“The lesson is: anyone who looks on the world as a game of chess deserves to lose.”
Person of Interest has always dealt with the intersection between humans and machines, with the meaning of humanity in the context of a technologically advanced world. In “If-Then-Else”, easily one of the show’s most thrilling, heartbreaking, and entertaining episodes, that issue is at the very forefront. It plays a role whether we’re seeing Finch and the Machine playing chess, Shaw trying to take care of the bomb vest situation, or the Machine calculating success rates, and it’s an absolutely fascinating question handled with aplomb. That’s Person of Interest for you, folks. It’s one of the best shows on television.
Over the course of the season, we’ve seen the society these characters live in referred to as a “game”, as something that we all play, as something that ends up in a group of winners and a group of losers. Most notably, we’ve heard it from characters like Dominic, and it’s a fairly cynical worldview that assumes that many people are simply pawns, that something like Samaritan will control and restrict what we do. “If-Then-Else”, though, counters that point with a lovely piece of writing delivered by none other than Harold Finch; he’s the guy who was afraid of what The Machine could eventually do, but he’s also the guy who imbued The Machine with a resolute faith in humanity. “I don’t like chess because it was a game that was born during a brutal age when life counted for little and everyone believed some people were worth more than others,” he says. “Chess is just a game; real people aren’t pieces. And you can’t assign more value to some of them than to others. Not to me. Not to anyone. People are not a thing you can sacrifice.” It’s human, it’s genuine, it’s moving, and it’s marvelous.
It’s also pertinent in an episode that deals with sacrifice itself. With the subway scene, for example, Gary assumes that blowing up the bomb vest will serve a higher purpose, will allow him to rage against the injustices leveled upon the lower class. However, in the first two scenarios, he ends up with a bullet between his eyes. In the latter scenarios, he decides not to do anything, and he does so because he simply listens to those around him. “Life is crap,” Shaw tells him. “Welcome to the human race. The good thing is: you’re not alone.” Gary “sacrificing” himself won’t do any good because he’s trying to topple the institution that surrounds him, the “game” he presumes to be present; if he truly wants to die, then he should “die for something [he loves]”. He should realize that he’s not alone, that other people have difficulties and families and fears of their own. Most importantly, he should realize that he’s human, that people can’t be sacrificed, that he’s not just a pawn in a larger game.
In addition, him deciding to refrain from detonating the vest helps Shaw obtain the necessary code for the team (Shaw also embraces humanity in those latter scenarios). As we know, the team represents the tight-knit groups that can form between different people, the emotional connections that we can share with others, and by listening to humanity, Gary furthers that idea. It’s a really lovely connection of thematic ideas and subplots here, and it’s beautiful watching it unfold.
And of course, this is the Machine-centric episode we were all hoping for. Aside from the rich themes, it’s also incredibly intriguing to see through the lens of something that’s always been a major part of the show, but has never truly felt like a fleshed-out character. Here, the simulations themselves provide a unique insight into The Machine’s inner workings, and even though we know that each scenario is not necessarily real, it hurts to see each of these characters “die”. What’s wonderful about this, though, is that we’re seeing The Machine as a character, as something influenced directly by Harold’s view on humanity, and as a result, we see the humanity present in The Machine. We also get to see some amazing action scenes and nerve-racking tension, and as I’ve written before, this is better than many action films I’ve seen.
At the end, though, we return to the idea of sacrifice. Reese and Fusco reference the Alamo several times throughout, and that’s apt because the Alamo is considered a place where people made the ultimate sacrifice. Here, the ultimate sacrifice arrives in the form of Sameen Shaw, who saw humanity in the face of a bomb vest earlier. What distinguishes this sacrifice from the sacrifice of a pawn is the fact that Shaw does this to save others. She is not being pushed around by a more powerful force; she is looking at the people around her, seeing their humanity, and deciding to do what she feels is right. As the elevator doors close, we see the face of a woman who saved her friends, not the face of a pawn. Try to beat that, Samaritan.
-The “simplifying” scene is one of the funniest scenes I have ever seen…in any show. Here are some of the lines: “Self deprecating inquiry into the amount of time necessary to infiltrate system.” “Mildly agitated declaration of mission completion.”
And of course, the Root/Shaw exchange:
“Overly affectionate greeting.” “Greeting.” “Transparent rationale for conversation.” “Annoyed attempt to deflect subtext.” “Overt come on.” “Mildly embarrassed offensiveness bordering on hostility.” “Playfully witty sign off.”
-No Bear. 😦
-Finally, a Shaw-Root kiss! But then…
-Also, a Fusco-Root kiss.
-Kudos to Amy Acker in that final scene. Heartbreaking.
-I wish they would’ve just, I don’t know….shot the button or something. Or threw something at it.
-We’re only a few days into 2015, but I can already tell that this episode is going to be way up there on my year end list.
-The Glitch Mob’s “Fortune Days” is the music you hear in the background often. It’s an amazing choice by the creative team.
– “Sorry, I’m busy making death threats to Samaritan operatives.”
– “Skip the verbal foreplay, Root.”
– “I’m a sociopath; I don’t have feelings.” “And I’m a reformed killer for hire. We’re perfect for each other!”
– “Why did you just do that?” “Why not? We’re in a simulation.”
– “You’re hot. You’re good with a gun.”
-Any people who know art well? I know that’s a Degas painting–“Dancer Adjusting Her Slipper”–that Finch keeps noticing, but what does the painting represent? I may have missed the meaning.
-Shaw is not officially dead yet. There’s still hope! “If you make a mistake, there are an infinite amount of ways to fix it.” Fingers crossed this is the case…
-I’m so excited for next week’s final trilogy installment. I’m also looking forward to the rest of the season. It’s going to be great; I can feel it.
Photo credit: CBS, Person of Interest