What does it mean to be human? Or, better: what is human? Person of Interest asked that question tonight, but not of us; nor did it asks the many varied humans it has running around doing its work. No, instead, it asked the one thing that cannot answer; it asked The Machine.
If I were to break down this episode into a singular theme, it’d be this: we are all the same. Of course, there are minute differences in our appearances. Some have nice skin and some of us have thick blond hair and some of us, unfortunately, have really ugly feet. But at the core of us is a beating heart and a brilliant mind, and those two diametrically opposed things are tasked with keeping us alive for as long as possible. But The Machine doesn’t have heart. It’s lines of code and plastic interwoven with metal and rubber. It exists without mortality; it exists without pain; above all, it exists without consequences.
The Machine, if all its agents were to die, would continue to exist. It would be near-powerless; useless without the fingers and feet of the Roots, and the Shaws, and the Harolds. But it would exist. It would, eventually, in its infinity, find a way to exert itself. It is not human, it cannot be human, because it is not human. How can it identify with something it is not?
It couldn’t, of course; unless it was human. To answer my own question: human is understanding outside of ourselves. A dog or a whale or a wooly mammoth cannot understand the things that it is not. But humans do. That’s what we’re good at. We understand the ape and the apple and Apple and we can find pain and love and peace and war in pixels broadcast over metal and glass. Harold and The Machine play chess, and The Machine enjoys herself. She learns exponentially and she wants to play, over and over and once again? But Harold doesn’t like to play chess, because chess is, as he put it, a relic of a time when people thought some were better than others. “Kings and pawns,” he spits, true disgust apparent in every heavy syllable. No human life is worth more than the next, no matter what; the moment that you start to fool yourself into thinking so, you have lost a bit of yourself. The truly terrible, the rapists and the child killers and those who sit upon thrones of blood and money; even they are human, and nobody deserves to die. That is human, that is civilization; as Elias once said: “Society depends on us treating our criminals better than they treated their victims.” A chess game takes human lives and puts them into categories, ones that they had no choice and ones that they do not deserve, in either direction. To sacrifice a pawn is to sacrifice a king; there is no difference. We all bleed the same, we all die the same, and we all deserve to be treated the same. “People are not a thing you can sacrifice. The lesson is, that anyone who looks on the world as a game of chess deserves to lose.”
Sameen Shaw is dead. One of my favorite characters, and one of my favorite actors, are now gone from the show. She was an invaluable piece of a show; Sarah Shahi as Shaw was a big part of why the show went from a solid network drama to one of the best on television. Her relationship with Root, finally and wonderfully acknowledged with her last kiss, broke my heart. You look at these two women, broken and hurting, and you see how far they come. Root is a bad guy, the kind that never gets a second chance. Shaw is just as bad, but had the benefit of a government paycheck. Most shows would use this as an opportunity to wag their finger and smirk as those two are either taken down or turned into worse villains. But Person of Interest goes the more interesting, more complicated, more human route: it allows us to wonder if our snap judgments of people, our innate desire to say that people are this way or that way, is wrong. Even more than that: with that kiss, it tells us to shove our preconceived notions firmly upwards and gives us the middle finger as it sprints out of the elevator and hits the override button.
This episode was perfect. There is not a single thing that I can nitpick, nor do I want to. I just want to appreciate that art, especially television, can still make me feel something. I am so happy that I feel pain for Root as she watched someone she truly cared about be taken away from her. I am so happy that I can watch Harold in the background as Shaw is hit by bullet after bullet, and the sheer horror and pain as he tries to process the fact that someone thought him important enough to rush out of an elevator to her certain death. But I am happiest that I was able to watch this episode from the perspective of The Machine, and see the percentages for Shaw’s survival go down from 1% to less than half a percent to less than less than less than less.
The descending percentages, the ever-expanding decimal points as it adds zero after zero on a situation that it previously would’ve deemed hopeless six zeroes before, was the most human The Machine has ever been. Hope, resolute and desperate in the face of impending certainty, is human. I am so happy to know that humanity can be learned. Because if a line of code can find humanity in itself, then humanity can find it in itself.
Sarah Shahi, you were perfect. Thank you.
– The simplifying solution bit, in which the characters lines are replaced with a description of what they would be, was too, too funny. Like Christ, I burst out laughing. The best dramas are often the funniest comedies, and Person of Interest certainly fits the bill.
– I loooooooved the simulation stuff. That is right up my wheelhouse, man. The way that the flashbacks were interspliced was just perfect television.
– Amy Acker is the best.
– The small differences, when the Degas is saved and the Samaritan team arrived early, was really nice.
– I am really glad to see the relationship between Root and Shaw was not exploited. They truly cared for one another, it wasn’t about the male gaze, and it really, really mattered. Note to other shows “hinting” at a same-sex relationship: try this on for size.
[Photos via CBS]