Person of Interest: “Sotto Voce,” “The Day the World Went Away,” and the Impact of Character

Person of Interest Binge LogoYeah, I wanted a drink after that last episode, too.

This is Person of Interest at its finest, they’re doing an amazing job of ending this great long-form story, and unlike the idiot shoot-’em-up big finishes so many action movies go out with, PoI is doing brilliant shoot-’em-up big finishes based on character, a mix of pain and joy that becomes exhilaration with mourning. This isn’t a “they didn’t have to die” ending. Like Carter, they really did have to die, and I’m just as upset about their deaths as I am about Carter’s (still), even while I recognize that the deaths were real, necessary to the story, and consequential. The Gang is at that point I love in chaos theory: moving from being into becoming. What they were, they will never be again, not just because of their losses but because of Harold Finch who just reached his breaking point.

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Finch created this story, his story, when he created the Machine, and now he’s going to end it and take Samaritan with him. It’s a fine rousing last stand; the tragedy is that he’s forced to do it on the bodies of two people he loved. Since we loved them, too, the tragedy goes deep. But so does the exhilaration: Finch is going to set the Machine free and go out blazing.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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Sotto Voce

But first, “Sotto Voce” brings back an old adversary and Shaw, but what it really brings home is that the ending of a good story is about character. You can blow up all the buildings you want, do grimdark scenes of gun flare and hurtling bodies, and none of it will matter unless character is on the line.

Fortunately, “Sotto Voce” has character to burn.

I’m not sure when in this episode that I recognized the Big Bad, but it wasn’t much after the halfway point when I thought, “Wait. Didn’t I see this on Burn Notice?” And Elias’s first episode. And . . . Okay, so the big reveal was no reveal at all. If all this episode had going for it was finding out who the Voice was, it would have been a miserable failure.

But there was the innocent cabbie Fusco kept after until he transformed in a moment into the ice-cold hitman, acknowledging Fusco’s skill and tenacity.

There was Elias, genially accompanying Finch to keep him from being killed, threatening the bomb maker with a gun nobody doubted he’d fire, taking care of the Bad Guy in a way that audiences have been waiting for (answering the old “Why don’t they just shoot the bastard?” with “Because it’s better to blow him up”). Not to mention Elias’ soft-voiced promise to pay his debt to Finch, which he’s going to do in a big way in the next episode.

There was Shaw and Root in the park, Shaw prepared to kill herself to save the Gang, and Root prepared to kill herself to save Shaw. The simulation’s Hot Lesbian Sex Scene never felt quite right (because it wasn’t supposed to), but you can’t watch that scene in the park and not recognize that these two women love each other madly.

There was Reese FINALLY taking Fusco up to the roof away from cameras and telling him about the Machines.

And then there was the part that gave me chills, Finch standing in the same place he was standing in the pilot, back then waiting for Reese to be brought to him, now waiting for Reese and a fully informed Fusco to join him, then Root, and then a pale and hesitant Shaw, the five of them standing soberly in the sun together.

I’ve said before that the last act is when everything is stripped away, but I should have said everything but character. When the protagonist has lost everything she was fighting for, when the time to face that final battle is nigh, all the storyteller has left is character. Nobody cares what size gun the Bad Guy is going to pull, nobody cares who throws what punch, the action is important but only important because of what it shows about character. Who is your protagonist when she has nothing left but herself?

And in the case of PoI, what is the Gang when it’s broken down to just its five members, all of them lethal and all of them damaged? That’s what that last scene in the park in “Sotto Voce” is to me, the grimness of five characters who know they’re the last stand before the apocalypse. But that last scene also tells me that if the apocalypse is coming, I want those five on my side.

And then they were four . . .

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The Day the World Went Away

This was spoiled for me so I knew what was coming (ARGH). Even so, it may be the best episode of this show in its entire run. The stakes are so high–Finch’s cover is blown and Samaritan is everywhere, ruthlessly hunting them to kill everyone BUT Finch because Samaritan thinks it can brainwash him onto its side. Bring a lot of soap, Samaritan, that’s a really big brain you’re trying to warp.

