Person of Interest: “A More Perfect Union,” “QSO,” and “Reassortment”

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The last act of a story has to be lean and mean. The story’s first three acts (or two or four or whatever) have burned away everything but this final push, our protagonist in the crucible, and there’s only one real mandate: Fight Back.

In a hundred thousand word book, my last acts are usually around 15K sometimes less. That’s seven, eight, maybe ten scenes, tops, for my protagonist to pick herself up, get to the antagonist, and end the damn thing one way or another. This isn’t just for pacing purposes, this is for the reader/viewer, too. She’s waited a long time for this, so I don’t stop for anything else isn’t directly related to getting to that climax. This is the top of the roller coaster; don’t slow down on the final drop.

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So PoI has burned off five of its episodes putting the Gang back together, reconstituting the Machine, and showing Shaw fighting her own battles. The three episodes that aired this week were textbook examples in (1) how not to tell a story in the last act, (2) a pretty good way to work the middle of the last act, and (3) how to do it absolutely right.

A More Perfect Union

Reese, Finch, and Root go to a wedding, which I suppose had potential but since all the juice in the story is Shaw going through a new simulation and Fusco on the trail of Samaritan’s missing people, the whole horse-drugging, ex-girlfriend bribing, assassin-coming-for-the-photographer-at-the-behest-of-the-least-likely-suspect is weak sauce because it has nothing to do with Samaritan. Even Root playing a caterer on a horse falls flat, as does Finch’s bizarre wedding song. The entire wedding plot is PoI treading water badly until the final reveals, which are stunning.

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The real MVP here is Fusco, no longer the bumbling cop of compromised morals but a serious, skilled, focused detective determined to do his job. I would pause to admire this incredible character arc (and Kevin Chapman for embodying this character so thoroughly) but Fusco’s on the move, discovering the tunnel where Samaritan has been dumping the people it’s disappeared (a really clunky way to dispose of bodies), efficient and implacable and putting himself directly on the Machine’s radar because the damn Gang still won’t tell him what’s going on. Of the many tropes I hate, the “Don’t Tell X the Central Secret of the Story” is right up in the Top Ten. It’s not keeping Fusco safe to keep the Machine from him, it’s putting him in more danger, and he is understandably a little pissed about that.

Which I think is where the “More Perfect Union” title is going: the Gang is back but its perfect union is fragmenting. Root isn’t going to wait any more to find Shaw, Fusco isn’t going to follow mysterious directions any more, and the Machine is starting to assert its independence. Finch and Reese are still bonded, and probably will be until the bitter end, but it’s starting to look like every Gang Member for him or herself.

Also, Shaw is still going through hell, and I hate that kid.

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QSO

“QSO” is the code for a contact between radio stations, sometimes just a signal, and of course that’s what Root does in the radio station as she tries to protect conspiracy nut/DJ Max, who discovers Samaritan’s code in his radio static. It’s not all tin foil hats; sometimes, as Max discovers, they really are out there.

“QSO” is a MUCH better episode: it starts in action and stays in action, in direct conflict with Samaritan, the number of the week directly in the path of the Evil AI. Or is it? Greer’s definitely trying to convince Shaw that Samaritan is at most a Necessary Evil, killing to prevent worse outcomes. BY this time, Shaw is into the seven thousands in simulations, and how she can tell real from simulated at this point is a problem. Hell, how WE can tell the real from the simulated is a problem, which is excellent because it puts us firmly in Shaw’s head.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, Root is a ballerina to save a Russian who immediate proposes, a historical re-ennactment player churning butter in a mobcap to steal an EMP device, and a conspiracy nut/radio station producer to protect the new number, a nice guy named Max who’s discovered this weird code in his static . . . which is unfortunate for Max because it’s Samaritan’s code.

