How Person Of Interest Finds The Humanity In The Machine

In a world where you are constantly being watched, there’s not a better show to watch back.

person of interest

Television offers opportunities in media unlike many others, able to create timely stories that can respond to the growth of its audience and the hype it generates. The wish of the creators is to be able to tap into an audience that feels a resonance with their stories, making fans want to join them on the journey.

Over the last five years, some of the biggest shows have been concept-driven stories, whether set in the fantasy world of Westeros, or battling zombies in America. Just on the heels of these two juggernauts is the HBO produced science-fiction drama, Westworld, inspired by the original movie and produced by JJ Abrams and co-creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan.

At the time of Westworld’s premiere, Nolan was renowned as the brother of Hollywood powerhouse Christopher Nolan. In a partnership with David S. Goyer, the two brothers had worked together on the Dark Knight trilogy and The Prestige, but it would actually be Jonathan’s work on his own original television project, Person of Interest, that would get him involved in Westworld. An American Science-Fiction Crime Drama that debuted on the CBS channel in 2011, POI would tap into an international market concerned with privacy and voyeurism.

Running for five seasons, Person Of Interest would expand its focus on elements of corruption, war, the option of choice, and what truly makes someone human. In contrast to the diminishing returns of the complexities in Westworld, Nolan’s earlier work would go from strength to strength over its five year lifespan. This would culminate in a critically beloved final season that would balance complex ideas with a depth of humanity, seemingly accomplishing what Westworld currently cannot.


The Main Cast And Story

Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) is a reclusive billionaire who after 9/11, built a computer system to monitor all electronic communications and video feeds, to help the U.S. Government to predict future terrorist acts. Unfortunately, ‘The Machine’ was also able to predict other lethal crimes that were deleted by National Security. Due to this, Finch reprogrammed ‘The Machine’ to predict lethal crimes by identifying social security numbers, but it means being unable to confirm if that person will commit the crime or be the victim. Finch wouldn’t become personally motivated to help until the death of his best friend and business partner, Nathan Ingram, in a violent bombing that would leave Finch himself unable to walk properly.

In need of assistance, Finch tracks down a former CIA and Special Forces operative, John Reese (Jim Caviezel), suffering from depression after personal loss. Offering Reese an opportunity to make his life worthwhile again, the two work together investigating the Numbers, trying to save those in need, and prevent those who would do wrong.

As the two begin to succeed, an urban legend of a ‘Man In A Suit’ coming to people’s aid gets the attention of NYPD Homicide Detective Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson). As Carter tries to discover the truth, Reese discovers and blackmails corrupt Detective Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman) into becoming Carter’s partner, to help them on the inside.


Why Am I Recommending It?

“You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know, because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people; people like you. Crimes the government considered ‘irrelevant’. They wouldn’t act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You’ll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number’s up…we’ll find you.”

In the vein of classic television shows such as The A-Team that would start with a voice-over to set the scene, the tone and intent of Person Of Interest is apparent very quickly. The monologue sets a feeling of voyeurism, distinctive lines detailing an overseer that is always watching. This creates an element of paranoia that would become prevalent throughout the show, but it’s the discussion of ‘irrelevance’ that has the most impact.

By referring to everyday people, and by context, the audience, as ‘irrelevant’, it paints an image of an uncaring government and help connects you to your protagonists. The voice is no longer an intimidation, but a promise to protect those who need them. And then, that final line that boils down the entire concept to a single definition of something mysterious, haunting, and enticing, the very essence of the show.

Person Of Interest began in the guise of an episodic, victim-of-the-week affair. However, the creators would quickly subvert the expectations by incorporating several guest stars that would become recurrent characters. This would allow for concepts to be introduced in a small manner before building to larger, more impactful arcs. By the end of season one, the show had more in common with the likes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Fringe or Chuck, where ongoing story arcs would mix with one-off characters and challenges, the arcs developing the story and the standalone developing the characters.

One of the best examples would be the introduction of a seemingly endangered school teacher called Elias, who is eventually revealed to be a mob boss, appearing in small scenes with Finch and Reese every now and again. Elias’s mild-mannered demeanour was surprisingly true to his character, soft spoken and charming, and yet the revelation that he was attempting to wipe out the heads of the Five Families to take over feels chilling but believable.

This would create a legitimate ethical question of having to save five crime bosses from a singular crime boss, and the question of eliminating someone they know to save five unknown dangerous criminals, or failing their mission and allowing the crowning of a new crime boss who may be more dangerous? It begs comparison between the devil you’ve grown to know, and the status quo that you’re attempting to change.

Over Person Of Interest’s five seasons, there would be multiple antagonistic forces that the team would deal with, each with their own dangers and even their own genres to a degree. There would be the crime drama when facing the Russian Mob, Elias as the head of New York crime families, and drug gang The Brotherhood, with the team regularly caught between their wars. On the other side, the team would be battling to stop and take down HR, a group of corrupt New York police officers and public officials, who attempt to control organised crime.