So Finch begins by escaping the safe house with Elias who is now a close friend, watches Elias die defending him; is captured by Greer who tells him that Samaritan doesn’t want to kill him, it wants to enlist him; is retaken by Shaw and Root and escapes with Root who defeats the following Samaritan agents with a really big gun and a scrunchie before she’s shot; is captured by the police who take his finger prints and reveal his criminal past including his warrant from the FBI for treason; defies Samaritan through the interrogation room camera; and answers the phone when the Machine calls him and hears Root’s voice. The joy on his face when he thinks Root is okay is heartbreaking because in the next moment, the Machine identifies herself: “I chose a voice.” And he knows Root is gone.

But so is Finch. Not just because the Machine gets him out of the police station but because the deaths of Elias and Root have broken his resolve to play by his rules, to be the good guy. In a magnificent soliloquy, Michael Emerson shows Finch transforming as he speaks his determination to bring down the computer program that has no boundaries, and it’s clear that means that his Machine is going to be set free. It’s a magnificent scene for a magnificent character, and it sets up the last three episodes–the climax of this season and the climax for the entire series–as a go-for-broke nothing-left-to-lose blow-out, good against evil once again.

It’s just brilliant.

Weakest Parts
Really brilliant storytelling all the way through.

Smart Story Moves
• “Sotto Voce”‘s Three parallel story lines, three relationships–Finch/Elias, Reese/Fusco, and Root/Shaw–played out in action followed by direct and crucial dialogue, people in a crucible telling each other what they need to know.
• Paying off audience anticipation in scenes we’ve been wanting for a long time: Finch and Elias as no-longer-dueling masterminds working together as quiet-spoken badasses, Reese finally telling Fusco the truth, and the brilliantly done Root/Shaw reunion. It’s a cliche to say that I’d watch a show that was nothing but these people chatting at a picnic, but it’s true: I care about the relationships in this show so much more than I do about the threat of world-domination by an AI, and the only reason I care about that is because the AI is trying to kill Our Gang.
• Setting up the deaths by having Elias talk about where he thought he’d end up (the same place Finch thinks he’ll end up: prison), and by having Root talk about how there are deaths because we’re all just shapes, and the Machine knows the shapes of all of them. When she says that Carter is still alive in the Machine, my heart broke just a little.
* Giving Elias and Root such good deaths, Elias going out on his feet, protecting Finch to the end and Root with that incredible last car chase, steering with her boot while blowing up the Samaritan armored car with a Great Big Gun. If you’re going to kill off characters we love this much, make their deaths magnificent.
• The Machine taking Root’s voice. That’s going to have major emotional reverberations but I all I could think of was, “She’s still alive in the Machine,” just the way she said she’d be.

Favorite Moments
• Bad Guy:”Careful, compassion and loyalty make people weak, easy to exploit.”
Elias: “Well that’s some stinkin thinkin, and why you’re going to lose.”
• The moment in “Sotto Voce” in the park at the end. It’s been awhile since I’ve actually gotten chills watching a story, but seeing Finch back in the park and then Reese and Fusco walking toward him . . . that was a moment.
• The guy from the neighborhood telling Reese how much Elias was loved. I didn’t know I needed to hear that until he said it.
• Root and the scrunchie: Details matter.

You know there’s a lot more in there that I loved, but I’m still overwhelmed, so I’ll come back later and rave in the comments. But really, this is magnificent storytelling, magnificent characterization. PoI‘s world is more violent than it’s ever been, but that violence is in service to story not the other way around, and every gun shot is important because of the characters involved. It seems odd to say about a story so fun of guns and squealing tires, but this episode is about character, as is the entire series. Character is the reason the gunshots matter.

Here’s part of Finch’s monologue in the holding room:

I was talking about my rules. I have lived by those rules for so long, believed in those rules for so long, believed if you played by the right rules eventually you would win. But then I was wrong wasn’t I? And now all the people I care about are dead or will be dead soon enough. And we will be gone without a trace.

