, and the ratings were strong, from 14 million, then to 16 million, before beginning a decline. The network moved the show around, which didn't help, but the numbers were always there. More impressive, the series saw an increase from the first season to the second, which is abnormal for this era. Because the actual story began to form in the second year, it benefited the show's ratings, as viewers could jump in and catch most of what they needed to and not feel in any way lost or confused.
Person of Interest was creatively gutsy, doing frequent flashback episodes, alternate realities, and even varying simulations of the same event, as we saw The Machine go through repeated moments to find a better chance for her team's survival. More and more, it was willing to trust its audience. While there were many occasions where some of the sci-fi or tech chatter might be a little muddy, the stakes were always clear and the two sides of the battle well-defined. Sometimes, the most difficult things to decipher were the episode titles, which might have led someone to research the term and understand it going forward.
Michael Emerson was already high on my list because of his work as Benjamin Linus in Lost, but his portrayal as Harold Finch was every bit the equal of the previous role. The man is just a staggering talent, and it was his inclusion that initially attracted me to the pilot prior to its premiere. The character matched Emerson's skill at playing it, and it was almost unfair to get to watch the performance for free. It continued to improve, with flashbacks showing his relationship with Grace Hendricks (played by his wife, Carrie Preston), his father, his work for the government, all picture perfect. Three weeks ago, in "The Day The World Went Away," Emerson's potency during the last 15 minutes was breathtaking. Michael is just special, really special.
Jim Caviezel, well I liked him in Deja Vu. I admit I've never seen The Passion of the Christ, but he'll forever be the Man in the Suit to me. He was well suited for this role. He spoke almost like Batman, with a gruff, soft voice, almost terrifyingly monotonous. He looked the part of the badass, and was believable as a former Delta Force/Green Beret and CIA agent. The stark contrast between the two lead actors and their roles was meaningful and successful from the second we see the two meet each other in the series opener. Caviezel was quietly charismatic, though Mr. Reese was stoic.
Amy Acker became one of the best characters, not just on Person of Interest, but on all of TV as the Root persona evolved. Her voice, which became extremely important in the last few episodes of the fifth season, represented that of The Machine. She became its analog interface, and she saw it as humanity's successor. She viewed Finch as the world's finest artist, but one that sometimes didn't fully appreciate what he'd done or what might be to come. Watching those two end up in a supportive, mutually respectful, sibling partnership was such a joy because it was natural. It made sense, and Nolan and his writing staff would just pull another thread between the two and tie it together here and there. The duo grew into one, but still held very different views on a wide variety of subjects.
Kevin Chapman's Lionel Fusco didn't seem like a guy we would know as long as we did when we first saw him, but there's an argument to be made that he represented us. The difference is we knew the whole story, and until the run-up to the finale, he didn't. He was imperfect, but had a good soul. Chapman played the complexity and uncertainty of Fusco well. His fellow detective, Joss Carter, changed the game. There's no lasting resonance to Batman without Gordon, because he showed us people in Bob Kane's story could actually understand what Bruce Wayne was doing. Carter built the bridge that other characters traversed to reach Reese and Finch on a human level. Long before there was a Cookie, there was a Detective Carter, and Taraji was awesome then, and she's awesome now. When she left POI, it was a heartbreaking exit, one that took us (and Reese) a few episodes to recover from, even if it was only a partial save.
Then there's Sarah Shahi, who was good on The L Word, better than her material on Fairly Legal, and walked into our lives on Person of Interest and shot us directly in the face, but in the best possible way. I never saw the Root-Shaw relationship before it was spelled out for us, but it was a face palm realization, because it was so obviously the right call. I always looked at Finch-Root, but they were more like family. The two ladies were drawn to each other because each was damaged, but an admiration and a passion grew, and then encircled us all as we watched.
Shahi's best work was after her capture by Samaritan operatives, where she had to sell us on torture and mind control and brainwashing, particularly as she went through training simulations. We saw multiple instances of the same scene, but Sarah would change up enough of what she was doing to give us a sense that maybe THIS time, it was real. The writing helped, but Shahi did an excellent job with the substance behind her character.
Recurring cast members like Enrico Colantoni, who somehow played both sides of the fence as crime boss Carl Elias, John Nolan, Brett Cullen, Clarke Peters, Annie Parisse, and Paige Turco, just to name a small few of many talented individuals, all helped make the scope of Person of Interest that much more intriguing. Outside of this war that could dictate the world's future, we still had criminal v. criminal, political and executive fixers, corrupt police organizations with hands deep in the piggy bank, and governmental officials on the take, or trying to save the country.
