The Machine: “If you can hear this, you’re alone. The only thing left of me is the sound of my voice. I don’t know if any of us made it. So let me tell you who we were. And how we fought back.”
The ending to “.exe” left a major question up in the air for Person Of Interest’s series finale. Specifically, just how much would everything go to shit with the Ice-9 virus plaguing Samaritan (and the rest of the world’s technology as a result)? Of course, Person Of Interest couldn’t just make the answer an easy one; it had to make sure everyone (including the audience) learned a lesson and got in touch with their emotions and became better versions of themselves. It had to go ahead and be Person Of Interest one last time, complete with a little narrative-bending structure, just for old time’s sake.
As expected, the Ice-9 virus does cause mass chaos and panic on a global scale. Looting, economic turmoil, confusion—all the symptoms are there. But funnily enough, as much as “return 0” says the world has collapsed (or reached near collapse) in such a short amount of time, what we see around Team Machine definitely ain’t The Purge. In a sense, it could be simple television nitpicking, as the difficulty of creating the type of hysteria one assumes would spark World War III is increased by an already high-concept situation. But in terms of Person Of Interest, it reads more like a deliberate decision: Ironically, on a show where the small, “irrelevant” numbers can lead to what feel like the biggest possible catastrophes, it’s the big catastrophe that makes the rest of the world feel small outside of the actual warfare between Team Machine and Team Samaritan.
And once the threat actually is over, it feels even truer to life as explained by Person Of Interest: The world continues to spin and go on as though nothing huge happened. Even after the chaos, the world seemingly picks itself back up, and people will never know just how bad things truly could have been in either direction. Even with destruction that’s caused and could have been caused, no one will ever know just how much Team Machine saved the world. No one but Team Machine, that is.
But before the threat is over, it’s made greater by the fact that there is a back-up of Samaritan (like any good all-knowing, all-encompassing artificial intelligence would have), and that back-up is nigh unstoppable. So unstoppable that it would be unbelievable if not for literally every other thing that Samaritan and the Machine have done up to this point in the series. While “return 0” could have easily just been the aftermath of things working 100% for Finch and company with the Ice-9 virus, that would have been too easy. “Too easy” is not Person Of Interest’s thing, so of course the Machine has to face-off with Samaritan for good this time.
The Machine: “You didn’t give me the capacity for despair, Harry. I had to make it for myself.”
The Machine: “I was built to predict people. But to predict them, you have to truly understand them. So, I began breaking their lives down into moments. Trying to find the connections, the things that explained why they did what they did…And what I found was, that the moment that often mattered the most, the moment when you truly found out who they were, was often their last one.”
Samaritan, on the other hand, never has that—neither a sense of desperation nor an understanding of people as individuals. And that is why it would never be the world savior that Greer believed it to be in his twisted old mind. All Samaritan has is the knowledge/belief that humans are inherently agents of chaos. It says as much to Finch when it’s trying to stall him, and it’s what Greer would constantly preach… which is why Samaritan has to “save” humanity from itself. As for those last moments in people’s lives that the Machine talks about, Samaritan would have already made up its mind about a person long before those moments could even become something resembling “relevant” to it. And they still never would. And keep in mind that Samaritan, the supposed savior figure that will make the world a better place, is perfectly content with hopping the next satellite out of here to avoid the virus and return once the world has figured its own way out of the mess. Samaritan’s supposed perfection is what makes it imperfect, while the Machine’s supposed imperfection is what helps it take down Samaritan once and for all. Humanity—which the Machine represents as much as it possibly can—triumphs over technology. Good triumphs over evil. It’s a good look.
Finch: “You ready?”
Fusco: “For what?”
Finch: “To end this.”
As the episode begins with and constantly returns to the “now” moments, it’s perfectly acceptable to believe that these truly are Finch’s last living moments and that he and the Machine will die together. It’s poetic in that Person Of Interest way, and the audience can make their peace with it in the same way that Finch already has.
On the other hand, screw that. Finch deserves a happy ending, and luckily, he gets it. That’s not to say he deserves a happy ending more than the other characters or that they don’t deserve happy endings at all, but… With Reese and Root, all logic based on this show’s entire existence dictates that neither were ever going to ride off into the sunset. But they still get their versions of happy endings, as bleak as they may be. Reese goes out in the blaze of glory, a hero, through and through. And with a purpose, which is all he really wanted and needed from the very beginning. Root gets to live on through the Machine, which could only be considered the highest of honors for her. Plus, this entire finale? The Machine’s personification in these last few episodes? You don’t get that without Root’s death, and the show would have suffered for that.
