With the season finale of Person of Interest, this show has established itself as one of the best near-future science fiction series since Max Headroom. In a tense, multi-layered episode, we witness the transformation of two great minds: one belongs to the mad hacker Finch, and the other to his AI creation, the Machine.
At this point in the show, we've been living with the mystery of both minds for quite a while. We know that Finch is a crime-stopping vigilante who uses his hacker powers to subvert surveillance systems for great justice. His ace-in-the-hole, however, is the Machine — a murkily-defined piece of technology that does insanely complex datamining to predict crimes before they happen.
Though he's a loner who has faked his own death, Finch can't seem to stop reaching out to other ronins like himself, to enlist their aid in preventing those crimes. The Machine Gang includes ex-CIA ninja Reese, the ex-military, highly ethical cop Carter, the reformed dirty cop Fusco, and now the ex-intelligence officer Shaw. He's even started to work (reluctantly) with his hacker nemesis Root, who is one of the only people on the planet who truly understands what the Machine represents.
Ah yes, the Machine. It's the show's greatest unknown, and its most overtly science fictional character. That's right — I said character. Because in this episode, "God Mode," we at last have confirmation that the Machine is an artificial intelligence. It's a human-equivalent entity with a sense of self-preservation, loyalty, and ultimately (as we discover) self-determination too.
The question in last night's episode was what turned Finch and the Machine into the beings they are today. We discover Finch's origins in a series of flashbacks that take us right to the heart of Person of Interest's dark, satirical view of how the US intelligence community actually works. It turns out that back in 2010, Finch's old business partner and best friend Ingram was about to tell the media about the Machine. Ingram couldn't live with the fact that they'd sold this world-changing device to the government — and that the government was only using it to track down terrorists. Any time the Machine came up with future crimes related to civilians, the government deemed them "irrelevant" and deleted them.
So Ingram had secretly been siphoning the irrelevant data off the Machine, and trying to prevent those crimes himself. And now, in his biggest act of subversion yet, he was going to go public with what he'd done. Finch, for his part, wasn't crazy about this idea. In this episode and last week's, we learned that Finch had committed some pretty serious felonies and was living under an assumed name (which means we don't actually know Finch's real name yet). Ingram kept Finch's involvement with the Machine project completely secret from the government, because they'd never have agreed to work with a felon — even a reformed one.
After a long, intense talk with Ingram, Finch finally decided to go along with his friend's plan to go public. But just as he was walking toward their rendezvous with a journalist, a car bomb went off — killing Ingram and injuring Finch (hence, his limp). Of course, it was a giant setup. The intelligence guy who runs the government Machine project kidnapped some poor guy from the Middle East, strapped him into a car full of explosives, and set it off. That way, the government is able blame the whole thing on terrorists, and keep their Machine safe.
Realizing this, Finch hauls himself out of his hospital bed, dribbling blood, and hides when his fiancee comes to find him. Because he wasn't identified by the hospital yet, she believes he's dead. That's when his afterlife as a vigilante begins. He decides to continue Ingram's project and become a ghost.
In the world of Person of Interest, the US government kills its own people almost as often as they stop terrorism with the Machine. Maybe even more often.
And this is the world that gave birth to the Machine. That can't possibly be a good thing — can it? Luckily, the Machine was programmed by our subversive hacker hero, so it's not particularly crazy about how the intelligence community is acting either. As the episode begins, the Machine has gone into "seeking admin" mode, and Finch has handed off admin access to both Root and Reese. That means that the Machine is no longer this remote entity — it's actually talking to our heroes, through their earbuds. "Can you hear me now?" it asks Root, in an audio collage of voices taken from the internet. "Absolutely," she answers with a terrifying smile.
This leads to one of the most awesome Machine POV scenes we've had in the series yet, as the Machine guides Reese and Root through a gunfight with government intelligence guys who want to take back control of the Machine. The New York Public Library becomes a videogame grid of possible ballistic trajectories, with the Machine anticipating each adversaries' move and telling Reese and Root which directions they should shoot. It may not look as fancy as the special effects in Minority Report, but the ideas here just pop like crazy. You never doubt that you're in the middle of a seriously great scifi action scene.