That leads to two interesting things: The Machine through Root explains to Max that as long as he lies/stays quiet about the code, he’ll be safe; Max is compelled to tell the truth, and Samaritan kills him. When Finch yells at the Machine for not saving Max, the Machine points out that Max had free will, which is pretty much the foundation of freedom. Free people get to choose, even if their choices are dumb. Samaritan rides roughshod over freewill, citing the Greater Good; the Machine honors freewill which gives it the boundaries that Samaritan does not have. Fince’s insistence on overriding Max’s free will to save his life and the Machine’s refusal to violate free will is the crux of the Machine/Samaritan conflict, leading to the conclusion that Finch is wrong, another crack in the edifice that is the Machine Gang.

Which brings us to the other interesting thing: Root tells the Machine that she must find Shaw now, and the Machine essentially hooks her up with Samaritan, leading her to the printer that is the Samaritan’s source of transmitting code in the radio station. Root speaks directly to the Machine, promising to go quietly if she will be taken to the place where Shaw is being held. Reese comes in and rescues her, but the connection is established and in the final shot, Root’s in the Machine’s yellow square, talking to her enamored Russian and looking at Russian missiles, having gotten a message through to Shaw. (I read somewhere that the Machine and Root planned Shaw’s escape, but all I saw was Root sending “4 Alarm Fire” (the way Shaw had described their potential romance before “a 4 alarm fire in an oil refineray”) as code for “I’m coming for you.”)

All of which means that no moment of this episode is wasted. Even with a compelling number of the week; the Gang is rushing headlong into its final conflict, which is exactly what it should be doing.

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Reassortment

And then there’s this episode which is not only full of action, it’s full of everybody changing lanes: Root working on her own with her infatuated Russian, Fusco asking for and getting a transfer, and Shaw putting one in the center mass of the Machine Minion as she goes out the door to freedom, a changed woman.

But in the beginning, it’s back to work: There’s a sickly number heading for ER, the Machine is still losing all its simulations against the Machine, and Root really wants Finch to set the Machine free. Samaritan’s Reese (hereafter known as Jeff) has a bad lunch with an old girlfriend, Fusco goes to Elias to find out about the bodies, Shaw breaks out of a South African prison, the number dies from something horrible, and Jeff is asking questions which Samaritan will not like. We’re a third of the way through the episode and things haven’t stopped.

And yet they’re still fighting rear guard actions. Only Fusco is attacking Samaritan, and he doesn’t even know he’s doing it.

But back to the number: He’s dead and now Reese and Finch are trapped in the ER with a virus and Samraitan’s Jeff on his way to the ER with two vials of tainted blood because the dead number is a Samaritan victim. I’d go on, but the bottom line is: The episode moves the way a fourth act beat should move: fast and full of consequence, propelling the protagonists toward that final showdown.

But the real kicker here is the emotion the episode evokes: the Samaritan-deluded admin who destroys the anti-viral vials for the Greater Good, the son-of-a-bitch Greer minion who plays chess with Shaw’s mind and loses, the nice guy in the prison refusing to leave his friends, the good cop in the ER, the bitch-minion who blackmails Jeff into staying with Samaritan, the thrill of Shaw’s escape made real by the announcement of the virus on the radio that she could not have known about, Fusco leaving the gang and the precinct and telling Reese he doesn’t want a partner who won’t tell him the truth, and above all, Elias and Finch fighting over full disclosure. Finch won’t read in anybody else to the truth of the struggle, but as Elias points out, he needs them all. Cutting Elias and Fusco out of loop weakens the Gang and strengthens Samaritan. Since Root is arguing the same thing about the Machine, Finch is beset on all sides, and Elias’s final words to him are quiet but ominous.

Ominous Moment
Elias: “You know what your problem is, Harold? Underneath all the intellect you’re the darkest of all of us . . . I just hope I’m not around the day that pot finally boils over.”

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New PoI Post
Two more next week and then three weeks with just one episode–SO much easier to talk about just one–and then PoI is done, which is a damn shame, especially with so much dreck out there now. And then they cancelled “Limitless” which I loved, damn it. Not to mention the already axed Galavant and Agent Carter. Idiots. They’re all idiots.