“Sure. Everyone dies alone. But if you mean something to someone, if you help someone, or love someone. If even a single person remembers you. Then maybe, you never really die at all.”
As for Shaw? That woman has been through hell and back, and while it wouldn’t have been surprising if she had gone out like Reese, what would it have done or proven here? Shaw has always been a mirror of sorts to Reese, and while his work may be done, the end of “return 0” shows that her work is just getting started. Everyone who made her the hero she is now has died (or disappeared). She fought Samaritan’s brainwashing. She was given Root’s revolving door of identities. She got her dog. She’s got the Machine back. She gets to honor her friends’ memories and pick on Fusco. Her number’s not up yet.
And neither is Finch’s, but the reason he gets to have the “typical” happy ending is obvious. (Not just because Shaw would dry heave at the thought of the same type of ending.) Finch has been the truest heart of the entire series, and literally everything he has done has been for the greater good, often to his detriment. Stopping Samaritan and taking the missile still would have been a win for him, but without that option? What’s left for him? Reese would still want him to live. The Machine would still want him to live. And for him to truly live, the answer to that is to be with the woman he loves, Grace. He’s earned it, in a world where doing good isn’t about “earning” things in response. You can watch the whole series, you can watch the whole season, you can just watch this whole episode—Harold Finch has done more than enough without asking for anything in return. He deserves his happy ending, peaceful as he’ll ever be.
Plus, while Finch obviously got some time to fully process the Machine’s channeling of Root in “Synecdoche,” Shaw doesn’t have that luxury, as the audience can clearly see in this episode. When Shaw finally visits Root’s grave and hears the Machine’s voice for the first time, bemused look on her face—Sarah Shahi legitimately plays it like Shaw just heard the voice of God, only Shaw wouldn’t buy that God is speaking to her until possibly that very moment. Then at headquarters:
Shaw: “The Machine asked me to give you a copy of her core code.”
Reese: “To do what?”
Shaw: “She hasn’t told me yet.”
In the moment, it’s actually pretty amusing. Shaw’s matter-of-fact response comes across like an “if I knew, I’d have told you” or a “why would I question the Machine,” like Reese just asked her the most ridiculous question possible, and Fusco is just more confused than ever. But her slip up later in the episode—“Is this the guy who killed you? Killed her, I mean.”—explains it all. She accepts the Machine as Root, which is why she’s fine with the Machine not telling her things “yet.” So while Finch was able to accept that the Machine chose Root’s voice and personality because of their connection, Shaw has a very hard time separating the two. And in all honesty, while the series obviously goes with a triumphant end for Shaw (and what’s left/can be left of Team Machine), chances are she’s always going to have a hard time separating the two. In true Person Of Interest fashion, even that win is a bit tainted.
Then there’s Jeff Blackwell, who as far as happy endings go, really doesn’t deserve one. And it’s his own damn fault. Honestly, up until Root’s death—and even still somewhat then—everything about his character screamed the typical redemption story where he realizes just how badly he messed up by getting involved with Samaritan. The fact that it actually doesn’t happen feels like a waste in some ways, but at the same time, as I mentioned last week, “choice” is so important in the grand scheme of things in Person Of Interest. While it may be expected for him to eventually make the right choice simply because of television conventions, that’s not how things always go down. Even our heroes don’t always make the right choices, so why should characters who haven’t been as far down the rabbit hole? The entire point is that they make a choice, and they have to live (or die) with the consequences of that; Jeff’s patronizing attempt to reason with Shaw about how her friends wouldn’t want her to make the choice of killing him shows his fundamental misunderstanding of that. Because it’s not always about making the right choice or the good choice: It’s simply about making any choice and accepting the consequences of that. The difference between Shaw and Jeff at the end of the day is that Jeff is still content with not owning up to his choices (“It was a job. Nothing personal.”), while Shaw has long moved past that because of Team Machine. Doesn’t mean she won’t kill him, it just means she knows she has to live with that.