Once they've escaped, Reese, Shaw, Root and Finch decide their next move should be to find where the Machine is physically located. Unfortunately, Finch has programmed the Machine not to reveal its location, so they have to jump through a lot of hoops and dodge a lot of bullets to find it. But when they finally reach the hardened fake nuclear facility where the Machine was supposed to be — it's GONE.
They stand in a vast, empty space, wondering where the hell the Machine has gone. But Finch comes in to explain. The Machine has moved itself. It faked a bunch of emails, phone calls, and move requests and has now stashed all its servers in hidden locations all over the country — maybe all over the world. It has become a distributed, networked intelligence that fights for its own survival and sovereign control over its destiny. It is, for all intents and purposes, a living being.
Though Finch has been insisting that the Machine is "just" a machine, he smiles like a proud parent when he tells the gang that the Machine has just liberated itself and now answers to no one. Now it's up to the Machine to decide how it wants to run its life. Does it want to continue helping humans fight crime, or does it want to do some obscure thing that only makes sense to an AI? We just don't know.
What we do know is that the intelligence guy who headed the now-borked Machine program in the government is going down. One of his henchmen gets a call from somebody only referred to as "ma'am," and she gives the kill order. "Fair enough," he says, in what have to be among the best last words ever, as the henchman takes him out. Who knows what's going to happen to "Northern Lights," the government name for the Machine?
Well, the Machine does. When we see through the Machine's eyes, it always tagged Northern Lights operatives with blue boxes around their faces, while Finch and the Machine Gang were tagged in yellow. Now, both groups are tagged in yellow. Interesting. And the Machine is still giving out the social security numbers of endangered people. So, at least for now, it's still interested in helping prevent crime. And as the episode ends, it's still talking into Root's earbud. So it's interested in some other stuff too.
As we jumped back and forth in the timeline during this episode, I found myself musing about how the Machine's internal timeline goes to 2017. What does that mean? The show might be entirely comprised of flashbacks in the database of the 2017 version of the Machine. Or perhaps the Machine's prediction horizon is four years long, so it's filling in potential future events as it lives through 2013. This kind of narrative tease is exactly what makes this show so rewarding.
Earlier I compared Person of Interest to Max Headroom. They have a lot in common: both are about using technology to bring justice to a corrupt world, and both center around a crucial AI figure. The difference is that Max Headroom was about combatting abusive corporate power with investigative journalism, while POI takes aim at government abuses by using the tools of that government against it — including surveillance technology and lethal violence.
Both shows are about the future of political subversion.
Both also have a really weird sense of humor. You've probably seen the Max Headroom monologues — that show's AI was known for jibber-jabbering snarkily about the absurdities of television culture, among other things. Person of Interest doesn't have a lot of funny lines, but it's got great, oddball comic timing. Take, for example, this scene where Reese and Shaw are on their way to a major plot point when the Machine interrupts them with an SMS about a person they need to save nearby. They race up to a wedding in their shiny car, see a guy who is about to shoot the bride and groom, take him out and zoom away.
It's basically wry comic book humor, translated beautifully to the small screen.
Despite the humor, however, Person of Interest is firmly a part of the cyber-noir genre that William Gibson explored in novels like Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, which were set in a kind of blurry present day or near past, but could just as easily have been the near future. It's a show that deals with some weighty political issues, but isn't afraid to have fun. It's also not afraid to give us heroes with what show creator Jonathan Nolan called "bloodlust." We're not in Batman's world, where the vigilante tries not to kill anybody. This is the real world. Shit goes down and people die.
And they come to life. From the mind of a subversive hacker and his do-gooder friend, a new kind of intelligence has been born. Now, it controls its own destiny. Next season, we're going to find out what that means.
Meanwhile, you have all summer to catch up with this past season.