Person of Interest Shows Us What Techno-Fascism Really Looks Like

On the season finale of Person of Interest, everything changed. The show's present-day dystopia is looking darker than ever, and our main characters' lives are about to be ravaged by a political threat they never knew was coming.

Person of Interest has always skated the line between suspenseful realism and speculative worldbuilding. But this episode's final scenes took us far over onto the speculative end of things, creating a parallel, authoritarian version of the United States where it seems that our characters will be living next season.

The Politics of Vigilance: Doxxers Without a Cause

The episode began with Collier's trial of the U.S. government for its crimes of mass surveillance and the secret arrests of innocent people. As he questions each representative of what he calls "the Orwellian state," we dip back in time to 2010 and learn more about his rise to the top of the Vigilance power structure. Though Collier earned our sympathy last episode, it's hard to keep liking him when we watch him shoot an FBI mole he discovered in Vigilance — and then, in the present day, shoots the president's intelligence adviser for lying about his involvement in Northern Lights.

Person of Interest Shows Us What Techno-Fascism Really Looks Like

Though Collier's goals have a lot in common with the Machine Gang, his methods do not. He's far too trigger happy, and unwilling to question any of his assumptions. He's also taking orders from the same mysterious source that recruited him by sending text messages to his phone. Tip of the day: Do not join hacktivist groups full of people in hockey masks who talk about doxxing and take orders from a mysterious person online who has all of you under surveillance.

Person of Interest Shows Us What Techno-Fascism Really Looks Like

During the trial, we begin to see the outlines of the new political alliances that are coalescing between Greer, Senator Garrison, Control and Finch. Control is the real wild card here. We know that Greer and Garrison are completely corrupt, devoted to consolidating power no matter what the cost. But Control is a true believer who means it when she says she loves her country. And she's willing to protect Finch with her own life, because she respects what he's done to stop terrorism. Finch, for his part, respects all life and spills his guts about the Machine when Collier threatens to kill them all.

Person of Interest Shows Us What Techno-Fascism Really Looks Like

By the end of the trial, Vigilance begins to seem pathetic as well as dangerous. Collier doesn't have clear political aims, nor does he seem to fully understand the technology that he's protesting. With his secret, lawless trial, he's replicated the exact form of injustice that he claims he wants to eliminate.

The Politics of Decima: Manufacturing Dissent

When Decima's private security team busts into the trial and rescues everyone who is still alive, it's only a matter of minutes before Garrison and Control give Greer the go-ahead to bring Samaritan online with full access to the nation's surveillance feeds. Root and Shaw are racing against time to install those seven server cabinets in the Decima facility that holds part of Samaritan's brain. But Decima's power is ascending.

Person of Interest Shows Us What Techno-Fascism Really Looks Like

And it's ascending in ways that are truly terrifying. Because as soon as Garrison and Control are long gone, Greer reveals to Collier and Finch exactly how deep the rabbit hole goes. It turns out that Vigilance was an invention of Greer's — he was the guy who recruited Collier with those text messages. He created the privacy terrorists because, as he puts it, the Machine was doing its job too well. To get Samaritan online, he had to fabricate a threat that would send the government running to him.

Person of Interest Shows Us What Techno-Fascism Really Looks Like

There's a deeply chilling moment when Greer reveals how he's Collier's attempts to broadcast his show trial. "Who do you think makes the equipment you use to transmit?" he sneers. Turns out the whole thing was rigged to look like it was broadcasting everywhere, but it was only getting piped to Decima's servers. Collier's face falls as he realizes how he's been played. He's been fighting technology he barely understands, and ignorance has finally brought him down. Collier has merely played a role in Greer's puppet show, and while he's still reeling from that revelation, the Decima militia guns him down.

We knew that Greer was dangerous, but this is a new level of Machiavellian. He's been playing a long game, manufacturing his own dissent in order to bring his AI god to life. And now

The Politics of Samaritan: Authoritarian Transparency

After installing the servers at Decima's facility, Root tells the rest of the Machine Gang that her goal was never to take Samaritan offline. The goal was simply to survive. When Greer brings Samaritan online, we realize what that means. Because Finch refused to kill corrupt Congressman McCourt, a relationship between Decima and the government blossomed. The Machine believed this would lead to Samaritan getting access to the government's feeds, and indeed it did.

Person of Interest Shows Us What Techno-Fascism Really Looks Like

When we see Samaritan's full interface come online, it's worse than we thought. This is truly an Orwellian future coming to life. Each person that Samaritan sees is viewed through the category of "deviant" or not. Activities that the Machine would ignore — like looking at pornography, making anti-government statements, or downloading pirated movies — are highlighted as criminal. Samaritan seems to embody the worst aspects of conservative morality in the United States. And its first move is to create a hit list of "deviants" who should be killed.

Person of Interest Shows Us What Techno-Fascism Really Looks Like

I don't think Finch's friend would have deliberately designed Samaritan this way, so I have to assume that this is Samaritan building a moral code based on what it's been fed by the US government and Decima. Also, unlike the Machine, Samaritan is an "open system," unfettered by any ethical restraints.

Perhaps more importantly, Samaritan does not keep any of the data it gathers private. Remember that Finch says he made the Machine a "closed system" to protect innocent people. As a result, all that the Machine reveals are the numbers which help the intelligence community discover where crimes will happen. Samaritan has no such restrictions — it is a privacy-eradicating AI. And it defines "crime" as "deviance," which means that it is judging people not just for breaking the law, but for stepping outside social norms.

Person of Interest Shows Us What Techno-Fascism Really Looks Like

To help the Machine Gang survive, Root has been able to modify Samaritan's programming in one crucial way. She installed a "blind spot" which is going to allow seven key people (the Machine Gang and Root's three geek pals) to hide in plain sight, with new identities that she has manufactured. Samaritan believes that they have become those new identities, and is programmed to ignore them. Their deviance has been wiped away — as long as they embody the new people that Samaritan believes they are.

Person of Interest Shows Us What Techno-Fascism Really Looks Like

"You are not a free man anymore, Harold," Root warns. "You are number ... and a lot of people are going to die." We've entered a police state, managed by a surveillance machine.

As I said earlier, this signals a major shift in the show. Many of the threats that lurked in Root and Finch's imaginations have become real. The authorities have discovered the Machine Gang's secret library hideout, and know their real identities. The Machine Gang is going to have to scatter, feign non-deviance, and work even more secretly than ever before. At last, our characters are truly living in an Orwellian world, under hostile machine surveillance, and in danger from a multinational corporation that is far more dangerous than the US government. Only Fusco seems to have emerged unscathed — Samaritan has not classed him as a deviant, and he is going to retain his real identity.

Person of Interest Shows Us What Techno-Fascism Really Looks Like

Aww, Finch got Bear.

In the final moments of the episode, we learn that Greer isn't just a soulless powermonger. He's a true believer too — in Samaritan. He's basically an evil Singulatarian who believes that AI should rule us all. When Samaritan asks Greer for his next commands, Greer replies, "What, my dear Samaritan, are your commands for us?"

Samaritan begins calculating a response, and we rush headlong into a truly amazing cliffhanger.