Person of Interest at long last returned for the long overdue fifth and final season. The first three episodes have now aired (now airing two a week) and the show has come back strong. Rather than leap straight back into the war with Samaritan, the first few episodes find our heroes struggling to recover from their devastating defeat last year and take the time to re-establish the characters and the stakes. As well as the over-arching threat of Samaritan, the show also sets up the war for the humanity of those involved.
The first episode is a non-stop thrill ride as John, Harold and Root try to escape with their lives and the Machine intact. There's a consistent feeling of terror and impending danger as Samaritan tracks them throughout the city, proving there is no escape from the super-intelligent force. The ability to “activate” civilians as weapons against the heroes through the use of social media is chilling and serves to remind us just how powerful this threat is. There's no chance to fight back just yet, just to survive, and the episode serves to remind us just why Samaritan is such a formidable threat. While the episode may be exciting from beginning to end, its only real purpose is to resolve last year's cliffhanger and it doesn't have much time to do much else with the story.
'SNAFU' is where the show has a chance to catch its breathe while Team Machine try to re-establish their operation and make things the way they were. Of course, the repercussions of Samaritan's victory aren't going to be so easy to overcome. At first it almost seems too easy, as Harold and Root are able to get the Machine up and running again fairly quickly and soon John and Fusco are back out following up on the numbers. It doesn't take long for things to devolve once again and we realize things aren't going to be quite so easy. The episode spares a lot of time for some much-welcome humour, discovering the the Machine's predicted threats range from a teenager trying to get out of a class to a performance in a play. The opening sequence when the Machine confuses its facial recognition of the team is a delightful showcase of the cast's comedic talents, but the comedy only makes the later twists more horrible.
The Machine took a lot of damage and it can't just shrug it off so easily. It's a testament to just how much of a character the Machine has become that it manages to be heart-wrenching when it turns on the team, having assigned them as threats based on all the chaos they've been a part of over the years. As the Machine's most loyal follower, Root's pain is doubly felt when the Machine attacks her implant to prevent her and Harold from rebooting. It's a powerful betrayal, an action we've never seen the Machine take before; Harold specifically taught it never to hurt and yet here it is practically torturing Root to protect itself while being completely terrified of the team. It even attempts to murder John, yet another thing it should never be able to do. Having started as such a comedic episode, the horror here is real.
The Machine is their only hope against Samaritan, but here is the evidence that it might be irreversibly damaged or, worse, corrupted. If it has lost what Harold taught it, then it could be just as dangerous as Samaritan. The same argument is presented to the team, that they are just as bad as those they have fought. When the Machine scanned its files, it saw all the death and pain the heroes have doled out, regardless of context and its pretty bad. Without context, how are John and Root any better than Decima's agents? By further thought, how is the Machine better than Samaritan, especially now that it has an open system? There's a great joke early in the episode where John asks how Harold taught the Machine to be good. “By example” is Harold's reply, immediately before donning a ski mask so they can rob a warehouse. It's surprisingly apt for the Machine's inner crisis, as it has determined Harold to be a threat based on his own rules.
Even though Harold is able to reach the Machine and return to something more similar to their previous relationship, things are still permanently changed. The Machine has an open system now, something Harold always fought against and for understandable reasons. Samaritan's open system has allowed Greer and Decima to enforce their invisible rule across the world, able to access any information and do whatever they please with it. But as Root argues, they need this weapon if they are to stand any chance against Samaritan and in the third episode, 'Truth Be Told' she continues to argue for taking extreme risks in order to get ahead in the war, this time by deliberately installing Samaritan malware in order to study it. Both times, Harold is initially resistant but comes around to Root's thinking.
After an episode that spent a lot of its run-time having the Machine question the moral integrity of its allies, Harold and Root's decisions can't be taken lightly. They are taking bigger and bigger risks that Harold would never have considered before and have already breached his previous ethical codes in multiple ways. War changes the rules and changes the soldiers with it, something we have previously explored with John and Shaw's experiences in the field. This time it's Harold that we see changing, a change made more shocking by the fact that for the first four seasons, the Machine, and the show by extension, followed his rules. It may not seem like much a compromise yet, but it raises the question of how far they can slip to defeat Samaritan and potentially sets up some powerful emotional stakes for the rest of the season. Harold agreeing to use the open system has to have bigger consequences later on.
There's a significant amount of character focus done in the first few episodes, more than we often have seen. Now that we're in the endgame, it's the right time for the characters to confront the reality of their life and how separate they are to a 'normal' one. Harold spends much of 'SNAFU' believing he is seeing ex-wife Grace on the Machine's screens and several flashbacks in the premiere serve as reminders of the life he left behind after building the Machine. Root by contrast seems to have found family for the first time. She moves into the subway base and quickly starts re-decorating; it seems such a simple thing but for considering her history, it's probably the first time Root has had what felt like a real home in many years. It's interesting to see just how close she and Harold have become, as he refuses to abandon her on multiple occasions throughout the opening two episodes.
John also gets the chance to focus on his personal life, or lack thereof. From Harold and Fusco both encouraging him to socialize at work and the steady evolving of his relationship with Iris, this is the first real time in a long time that John has had any potential of a future outside of the mission. The whole reason he ended up working for Harold was because of the death of Jessica, his previous tether to the normal world. After her loss, it took the Machine to give John a purpose again. The show has struggled in some ways with John's development for the last few years, as his personal story was more or less wrapped up and only the death of Carter really served to change him up.
The second half Season 4 set up the possibility of John having more to his life than the numbers, but these first few episodes have focused in on it a lot more and it's an engaging direction for the character. This isn't a character that is easy to open up emotionally, but the opening episodes of the new season have done a great job so far. The introduction of Keith David's Terrance Beale as John's former boss at the CIA offers a nice comparison of how he used to operate, whilst potentially also setting up a new ally for the team. I certainly hope we see Beale again, especially since the show went out of its way to show him and John being on non-antagonistic terms by the end of the episode.
As a start to the final season, Person of Interest has come out of the gate swinging. The choice to focus in on the central characters rather than the overarching threat is great way to re-invest us and open up new storytelling possibilities. As I see it so far, there's more to this season than just the battle of the gods between the Machine and Samaritan, but of whether they can retain their hard-earned humanity, which every central character has had to fight hard for over the course of the show. The big question is not whether they can beat Samaritan, but whether they can remain uncorrupted whilst doing so.