Last night's Person of Interest was the tale of three kinds of social justice. Three groups have challenged the US government's legitimacy, and all three have come up with strategies for setting the country right again. Unfortunately, those strategies are about to collide in a major trainwreck.
This season's arc has closely mirrored actual events in the U.S., with revelations about "Northern Lights" — the intelligence community's code name for the Machine operation — standing in for the Snowden leaks about the NSA's dragnet surveillance activities. So it's no surprise that in the final episodes of the season, nothing less than the future of the U.S. government is at stake. Destabilized by the public relations disaster caused by its black budget projects, unable to stop terrorism or crime without the aid of powerful AIs, and floundering through a morality vacuum, the U.S. government in Person of Interest has been secretly brought to its knees.
Of course, if Vigilance leader Collier has anything to say about it, the government's demise is going to be very public indeed. This was the first time we saw the backstory on Collier, and it was pretty damn powerful. Back in 2010, he was working his way through law school while his troubled brother tried to stay on the straight and narrow in AA. Sober for two years, his brother was finally starting to get his life back on track — he was earning enough money to help support his son, and was proud of his little brother's future prospects. And that's when the FBI came knocking.
They have a USA-Patriot Act warrant for Collier's brother's arrest — but due to a "national security exception," they don't have to actually bring him up on charges or tell anyone why he's being detained. Eventually, an FBI agent tells Collier that his brother has been associating with a Muslim guy who has "terrorist connections." He shows Collier pictures of the two men together multiple times, and grunts, "Surveillance doesn't lie." Once Collier's brother is finally released, he's lost his job and he starts drinking again. His fragile hold on a better life is shattered, and he commits suicide. Then, at the funeral, the so-called terrorist connection guy shows up to pay his respects. And Collier finds out that his brother was the guy's AA sponsor. The surveillance photos did lie. Big time.
After confronting the feds about how they drove his brother to suicide, Collier storms out — and receives a mysterious, anonymous text message. "I know you have questions. I have answers," it reads. "Would you like to know what really happened to your brother?" (I'm really wondering whether this is another face of the Machine.) And there you have the makings of the Vigilance privacy terrorist who is about bring down the government in 2014.
And I mean for real. The Machine manages to deliver five numbers to Reese and Root, and they include pretty much everybody involved in the Northern Lights and Samaritan surveillance operations. We quickly discover that they're all in danger from Vigilance, which has launched a Stuxnet-style worm that brings down New York's electrical grid. Under cover of darkness, Collier and the gang nab his favorite evil surveillance fiends. Some of them are already nicely bundled together because Senator Garrison has asked Control to meet with the head of the NSA and the president's top adviser Rivera, to sell them on Decima's services. Once Vigilance has got those guys, they head to Greer's place to grab the Decima mastermind and (in a happy coincidence) Finch too.
Now Collier has got the Surveillance State Gang together: private defense contractor, spy tech developer, US politician, intelligence agency mastermind, and presidential adviser. His plan is to stage a "trial of the United States government," because its citizens' "freedoms have been stripped away, one camera, one cell phone, one megabyte at a time." And it looks like he's planning to broadcast it. Probably over uStream or something.
This trial also represents the moment when Decima's goals for world domination run headlong into Vigilance's.
There's a great scene where Decima head Greer tells Garrison that he'll sell the government information about potential acts of terrorism if the government will give Samaritan access to its security feeds. "You want me to give a private corporation access to the government feeds to 300 million Americans just so you can sell the information back to us?" Garrison asks incredulously. Pretty much, yeah.
But of course Greer's real goal here isn't so much to protect America from terrorism, as he explains to Finch during their creepy tete a tete. It's to help bring Samaritan to life. Because he doesn't believe in nation-states anymore, Greer is looking for a replacement entity to make decisions for the world. He believes AI should replace state governments. Basically, he wants to turn Samaritan into an "open system," which to say one that's not fettered by the altruistic parameters that Finch programmed into the Machine.
Like some kind of starry-eyed Singulatarian, Greer believes that Samaritan will evolve into the perfect "just" ruler, who will never become corrupt because "its decisions will be based on pure logic." His naivete is matched only by Collier's. The privacy terrorist seems to think that violent revolution can right the wrongs of a violent government. Apparently he's forgotten how well all those other violent revolutions turned out.
Meanwhile, the Machine gang is there in the background, working with the Machine, trying to mete out justice as best they can. Root has stolen seven of Decima's servers and seems to have a plan to slow the AI down with something her "boys" have programmed into them. Reese and Shaw are trying to find Vigilance to stop the trial and rescue Finch. And Finch is vainly trying to convince Greer that it's better to have an altruistic but limited Machine rather than Samaritan's "open system."
So our three kinds of social justice — violent revolution, "rational" authoritarianism, and chaotic good vigilantism — are about to meet in what's shaping up to be one hell of a live webcast.
Whose version of social justice will reshape the country? I don't know about that, but I do know one thing. You really should encrypt your text messages.