A series finale hits everybody in different ways, and we all have different ways to cope with a beloved series coming to its end. Over my years the ritual I have settled on is following the finale up with watching the original series premiere. In these two snapshots of the series I like to analyze how the mission statement of the pilot lead to the final story, for better or worst.
I figured this would make a good series to write up here any time a show I watch ends on its own terms.
Spoiler Warning. Although I will generally only be discussing two episodes of the series, one of those episodes is the final one. I will be going in depth about how Person of Interest ends.
What’s fascinating about the pilot of Person of Interest is that it is ostensibly John Reese’s story. It begins with his flashback to happier times with Jessica in Mexico the leap straight into his time as a bearded homeless drunk in New York City. His life would continue that way if he didn’t decide to fight back against a group of thugs on the subway who really had that coming anyway.
You ever see John Wick? Reese is a lot like that.
Reese and the thugs are picked up by the cops, including Detective Jocelyn Carter. She questions Reese, which is only weird because I’m pretty sure she’s a homicide detective and nobody died. Reese isn’t into killing people. However kneecaps are fair game.
While Carter’s back is turned, a lawyer comes in and claims to be Reese’s attorney. He is led outside and taken away in a limo by several massive security suits. When Carter finds out he’s gone. She’s pissed.
The security guys say they’re taking Reese to their employer, dropping him off at a park where he meets Mr. Harold Finch (last seen on your TV as Ben Linus in Lost). Finch offers him an extremely mysterious job as a protector of sorts. Finch gets social security numbers that point to somebody who will be involved in a violent crime. They may be the victim, or the perpetrator.
Their current number is a defense attorney. We’re led to think she’s the victim, but we soon discover she’s the perpetrator working with several corrupt cops. She has one cop, Lionel Fusco, take Reese away to kill him.
That doesn’t go so well for Fusco. He winds up laying face down in the street with several rounds in his bulletproof vest.
Finch tells Reese the full truth. The social security number are coming from an artificial intelligence Finch invented after 9/11. It sends information about terrorist attacks to the US government, but it also sees all other crimes. Now it sends Finch a social security number for each of those.
Reese and Finch rally and defeat the defense attorney, putting her behind bars. The premise is set.
That’s the interesting thing about a pilot. It really only exists to set up a weekly premise. In this case Person of Interest’s ambitions are decidedly small. Each week there will be a number, we will find out what kind of trouble they are in and either save or stop them. At this point that is the entire point of the show.
What it would become is a greater and very intelligent look at an AI’s effect on the world around it. The machine that Finch built is a main character if the series. It is all over that latter seasons and becomes a bit of a trusted team member in the series finale, and yet it is hardly thought about in the pilot. Maybe this is to maintain the mystique of it all, but considering the machine has more charisma than Reese that might not have been the best call.
Speaking of which, it’s fascinating how little of the Reese I now know isn’t present in this pilot. Reese’s whole thing is that he has a massive hero complex. We wouldn’t find out why until the series finale, but it’s odd that in this pilot Reese only really ever fights for himself. He isn’t protecting anybody when he fights the thugs in the subway. He’s getting himself out of trouble when he stops Fusco. Hell, the big finale scene where he goes up against several corrupt cops in silence as a potential target walks by with his son is played more as a standoff between Reese and the others than himself standing between them and murder.
Other smaller things change as the series continues, but the one that jumps out to me is Finch’s security guys. I’m pretty sure we never ever see them again.
Now I’m going to talk about the finale, and it’s going to sound like an entirely different show.
The finale of Person of Interest, “Return 0” is about The Machine. I mean, its about everybody but when something begins and ends with a monologue from one character who speaks about the greater metamorphosis they have been through over their entire life, then it’s kind of about that character. In every episode there is a person of interest, it just so happens that this week’s is The Machine herself.
Finch has uploaded the Ice-9 virus to the internet. It will raze computer systems all over the world. The good news is that it will kill the evil AI, Samaritan. The bad news is that it is also killing The Machine. Samaritan isn’t going to lay down and die, instead it’s sending an airgapped copy of its core code to a satellite where it can wait out the danger all while sending its numerous agents to hunt down and kill team machine before they can save their AI the same way.
If you haven’t watched the show, most of those proper nouns are going straight over your head.
Reese and Fusco return to the NYPD (oh yeah Reese is a cop now and Fusco is a good guy) where Samaritan has recruited most of their precinct to take them down. It even outs Reese as “The Man in the Suit”, his vigilante moniker from Season One. They’re taken to the docks where the cops plan to execute them. Luckily a sniper kills the cops and saves their lives. The Machine has her own agents.
