Person of Interest: s04 e11 – If – Then – Else

In my life I have seen two extraordinary episodes of television that have broken all definition of the form, and done so with such confidence and conviction that the outcome has been mesmerising. These are the final episode of The Prisoner, ‘Fall out’, and episode 8 of Twin Peaks – The Return.

I have seen nothing else to set alongside these two. This latest episode of Person of Interest comes close, however. It falls short, if you want to look at it like that, only by staying within the medium. But inside the medium it reaches an extraordinary level.

The set-up is the least of it. After last week’s ‘summit conference’, Samaritan is further showing its hand by manipulating the Stock Exchange, sending it towards disaster but neutralising its failsafes by temporary upturns, just before these would kick in. Team Machine goes in with purpose-built software to prevent this: Finch, Reese, Root and Fusco, everyone but Shaw, who’s still keeping her distance since last week, saving Numbers.

But it’s a McGuffin. It’s a trap, to get the ‘acolytes of the Machine’ into one place and eliminate them. Ordered by Greer, executed by Rousseau. The four are herded into a break-out room, hide behind counters as bullets blast through the door, the coffee pot shatters, a pear is blasted to shreds. Help needed. Help slow in coming. Hell of a time for Finch’s Machine to go on the fritz. It’s got a lot on its minnndddddd…

The first time round, I didn’t get what was going on. I watched in shock as the Machine evaluates options, settles on one that sends Finch and Root to the server room whilst Reese and Fusco head for the machine room to secure their escape route. It goes well. Ok, so a priceless original Degas gets shot full of holes but everyone gets to their places.

Essential to this resolution is that Shaw should get a security code for access to the server room. She’s trailing a guy on the subway, except that a desperate guy who’s lost everything creates an unwanted diversion by revealing his bomb vest. He’s been sent to the edge by the Stock Market crashing. Shaw, the sociopath, has to deal with him. No access code, Root shoots the way in, attracts a Samaritan party who enter guns blazing, Finch tries to save Root, is shot and dies. Meanwhile, Shaw prevents Garry detonating his bomb by shooting him between the eyes and is arrested. It’s an utter disaster.

And everything reverses to the break-out room, for this was a simulation, created and run by the Machine, which has already rejected over 330,000 other possibilities as unworkable. The process is reinforced by a flashback to 2003, to the chess tables in Central Park, to Finch teaching his young Machine how to play chess and expounding upon the nature of the game, its infinite possibilities, its tendency to influence people into seeing others as chess-pieces…

We resume. It’s got a lot on its minnndddddd… The new scenario is way into the 600,000s. Reese and Fusco to the server room, Finch and Root to the machinery room. Less preoccupied with killing, Reese gives Shaw advice on talking down a suicide bomber. It fails: she’s arrested. They shoot-out the lock. Samaritan’s agents appear. Reese fights, but is shot. Before he dies, he sets off a Samaritan grenade that kills everyone. In the machinery room, Finch repairs an old generator to restore power to the elevator. Shaw escapes from her handcuffs, receives a call from Root. It’s flirty, it’s uncomfortable for Shaw, who denies that she and Root would make even a workable couple. Thery’re still on the phone when Root severs the cable that controls the lockdown on the elevator, and is shot, multiple times, by Rousseau and co.

And reverse. It’s got a lot on its minnndddddd… Options are now into the 800,000s. The team sticks together. Fusco advises Shaw. She gets Garry to disarm the bomb, obtains the code. Everyone gets into the server room without alerting Samaritan’s goons. Finch connects the software, the market stabilises. Job 1 is complete. En masse in the machinery room, Finch repairs the generator, Fusco severs the cable, it’s all good to go. Except that Rousseau’s team is guarding the elevator and their firepower pins everyone down. Chance of survival: 2.07%. The Machine tells Root to go for it.

So the scenario plays out. The economy is saved. Everyone reaches the machinery room. But so does Rousseau, early. They’re pinned down. Reese is shot and wounded. Root calls Shaw for that final conversation (has she been privy all along to the Machine’s failed scenarios? Does she know? Each time, when the team sets itself to leave the break-out room, Root’s signal are the loaded words, “Let’s Roll”. She speaks them in a voice with a quaver. Until this last time, when she is firm and confident).

But Shaw is the Joker in the pack. She’s there in the basement, reinforcements crawled 80 feet along an airduct. Her fire enables the team to get into the elevator, but it still won’t rise. There is an override button. Outside. Someone has to sacrifice themselves, despite Finch’s warning to the Machine on that cold afternoon a decade earlier that unlike chess, when you play with human beings, you must not sacrifice.

