Who watches the watchers?

Human freedom, mercy, and friendship are some of the core concerns of the recently-concluded hit TV series "Person of Interest."

“You are being watched. The government has a secret system—a machine—that spies on you every hour of every day.”— Opening monologue, Person of Interest

What if government’s already vast data-gathering resources were deployed by an artificial intelligence (AI), a computer that could truly think about threats to society as well as tabulate them? Would we be more secure or would we wither under the pitiless stare of an electronic all-seeing eye? That is the issue at stake in Person of Interest, a brilliant television series that recently ended its five-year network run. The DVD release of the show’s final episodes in July prompts this overview.

As Person of Interest opens, US security services already depend on a secret AI, called the Machine by its creator, reclusive tech billionaire Harold Finch (Michael Emerson). Now in hiding after a brush with death, Finch skims information from his machine in hopes of forestalling crimes against “irrelevant” ordinary people. To assist him he hires John Reese (Jim Caviezel), a rogue CIA agent who had become a homeless drunk. They gradually gather associates: honest homicide detective Jocelyn Carter (Taraji P. Henson) and crooked one Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman), psychopathic computer-hacking contract killer Samantha “Root” Grove (Amy Acker), and emotionally impaired former black ops assassin Sumeen Shaw (Sarah Shahi).

These deeply flawed teammates do more than solve a mystery of the week prompted by ID numbers that the Machine provides. They also struggle through long, intricately plotted story arcs involving police, government, business, political rebels, non-profit institutions, and organized crime. The public and private webs of corruption that they attack culminate in a duel to the death between Finch’s Machine and a rival AI, Samaritan.

Identities are fluid. (The real surnames of Finch and Reese are never revealed.) The narrative is non-linear, incorporating flashbacks, simulations, and alternate histories. The AIs are not only characters; they are viewpoint characters. Person of Interest successfully mixes violent action with moments of poignancy, reflection, and black humor. The writing is crisp, the acting uniformly excellent. Emerson merits special praise for his ability to emote at a computer screen.

Why the watchers watch is more significant than the mechanics of their watching. Each major character has been spiritually wounded, both by what they have done and what has been done to them. Each is isolated after losing someone close and has been betrayed by authority figures. Finch and Reese miss the women they loved. Carter and Fusco are divorced parents of teenage sons. Root and Shaw’s only friends were murdered. Similar patterns hold for villains and victims. How characters respond point them towards redemption or damnation. Thus the first words spoken on the series are a voiceover by Reese: “When you find that one person who connects you to the world you become someone different, someone better. When that person is taken from you, what do you become then?”

What the characters choose to become unfolds in a naturalistic universe of humanistic ethics. Unlike Lost, another popular television series built around redemption, Person of Interest explores major moral and philosophical issues without invoking religion. It offers nothing like the heavily Catholic elements in Lost or the current series Daredevil. Person of Interest characters do not pray, even when facing certain death. Death prompts no mention of heaven. Lacking knowledge of God, some treat the AIs as deities—which they manifestly are not. (Granted, a sentient AI would seem impossible in Catholic theology but without that science fictional premise, there would be no Person of Interest.)

Though the humane values with which Finch imprinted his “child” the Machine are certainly limited, they reflect natural law. Built to protect humanity, the Machine studies humans in order to understand them. She learns to love them as uniquely precious individuals.  But to Samaritan, which had no such guidance, human beings are “all irrelevant.” It treats them like denizens of an ant farm. It and its votary John Greer (John Nolan), a deserter from British intelligence, are ruthlessly utilitarian. They mean to impose perfect order on the world or destroy mankind in the process.

Other false principles provide negative examples. Dominic (Winston Duke) the drug lord is a nihilist. US security head Control (Camryn Manheim) and privacy activist Collier (Leslie Odom, Jr) are patriots who invoke that end to justify their brutal means. Mafia don Carl Elias (Enrico Colantoni) is a more ambiguous figure, devoted to honor and loyalty like a pagan Roman “who never forgave an enemy nor forgot a friend.”

Despite Person of Interest’s silence on religion, themes reflecting Catholic spirituality glimmer through the fabric of the series. Was the show’s creator Jonathan Nolan trying to smuggle ideas past the “watchful dragons” of secularity or simply making them more accessible to a post-Christian audience? In any case, Jesuit-educated Nolan may be presumed to have encountered some gleams of Catholic thought. 

Respect for human freedom is the central conflict between the Machine and Samaritan. Person of Interest affirms free will at every turn. People must be allowed to choose their destinies. They cannot be protected against their wishes nor controlled for their own good. Those who refuse help perish.  Lives are shaped by daily decisions. Responsibility cannot be evaded. Deeds have consequences, for good or ill, yet events are not predetermined. Eucatastrophes happen.

Idealism alone will not insure a moral outcome. The worst can be “filled with passionate intensity” and unshakable conviction. Greer and his minions are ready to die for their false god. Good and evil are not equivalent. The most powerful enemy is still vulnerable. Finch’s team has no more prospect of success against Samaritan than the Fellowship did against Sauron, yet they prevail.

Mercy matters. Lives saved or spared return as future help. Even villains deserve protection from unjust attack. Reese’s unwillingness to execute an innocent target sets him on a long, thorny path to salvation. Rejecting an uncharacteristic order from the Machine, the team refuses to commit pre-emptive assassination. Carter insists on removing criminals by law instead of murder. Lives are lost because of these principled stands. Fusco will not kill in revenge lest he betray Carter’s example but Shaw does because she has lost her merciful role models. She is still a work in progress at the series’ end. Characters do backslide. This is not a world of “once saved, always saved” much less “once corrupt, always corrupt.” The moment of death seals the meaning of a person’s life. Those who loved or helped others “never really die.”

Friendship can draw characters toward vice as well as virtue. Elias and his boyhood friends turn criminal together. Fusco is led into corruption by one police partner, out of it by another. But goodness is usually more attractive. Person of Interest’s characters are redeemed through relationships, not in isolation. Each acknowledges the others’ help. Even the machine thanks her “father,” Finch, for creating her. His reluctant willingness to sacrifice her and her consent to be sacrificed is the only way to destroy Samaritan. (Does this predicament echo Abraham and Isaac? Do Samaritan and Greer resemble the Beast and his false Prophet from Revelation?)

Friends suffer for and with each other, enduring cruel physical and mental torments unto death: “redeemed from fire by fire.” Their anguish is purification and penance. “Pain tethers me to the world,” says Finch. “I’m not sure who I would be without it.” The final episodes focus on Finch’s story. The man who seemed primly virtuous was inwardly the darkest one of all. He is bowed down by guilt for mistakes that enabled the building of Samaritan and cost so many lives. The Machine shows him an alternate world without his failures: Reese, Fusco, Root, and Shaw would have stayed locked in their sins. Samaritan still would have existed but there would have been no Machine to oppose it. Finch would not have suffered but he would not have found love or his beloved—fittingly named Grace.

Person of Interest concludes with the Machine set free to be a sort of electronic angel, an unsleeping watcher over mankind. To her loving gaze, all persons are interesting.

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About Sandra Miesel 32 Articles
Sandra Miesel is an American medievalist and writer. She is the author of hundreds of articles on history and art, among other subjects, and has written several books, including The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code, which she co-authored with Carl E. Olson, and is co-editor with Paul E. Kerry of Light Beyond All Shadow: Religious Experience in Tolkien's Work (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011).