“How much wrong are we willing to do in the name of right?” Harold Finch asks of himself, as much as Root, in the seventh episode of Season 4 of Person of Interest. It is a poignant question after he and Root have scuttled a program to get tablets into the hands of all the children in New York. Although they were working against the larger purposes of the villain AI Samaritan, whose “purposes are amoral at best” (in Harold’s words), who could use those tablets to monitor (through the camera) and influence (through texts and emails) all those children, the person spearheading the program was trying to improve the opportunities for underprivileged children–an action Harold calls an “absolute good.”
This conversation, along with this season, and the show as a whole, effectively draws out the conflict of trying to hold onto “right and wrong” in the midst of a world where our decisions can have both beneficial and destructive consequences. Show-runners Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman have done an excellent job framing a series that keeps us thinking about where our technology is inevitably heading.
We see in this conversation Harold himself is divided; he says he does not know who he and his team are becoming in their new roles as the “Resistance” in a world dominated and surveilled by Samaritan, the AI program John Greer (played by Jonathan Nolan’s uncle John) and Decima Technologies released last May at the end of Season 3. Last year the struggle was to keep Decima from bringing this rival AI online, and the Machine and Harold’s team tried their best, but ultimately failed, leaving them to go into hiding, assuming new identities.
Harold has been dividing his time as a college professor; John Reese conveniently has become a police officer alongside Lionel Fusco (ironically taking Detective Joss Carter’s place); and Sameen Shaw has moved from the makeup counter to running with jewel thieves. The most fluid of all has been Root, who adopts at least one new identity in each episode. In the transition Harold had to trade hideouts, from one abandoned space to another, moving from a closed library to an overlooked subway terminal. The familiar pieces are here: the Machine still sends them numbers; they still do not know if the person of interest is the victim or the problem; and they continue to struggle with a secret war only a handful of people even recognize.
However, now that Samaritan controls most of the cameras and computers in New York City, Harold’s team has an even more difficult time hiding–as they have in previous seasons from the city police, FBI, CIA, Vigilance, and others. The season opened with a note of despair, that the villains had run, that the Machine and those who defended “her” (as Root identifies the AI) had to go into hiding. Gradually over the episodes, the team has rebuilt itself–John had to recruit Harold in the first couple episodes to pull him out of his retreat–and started to wage a war or resistance against the Decima-Samaritan regime.
This has led Harold into morally uncomfortable territory. In “Wingman” (4.3) Root, and ultimately the Machine, push Harold into dealing with Latvian mobsters to get the guns and money needed for their work–“to put ill-gotten gains to good use” (in Root’s words to Harold). Harold has had to turn to Elias for help to save children on the run. And he has played with the romantic feelings of a woman whose work will ultimately benefit Decima.
Whom are they becoming? Harold’s questioning is central for anyone who has had complex life circumstances challenge one’s moral definitions. What is right and what is wrong? Harold saw Jerrod Wilkins’ attempt to get tablets into the hands of children as an “absolute good,” but he found himself destroying Wilkins’ project and dream. Do the ends justify the means? If he and Root had not sabotaged the production of those tablets, Samaritan and Decima would have been able to use them to exert even more control over the ignorant public. But scuttling the project perpetuates the ongoing divide between children who have the money to buy tablets and those who do not.
Root seems happy to ride the wave wherever it goes. John struggles some, but ultimately finds he is going to do “what he is good at doing” (which is shooting people), and Sameen apparently has no problems with bending the rules. Ultimately, I think the show revolves around Harold’s struggle and questioning–just as he worked diligently to find the right recipe for his AI (“the Machine”), he now schemes to undermine Samaritan. How far will he and his team have to go? The drama is infectious, and I look forward to seeing where Jonathan Nolan and company will take the story.