Person of Interest: Panopticon: Starting All Over Again

Person of Interest Binge LogoIn 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?”

Reese

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).

Person-of-Interest-Season-4-Root

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.

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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.

Shaw-counter

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.

Weakest Parts
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 screen shots 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.

Favorite Moments
• “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.

Ominous Moment
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

Table of Contents with Links to all PoI Posts

7 thoughts on “Person of Interest: Panopticon: Starting All Over Again

  1. Just found this interview with Michael Emerson:

    Would a spinoff featuring Finch and his canine sidekick Bear qualify?

    Maybe. “It would be a post-POI landscape, so they’d have to shift gears. It would be interesting if they adopted some much quieter and more normal life, and yet were always being tugged back into the world of supercomputers and crime-fighting,” Emerson imagines. “I don’t know what it would look like, but it’d be cool.”

    So I’m guessing Finch survives.
    Still betting Reese is toast.

    You know, they could be gaslighting us and everybody makes it. That would be good.

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    1. Emerson is pretty clearly speaking in hypotheticals to appease the interviewer but if they do pull a “psych! everybody lives!” ending, I’d love for the last shot we see of Finch to be him walking up to Grace’s flat in Italy and ringing the bell and it cuts to black as the door opens.

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      1. Except that it’s been five years, she’s in a new country, and chances are she’s rebuilt her life. If she opens that door with a baby in her arms . . .
        Did you see Castaway? (That Tom Hanks desert island movie.)

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  2. Super episode,indeed. From having to learn about Jeremy Bentham to enjoying Reese getting knocked out by Shaw to Root wondering if they should tie them up just in case – what a show!
    And thanks for writing about it- really good.
    Also, have now read 6 of your novels and Wow! I love them. The stories, the characters, the humor and don’t forget the Dogs!!! Hilarious.

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  3. Well, BSOD happened, and it was an interesting middle between Contingency’s real-time action and Panopticon’s reset, as a premiere.
    All of the main characters (minus Shaw) and their skillsets (including Bear!) were established. Samaritan’s capabilities were established, as the physical stakes of the show, and to contrast the team’s new limitations.

    The AI themes were stated, if in a very on-the-nose way, but they also had John state the end-goal and other primary theme, of getting back to saving numbers. It just so happens that this episode, all of the main casts’ numbers are up, including The Machine.

    All of the primary relationship dynamics are established. John takes care of the team, and focuses on the practical details, but Harold is the boss. Harold is parental towards The Machine. Root looks up to Harold. Root is in love with Shaw. Fusco does favors for John, but considers them partners. They try to protect Fusco via ignorance making him not worth Decima’s time. Root adores The Machine in a way no other human does.

    Three threads of action (Fusco, Root, Harold, John moving between each), but two unified by the goal of getting to the subway and restoring The Machine, while Fusco’s demonstrates more of Samaritan’s capabilities that the others will have to contend with in any future endeavors.

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  4. Fave moment: Shaw assaulting department store customers with the perfume she’s squirting at them.

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