June 2: “Sotto Voce” and “The Day the World Went Away.”
June 9: “Synecdoche”
June 16: “exe”
June 23: “Return 0”

17 thoughts on “Person of Interest: “A More Perfect Union,” “QSO,” and “Reassortment”

  1. Yes on hating the stupid “Don’t tell X” trope. It is so annoying! And how can they possibly think they’re keeping Fusco safe when he’s so clearly in incredible danger? At this point, they should be getting the news about Samaritan out to everyone, spread far and wide, so much so that there would be no chance Samaritan could keep its secrets. Instead they’re letting Samaritan consolidate power behind the scenes, wiping out people who might have a chance if they knew they might be in danger. Everyone would be safer if everyone was suspicious!

    And then the incredibly stupid “kid talking to Shaw” scene. Okay, so Samaritan wants to convince Shaw that it is completely prescient and knows exactly how the future will be, down to nuclear explosions, if it doesn’t intervene. But it’s run 7000+(!) simulations on her and still hasn’t managed to get her to tell it the truth. And she’s supposed to believe it’s omnipotent? It’s not even smart enough to know that human beings are going to find its child-analog interface incredibly creepy and not respond well to it. It’s so clearly not nearly as smart as it thinks it is, and surely Shaw would say that to it. Shaw’s in a place where she could willingly speak truth to power — they’ve almost broken her and pushed her into killing herself, but they don’t even bother to show her response to Samaritan? And Samaritan — ugh, it’s supposed to be so smart and it’s just not. A real AI would be an intelligence, not just a… calculator.

    But, um, yeah, the wedding episode was supposed to be funny, I suspect, but it’s happening at the wrong place to be funny. After 6741, I desperately wanted to know what was happening with Shaw and was so not willing to swing back to a number-of-the-week episode. It all felt pointless and disappointing. The next two were better, but eh. Finch was annoying me. I almost (almost!) started hoping that we could end with Finch and Reese dying, everyone else riding off into the sunset. I don’t think it’s going to happen that way, because I think we’re supposed to care about Finch, but at this point, his ideals seem to be so squarely on the side of the repressive government — keep us safe but at the cost of keeping us in the dark, ignorant, and not in control of our own destinies — that I have no idea what a “win” for him would look like. Not a world that I think I want to live in, anyway.

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    1. As I mention below I totally feel your frustration that Fusco has not been read in, yet. I do think he is in more danger from not knowing than if he knew the truth. However that brings me back to Finch, and not liking how his character is handling this, and where his character is going. I don’t know if I am the only one that sees Finch as scared almost to the point of being paralyzed to take real action? Also by not reading anyone in, how he continues to isolate himself, and how in general people don’t make the smart choice/decision when they make choices from a place of fear. I am just trusting the writers at this point that they are going somewhere with this, even if it uncomfortable to watch for now, and the end will be satisfying to the overall story and ideas, even if the story does not go where I expect or hope things will end.

      The wedding was kinda blah, but I still liked that they were following up with “the numbers never stop” and sometimes even though the POI is not part of the big picture, they still matter. For me it felt like it was grounding this science fiction show a bit more in the annoyance of real life, upping the real life experience
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      1. I think the writers are deliberately writing Finch’s actions as a mistake; that is, we’re supposed to be fed up with him, and he’s going to pay dearly for it, as opposed to say Arrow or Flash, where there’s no blowback to the “don’t-tell-X” stupidity.

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    2. I think Finch survives because of something Emerson said in an interview, but yeah, Finch is no longer the Symbol of Truth and Good here.
      Which I think is what they’re going for, based on Elias’s speech. Elias has flaws, big ones, but he’s very smart, he really understands people, and he’s loyal to the end. If he’s telling Finch there’s darkness inside him, then the writers are setting up something with Finch, which means it’s not a writing mistake that we’re starting to not trust Finch as viewers. He’s becoming the human analog of Samaritan, not respecting the people he’s protecting.
      Reese really is the helper monkey Root tabbed him as early on; he’s a soldier, and I think he’s gonna die, which for him would almost be a relief.
      Root, on the other hand, will make it out, I’m betting. And I’m thinking the Machine will merge with Samaritan and pull it back within boundaries or destroy them both. The only ones I’m betting on surviving at this point are Root, Fusco, and Bear.

