The evolution of Person of Interest into one of Science Fiction’s best shows

By and ·April 21, 2017 10:37 am

When LOST ended in 2010, seemingly every television network was trying to launch its successor. They went for the big Science Fiction extravaganza, like FlashForward or The Event, but one by one they failed. However, amidst all of the big budget spectacles, an unassuming procedural show appeared. It starred one LOST alum (Michael Emerson) and a guy who had played Jesus (Jim Caviezel), and it used its sci-fi premise to tell weekly standalone stories. But it was this show, Person of Interest, that would grow out to be one of television’s most ambitious Science Fiction series.

In this article we discuss the evolution of the show. Our intent is to get you to watch it, so while we do provide broad overviews of each season, all significant spoilers have been avoided.

Season 1

Person of Interest started airing on September 22, 2011. The date is not of much significance, but the channel is. After all, CBS is known as the home of the procedural television series, and Person of Interest started out as just that. The basic premise of the show revolves around a computer system that was designed to identify terrorism before it happens. However, it also detects ordinary acts of violence that the government considers irrelevant. It spits out a number that belongs to either the victim or perpetrator of said act, and it is up to the tag team of Reese and Finch to save the day. They work in secret, and the only person on their trail is a homicide detective named Joss Carter.

In its early beginnings, Person of Interest is a basic case-of-the-week show. Finch receives a number and Reese is tasked with finding out whether this person is the victim or perpetrator in what is about to happen. Much of the excitement in the early episodes is derived from this mystery: is this random person a good or bad guy? In the end, the day is saved and Finch and Reese move on to the next case. It is basically the standard format of procedural television, with a slight hint of science fiction thrown in. It is not until later that the sci-fi elements become more important.

Because the format is so strict, what often makes or breaks these early episodes is the person of interest of that particular week. Notable guest stars include Linda Cardellini, Paige Turco, Enrico Colantoni and Amy Acker, of which the last two are especially important in taking the show to the next level. Credit goes to them for their compelling performances, and to the creators of the show for recognising what makes the show work and building from there. Colantoni’s character Elias in particular helps the show develop some much needed serialization in its first season. I once read somewhere that while not every episode of season 1 requires your concentration, make sure to pay attention when you hear the name Elias. Because something big is about to go down.

In the hands of less creative show runners it would have continued on for maybe another two seasons, before being unceremoniously cancelled. Luckily, Jonathan Nolan recognized the untapped potential at the core of the show, and slowly started developing its sci-fi elements more. Baby steps though.

Season 2

In all honesty, the beginning of Season 2 is where I once gave up on the show and I don’t think I was alone in this departure. After the repetitive nature of Season 1, I made the mistake of placing the show aside, believing that it would slide into case-of-the-week Hell and never recover. It turned out that I was right about Season 2’s limitations, but I was very wrong about choosing to give up on the show entirely, even if I didn’t learn this until later on.

One very important change this season was the inclusion of Root. Although technically introduced in Season 1, Episode 23, Firewall, it wasn’t until Season 2 that she would truly be fleshed out. Although Root would grow into a much-loved ally, she first had to go through the villain teething phase. At this point in the narrative Root was a full blown antagonist, working in opposition to Reese and Finch, and the writers did a good job of allowing Amy Acker to explore the darker side of this character.

Season 1 had Elias – who would prove a decent enough villain to last almost the entire show, including being an ally at times – but if you compare Elias to Root, even at this early stage in the show, there really is no competition. Elias was smart and cunning, but Root was complex, brutal and wonderfully sociopathic, marking her out as the show’s best villain to date.

Other than the magic of Root, Season 2 proved to be very much bogged down in the same procedural trappings of Season 1. Every episode held its own case-of-the-week, some of which proved a little short of interesting. It wouldn’t be until Season 3 that the show would begin to show promise of breaking away from this a little.

Amy Acker plays Root (Samantha Groves); a character in tune with The Machine, who begins as a villain and turns into a ally.

Season 3

Season 2 ended with two really strong showings that had Root at the center of the action. By keeping this momentum going, season 3 established right away that this was no accident. And once again there is a female guest star turned series regular who serves as the catalyst.

Sarah Shahi’s character Sameen Shaw was first introduced in season 2 in an episode that was very a-typical for Person of Interest, especially at a time where it was still firmly rooted in a procedural format. She takes center stage in an episode that features little of Reese and Finch, a daring choice that pays off immensely. Not only does the episode do a good job of expanding the show’s mythology, it shows that Shahi is clearly capable of leading the line if need be. The shift of focus is like a breath of fresh air that the show desperately needed.

