Airtime: Monday and Tuesday at 10PM on CBS
Episode: Season 5, Episode 7-8 (S05E07-08)
Tweetable Takeaway: A double dose of #PersonofInterest delivers two equally good sci-fi philosophy lessons
Sometimes you can pinpoint the moment you fall in love. Sometimes you’ve slowly been falling in love the whole time and it only dawns on you much later. I’ve always liked PERSON OF INTEREST but it didn’t occur to me that I was quietly in love with it until the double dose of “QSO” and “Reassortment.” Both are superb, self-contained narratives that feed the serialized plot and let the characters grow while pulling in every possible science, sci-fi, and philosophical referent they can grab. They’re quite different so I’ll just treat them separately.
So much is going on in “QSO” I’m not entirely sure where to start. First, the structure is delightful. We follow Root through a few different identity skips and get to experience the hilarious dissonance of Root in these roles in real time rather than as a punchline after the fact. She skips through crossing guard, ballerina, historical reenactor, and finally lands on kooky conspiracy theorist. The best part is that all of them are relevant to the plot at some point, be it from expertise, connections, or items she’s collected. That sort of tight writing is so satisfying to experience. In addition to all Root’s personas mattering, it ties into Shaw’s otherwise tangential plotline. It’s hard to keep one character separated from the ensemble and still have her matter, but Person of Interest is doing a pretty decent job at it. Mostly by continually testing Shaw’s integrity and loyalty and having her keep both. Root won’t give up on Shaw and just as Shaw is about to give up on herself she gets a message from Root. It’s very well done.
As for the case of the episode, that was equally satisfying. A nutty conspiracy theorist hosts an AM radio talk show where people can call in and tell him their theories. I always love the dramatic irony when a show based on huge conspiracies being real comes face-to-face with conspiracy theorists. X-Files was particularly good about doing that in the olden days. “QSO” follows those traditions admirably. Root and the radio host Max Greene got to spout sci-fi philosophy every now and then which is like giving my dorky brain’s pleasure center a deep tissue massage. Ultimately, Max gets his “I knew conspiracies were real!” moment over some Samaritan code he uncovers in his broadcasts. Charmingly, the code is a message Samaritan uses to get in touch with its operatives based on the same radio signal idea that our good guys use to communicate. It’s a great way to tie what could have been a one-off about menacing dark forces out to get us into something that furthers the show’s serial narrative. Also: “Using the idea of free will as an excuse for moral attrition? I’m not sure I’m comfortable with where this is going.” Take a moment to process the fact that this show talks like a Philosophy of Science Fiction thesis. I.e. it speaks my language. Plus, I’m loving how Root keeps pushing for Harold to give the Machine more latitude to act on her own but Harold is reluctant to. Not because he fears what the Machine would do but he fears what they would do if they had access to all that power. Bless this wonderful little show.
I’ve got to talk about Shaw because in “A More Perfect Union” I was wary they were going to derail her somehow. After the unreal perfection of “6,741” I’ve been worried that they couldn’t possibly keep that level of deep character understanding and psychological honesty intact. They’ve given Shaw space. She experiences her trauma rather than the show using it for melodrama. “QSO” was just as careful about keeping her intact. She’s still the sarcastic, disinterested, but thoroughly integral fighter but she’s exhausted and she’s lost track of reality to the point that she doesn’t know whether she’s actually murdering people or not. I have never seen such a perfect presentation of gaslighting, manipulation, and psychological torture as what Person of Interest is fairly consistently offering up right now. Shaw is resisting, but she’s not completely unaffected. She has to fight and it’s wearing her down. Even into “Reassortment,” she still can’t quite tell what’s real and what’s not but she ultimately decides that either way she should behave in the way that’s most satisfying to her underlying principles. Most importantly, Shaw knows who she is. And no one can take that from her. I love her.
In addition to all of this gloriousness, I went on a minor tangent not four days ago educating my friends about Thylacines (aka Tasmanian Tigers.) It’s just weird when shows poke directly at your buttons, you know? I’m so used to getting hooked on a show because it does one or two things I really love and then inevitably the whole narrative decides it would rather do trite cultural defaults and melodramatic claptrap. Not so with Person of Interest. In 4.5 seasons I only remember going “oh, hell no” once and that was over a minor moral point in the fourth season. How is this show real?
“Reassortment” was just as good at juggling multiple story threads that ended up jiving into one coherent story. At one point I shouted “Fusco just ran straight into the plot!” This season has neglected Fusco a bit, but here they let him keep hold of his integrity too. He’s basically Person of Interest’s damsel in distress at this point. He’s the one who doesn’t know about the secret AI war going on behind the scenes and that leaves him most vulnerable. I liked Fusco doing his job as a detective to figure out all the missing persons mysteries, and I liked him going to Elias as well. I’m still not sure what function Elias can possibly still serve, but I enjoyed him dressing down Harold for not using all of his resources. Harold and John get the biggest portion of the main action but this episode was less about them and much more about Fusco and the man Samaritan recruited in the first episode of the season.
Probably my favorite thing about this episode wasn’t Fusco or even Shaw, but the Samaritan operative Jeff. Jeff’s story intentionally humanizes the Samaritan operatives where otherwise they’ve all been people with devious smiles and coldly inhuman motives. If Samaritan has operatives in the thousands, it’s likely that most of them are people who just needed a job but know nothing about who they actually work for and what they’re doing. Jeff starts to question his orders and whether the person/thing giving them really has the authority to make these kinds of decisions. He’s just a guy trying to get by and that’s a really nice perspective to put on an otherwise insurmountable and omnipresent army of soldiers.
And finally, the science on this show is just so solid. Diseases don’t actually morph together the way they suggest these strains of flu have, so they made sure Root mentioned that out of millions of combinations only these two would meld that way etc. Herding humanity into a frenzy so that Samaritan can catalog everyone’s DNA is fabulously creepy and exemplifies all the evil AI tropes it needs to. The disease portion of this episode reminded me of the Tiptree story “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” where a biologist makes a plague to kill all of humanity in order to save all the other creatures that live on the planet. I love that story too much. Samaritan’s goal, however, is not so much destroying humanity as taking out particular portions of it in order to bring the rest under control. The classic evil AI scenario is that an AI programmed simply to “protect humanity” will identify humanity as its own biggest threat and wipe it out to fulfill its objective. Samaritan exists on that continuum, and I enjoy watching its nefarious progression.
So yeah. That was my Tuesday night. I realized I was in love with a long-time friend. But when I really start to think about it, it’s not all that surprising.
Dana Leigh Brand | Contributor