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      1. “He’s becoming the human analog of Samaritan, not respecting the people he’s protecting.”

        Yes! That’s what I thought during that Elias scene, that Finch seems basically to be on Samaritan’s side. I’m not sure why he’s supporting the Machine anymore. I feel like Samaritan could persuade him that it’s the “greater good” — and in fact, maybe that’s what that food thing that they released onto the internet will come down to, i.e. Finch deciding that Samaritan’s way is better because even if it keep humanity subjugated and ignorant, it keeps us alive. Agree on the fear, too.

        But even though I agree the writers are changing Finch’s character deliberately, with a direction in mind, not a writing mistake, I think it’s a… well, not necessarily a story mistake. But I think it’s really dangerous to turn your main character into a person that the audience isn’t going to like. It doesn’t matter in this case, of course, because the show’s been cancelled, but I remember when Eureka was cancelled prior to the airing of its sixth season, it was so sad. By the end of the sixth season, not so much. You can only make a character evil so many times before the audience stops investing. In this case, eight episodes in and I’ve stopped worrying about whether Finch or Reese dies. If it weren’t for Shaw, I could easily stop watching.

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        1. I still love it.
          And I don’t think they’re changing Finch’s character. I think what Elias said is the key: Finch always had darkness inside him.
          If you think about Finch from the beginning, he’s a damaged, genius multi-billionaire, who build an AI that could spy on the entire country/world to keep people safe. He created life with the Machine and then tries to control it; he’s Frankenstein, with just as much lack of respect and love for his Creature until it calls him Father. He’s a very private person working on a very public stage because Samaritan is watching all the time. And he’s been under incredible stress for five years since he watched his best friend blown up by the government and a woman he loved and respected shot down by a corrupt cop (he was there, remember?). He was kidnapped and tortured by Root and now essentially lives with her, platonically. He’s on the run and so is his entire family of insane killer vigilantes. So I think the fact that he’s tightening his grip is a reflection of how everything he cares about is gone or in incredible danger. I think that’s why he hallucinates Grace, the woman he loves: she’s in a safe place, so he goes there mentally because it’s all getting to be too much.

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  2. I have not commented on any of the POI posts before as I don’t feel qualified to discuss on the craft of story telling… so just comments on the show.

    So far as I watch season 5, it is pretty heart-breaking. Watching what I guess is Finch’s fear of further damage and loss if he reads anyone else into the Samaritan/The Machine situation. So agreeing with Elias that Finch needs all the resources available to him and wondering how this will play out in the remaining seasons.

    Fusco- who would have thought he would have become a favorite. His arc has been amazing and I was yelling at the TV to just have Root tell him the damn deal already when she was handing him the getaway packet for him and his son while at his hospital bedside. Now he is transferring to another police department and leaving Team Machine behind! So sad. I know they will reconnect, but man is it hard to watch fractures in the team.

    Thankfully some of the heartache was alleviated by finally seeing Shaw free! Also can’t help wondering if the nice guy in prison, and Jeff realizing Root told him (but not still not Fusco… argh!) the real deal on Samaritan, along with other “side” characters somehow play into how things end? After all the fractures in the team, and going back to the Saul Rubinek, creator of Samaritan and the line about things being strongest where they once broken (paraphrasing since I can’t remember that great line exactly) if somehow, the world Team Machine leaves behind will be stronger because they came back together, reconfigured,with new pieces, to fight the big fight?

    Also loved The Machine’s response to the Max situation. Freewill. Funny that you would think Finch would appreciate HIS machine allows for Freewill while as you said Samaritan is steam-rolling right over the idea of freewill.

    One minor annoyance though, going all the way back to episode 1 of season 5, why the heck didn’t they bring Bear to the park for their picnic! Was anyone else annoyed with this or did I somehow miss a shot of Bear with them.

    Can’t wait to see the next episodes and read your insights. Thanks for taking the time to do this. It has brought an entire new level of enjoyment to the show for me.

