Person of Interest's penultimate episode ".exe" sure didn't feel like a penultimate episode, which is unfortunate for a series looking to finish an outstanding five-season run strong. It wasn't a bad episode per se, in fact, it was quite good, but it did feel like a misuse of time and placement given Person of Interest's larger stakes. The shortened 13-episode final season had been compact, efficient, and thrilling -- something other seasons had a hard time keeping up over 20-plus episodes -- but ".exe" made me wish that Season 5 had been longer in order to flesh out some of these ideas a bit better. Hey, no one is going to complain about wanting more Person of Interest, right?
In the episode, Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) wormed his way into the NSA headquarters to deploy the Ice-9 virus that would destroy Samaritan and, as collateral damage, the Machine. (And probably your strawberry iMac or iPhone 1 that you're reading this on.) And though Finch has been determined to take down Samaritan at all costs since he pledged to destroy it with fire in his eyes in "The Day the World Went Away" (still my favorite episode of the season), the doubt about whether or not what he was doing was right persisted. No one can blame him for that either, as there was no way to stop Samaritan without also killing his computer baby.
So the Machine stepped in and showed Finch a series of simulations of the world if the Machine had never existed. Finch was a millionaire after he and Nathan Ingram (Brett Cullen) signed a half-billion dollar contract with the government, but Finch never pushed to splinter the Machine into the irrelevant-person saving wonderbox we know it is today. Fusco (Kevin Chapman) was ostracized from the police force as a rat for his part in working for HR and later turning on them (and Carter was alive, and promoted... and also out to lunch, apparently). Shaw (Sarah Shahi) was back to working for Control as a goon, killing one of my favorite actors Jacob Pitts. John Reese (Jim Caviezel) had the grimmest future of them all, as his body was found floating in the Hudson around the time that Finch found him and saved him from his beard and hobo smell in the actual timeline. And Root (Amy Acker) was working for Samaritan, but as the old Root, the one who still referred to humans as "bad code."
This was a marvelous way to bring characters back from the dead for one last hurrah (I was particularly happy to see Michael Cole, Shaw's old buddy), but story-wise, it could have used more time to breathe. Like, another 10 episodes or so. The simulations went by so quickly that they felt matter of fact instead of getting a grip on their emotional impacts, and yeah, I know that they were being flashed to Finch while he was still shimmying through top-secret sections of the NSA so he didn't have time to digest the whole story. But that's exactly why these sims could have held up in their own episode, instead of sharing screentime with other parts of ".exe."
What I really think I'm doing here is bemoaning the fact that Person of Interest is almost over when there's still so much worthy story to tell; it feels like too much is being crammed into these final two hours. We barely got to relish Greer's (John Nolan) death (though his turn into self-sacrificing maniac Samaritan disciple was creepy and a great way to go).
Like Fusco's storyline as he scraped up dirt about the missing bodies Samaritan was knocking off. He found out that it was FBI agent LeRoux (David Aaron Baker) who was behind the murders and cover ups, but considering what else was at stake with what Finch was doing, Fusco deserved better than the crumbs that he was so often given. Coming after the touching inclusion on the real truth about the war of the machines, Person of Interest quickly relegated Fusco back to the outskirts. On the one hand, I wanted Fusco to be part of the team more as we say goodbye to POI. But on the other, Fusco is a cop at heart, and he's going to do cop things. Again, I wish there was ample time to enrich this story and give it the oomph it deserved, instead of saving it for the second-to-last episode while all hell was breaking loose in the rest of the episode.
Where ".exe" excelled was in setting Finch's mind (and ours) at ease about what needed to be done. The Machine-less sims all posed a world where our familiar friends were on pretty terrible life paths. But what was missing the most was the scary truth: "The government has a secret system, a machine that spies on you every hour of every day." Just because the Machine wasn't there, it didn't mean Samaritan wasn't, either. Samaritan was always going to happen, and it's possible that the Machine's true reason it was created wasn't to stop irrelevant numbers from falling into danger, it was to stop Samaritan. That's at least one interpretation, and some solace in the Machine's likely death (I'm still holding out hope that Finch has her on a pocket drive somewhere). Another more personal interpretation would be to say the Machine came to be to make the lives of Team Machine better.
Either way, the Machine's life was always going to be limited if Person of Interest wanted to stay true to its message. The biggest defense that Finch was doing the right thing was consistent with what Finch had said all along. Humanity should dictate how humanity evolves. Despite Finch's love for gizmos and artificial intelligence, Finch didn't waiver on what he thought was most important, and that was that machines should never interfere with our lives. Samaritan brought about great things to preserve humanity like a team of German efficiency experts brought in to clean up a poorly run nuclear power plant, by taking away things that made us human, like our ability to make mistakes and learn from them and our ability to control our own destiny. Samaritan had to be stopped, and the Machine was there to help him do it.
We've got one episode left, and it's hard to say what direction Person of Interest will go in. I still think that it needs to resolve the relationship between Finch and Reese -- which at one point was the heart of the story -- before it signs off, and promos for the series finale seemed to indicate that. But can that be done in just one more episode? We'll find out.
Person of Interest's series finale airs Tuesday, June 21 at 10/9c.
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