So now I have to decide. Decide whether to let my friends die, to let hope die, to let the world be ground under your heel all because I play by my rules. But I’m trying to decide. I’m going to kill you. But I need to decide how far I’m willing to go. How many of my own rules I am willing to break … to get it done.

New PoI Post
Only three more episodes to go, and only one weekly from now on, which is probably a good thing because the impact of these is immense, so stretching them out will help immensely. On the other hand, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Also, I hate CBS. Cancelling both PoI and Limitless? The entire network is dead to me now.

June 9: “Synecdoche”
June 16: “exe”
June 23: “Return 0”

18 thoughts on “Person of Interest: “Sotto Voce,” “The Day the World Went Away,” and the Impact of Character

  1. One of the problems of doing these posts the day I watch the episode is that I don’t have much time to think about them. They’re already a day late because I get the episodes a day late, and I don’t want to delay talking about them while they’re still so fresh in people’s memories, but boy did I need more time to process this one. So apologies for not giving “The Day the World Went Away” its due.

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  2. Canceling PoI, Limitless and Supergirl? Feh on CBS. Other than Hawaii 5-0 (which I purely watch because I wish I could live in Honolulu), why else would I have any reason to tune in?

    Still boggling on this episode, really.

    At this point: the dog may survive, Fusco has the next best shot because he has a kid and I don’t know how evil the show feels about that, other than that I suspect they all go.

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    1. I’d bet heavily on Fusco surviving. They’ve already said the dog makes it.

      The question mark is Shaw. I can see her going out guns blazing, but I can also see her in the subway with Machine, talking to Root. The Machine knows what Root would say and do, and Shaw is so emotionally blocked and so damaged by the simulation torture that a nice dark subway and Root’s voice and a number to save now and then would probably work for her, especially if Finch has managed to stash a lot of cash, which I think he has; don’t they have millions in duffel bags? Fusco would check on her every now and then, and she’d have Bear.

      But really, the only ones I’m willing to bet on are Fusco and Bear.

      I do think they win. The last episode is called “Return 0” which is the code for a program that has run successfully. Fingers crossed.

      I CAN’T BELIEVE THEY CANCELLED THIS.

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  3. CBS is *dead* to you? Wow. I didn’t know one could do that. Me, I’m gonna look around …

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  4. Root and Shaw and the madly in love — they are Romance, capital R. Because they fit each other so perfectly, with the ways that they’re alike and the ways that they’re different. And both of them are or have been so essentially alone, until now when they’ve found the jigsaw puzzle piece whose shape precisely flows against their own. So good!

    And the moments of humor, in the midst of all the action and violence — Elias’ puttanesca and Root’s flirting and that boot, oh, that boot!

    Frankly, I’m impressed that you managed to be coherent at all about these episodes. I could maybe have managed coherency yesterday, but I just finished watching The Day the World Went Away and… yeah, I just had to delete lots of totally incoherent lines. I might have to write the fanfiction with Shaw and Root living happily ever after though, with lots of flirting and coziness in a sunny apartment with maybe a little argument over whose turn it is to walk Bear, and then Root sends Shaw off to work, and in the real world, Shaw removes the simulation glasses, sits up and goes off to save a number.

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    1. I think Shaw might end up in the subway working the numbers with the Machine and Root’s voice. And Bear. With Fusco keeping an eye on her. The similtation idea is a lovely one.

      But I still haven’t processed it all yet, either. That was amazing. And the thing was, it’s was so tragic and so exhilarating at the same time because Harold is going to take Samaritan out. I can’t wait.

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  5. I was so happy to see that yellow square at the end of Sotto Voce.

    As for The Day the World Went Away – just wow. So good. When I realised that Jeff was being directed to be a sniper for Finch and Root, and I honestly anxiously unsure if they would actually kill Finch in that moment, or what would happen.

    I love that the machine chose Root’s voice (though I couldn’t help but think about Fred and Illyria and what is it about Amy Acker characters that they live on in another way!)