And, when it needed to be funny or drop a lightweight line, it generally did so effectively. You liked these people, so the banter was easy to accept or embrace.
But, it was that story that made POI what it was. To add to it the talent that picked up the scripts, helped compose the words, directed the scenes, all of it just ensured that what was merely greatness was often brilliance. And Ramin Djawadi's score remains an absolute thing of beauty. You might best know him for his work on Game of Thrones (including the theme), which will immediately tell you how good the music on Person of Interest is. When it was appropriate to use licensed music, POI basically stole my collection and used it. Radiohead is my all-time favorite band, and Season 3 concluded with "Exit Music (For a Film)." The National, Nine Inch Nails, and the artist list goes on and on, but especially with this kind of subject matter, going to OK Computer was an inspired choice. That closing scene from "Deus Ex Machina," which I just referenced, still blows me away every time I go back and watch it.
No network show did cliffhangers like Person of Interest, and very few programs of any kind could duplicate the paintbrush Nolan, Plageman, and their colleagues wielded when it came time to say goodbye for the summer. The threat level grew with each new season, but unlike so many dramas that run out of ideas, as "return 0" ended on Tuesday, I was ready to take the trip all over again with Shaw and Bear at the helm. Unlike The Good Wife, Person of Interest ended on a high note. There was a hopeful future, even after the tough events that preceded it. Ice-9 ended the show, but the Machine's code leading to the final phone call was just enough for us to daydream about a sixth season, or to be okay with the 103 episodes we were so fortunate to see.
The manner in which the climax was handled, leading to Reese on a rooftop, showing just how far he'd come as a man and as a friend was gorgeous, and also replicated the path the show as a whole has taken. No one stood still or ever stayed in one place. Both leads attempted a sacrifice for the other, but when Harold and Grace lock eyes, John's real heroism is on full display. The gift he leaves for the man who saved his life five seasons ago is the ultimate repayment. It was a stirring end game for John Reese as a character, and a beautiful way to send Jim Caviezel off the program.
The show's unflinching vision, it's willingness to "go there" and take some structural risks that might doom a series, its view of humanity, and it's one-of-a-kind nature put it on a figurative pedestal for me as a purveyor of great fiction. Nolan and Plageman ran the hell out of this show, kept it moving, and always made sure it remained interesting and surprising. These characters, their world, the motivations, determination, and fearlessness of the roles, are a credit to the story's scribes, as well as its players.
Those behind the scenes knew Season 5 would be it for the project, so they were able to craft an end point and then write to that moment without the uneasy feeling of never knowing when the last episode was coming. It resulted in a wondrous fifth year, where anything could happen, because there's no reason to hold a timeout in the final 30 seconds of a game. You can't take those ideas with you. Whatever it is you wanted to do, you can do.
The fears of a creeping surveillance state, the progression of technology, an approaching singularity, and how all of it could alter even the perceptions of a world we increasingly fail to understand, told with some of the tenets of a superhero story...and the opposing side, concerned with connections between the people we encounter in our lives, those who we would protect and those who complete us...yeah, you guys had me before you even had a cast.
If you never watched POI or if you stopped watching at some point, Netflix makes it easy to remedy those problems, and I urge you to start from the beginning and enjoy this television achievement. If you were affiliated with the show, I thank you. Before I'm a critic, I'm a fan, and I appreciate what each one of you did. The biggest compliment I can pay you is this: In an era of 957,248 possible shows to watch, I never felt like you wasted my time. Up to Djawadi's final note on Tuesday, I was happy to give you an hour of my life every week. I wish I could continue to do so, and, as The Machine said, maybe this isn't the end at all.
To close, in homage to "Deus Ex Machina," allow me to finish with this...
EXIT MUSIC (FOR A FILM) - Radiohead
Wake.. from your sleep
The drying of your tears
Today we escape, we escape
Pack.. and get dressed
Before your father hears us
Before all hell breaks loose
Breathe, keep breathing
Don't lose your nerve
Breathe, keep breathing
I can't do this alone
Sing.. us a song
A song to keep us warm
There's such a chill, such a chill
You can laugh
A spineless laugh
We hope your rules and wisdom choke you
Now we are one in everlasting peace
We hope that you choke, that you choke
We hope that you choke, that you choke
We hope that you choke, that you choke
I'm @GuyNamedJason. Once we become predictable, we become vulnerable.