The early episodes of season 4 have been about accustoming us to the new reality of playing the Numbers game in a world ruled by Samaritan, but this is the point at which our beleaguered cast are drawn back into the higher but more basic conundrum of having to unpick the lock that Samaritan has upon our lives. From every angle, this was a storming episode, tight, taut, thoughtful and full of more developments than the average show could handle in less than three episodes. And fully coherent too.
Funny to go back and see that all this develops from a PoI-style comedy opening. ‘Riley’ and Fusco chase a crook up six flights of stairs to a rooftop where he leaps onto the parapet and threatens to jump. ‘Riley’ talks him into an attempt to grab a gun and shoot him, which leads to the traditional busted kneecap: ‘Hey, I saved his life’ is the detective’s plaint.
Less foreseeable is the two-part aftermath, a mountain of paperwork which keeps him off the job for the next Number, and a mandatory referral to Internal Affairs for counselling and surveillance over his propensity for shooting people.
So Reese is mainly peripheral to the Number, wizard pollster Simon Lee (Jason Ritter), spectacularly successful with ten winning campaigns already, an unbroken record and on the case of New York Governor, James Murray, all his figures pointing to a 52-48 majority ensuring re-election.
The race is won by challenger Michelle Perez (Caris Vucjec). By 52-48.
Simon can’t believe it. The numbers were right, they were locked down, he couldn’t have been wrong. Some of it is ego, but some of it is being right. Simon was correct: they couldn’t lose, but they did. Ergo, the Election was rigged. And it was. Simon’s big problem, which becomes a massive problem for the three people directly involved with trying to keep him alive, is the identity of the rigger. Which is Samaritan.
Samaritan has a plan for humanity’s appropriate governance. It’s not for Michelle Perez, who dies of a ‘medical complication’ in the middle of her victory spech, but for her successor, running mate Nick Dawson (Kevin Kilner), an eager-to-please, lacking-in-principle junior whose gubernatorial reign will benefit from advice from Liaison officer John Greer. Dawson’s one of 58 across the United States. Careful, thoughtful, controlled leadership. Power. Absolute Power. No need to remind us what that leads to.
And we’re given evidence of that in the form of flashbacks, of a kind we’ve not enjoyed for some time. These are all to between October and December 2001: an uncrippled Harold Finch is developing the early versions of the Machine, alongside Nathan Ingram (ah, Brett Cullen one more time). But these early iterations of the Machine are dangerous and uncontrollable except by killing. They write their own code, they try to escape, they are ruthless, they try to kill Harold over and over and over again. We can see the very good reason Finch has to fear Artificial Intelligence, and not merely Samaritan.
These flashbacks tie us to the extremely important middle of the episode. Root turns up in the Batcave, stripping out of one persona and becoming another. Reese, Finch, Shaw, they all have one life but the Machine has designed obsolescence into Miss Groves’ cover. Every 48 hours she changes, name, identity, occupation, chameleon-like, for purposes of which she knows nothing, but which she sustains from her absolute faith in the Machine.
Harold takes a step into the dark, welcoming her as an ally, as a comrade, but most of all as a friend. She has become a part of the team, in his eyes, and he is as concerned for her welfare as he is for Reese, Shaw and Fusco. And he’s acute enough to know that her contact with the Machine, the voice in her artificial ear is now non-existant, a severed line disguised by static and indirection, to save two lives: Root’s, and the Machine’s.
This is a war that can’t be won but mustn’t be lost. Root is coldly aware that there will be casualties, and that those casualties will encompass their little group. The Machine has changed her, but she remembers her old life: after that, a good death will be a privilege. Things can happen at any time – Root will in fact be wounded in a gloriously funny but brief shootout between her and Martine Rousseau, two hot women directed by two AI’s, firing two guns through floors and ceilings to keep each other busy – and if anything happens to her, Root want something said to Shaw. That teasing, flirtatious approach Root takes to Sameen is built upon something more, a subtext that a high proportion of the PoI audience started obsessing over, to the disgust of the neanderthal element that didn’t want girls playing in their boy’s game to begin with.
Elsewhere, Detective ‘Riley’ sits down with his counsellor, Dr Iris Campbell (Wrenn Schmidt). The Doctor’s too good looking to be taken seriously (ah, that red hair!) but the woman knows her stuff. Reese is under the handicap of having to lie about everything, but Iris is well aware of how ‘Riley’ is handling things, manipulating and concealing, and she has a grip like a steel trap. She even gets our split man to open up to something real, that he doesn’t like shooting people (you could have fooled us), in fact he hates it. It’s extremely odd from the John Reese we’ve loved these 72 episodes we’ve already watched, but Jim Caviezel sells it. He’s good at it, but most importantly, he gives his philosophy, that there are too many bad people in the world and not enough good ones, and if he doesn’t save these, who else will?
In the end, Finch saves Simon, but to do so he has to break him. Simon’s numbers change, showing his analysis to be wrong rather than there be any rigging. He’s destroyed either way but this way he gets to keep on breathing, and whilst in the PoI universe, that is seen as the greatest good, at least one member of the audience wondered if allowing his death might not have been the kinder end.
The episode ended on twin tracks. Samaritan wants to find the Machine. And Harold Finch confronts a camera and tells his creation that it’s time for them to talk. There are now thirty episodes left.