Meanwhile, in the land of characters that weren’t in the pilot, Shaw mourns Root until The Machine contacts her directly. Samaritan Agents are coming for her and she has to get the hell out of there.
The team meets up in their train station hideout and plans their attack. Shaw and Fusco will protect the machine while Reese and Finch will go to the Federal Reserve Bank to take out Samaritan’s core code before it goes to space. Then the fun begins.
Reese and Finch get to Samaritan, but Finch is shot. They aren’t able to stop it in time and Samaritan escapes. They can send The Machine after it using a special satellite, but then The Machine will be essentially trapped in a cage match with Samaritan, a fight it has lost many times before. On top of all that, whoever uploads The Machine will be killed by an incoming missile shot from a submarine. Finch locks Reese in the bank so he can sacrifice himself while saving his friend.
Fusco and Shaw load up in their subway car and take it out of the station. One Samaritan agent gets on board. The guy who killed Root. The Samaritan agent stabs Fusco in the stomach and runs for it while Shaw stays to help her friend.
Finch and The Machine share a heart to heart as he prepares to upload her. She passes on the quote of the episode, “Everyone dies alone. But if you meant something to someone, if you helped someone, or loved someone, if even a single person remembers you, then maybe you never really die. And maybe, this isn’t the end at all.”
I want that on my gravestone.
However, Finch realizes he’s on the wrong building. Reese is on the next roof over with The Machine’s core code, uploading it to the satellite. He dies saving her and Finch. The Machine gets into the satellite and destroys Samaritan once and for all.
Weeks later, Shaw tracks down that Samaritan agent and finally kills him. Fusco is back with the police, everything cleared up. Finch travels to Italy and fins his fiance Grace, who has thought him dead for several years now. It’s beautiful.
Shaw walks the streets with Bear, her dog, when a phone rings. It’s The Machine. She has a new number.
Sometimes a show has a strong premiere and a weak finale, sometimes its the other way around. This is the latter. The finale of Person of Interest is perfect. It gets every character exactly right, and each one gets the ending they deserve.
Let’s start with Reese, the focus of the premiere. As The Machine comes to her quote, she shows us the funeral of Reese’s father. A man behind him talks about how he went back in to the fire and save so many people. His father was a hero, which is what gives him his complex in the first place. Reese went to some dark places to be the hero, but it was saving everyday people with Finch that finally made him feel like he was doing real good. And in repayment he went out the same way his father did, sacrificing himself to save everybody else.
Finch has always blamed himself for the bad things that came out of The Machine, including Samaritan. He assumed the only end for him should be self sacrifice. It takes everyone else to remind him that what he’s done is a good thing and he shouldn’t be punished for it. Instead he gets to live a happy life. Plus he gets to tell Samaritan to fuck off which must be satisfying.
Fusco’s moment comes early in the episode. When he and Reese are in the firing line of the Samaritan cops. He lets Reese knows he’s happy they met. He’s become a better man because of it. He’s right, but the man has more to live for that most. A son who loves him and an important job as a cop. Fusco gets to live, and his reward is to live a much more simple life without the stress of team machine.
Shaw has been through so much hell this season, especially the loss of Root, that when The Machine starts speaking to her directly it kind of brings her back to life. The Machine has chosen to use the voice of Root and is giving Shaw Root’s old job as the analogue interface. Root asks The Machine if it’ll tell her to retire and become a gardener. The Machine tells her, “I chose you for exactly who you are, but there’s something I think Root had wanted to say to you. You always thought there was something wrong with you because you don’t feel things the way other people do. But she always felt that was what made you beautiful. She wanted you to know that if you were a shape, you were a straight line. An arrow.”
And then she walks off into the sunset to kick every ass that dares cross her.
It’s not the end, it’s an end.
The pilot and this series finale share almost nothing besides principal characters. There aren’t any callbacks, or direct references to the beginning. The closest they get is giving Finch and Reese one-on-one scenes. Instead they opt for taking the series to some of its greatest heights and leaving everything else behind. It defies its original intentions and decides to be more.
Person of Interest became one of the most intelligent procedurals on television by embracing the greater ramifications of its premise. It thought through those ramifications with great intelligence and brought all of its principal characters to the endings they deserved. Because of all this, Person of Interest stuck the landing.
PS, hey my last post was about Person of Interest! Oh… I have not been posting here in a while.