Tuesday, January 6, 2015

REVIEW: 'Person of Interest' - The Machine Tries to Save the Entire Team by Running Multiple Simulations in 'If-Then-Else'

CBS' Person of Interest - Episode 4.11 "If-Then-Else"

Samaritan launches a cyber-attack on the stock exchange, leaving the team with no choice but to embark on a possible suicide mission in a desperate attempt to stop a global economic catastrophe.

Person of Interest has really gained my intense admiration over the course of the last season and a half. It is willing to be about something and willing to be inventive. It has big ideas on its mind. Much like the chess analogy Harold uses to teach the Machine on decision making, a TV show has to make decisions in every single episode it produces. That direction could knock it off course or it could strengthen the show. What's really impressive with Person of Interest is the fact that they take these big risks and they almost always seem to pay off.

"If-Then-Else" is very imaginative, innovative and resourceful. It truly showcases the mechanics of the Machine. The arc of this season has been about these two warring intelligent systems. The war has just become hot. So it's important to identify with the Machine as an important character of the show. It has emotional desires and needs just like every human character we see on a weekly basis. Now, we get an intimate look at how quickly the Machine can process information. It literally only has seconds in order to determine the best option for the team to take to save the U.S. economy, evade Samaritan's operatives and escape without being killed.

It's a nifty idea to center an episode around. It has pressing stakes but it also allows the show to take on a slightly more fantastical look at itself. For the majority of the running time, it is just simulations that the Machine is running. In the beginning, it takes a slightly longer time to look at the options. And yet, those all end with the entire team being killed. Then, humor got added into the later versions because the Machine needed to compress down on time. It's very funny seeing how the Machine sees the characters. The Machine has their verbal and physical mannerisms down. Plus, it allowed Fusco to kiss Root for no real reason except it being awesome.

And yet, the odds of the entire team surviving this experience were very grim. When the time finally came for the Machine to pick an option, the odds of survival were just at 2%. Those are not great odds. Yes, it's fun to show the characters dying on screen but not having it be real. It's heightened drama but it works because of the simulation aspect of the hour. However, death is a big focus of this episode. So, it was obviously building towards one that was actually going to occur - with the unlucky victim ultimately being Shaw.

Shaw's death was unexpected for a number of reasons. First of all, she wasn't even a part of the core team and their mission to get the program to the computers to fix the stock market. She was off in her own subplot trying to talk down a guy with a bomb vest in the hopes of getting a code that will unlock a door for the team. Her ability to get to the rest of the team was a surprise. We had no indication of how close she was or how quickly she could get to the team. And yet, she does pop up just in the nick of time. She increases their odds of survival to over 20%. The odds were starting to turn into their favor.

But Shaw had to sacrifice herself to Martine in order for the rest of the team to live. That is just such a powerful moment. She knows it's what she has to do. She gives Root the thing that she wants most of all - a kiss. Shaw and Root's banner has moved from subtext to text gradually - to the point where even the Machine was making fun of it. Shaw allowed Root a moment of getting exactly what she wanted right before losing it all. She goes down in a way that's deserving of the character. Fighting for her life with a gun. And yet, she does get shot down by Martine. Now, we never see the fatal shot. She could very well still be alive. But based on the episode that preceded it and Martine & Samaritan's willingness to just kill, I would predict that this is the last we'll see of Shaw.

This death only further heightens the stakes of this ongoing war. Samaritan and its operatives are ruthless. They are able to corner the team easily. Harold, Root, John and Fusco are victorious in the end but at the cost of Shaw's life. That will be brutal for their morale. And yet, they have to keep fighting on in the hopes of being victorious in the war too. But Shaw's death also opens up the can of worms that the show can only produce meaningful drama and stakes at the midway point of its seasons with a major character death. It's a similar situation the show was in a little over a year ago when it killed off Carter. And now, Shaw is gone too. Should we be reading anything into the fact that both are female characters? Root is now the last woman standing. She is great but Shaw's death is definitely going to be a deep personal blow to her. However, I'm not too bothered by what this says about the show's structuring of its seasons and treatment of its characters. Shaw has been marked for death for a handful of episodes now. This is simply the show following through on that act. Yes, it's devastating. But Person of Interest can't let it's characters get too comfortable. That's what adds to the excitement of the basic premise of the show.

Some more thoughts:
  • "If-Then-Else" was written by Denise Thé and directed by Chris Fisher.
  • John is also injured during the episode-ending shootout with Martine and her fellow operatives. He's been shot before and been fine the next week. Hopefully, there will be longer lasting complications this time.
  • It's always nice to remember that Fusco really doesn't know anything about the Machine. And yet, how can he still be left in the dark after the events of this episode?
  • The chess game flashbacks were very informative of how the Machine sees the world. People are not expendable. A quality that is simply not shared by Samaritan.
  • I love that the same music started playing as the team started their journey every time in the various simulations.
  • Reaction to the Fusco-Root kiss: "Why did you just do that?" "Why not, we're in a simulation."