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.