“return 0” is a perfect series finale. That’s sort of a difficult thing to say, because a “perfect series finale” is a difficult thing to create. But it’s true. Even more so, “return 0” is a very well-made episode of television. And as basic of a compliment as that sounds, that type of thing is something that’s very rarely pointed out. It’s all just well-directed, beautifully-acted, and best of all, an honestly-written episode of television and Person Of Interest. Nothing feels forced or out of place, and if it does, there’s a reason for that. Every single moment of the “now” scenes in the episode are just so perfectly blocked and framed—to the point where one of the most emotionally-satisfying moments of the episode and entire series is just the visual of Reese seeing Finch leave his roof to go on and live.
The same goes for the Machine’s own moments, trying to make sense of the world and humanity.
The Machine: “I know I made some mistakes. Many mistakes. But we helped some people. Didn’t we?”
Finch: “Yes. Yes we did.”
It doesn’t really need to be said, but Amy Acker is—and has been, for years—one of the most versatile actresses working on television. Here, she’s not just playing Root again; she’s playing a machine (the Machine) as Root. She’s playing her as Finch’s hallucinations and the show’s interpretation of the Machine. She’s Root but she’s not quite Root, but not in the way “.exe”’s Root is Root but not quite Root. It all makes more sense when you see it, but once you do, it still is just so hard to fully comprehend. Meanwhile, Sarah Shahi spends this entire episode proving one last time why she deserves to be the lead of a television project worthy of both her skills and the audience’s time. And Kevin Chapman somehow manages to sneak Fusco in as a stealth MVP yet again.
But ultimately, when it comes to the cast, Michael Emerson and Jim Caviezel started this all and “return 0” understands that, yet doesn’t fall into the typical series finale trap of making it all about them (while casting everyone else aside). Caviezel may not be the most dynamic actor—and to be fair, the role of Reese does not require that at all—but he brings it in this episode. As a matter of fact, he even pulls off the most charming line reading that’s he’s ever done on the series here:
Reese: “Told you. Pay you back all at once. It’s the way I like it.”
And I’m not just talking about his cheesy one-liners and the smirk that sometimes comes with them—the way he delivers that line is pure swag. To a point where it wouldn’t have read as Reese-esque had he done it any other time in the series. (Seriously, rewatch that moment.) As for Michael Emerson, it’s truly hard to describe how terrific his performance is here (and again, in the series as a whole) with words. The physicality he brings to the role, in just this episode alone with a wounded Finch, is something you just have to see to truly feel. In fact, that’s one of the most disappointing things about the end of Person Of Interest—not being able to see and feel all of these particular performances on a regular basis anymore. That really proves the series finale did its job.
Oh, and one more thing, just because I’ll probably never get to say it otherwise: Fuck Samaritan.
- Even after all I said about Shaw/the Machine, I just want to make it perfectly clear: I am completely on board with a Her-type spin-off show. How can I not with lines like: “I chose you for exactly who you are. But there was something I think Root had wanted to say to you. You always thought there was something wrong with you. Because you don’t feel things the way other people do. But she always felt that was what made you beautiful. She wanted you to know, that if you were a shape, you were a straight line. An arrow.”
- Much like the reveal in “.exe” that the Machine knew the Ice-9 virus would take her down too, I’m so happy that Reese also knew Finch would try to sacrifice himself. The Finch/Machine phone call at the federal reserve was too full of buzzwords about destruction on Finch’s end for Reese to not realize what was actually happening.
- Finch: “The suspense is killing me. In addition to the gunshot wound.”
The Machine: “I don’t remember. Everyone dies alone. And then something else.”
Finch: “So perfect. You knew the secret of life and you’ve forgotten it.
- Reese: “Try not to die.”
Fusco: “Yeah, I love you too.”
- Fusco: “You know I’m a cop, right?”
Shaw: “If we were eating donuts and shooting cardboard cut-outs, you would be in charge.”
- Fusco: “Next time, I’m sitting out the cyber apocalypse. What about you? You sticking around?”
Shaw: “I just came to collect my dog.”
Fusco: “Your dog?”
Bear: “[the most adorable sound ever]”
Shaw: “I’ll see you when I see you.”
Fusco: “Not if I see you first.”
- I really wish I’d gotten the chance to regularly review the series much sooner, but I am absolutely grateful for this opportunity. Thank you to all of you Person Of Interest commenters for your words (upon words upon words) in the comments—I can’t wait to read them about this episode, because I could honestly go on forever about it. And thank you, Person Of Interest. I look forward to the near future, when people will go on about how they “just discovered” the show. Hopefully those same people will at least read these reviews. Goodnight.