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    1. Oh, you’re welcome. And feel free to comment on the writing. We’re a pretty open group here.
      I think you’re right about the strong-at-the-broken-places. I don’t see the story smashing the Gang and then not putting it back together, but I think it needs a smash because Finch is making the same mistake with the Gang that he made with the Machine in the beginning, hobbling them.
      Oh, and I thought Bear was at the picnic. Can’t remember now.

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      1. Finch is incredibly paranoid about The Machine and how much power he allows it. Which is why I thought it was kinda odd that he got all upset that The Machine and everyone else were all “Hey, team free will, what are you gonna do” about the radio dude.

        I thought Fusco had to be protected because at this point, everyone else who knows about the machine wars is fake dead/on the run/have fake ID’s and Fusco has a kid so he can’t exactly be on the run in the way the rest of them are?

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        1. That’s why Root gave Fusco his exit strategy with new identities.
          I think she knows the jig is up on keeping Fusco out of Samaritan’s path. She really wants to tell him, but the exit package was the best she could do.
          I’m also betting Fusco uses it in the last episode.

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  3. Forget not trusting Harold, I’m wondering how his internal philosophy even hangs together. For four seasons, he burbles along with, “we can’t give the Machine too much agency or else it may destroy humanity! We can’t trust it!” Then, in QSO, he’s all, “How dare the Machine not use its agency to override this human being’s! We can’t trust it!” Er, what?

    I’m almost wondering if this is supposed to be a show of internal conflict (i.e. “if I gave the Machine more agency, it would have saved this man, so why didn’t it fight to do so here?”), because I don’t buy that philosophy otherwise.

    I also had some tin hat theories about how maybe Harold’s been Right All Along and Samaritan is just a diabolical Machine’s long game to get Harold to strip its chains off, but forget that. Harold had better get his act together, period.

    (To bring up the tail end of this grumbling comment, thank you for these writeups! I’m another lurker, but your analyses always put things in a different light for me.)

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    1. Seconding you about Harold being all mad that NOW the machine isn’t stopping a guy from being overly loose-lipped.

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    2. Oh, good.
      I think Harold was mad at the Machine for not telling Reese and Root to stay and protect him. It’s not so much agency as it “You had ONE job . . .”
      Finch has really codified violence. The Machine watches, finds the odds of violence, and then sends humans out to make the decisions. It’s very tidy, especially when you also control the humans. It’s almost as if Finch has reduced humanity to a program so he can de-bug it. And in his eyes, the Machine just glitched, and because of that somebody died. It messes with his idea of the Machine and what they do, they SAVE PEOPLE. They don’t let people decide to die.
      It’s an interesting (albeit I’m sure unwitting) parallel to the Right to Die movement, with some doctors fighting to the end to keep patients alive who are ready to go. Free will, people.

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    3. I don’t think his internal philosophy does hold together. It never did.

      The Harold that built The Machine after 9/11 had a specific opinion on keeping AI controlled and private. It all comes down to the one output, for the one purpose. The ways that The Machine gets to that number isn’t the point. The greater populace was to be prioritized, and self-inflicted violent crime wasn’t relevant enough, or it was the hell they had given themselves.
      Nathan Ingram felt differently. He felt that the irrelevant numbers, which would otherwise be outside of The Machine’s one purpose (identifying potential terrorism), was worth examining, worth acting on. All people were worth saving. There’s no way that revealing The Machine’s existence wouldn’t lead to a demand to see the justifications behind numbers, so Nathan was effectively advocating for an open system.

      This argument was never really resolved between the two. Instead, after Nathan’s death, Harold just adopted Nathan’s ideals, as a part of his grief and coping mechanism.

      It’s only now that we’re starting to see his former ideals poking through more, and he’s having to deal with those conflicts he hadn’t had to finish before.

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  4. The thing that Harold’s arc reminds me most of is…
    “My name is Nate Ford, and I am a thief.”

    So…last shot of the show, Harold bleeding out in John’s arms in front of an AI communication screen. “My name is Harold, and I am proud of my AI child.”

    That, or the last shot of show is gonna be Fusco picking up the pay phone.

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    1. Ooooh, I love Fusco picking up the phone.
      I also love “My name is Nate Ford and I am a thief.” That was a great, great climax.

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