    Also, for me, it wasn’t just the guy from the neighborhood telling Reese how much Elias was loved, though that in itself was excellent. It was the guy from the neighborhood telling Reese how much Elias loved/respected Finch.

    So good.

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    1. Absolutely on the guy from the neighborhood and yes, me, too, on the yellow square. LONG overdue.

      And I had Angel flashbacks, too. How could we not? The big difference being that the Machine didn’t kill Root and steal her body, it saved her voice and her memories. It knows Root so well it can almost be Root for Shaw, who has trouble with human emotions anyway. I think if Shaw has the Machine with Root’s voice and Bear, she might make it, especially if Fusco’s looking out for her.

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  6. Man- I am still reeling from these 2 episodes.

    Very glad to have advance confirmation that Bear makes it, which of course means at least one other person has to make it too, to you know walk and feed Bear.

    I liked Sotto Voce, but had figured out before the reveal that the number was “The Voice” but 2 stand out moments for me, like you mentioned the cabbie seamlessly moving from innocent to stone cold killer- and giving Fusco his props- chilling. I thought the end with Elias and Finch, and Elias blowing up The Voice- awesome and again chilling in the subtle way it reflected Finch changing. While he did not hit the bomb switch, as Elias said, after boom the car blows up “what Harold, you brought me along for a reason, you had to know I would try something like this.” And you know Finch is a smart guy and had to know and really did not try to stop Elias… I think Finch has been afraid this season, afraid of loss of his friends, his friends suffering, but even more so how those losses could drive him to the darkest places of himself. Finch is sort of like a recovering drug addict, addicted to the power of what he has done, paying penance by separating himself from the world, and as he made these connections with Reese, Carter, Fusco, Shaw, Root and Elias knowing there was a danger in caring too much and what he could do if pushed hard enough so always stomping on the urge to let The Machine run free and having a connection to The Machine, so he lived within his own set of constricting rules, in way the same constrictions he coded into The Machine…

    Which brings me to “The Day The World Went Away” Finch had already started to let go of his rules because they aren’t working but at what final cost to Finch’s own integrity and humanity. This also makes me wonder how out of control he got right out of college where he, in the eyes of the law committed treason, but he felt the ends justified the means and if the treason charge is what turned him around to start putting rules or limits on himself because he knew he could go way too far, to a place the world around him was not ready for- and now he is lifting his own limits because ready or not, the world has changed and has to handle it?

    I think it was very significant for Finch to realize Samaritan found him because of his past, that it was reviewing things and places significant to Grace from the past and that was how he was found, and how not allowing The Machine to remember the past, to reboot new at 12:01 am had a huge cost to the team. (it is still gut wrenching to revisit the scene where The Machine is apologizing for not respecting boundaries and asking if it will die each night and not be able to remember Finch) Side note, I do think it is interesting that The Machine basically picked Grace out for Finch because it knew she was perfect for him, and then it was another machine using the importance of Grace to Finch, to finally find Finch.

    Anyway, the entire episode was so good, an emotional gut punch, but so good, but when Finch answers the phone and that look of pain on his face as The Machine tells him, no not Root but I have picked a voice, and by the look on his face knowing he knows Root is dead or The Machine would not have used her voice… that was so well done.

    I hate that this has been canceled, but at the same time, I can’t wait to see how this wraps up, and wonder if The Machine will pick the name Root or something different… although Root, the root of all things, would be pretty good.

    Thanks for letting me babble.

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    1. I think we’re all babbling after that episode.

      One thing I didn’t talk about but I’ve been thinking about is how both machines and how the show uses the past.
      Okay, I still hate the flashbacks.
      But there’s a sense of time in the show that’s different from anything I’ve seen before, even in time travel shows, a sense that linearity is only one aspect of life, that pattern is another kind of time. I need to cogitate on that (it’s Vet Day, I’ll have time while wrangling dogs), but I think it’s important not just that both computer programs see time as linear and patterned, but that they see those aspects so differently. I think that Samaritan uses linearity and pattern to predict human behavior, and the Machine uses them to understand people, which sounds like the same thing, but isn’t. And I think it’s because Finch programmed the Machine, and the government took Samaritan away from Arthur Claypool before he could finish.

