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Person Of Interest: “If-Then-Else”

Sarah Shahi (CBS)
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Person Of Interest is a creative show that pushes itself to the limits, trying to demonstrate the scope of what a network drama with procedural roots can really accomplish. Still, it stays true to itself and to certain expectations by honoring a comforting template that serves as a reliable foundation for its unique stories. Person Of Interest isn’t Community, experimenting with form every week, nor should it try to be when it does what it does so well. This week, however, the writers do take a risk and embrace an opportunity to experiment, producing an episode with a multiple-scenario structure. What appears to be a typical episode with a standard plot that occurs in real time reveals itself to be a series of three different hypothetical scenarios, which the Machine is cycling through in order to determine the best possible plan to get the team out of a precarious situation and prevent a stock market collapse.


Executing an episode with multiple scenarios is especially tricky; structure and order need to be maintained so that viewers realize that they are watching multiple parallel situations instead of separate plots, and so that each situation is delineated enough to prevent confusion. An episode like this requires a number of parallel scenes with enough repetition to reinforce the idea that these are comparable scenarios. Meanwhile, there have to be enough twists in each timeline to help differentiate them and maintain viewers’ interest during the repetitious sequences; it’s a difficult balance, and “If-Then-Else” strikes it elegantly. The scenes that have to be repeated in the name of coherence maintain viewers’ interest with creative execution, including slow-mo, an interesting score, vibrant color work, and humor.

Of course, the most important keys to the episode’s structure are the Machine’s main objectives for this mission. Samaritan has crashed the stock market, and like usual, the team depends on the Machine for guidance, which is delivered via Root’s earpiece. To determine how to best advise the team, the Machine runs multiple scenarios in order to evaluate the best plan for accomplishing the mission, which involves installing a fail-safe capable of protecting the servers hosting the majority of financial exchanges while inflicting the minimum amount of damage on the team members. Meanwhile, each scenario has a different impact on another mission, Shaw’s attempt to save a subway train from demolition by a would-be suicide bomber. Herein lies the genius of this episode, one where a standard mission-focused story morphs into a portrait of the Machine’s logic, then finally reveals itself to also be a moving ode to Shaw. Unlike the Machine, Person Of Interest aces every scenario when it comes to this mission.

Television series and movies have attempted the multiple-scenario structure before—Person Of Interest isn’t reinventing the wheel here—but this particular use of the form is exciting and entirely justified because it serves important story-based purposes instead of reducing the unique structure to a gimmick. The team’s success relies on the guidance of the Machine, but the audience only sees her interactions with Root from an outsider’s perspective. This season has been invested in fleshing out the character of The Machine, which is difficult to do given her nature, and watching this entity of artificial intelligence painstakingly consider hypothetical scenario after hypothetical scenario in order to guide the team in the best possible way she can gives us more insight into her, and the full scope of these missions, than ever before.

“If-Then-Else” is an episode about what it means to be a machine, but it’s also about what it means to be human. Both rely on their decision-making skills, but machines have the luxury of being able to quickly run through multiple hypothetical scenarios, crunching numbers and running cost-benefit analysis at the speed of lightening. Humans who are willing to take on the responsibility of making life and death decisions in the blink of an eye face great challenges; people’s brains may be sophisticated, but they aren’t computers. Even those who are the best at thinking on their feet can only weigh so many options in a given amount of time. At a certain point, instinct and intuition take over, and the messages they send in the heat of the moment say a lot about a person. Shaw may refer to herself as a sociopath, but her first instinct is to risk blowing her cover, and her very life, to save others when time is running out and a decision needs to be made. When the pressure’s on, she’s even able to connect with a fellow human and convince him to give himself up instead of fulfilling his personal, deadly mission. As Shaw says before sacrificing herself for her team and the world, essentially, “second chances are overrated.” Considering that every member of the team put himself or herself in harm’s way during this mission, given the outcomes of each scenario, it’s clear that Shaw isn’t alone in this way of thinking.


The Machine’s decision-making process has actually become so human-like that Harold has to remind her of the importance of objectivity. Evaluating multiple scenarios is important, but life isn’t a chess game; every piece holds equal value. For example, relevant and irrelevant numbers are equally worthy of attention. Even a suicide-bomber’s life is worth saving. The team risks their lives for the good of the world, and the Machine lets them, because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. In the end, Shaw follows through on this concept when, in the heat of the moment, she makes the conscious decision to risk her life for the good of the team and the world. She may be a pawn, just like everyone else, but she has the heart and courage of a queen. The shots of Shaw falling to the ground amidst a rain of gunfire and Root’s horrified expression are both beautiful and devastating; the sequence was so effective that I’m fairly certain that I was wearing the same expression by the end.

People are capable of superhuman feats, but even strong individuals like Root and Shaw are more vulnerable than machines, in every sense of the word. For the most part, the mission is a success, but a team member falls in the process. The omnipotent, invincible Machine fails the team, despite her best efforts, which actually makes her a little more human in the process.


Stray observations:

· I was distracted when trying to write this because the last note I wrote before going into the body of my review was hanging at the top of the page. The note: “epic kiss.”


· Apparently, the Machine makes up the team members’ dialogue when running scenarios, and their patter is fairly predictable. That sequence was hilarious. I’m beginning to suspect that television writers are actually artificial intelligence programs.

· A scene involving a man and artificial intelligence playing chess should not be that affecting. It’s not right.


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