In any long-running series, no matter what the medium, writers come up against the same conundrum: People want the same but different.
They want the same things that have made them love the story over the course of several films/years/books, they don’t want anything they love to go away (SAVE BEAR!).
But at the same time, everything they love about the story is the reason it’s starting to feel shopworn: we’ve been here before. “Didn’t they do that in Season Two?” “I love X, but if she says/does Y one more time . . .” “Really? Another number of the week to save?”
So the key is to change up the stale parts while keeping the parts people love. The problem is the stale parts are the parts people love. Change is good unless you don’t want that part changed. Then change is bad and the writers have ruined everything.
Which brings us to Person of Interest, Season Four. BIG changes: Decima and Samaritan have won and the Machine Gang is on the run, everybody in new identities working new jobs trying to stop Samaritan from turning the country and the world into an AI-driven dystopia. The library has been invaded and destroyed, Finch has lost his millions (billions?), and the people we love are all in places that they’re not comfortable with (except for Root who appears to change jobs weekly, depending on where the Machine wants her; she’s having a fabulous time).
So “Panopticon” begins with PoI’s “You are being watched,” but now our old watchers are the dispossessed, hiding from the new watcher, Samaritan. The original idea of a panopticon was hideous enough: a building with a central watchtower, surrounded by rooms or cells; the watchtower trained lights into the rooms so the person in the watchtower could see everyone without being seen. It’s a totalitarian concept, but it did have more than surveillance at its center: the idea was that since the people in the cells knew they were being watched, they’d modify their behavior to please or at least not annoy the watcher in the tower.
But Samaritan’s a secret, so its only goal is to surveil and then punish anyone who transgresses its AI idea of the greater good. Where in previous seasons, the antagonists were individuals targeting individual numbers, a corrupt police organization, the CIA, and Decima, this season, the Big Bad is a Big Computer; Greer and Martine are Samaritan’s enforcers, they’re not the ones making decisions. And the biggest decision Samaritan makes is to take out its rival, the Machine.
So in three years, the story has evolved from Good Guy versus Bad Guy to Good Machine vs Bad Machine, Decima and the Machine Gang playing out that titanic struggle on the human level. Even if the Gang managed to take out Greer and Martine, Samaritan would keep on going; they need to end that machine. But as Root says, its servers are in hundreds of buildings all over the world. Our Gang has an impossible task.
This is what a crisis turning point does, it turns everything up to 11. The thing about the last acts of a story that is so hard to balance is that they have to be upsetting; everything that’s gone before must be challenged, terrible things have to happen so that people will change, good last acts are tense.
And yet they have to be pleasurable enough to watch/read so that people keep watching/reading. The Machine Gang isn’t the only group with an impossible task here: pity the writers’ room, too.
(This is also, by the way, one of the many reasons I write standalone novels and not series. It’s hard enough pulling this off in one story. Over a series of stories? That’s just asking for it.)
So here’s what “Panopticon” has to do for Person of Interest: Make everything new without changing anything people love.
Good luck with that.
There are no weak parts. This is the pilot all over again, except with people we know and love and an antagonist we hate and fear. Perfect.
Smart Story Moves
• Starting out with Martine as the human face of the Machine, omitting Finch’s “You are being watched,” in place of a journalist saying to a hot blonde, “Imagine if the world had utterly changed and no one had noticed a thing . . .” And then the computer on the screen is Samaritan. Samaritan hasn’t just taken over the world, it’s taken over OUR world of PoI.
• Greer talking directly to Samaritan, following its orders, the smug puppet foil to Finch.
• Showing the Gang in rapid succession in their new jobs, all with complications and frustrations. Their situations have changed, but they haven’t, so we’re back in business with the people we love.
• The reversal from Finch’s statement to Reese–“You need a purpose”–to Reese’s statement to Finch–“You need a purpose”–as Finch tries to refuse the Hero’s Call the same way Reese tried in the beginning. Finch, like pilot Reese, is running from life, traumatized by the damage he thinks they’ve caused in the past. They’ve flipped roles which means the power structure has shifted, too, which is new, a good change because we want to see how it play out. We know Finch will be back just as we knew Reese would join up in the pilot; the juice is in seeing how that happens.
• Repeating Samaritan’s screenshots to show its still disregarding the Gang, which implies that can change at any time.
• The genius of the central plot involving old VHS antennas, fusing the number and the fight against Samaritan.
• “We are the store, Ben, you and me,” and Finch getting that look. No long discussions, just action and reaction. And Finch takes the phone.
• New year, new antagonist: Martine and her cold dead eyes, the human face of Samaritan even more than Greer.
• “If our friend has a plan, I am not seeing it.” Phone rings.
• The callbacks to the pilot like telling the punks not to hold guns sideways because . . .
• “You have a god in this fight, Harold.”
• Root saying, “All lives matter.” CHANGE.
• “What happened?” “I saved your ass, that’s what happened.”
• “I’m trying to save a kid.” “You had to put it that way.”
• “Perhaps I can be of some assistance.” A real Giles moment.
• Elias. We’re getting the old band back together. Things we love . . . Plus the expression on Elias’s face at “I’d like to hire you.”
• “You put a lot of trust in your friend.” “I do. In all the time I’ve known him, he’s never let me down.” Things we love . . .
• Reese, playing by the rules; Elias, playing with semis.
• Reese as Fusco’s partner. The possibilities are endless. People we love. (Plus a nice moment in Reese sitting down at Carter’s desk.
• The music. Jetta’s “I’d love to change the world” as Finch finds a book in the library through clues in the typos in his dissertation and Shaw meets Romeo, the thief, who needs a wheelman, and Finch finds . . ..
• Ohmigod, the hidden subway room: it’s gonna be the library only better.
Martine, not buying the whole gang war bit.
Next PoI Posts:
May 3: 4-3 Wingman (Amanda Segel): Multi-Thread Plotting
May 4: 4- 11 If/Then/Else (Denise The): Point of View as Meaning