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      1. Oh! Very nice insight on the machines same coin different sides- how time is experienced and predicting what people might do vs. knowing why they might do something.

        Good luck with the dogs and the vet today. I am having a dog filled weekend myself- watching my daughter & boyfriend’s 2 dogs, plus my own. In a town home, with no yard to speak of… lots of walks this weekend.

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  7. I started watching Nikita, and it’s SO BAD at flashbacks. I realized that I’ve been very, very spoiled by the shows I have watched with them. (Have not watched Arrow or Lost)

    Generally, PoI inserted their flashbacks to make them plausibly character actions: The Machine doing Google searches to double-check her own decision-making.
    It’s not coincidence that there were similar interstitials for travelling across locations and travelling across time. It shows that, for an AI, the two dimensions aren’t so different. Those interstitials also characterize the scene shifts as an active choice by the AIs as narrators. They are deciding what to pay attention to, and we see all of the other surveillance footage they’re also looking at, but not prioritizing. That lends a sense of intent, because the AIs are learning about the world in a particular way due to the order in which they’re viewing things, just like the audience, but because they’re also characters within the show, that shifting perspective as they learn can have an impact on the plot.

    As for the difference between TM and Samaritan, I think the implication is that Samaritan starts out with the conclusion, and then uses archive evidence to confirm the preexisting bias. TM is actually investigating things, with her evaluation shifting as she learns new things.

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  8. NOT READING THE COMMENTS CAUSE SO BEHIND but the little line of “Yeah I wanted a drink” kills me. I am PAUSED on POI cause I’m at the Carter is about to die episode and because of this blog and my penchant for spoiling things for myself (yes, I sometimes flip to the end of the book, why do you ask?), I know it’s coming and there is enough stress in my life right now that I don’t need that. Not Carter who is so awesome. So it’s killing me that I am so behind, but it would kill me to watch it. *headdesk* Instead, my head is in the proverbial sand and I’m watching Lost Girl and wondering how I’m going to finish POI, cause I need to finish this great story, and manage with the “need a drink” episodes.
    /end pointless babble

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    1. Oddly enough, the ending is equal parts darkness and light. The last episode was hard to watch because we lost people, but it’s a grand fight and their deaths had consequences that were good. I wanted to stand up and cheer at the end, even though I loved the characters we lost.

      Carter is harder because her death didn’t accomplish anything, she was taken out at her moment of greatest triumph. It meant that the Machine Gang went after HR with a vengeance they hadn’t felt before, but Carter wasn’t a soldier lost in a war the way the characters this time were.

      But really, watch it. It’s a great episode. I could only watch it once, but it’s brilliant. And “The Devil’s Share” which comes after it is in the Top Five PoI episodes of all time.

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  9. I think my favorite moment was the way Reese “told” Shaw that Root was gone. That almost imperceptible head shake, and the way Shaw glanced away to stare into the distance. It was so in character for both of them, and the restraint showed a kind of intimate respect between them. It spoke volumes without uttering a word. So. Good.

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  10. Just googled the words to the Nine Inch Nails song the last episode is named for and thought I’d share, in case anyone else is curious. Thinking of this in relation to what Finch may be planning makes the coming end feel even more chilling:

    I’d listen to the words he’d say
    but in his voice I heard decay
    a plastic face forced to portray
    all the insides left cold and gray
    there is a place that still remains
    it eats the fear, it eats the pain
    the sweetest price he’ll have to pay
    the day the whole world went away

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  11. Brilliant reviews, as usual and the afterthought comments Love this:
    ” It’s a cliche to say that I’d watch a show that was nothing but these people chatting at a picnic, but it’s true: I care about the relationships in this show so much more than I do about the threat of world-domination by an AI, and the only reason I care about that is because the AI is trying to kill Our Gang”

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