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Harold and the Ultimate Good: Ethics in Person of Interest’s Season 5

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After the action-packed premiere (picking up with last season's cliffhanger), the Person of Interest writing team take time for a more cerebral episode. Harold and company have risked their lives to carry the downsized Machine (literally trapped in a briefcase) to safety. At the end of the premiere, they had reconstructed the Machine in a make-shift way; thus, leaving Harold with the task of discerning whether its programming is intact. As this second episode unfolds, though, we discover there is a glitch, The Machine has lost touch with time and its history with Harold and team. When the artificial intelligence turns the tables on him and Root, Harold must recall how he programmed the Machine's morality in the beginning.

Person of Interest has many strengths, but the heart of the show has been in Harold's growing understanding of morality in his quest to help save the people whose numbers come up, in opposing Samaritan, and in his relationships with John, Root, and, as showcased here, the Machine. Flashbacks show Harold relating the stories of a gangster and a family man the gangster tortured and killed; here are the original definitions of "victim" and "perpetrator" that have become central to the show's concept. Harold says that there are certain unforgivable acts--torture, sexual assault, and murder--and these concepts have become part of the Machine's programming. However, after the trauma of reconstruction, it has lost its history with Harold, Root, John, and Lionel, and now it is turning those definitions on the team, having uncovered footage of them killing, now identifying them as threats.

When he uncovers that the Machine has sent an assassin after John and threatens to hurt Root, Harold finally confronts the Machine, saying that his original definitions were too easy, too black and white, when the world is full of grey. Harold realizes he has had to make compromises along the way; he tell the Machine human beings are not perfect. Toward the end, when he uncovers the problem and pulls out the old case files to help re-establish context for the Machine, he argues that despite his mistakes he has tried to do his best. And then he drives home to the Machine that saving lives, as they have done with many of "the numbers," is the pure, ultimate good. So as the Machine assumes the role of judge (Harold references Anubis' weighing of human hearts in the Egyptian afterlife), it must understand the team is not "threat," but "ally."

It is in these moments that we viewers must ultimately judge this show. I am deeply irritated how CBS has handled the broadcast of this season (and labeled it the final one), but I am glad the writers have had the chance to remind us again of the power of this storyline. If we were to program such a policing program that had access to such information about us and our society, what definitions would we use, and where would we end up? Would we ultimately be threats or allies in the advancement of our world?

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