Michael Emerson, Amy Acker, Sarah Shahi (CBS)
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Steel yourselves, because there are many reasons why this mid-season finale works as well as it does, and there’s a lot of ground to cover. To list a few, the dialogue is especially rich—concerning topics as interesting and diverse as philosophy, religion, and geopolitics—but efficient. Those talk-heavy scenes are balanced out by some fun, relatively subtle physical comedy that take place in Team Machine’s underground subway lair—a location ripe for laughs, really. As for the technical work, the direction and blocking of this episode were especially effective, communicating so much visually in scenes like the one featuring Root and the scary Samaritan-controlled child at the school. Enough with the unfocused fawning, though; let’s get to the meat of the episode.

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“The Cold War” is a great episode for many reasons, but chief among them is because it’s a master class in well-paced escalation. This is the kind of episode that aspiring television writers should break down and analyze more closely. “The Cold War” is named after a type of battle that involves escalating demonstrations of soft power. The relatively small-scale rivalry between Elias and Dominic has been abandoned for an epic fight between two superpowers. Here, Samaritan deploys a variety of non-violent intimidation and manipulation tactics that amount to a well-crafted argument as to why it deserves to win—and “win” means reign supreme over humankind in this case. As the scale of Samaritan’s efforts escalates from the intimate to the epic, its terrifying plot and capacity for destruction are slowly revealed until the tension climaxes with a stunning reveal.

At first, Samaritan is satisfied to throw its weight around in the most intimate way possible—by beating Team Machine at its own numbers game. Samaritan carries out a number’s murderous intentions, co-opting then perverting the team’s very mission. It doesn’t get much more personal than that. Samaritan then escalates its manipulative tactics by proving its ability to take over society—but in a fun, benevolent dictator kind of way! While Samaritan demonstrates that its supremacy could have many benefits, like a crime-free city, this move is really meant to manipulate and confuse. Putting criminals behind bars could win adherents, but it ultimately serves to foster fear, creating what looks like an eye before the storm.

This is still preferable to the actual storm, which occurs when a wrathful Samaritan causes chaos by making a significant amount of private online information public. The fact that such an action-heavy show takes the time to explore alternative, non-violent ways of increasing drama and tension speaks to the writers’ creativity and range. The term cyberterrorism might seem more appropriate for cheesy plots ripped from the headlines on other shows, but it’s eerily relevant right now. This is a world where everything from young women’s private photos to companies’ classified documents are stolen and released online. Samaritan chose a timely method for demonstrating its own wrath as well as people’s capacity for evil. Samaritan is powerful—but so is the Machine.

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Controlling society without resistance from the Machine requires Samaritan to argue why humankind needs to be controlled. Samaritan exploits their commonalities as artificial intelligence and the Machine’s affections for humans in order to manipulate its rival. Early in the episode, Finch argues that people can’t trust artificial intelligence because it follows humans’ orders without following human logic. Samaritan also argues that artificial intelligence is intrinsically different than humans but comes to very different conclusions. Artificial intelligence like the Machine is more powerful than humans like Finch, humankind is chaotic, ergo artificial intelligence should take control of society.

Forms of artificial intelligence may not be typical characters, but the information gleaned about both of them based on their interactions in this episode results in a character study like any other. Samaritan’s cold war tactics—and the Machine’s responses—reveal much about both entities. Ultimately, Samaritan’s attempts at manipulation prove unsuccessful, as the Machine remains loyal to humankind, citing the importance of free will. Altogether, the debates between the Machine and Samaritan allude to many classic controversies in the realms of philosophy, politics, and religion, and the episode is all the better for it.

Escalation after escalation leads to the episode’s climax, where Greer observes as Samaritan’s meddling leads to a Wall Street stock market crash. Where does the show go from here? A new status quo with the United States facing an economic catastrophe would be fascinating. This development could give Greer everything he’s ever wished for—a world without lines and boundaries thanks to all-consuming chaos. In reality, though, he would have only shifted his allegiance from a human to artificial intelligence. Based on his past experiences with his fellow humans, maybe that’s good enough.

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Stray observations:

· Root in a teddy bear costume, handcuffs, Shaw eating a sandwich, and Bear whining make for a good opening.

· The gun sequence in the church epitomizes this episode’s great use of physical humor.

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· “I will destroy you.” That kid was terrifying.

· Who needs a new Bond movie when we have those Greer flashbacks? Bravo.

· Amy Acker is the episode’s MVP, though it’s not the first time and certainly won’t be the last. She was paired with several actors—a couple of them being new—and rocked every scene.

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