Shaw is the sacrifice. Root has to be held back from preventing her. And yes, Shaw acknowledges the presence of… something. Something powerful. She kisses Root, powerfully. Then leaves the cage. She holds down the override button, despite being shot by Rousseau once. The second time she is shot, she spins around and hits the floor. The lift is rising. Rousseau is approaching. She points her gun at Shaw’s head. As the lift doors close and cut-off the scene, we hear the thunderous rumble of a gunshot. No viable alternatives.

If – Then – Else.

This is an astonishing episode. The plot curls up into itself, like the fractal dimensions of string theory. It plays and replays, details constantly changing. It ends with the team one down, four survivors only. In the midst of this deadly serious game of trying to find a loophole in reality, there’s time for a little playfulness, as the Machine ‘simplifies’ part of the final secnario by reducing dialogue to its component elements, and this interlude is brief enough for us to laugh without disturbing our concern.

I don’t doubt that the majority of this episode was planned in advance, but the ending was an unforeseen factor. Remember that I mentioned, two weeks ago, that Sameen Shaw was wearing a bulky black coat in all her scenes? This was to conceal that Sarah Shahi was pregnant, and with twins. She was going to have to leave the series. So the past four weeks of episodes were all part of an ongoing story, from blown cover to elimination, to remove her from the series.

If you look quickly, when Shaw is hit by the second bullet and soun around, her coat flies open and, in profile, you can see her distended belly.

This episode was originally broadcast in early January 2015, coming out of a three week long Xmas break. That rather surprised me since it would have been perfect to be the mid-season finale most shows build in now.

But then if these are the only quibbles I can make, it’s a demonstration of just how high the standard is for this episode. In comics, they say ‘Things will never be the same again’, and they always are. On PoI I can say that virtually every other week and they’re not.


12 thoughts on “Person of Interest: s04 e11 – If – Then – Else

  1. I’ve been waiting for this one.
    “If-Then-Else” [4×11]
    Written By: Denise The
    Directed By: Chris Fisher
    Originally Aired 6 January 2015

    If the worst that can be said about If-Then-Else is that it falls short of the very best that David Lynch and Patrick McGoohan….that’s just fine with me. Yes, it’s working within the limits of the medium, but it’s still pushing outward–which is what the Nolan brothers have always been best at, the lean suspense thriller Dunkirk easily outclassing (from where I’m sitting) the weighty pretensions of Interstellar.

    With most of these gimmick episodes, there’s no reason for the story to play out as it does. It simply happens because the production team wants to spice things up. Not so this time. This episode plays completely from the Machine’s POV… have the rest of the episodes of the series. It’s just that this time, the heroes are in mortal danger, and the Machine has to think its way out of it. It probably would have done the same thing back in ‘Firewall’ if it was set free. And it’s executed so cleanly too, with the superb ‘Fortune Days’ by the Glitch Mob playing in addition to the vibrant colors. I can still remember exactly what this episode looks like–a far cry from the majority of shows on CBS, which seem to use gray quite a lot. There’s also plenty of humor, wit, and action, all executed at a higher level than usual.

    There’s also those flashback scenes, which are compelling thanks in no small part to Michael Emerson, who can make a weirdo in a park talking to a security camera believable. I don’t want anyone to resurrect Person of Interest. It wouldn’t be the same without him–he’s one of a kind. The Machine’s moral philosophy is admirable (Note how saving the team is Objective #1 and stopping the crash is secondary)….but also sometimes untenable. Sometimes, you can’t save everybody. The difference is, though, whether those people choose to do so or not. And Team Machine has clearly inspired one of its own to such a sacrifice. As we discover at the end of this one, when supposed sociopath Sameen Shaw sacrifices herself to save the collapsing global economy, and the team. And just before finally being open with Root. It really, really stings. But honestly is preferable to what they had in mind, which was killing Reese here.

    To re-iterate what I said at the top, a singular experience. Despite the use of ‘alternate reality/timeline’ episodes being done well by other shows (I love Community’s ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’ for example), this one is special.

    Grade: A. A is as high as it goes, but this is certainly a cut above almost every other episode from this series or any other. You’d have to search far and wide to find something that tops it. You could only think of two!

  2. Truly an extraordinary episode, and I fully agree with you that “Fall Out” & “Episode 8” are the finest (approximate) hours of television ever produced. Since I don’t get Showtime, I was late to the party with TP – the Return because I had to wait for library discs. Friends of mine who HAD seen it on Showtime kept asking: “Have you seen episode 8 yet? Have you seen episode 8 yet?” And, of course, when I did, I was knocked out.

