Person of Interest reveals the machines inside its human characters

Person of Interest delivered a blisteringly intense final episode in its three-part story about bringing down New York City's most corrupt secret organization, HR. This is one of the few action shows on television where subtle character development can be as unnerving as an assassination. In this brilliant episode, the main characters' dark psychological lives hit us like gunshots in a firefight.

Spoilers ahead.

There's a lot to unpack here, but let's start with tone. The episode opens with the montage that you can see in the clip above, where we watch our main characters responding to Carter's death to the gut-wrenching notes of the Johnny Cash cover version of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." Every so often, Person of Interest will give us a an emotional karate kick like this, using music – there was the great David Bowie "I'm Afraid of Americans"/NSA carnage bit in the first season, and last season Shaw was given a spine-tingling action scene set to The Kills' "Future Starts Slow."

What all of these set pieces do is remind us that this show is more than a surveillance procedural. It's a desperate cry of anguish, coming from people whose lives have been wrecked by secret corruption in government and law enforcement. We need to remember that, because Person of Interest is so unapologetically violent. Our heroes, such as they are, kill and torture with impunity. What sets them apart from somebody like Jack Bauer in the show 24 is that they aren't smashing heads because they are blinded by patriotism or some other kind of ideological bullshit. They have gone outside the world of ideology – they are, after all, presumed dead – and they are guided by what we are slowly realizing is a creature of unimpeachable benevolence.

Person of Interest reveals the machines inside its human characters

This could easily have been your standard "let's remember our dead character" episodes, where we get a lot of clips and rehashes of the good times. Instead, we spend an enormous part of the episode sitting still and staring directly into the faces of our main characters as they deliver monologues to unseen interlocutors. In the middle of all that violent action, as the Machine Gang hunts for Simmons, we are asked to think about character.

Person of Interest reveals the machines inside its human characters

The machine takes us back to a time several years ago, when Finch had just lost his partner and best friend Ingram, and was seeing a therapist to deal with his grief. Staring at us, sitting in the place of the therapist, Finch asks the ultimate geeky question: "Is there an evolutionary purpose to grief?" This moment gives us such incredible insight into his character, perfectly divided between unbearable feelings of loss and emotionless intellectual curiosity.

Person of Interest reveals the machines inside its human characters

The ability to feel or not feel becomes a theme in each of the monologues we watch. We see the pre-agency Shaw being lectured by her supervisor at a hospital where she worked as a doctor (side note: Shaw was a doctor? Okay, Shaw was a doctor). Apparently, her skill in the ER was unmatched, but she had so little sympathy for the families of her patients that she would do things like eat a candy bar while telling them casually that their loved ones had died.

Person of Interest reveals the machines inside its human characters

Then we see Reese being interrogated by a superior officer who is trying to get under his skin by asking whether Reese will be able to kill terrorists with children, given that Reese himself lost his father at a young age. Though Shaw remained emotionless during her scene, it looks like Reese is about to crack – until he turns it around, and reveals that he has been shadowing the superior officer and has figured out that he's a spy. Also, how incredible was the lighting in that scene, which turned Reese's head into a skull?

Person of Interest reveals the machines inside its human characters

And then we see Fusco, also with a therapist, back when he was a heavy with HR. He's just shot somebody, and the counselor wants him to share his feelings. Finally, Fusco spews a stream of invective, saying that he's glad he killed the guy. He basically admits that he killed an unarmed man, in retribution for the murder of a police officer. His face is a mask of rage, but he also seems unmoved.

This is the Machine Gang – they are brilliant at their jobs, unafraid to take lives, but teetering on the edge of psychological voids. They are almost machines themselves, so it is no wonder they've joined a group whose leader is an artificial intelligence. Well, maybe the Machine isn't a leader, so much as just another member of a team who fight for justice because they are able to step outside their personal feelings.

Person of Interest reveals the machines inside its human characters

It was a smart move to mourn the death of Carter by reminding us of what brings the remaining team members together.

Even Root steps up to the plate, proving her loyalty to the Machine Gang by helping them rescue Reese from Simmons – with help from the Machine in her ear bud. I love the action scene where Root is being fed real time probabilistic models of where the bad guys are going to be, so that she can shoot them perfectly. Even the skeptical Shaw has to admit "that was pretty hot." And in the end, Root returns to her library prison willingly. She's on Finch's side for now.

You know who else is on Finch's side? His old chess partner and adversary, the gangster Elias, whose goon delivers the garroting that Simmons deserves. At least, it's what Simmons deserves if you live in a world of Machine justice, instead of human feelings/failings.

The Machine has something very weird in store for the gang, as Root reminds Finch. It's been a long time since we've checked in with what the machine is up to, because we've been so busy with Carter and HR. We're being offered the promise that soon we'll know more. In this superlative episode, we've gotten so much more deeply invested in our characters that it feels like a rich reward is ahead.