A Tribute, to the Redemptive Science-Fiction of Person of Interest

There’s a lot of advice floating around for would-be writers, ranging from the omnipresent (read always, write always) to the niche (write at this time of day, always write this many words per day, etc.), but the two best pieces I’ve ever received both dealt with what is probably the hardest of all moments to write. The first comes from a passed-on Cornell professor named Dan McCall, transmitted by some of his former students: when writing an ending, think about what your readers will feel in the white of the final page. The second has become so ubiquitous for me, it’s as if I’ve always known it.  I can’t even remember the source.

Every great ending is two things: inevitable, and unexpected.

Does that sound like a paradox to you too? It took me a while to really understand what it meant, but once I did, it was like a revelation. Your readers should never be able to predict your ending, but once it’s over, they should always look back and go, “there really was no other way for that to end, was there?” Put into practice, it engenders some of the most iconic endings ever written. Frodo throwing the ring into Mount Doom. Harry revealing that he’s the true master of the Elder Wand.

The ending of every single episode of Person of Interest.

In truth, if you were to ask me how to write great endings, I’d say just go watch Person of Interest. Greg Plageman and Jonathan Nolan wrote 103 episodes for the venerable show, which bowed in a shortened fifth season this May and June, and in their final five minutes every single one has put on a master class. When I began my tour through those final thirteen episodes, I was worried. I’d been following this show since its pilot in 2011—five years of my life spent gripped by the adventures of Reese, Finch, and co. What if they messed up? Fudged the landing?

But of course, in inevitable but unexpected fashion, Person of Interest returned not just an amazing finale, but with that final season cemented itself as one of the most criminally underrated science-fiction shows of all-time.

I won’t go into exactly what made POI‘s fifth season (and in particular its final four episodes) so spectactular, since hopefully some of you will go on to watch it (Seasons 1-4 are right there on Netflix, and Season 5 will hopefully be coming soon), but I can take a stab at what made the show as a whole so incredible.

First, Person of Interest was TV genre-fusion at its finest, and quite possibly the best sci-fi show to blend procedural storytelling and overarching storylines since The X-Files. In its first two seasons, it operated on a case-of-the-week basis, with its relatively small cast (Jim Caviezel, Michael Emerson, Taraji P. Henson, and Kevin Chapman) preventing crimes predicted by surveillance system known only as The Machine.  However, those two seasons entertained massive arcs, first about Reese’s (Caviezel) past and second about Finch’s (Emerson) creation of the Machine—arcs that surfaced throughout the season and took full attention at the end, creating spellbinding episodes like Many Happy Returns, Firewall, and God Mode. And it was incredible prescient—it operated in present time, with the five-minutes-in-the-future vibe that characterizes a lot of modern sci-fi—but ended up effectively predicting the NSA’s mass surveillance program two years before the Snowden leaks.

And then, it went in a more serialized direction, and with that drove full-on into the world of artificial intelligence. This is where it starts to get spoiler-y, so I’ll just leave you with a scene. In return 0, the series finale, Finch is running through Times Square and suddenly, an AI takes over the massive screens. It speaks to him—black text overlaying a white background and red cursor—in a moment than in a lesser show would have been incredibly corny. But here, after the buildup from a more-of-less realistic crime drama to a full science-fiction extravaganza, it was enraptuing. I couldn’t look away.

Second, as mentioned, are its endings. If there’s a single thing Person of Interest did consistently better than any other show I’ve ever watched, it’s those. Of course, some shows can slam us occasionally with powerful closing moments—see Truth or ConsequencesNCIS‘s seventh season opener and greatest episode, or The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, Steven Moffat’s first Doctor Who writing credit—but nothing (save maybe Gravity Falls) delivered home-run endings as consistently and effortlessly as Person of Interest. Forget return 0, or Firewall, or God Mode, or any of its other season finales, even its regular procedural episodes were miles above the caliber of all but the best the so-called Golden Age of TV has to offer. Even in its first season you’ll find gems like Cura Te Ipsum and Witness, and when you make it to the end you’ll be confronted with The Day the World Went Away, where Michael Emerson delivers a three-minute monologue to a COMPUTER so powerful that it alone deserves to win him another Emmy.

Third, its rogues gallery. Everyone knows that Batman is great because he has the greatest villains, and since POI‘s Reese is more than a little modeled after the Caped Crusader, it would make sense to give him a couple archemenies to tangle with every once in a while. But Person of Interest took that expectation and blew away the competition, crafting a roster of enemy combatants, enemy organizations, and powerful antiheroes that began in its very first episode and lasted until its final moments. Carl Elias, masterfully played by Enrico Colantoni, is all but a whisper in the first episodes of Season 1, but by the show’s conclusion becomes so integral to its characters and storylines that he seems like a part of the cast. Then there’s Agent Donnelly, and Control, and HR, and the Brotherhood, and Decima, and Vigilance, and Samaritan, and the holy grail of them all—Amy Acker’s prodigal hacker named Root, who goes from Finch’s terrifying reflection to a cautious ally to a dear friend over the course of the show’s five seasons. Great heroes need great villains, and POI has more than its fair share.

And that brings me to my final bulletpoint, and what really makes Person of Interest one of the greatest science-fiction shows to ever grace the world of television. Throughout it all—through five seasons and a hundred and three episodes, through character deaths and new allies—POI never forgets its soul. From the moment Harold Finch rescues John Reese and gives him a purpose—a moment that attains untold importance in the show’s final moments—to the moment Lionel Fusco goes clean and spends the rest of his life trying to be the best cop he can be, to the moment Sameen Shaw discovers the shadowy workings behind her shadowy job, to the moment Root finally comprehends the beauty of humanity, Person of Interest is a show about redemption. It takes that idea—the redemption story, one of the most powerful thematic devices in all of fiction (just ask Severus Snape, or Gollum, or Stan Pines)—and runs with it over and over again, reinventing the idea for each of its central characters until they’ve become more than just characters. They’ve become irrepressibly human.

Because that’s what’s hard about science-fiction, a genre so plot-based and world-heavy that it sometimes forgets to focus on the humanity at the core of its stories. The best sci-fi always has something to say—about people, about the world, about the future or the past—in a way that separates it from its freer, more escapist sibling fantasy, and Person of Interest never forgot that. At its core, beyond all the organized crime and warring AIs and sci-fi showmanship, was a group of relationships between its central characters—relationships that defined its singular mode of storytelling, that lent real power to its plot and human struggle to its backbone of computer code. POI may have dealt with all the pitfalls of our modern, interconnected world, but the most powerful of its many, many moments, weren’t futuristic at all. They were human.

And I will miss them dearly.


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