    I like what Joe Y wrote about S4E11 being more than just a gimmick. He has a great point.

    1. I remember watching it back in 2017 as well. Twin Peaks: The Return might very well be the best season of any show, ever, and episode 8 is the best episode of television ever. Better than The Prisoner, even. This is coming from someone like me who doesn’t love everything David Lynch has ever done.

      The Leftovers is also great, though crushingly bleak. But it is somewhat similar to Twin Peaks in many ways. Chiefly, its surrealism is purposeful.

      I was also bowled over while watching Part 8 for the first time. Masterful blend of sight and sound–one of the best works of art ever created.

  3. We’re all on the same page then about s04e11’s antecedents, which isalways good, and I agree with socrates: great point Joe. That takes me back to the final season of Quantum Leap, all those many yearsago, when they starting ‘playing with the format’, and wondering to myself then, even as I enjoyed it, where is the line drawn between spicing up the procedural and running out of story ideas. There is none of that here. Apart from anything else – or rather that should be everything else – we are watching the playing out of a moral lesson, the sharpness of the divide between the Machine and Samaritan, and the former’s refutation of Finch’s fears expressed as recently as last week. how can so much be achieved in so short a space? The answer is Genius.

    1. The final episode of Quantum Leap was utter rubbish.

      Thankfully we have Denise The to the rescue this time. “Nolan: Denise Thé, who’s been here since the very beginning, and who was made an executive producer this year and is helping us run the show, came in during Season 4 and said “I’ve got a crazy idea.” Which she sold to us as the slow-burn perfect evolution of the Machine being able to predict what we can do. And if the Machine can predict what we can do, based on emails and phone calls and so on, in a real way it has to simulate us. It has to have a little model of us inside of it. So her pitch was that we go inside that world. One of the things that was so exciting about it was that it wasn’t our idea. It came out of a family of writers who’ve been riding this thing from the beginning. It was the most kickass pitch we’d heard to that point for the show. And it quickly became one of the fans’ favorite episodes of the show. As it was for us.”–From an article in which the creators pick their favorite episodes. Thank you Denise! They also brought up how the writing staff was pretty much the same on the show from start to finish. Helps keep things consistent.

      This came out two and a half years before Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return. Not an antecedent chronologically then, but I certainly agreed with your statement that you could only think of two episodes that were better than this, because of how they completely redefined what television could be.

      1. Fascinating quote, though I’m afraid I have to disagree with you for once as i found the last Quantum Leap episode to be fascinating and one of the better series finales I’d ever seen.

  4. I really enjoy reading what the show runners have to say. They really planned it out so well. Too bad he hasn’t been able to transfer that success to Westworld. Also the fact that they know what their best episodes are very much give the impression that they know what works and what doesn’t. They’d never include Provenance as one of their favorite episodes…

    I haven’t watched it in a long time. The fact that you would defend it makes me want to rewatch quantum leap. You know what you’re talking about.

    1. I’m ambivalent about watching Quantum Leap again. I enjoyed it first time round, though when i had a chance to watch some repeats, these were from quite early on, episodes I’d previouslly missed. Some episodes stick in my mind – the one where Sam becomes Lee Harvey Oswald in particular – and I’d enjoy seeing these again, but I don’t think i’d have the patience for the purely procedural stuff, week-in, week-out. A kind of Greatest Hits package and most of the final season perhaps. But that final episode, as Sam leaps to the very instant of his birth and, by implication, out of reach of the Quantum Leap projector, and it’s final moments when Sam rectifies an old failure and goes on into infinity, played on my emotions. i would definitely love to see that again.

  5. Was just re-watching this episode today, and my only question was how does Samaritan not identify Fusco after this? The rest have secret identities, but Fusco does not.

  6. Mind blown: when Reese and co. first exit the room Samaritan has them pinned in, Reese moves sideways like a rook. Fusco moves sideways and up–like a bishop, blind to half the board. Root moves all around, like a queen. Shaw crawls through air ducts like a knight. And Finch moves awkwardly, but everyone protects him. Like a king. “Basically, the episode uses the chess imagery but firmly condemns the chess metaphor for life. Like fellow stone-cold classic The Devil’s Share, which rose above the revenge theme and then chose to finish the revenge story anyway, it has its cake and eats it too, and is all the better for it.”

    Credit to this redditor for discovering this…….wow.

      1. And I never noticed it before. Not even after about 6 viewings of this one. Crazy how much thought went into this.

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