Michael Emerson (CBS)

“Nautilus” starts off slowly, but like any good puzzle, it finishes satisfactorily once all of the pieces have been put into their proper places. This week’s number corresponds with a young, gifted collegiate named Claire who excels at math and logic. A former chess champion, she’s leveled up to hacking into organizations and participating in a mysterious puzzle-solving competition that involves complex code breaking. Like many network procedural case-of-the-week episodes, this story is ripped from the headlines. The plot is based on an actual set of puzzles produced and made public by an unknown organization dubbed Cicada 3301. While the realistic nature of this case is somewhat compelling, it takes a while for the episode’s execution to shine. Unlike Navid Negahban in last week’s episode, the actress who plays Claire doesn’t have the chops to pull the part off, maintaining the same angry expression throughout. Cases of the week center on new characters, as opposed to fan favorites; therefore, it’s necessary for these parts to be written and performed well, despite the difficulty of integrating new characters into established shows. “Nautilus” takes a while to get going because it involves a new, flat character—as well as the team—solving puzzles that the audience itself doesn’t have the time or information to try solving themselves. Mysteries are so popular partly because they engage the audience, demanding their participation.

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Eventually, though, the episode is revealed to be a puzzle itself and it’s the audience who’s been played. As with Cicada 3301, the series of puzzles is a recruitment tool for finding capable, obedient henchmen—or henchwomen, rather. This time, however, the recruiter isn’t just some all-powerful mysterious entity; it’s the all-powerful mysterious entity, Samaritan. Person Of Interest draws viewers in with its procedural elements until they feel comfortable then brings on the serialization, exposing a much bigger conspiracy at work. Considering that this is how the show established itself in the first place, the method is an appropriate one.

Despite the reveal of Samaritan’s involvement in the Nautilus competition, this remains a human story focused on Claire’s journey. At first it isn’t clear why she’s threatening potential competitors with a gun during what’s supposed to be a game. The importance of the competition becomes clear during her encounter with Finch, however. A past suicide attempt indicates the extent to which Claire felt like her life had lost all meaning when her parents were killed in a car accident. She doesn’t know who’s responsible for the Nautilus game, or the nature of the prize, but she needs to win because she’s good at code breaking and needs a purpose. The actress and the tired choice of using dead parents as a catalyst didn’t exactly work for me, but Claire’s monologue did. “Nautilus” succeeds because of the elegant way in which the episode’s themes tie into last week’s story, and the show as a whole.

In the end, the team loses Claire to the opposing side. Whether or not Claire ever reappears as one of Samaritan’s minions, this is still an important episode. It’s been made apparent that Samaritan is recruiting human forces, and the enemy now has a human face. Samaritan eradicates Silver Pull, the organization exacting revenge on Claire because she hacked its system, indicating that it’s out to defeat rivals in the national security business. The co-creators of Person Of Interest have stated that they predict artificial intelligence will be developed in the same way that most products and services have been created in a capitalist society: rival companies’ artificial intelligence efforts will improve due to competition, hence the Cold War being forged between The Machine and Samaritan. Considering that companies like Google and Facebook are already using artificial intelligence to gather and analyze data, this scenario is based on real world examples. More and more is being revealed about Samaritan and the Machine, but they remain intimidating because they are both invisible and everywhere at once.

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Person Of Interest is a human story interested in character development and shades of gray when it comes to ethics, so the opposing side is given both a face and a motivation. “Nautilus” gives insight into what makes the opposing side tick. Claire chooses Samaritan in the end, but she isn’t that different from the members of Team Machine. Like the principle characters, she’s a lost person searching for purpose. Unfortunately for her, the wrong solution presented itself when she was at her most vulnerable. People think that they choose their own paths, and whether to do right or wrong, but chance remains a factor in everyone’s fate. Timing may not be everything, but it’s certainly a thing. In this episode, Shaw equates criminals with police officers, explaining that they’re both ordinary people. On Person Of Interest, a number can point to a perp or a victim. With Claire’s abilities, she could have easily become a member of Team Machine given the right scenario, but she was searching for an answer and Samaritan replied first.

Still, Root reminds Finch that, unlike the machines—at least for now—humans have free will. Based on her suicide attempt, Reese predicted that the Machine may have given them Claire’s number because she’s a danger to herself; her alignment with Samaritan supports this assertion. Finch respects that Claire needs to join or reject his team of her own volition. Finch saw something in Claire, a kindred spirit, which makes her choice to join Samaritan all the more painful to watch. She had become more than a number to him, but her humanity enabled her to forge her own path.

Despite this refreshingly dark ending, “Nautilus” ends on a high note. Our heroes lost the battle but the war has only just begun. This experience inspires Finch to recommit himself to the mission and, more importantly, set up a swanky new lair. Finch is going to keep fighting because that’s his purpose. He initially chose his mission because he needed purpose because he felt responsible for the Machine. But now Samaritan exists, and it must be stopped. Today, people concerned about future applications of artificial intelligence are working to enact policy that could effectively curb its potential influence. Likewise, Finch wants to be on the front line—even if that front line is underground—fighting on behalf of the public, despite the public’s ignorance. For him, that’s the only choice. Finch finds meaning in the fight and thankfully, Person of Interest is just as dedicated to the pursuit of meaning.

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Stray observations:

• The look Reese gives Fusco after being bossed around is priceless.
• Speaking of Fusco, he even gets in on the code breaking action. Is there anyone on this show who couldn’t have won the Nautilus competition?
• Speaking of Reese being awesome, Sarah Shahi is having way too much fun mimicking Jim Caviezel’s Batman voice and quip delivery. Also, Finch has a woman bodyguard and it’s awesome.
• Did I hear that correctly? The evil organization seeking revenge on Claire after being hacked is called Silver Pull? What kind of evil organization name is that? Back to the drawing board, evil people.
• Having watched Beauty and the Beast and Buffy the Vampire Slayer too often, I’m going to miss the library set. But I also love trains thanks to Agatha Christie and New York City thanks to all of the media ever, so there being a subway car works for me.