Despite the uncomfortable nature of corruption in police forces and positions of power today in comparison to at the time, this grittier element helped ground the narrative, by contrast with the much more fantastical elements of Reese and Finch’s backstories. Both Finch and Reese would have to deal with the repercussions of their actions in their past, whether with Reese being hunted by CIA operatives he once worked with, and Finch coming into conflict with those who control the main numbers from the machine.

With both characters having their histories and motivations explored through flashbacks while dealing with those hunting them in the present day, it expands the mythology, creating larger stakes for the characters. This allows the writers to eventually gain a more serialised show to help examine the impact of post-9/11 security, the horrors faced as part of the CIA, and the growth of artificial intelligence as a weapon.

The later seasons of Person Of Interest would not only expand upon The Machine’s intelligence and developed consciousness, encompassed by Root becoming a human interface for it, but introduce a rival AI called Samaritan. A much more cruel and vindictive creation, the fourth season would end with Samaritan ‘euthanizing’ The Machine and leaving our protagonists on the run, with a worldwide surveillance program hunting them.

In between the second and third season, the show would gain new prominence with the real-life revelations of Edward Snowden. A year prior to Snowden’s reveal that the NSA was spying on its people, the writers had written about a young NSA analyst who attempted to reveal to a journalist that the government was conducting mass illegal surveillance. This guest character, Henry Peck, would end up on the run from government assassins, which would be where our characters become involved.

Since the end of the show, there’s even been a growth in the use of facial recognition for surveillance, a recurrent element of the show. In China, for instance, their use has generated discussions of dystopian futures and the issues of privacy, while the show features both multiple members of the team (Reese, Finch, Root, Shaw) living off the grid in their own quest for privacy. To some degrees, it begins to suggest the fantastical elements of the show were seen as an inspiration, not a warning.

From the first episode, Person Of Interest utilises crisp, tight writing to conduct an emotionally connecting story that draws you in throughout the show. After brief growing pains in the early episodes of the show, the cast have gained connection with their characters and help raise the standards of the show, gaining a ridiculously high level of consistency.

The final season would garner an average rating of 9.3 out of 10 on IMDB, demonstrating the ability to mix standalone episodes with long-term story arcs that the audiences are emotionally invested in. Every episode may feature great action, such as combining gun fights and hand-to-hand combat in the vein of John Wick, or a simple dialogue scene focusing on characters that are believable and likable.

In Person Of Interest, the heroes are not indestructible, with Reese for instance suffering multiple injuries from gunshots and even requiring illegal surgery in a morgue: you fear for their lives as they attempt to do the right thing. This even comes to fruition in a uniquely brilliant episode called “If-Then-Else”, where The Machine simulates over 833,000 escape routes for the team. Of the simulations shown to the audience, at least one member of the team dies in each one, and despite not being a final death (similar to a time-loop episode), it generates great pathos regardless.

The decisions made by the characters often would create legitimate consequences and would create a journey to significant repercussions. In one of the most heartbreaking moments, during season three’s “The Endgame Trilogy”, Detective Carter’s desire for justice would push her to making a stand against HR. After successfully taking down half the police force, as she and Reese celebrate and get close to admitting their feelings for one another, she gets randomly shot by one of the officers on the run.

Carter dies in Reese’s arms, leading to stories focused on Reese’s revenge, his estrangement from the team, and the team’s attempt to deal with their grief. This instance becomes the stepping stone of removing the more procedural elements, the smaller stakes of criminals and police corruption. Instead, Person Of Interest’s focus would move onto the higher stakes of governments and war on humanity, with Carter representing the idea of whether the cause is worth the loss.

This development of the story is gradual and organic, beginning as a simplistic procedural drama with a Science-Fiction edge that would grow into a high-concept Science Fiction Drama that explores weighty subjects such as the consequence of choice, whether machine and man can coexist, and can anybody truly be deemed irrelevant.

But while you might try Person Of Interest for its story and concept, you’ll stay for the characters. A tightly written show with multi-dimensional characters who feel legitimate and lived in, whether with the hoarse voice of a ‘seen it all before’ Reese, or the clipped tones of a panicky Finch. The cast would grow over the show’s lifetime, with later additions such as Root and Shaw growing to become some of the most beloved characters.

Whether demonstrating the turn of Root from psychopathic and manipulative corruptor into the desperate atoner beholden to The Machine, or seeing the growth of empathy in the broken and remorseless killer Shaw, the audience develops connections to these flawed individuals. Even the team’s pet dog, Bear, would gain a following of over 8,000 fans on Twitter, particularly impressive given he tweets exclusively in Dutch. In a show that kicks off with a top-notch cast, it speaks to the confidence and ability of the writers and actors that any new inclusions help the story grow even better. But in the end, it’s the relationship between Reese and Finch, seeing them grow from wary colleagues to brothers in arms, that will reward repeat viewings.

Person of Interest ran for five seasons, totalling 103 episodes. Each episode averaged 43 minutes an episode, totalling 4,429 minutes, or just under seventy-four hours. That makes it more than possible to complete in a single week, which is likely once you get addicted. In a world where you are constantly being watched, there’s not a better show to watch back.

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