It is no surprise then that Shaw quickly becomes a part of Team Machine at the start of season 3. And with great success. Her addition opens tons of avenues for new dynamics between characters. The relationship between Finch and Reese was still interesting of course, and it remained at the core of the show, but after two full seasons with each more than 20 episodes, there is the very real risk of things running stale. The addition of Shaw came at just the right time, and instead of things becoming dull the show became more exciting than ever.

Aside from the show firing on all cylinders in terms of the story and characters, season 3 is also where Person of Interest became more relevant than ever for things entirely out of their control. For two years the show had leaded with the phrase:

“You are being watched. The government has a secret system. A machine that spies on you every hour of every day.”

What seemed like a fun sci-fi premise turned out to be much closer to the truth than anyone expected, when Edward Snowden leaked clasified information about numerous global surveillance programs, many of which were run the National Security Agency. Suddenly the show became real.

Season 4

This is where the reshaping of the show truly began. While Season 3 stuck in the mind only for that single significant death and for the introduction of Samaritan, viewers would come away from Season 4 with a far more robust experience.

This season doubled down on the Science Fiction content – raising the intellectual bar to a level that would feel at home among Golden Age Science Fiction literature. It also introduced character developments that melted the hearts of fans, allowing everyone to fall in love with our rebel alliance deeper than ever before.

This dual-stimulation of heart and mind created a perfect storm, which – in my view – even Season 5 never truly managed to live up to. To address the Science Fiction refashioning first, I believe this is best summed up by one single quote:

“Imagine what it will look like when two Gods go to war.”

Spoken by Finch ten episodes into the season, this is such a short statement, but such powerful one. It immediately forces the viewer to conjure up nightmarish visions of two enormous deities battling one another over a ravaged landscape. But the battle that Finch is talking about is one that holds far more finesse; a war that the creators likened to being closer to the Cold War than to anything else.

Finch is referring to the war between Northern Lights (The Machine) and the opposing machine Samaritan; two highly advanced artificial intelligences in an intellectual feud, in which even the smartest humans are used as pawns. It’s a classic Science Fiction fan’s dream and a move that I always hoped the show would steer towards.

But heart is just as important as intellect and even classic Science Fiction lived and died by the quality of its characters. This season not only allowed our team to gel as a unit more (rather than Finch and Reese versus the world), but it also gave us one of the greatest romances (and a same-sex romance too) ever seen in television: Sameen Shaw and Root (Samantha Groves).

Since these two characters crossed paths, Root had shown a keen affection for Shaw that very clearly came from a romantic place. Although fans hoped, few ever thought that Shaw would reciprocate those affections, or that the writers would go down this route. Then Epsiode 11, titled If-Then-Else, changed everything.

In a dangerous set-up where all of our characters’ lives were at risk, Shaw returned those affections, in one of the show’s most memorable scenes. It began a beautiful and tragic romance that ran on into Season 5 and into the hearts of Person of Interest fans forever.

Season 4 also elevated the quality of guest appearances on the show. It might just be that they are actresses aligned to my tastes, but to see Adria Arjona and Katheryn Winnick appear in the season ruptured my mind. Here were two outstanding actresses that I adored from other shows, who I never thought I’d see within a show like Person of Interest, and crucially: the characters created for them were truly exceptional.

Arjona played Dani Silva – an Internal Affairs Detective for the NYPD who would appear in two episodes within Season 4 (Episode 8, Point of Origin and Episode 13, M.I.A.). Dani was headstrong, highly intelligent and very cool under fire. I would have loved to have seen her take on a role as a permanent member of Finch’s team, but even in these two episodes alone she really made her mark.

Winnick appeared in only one episode of the show (Episode 18, Skip), playing Frankie Wells; a role that related to the case-of-the-week component within that particular episode. Wells was a bounty hunter who sought to hunt down and kill the man who murdered her brother. It was another female character who (like Root, Shaw and Silva) was incredibly self-assured and unrelenting.

SAMARITAN; the opposing artificial intelligence and the enemy of NORTHERN LIGHTS.

Season 5

When season 5 started, word had gone around that this was the final season of Person of Interest. Instead of the usual twenty-plus episodes this season consisted of just 13 episodes, but at least it meant that Jonathan Nolan would be able to craft a definitive ending to the show. In spite of its reduced order, case-of-the-week episodes are not altogether abandoned. However, the focus has thoroughly shifted from making you care about the Person of Interest in question, towards taking the already well-developed characters, the machine included, and preparing them for the endgame. Its function is now mainly to further the over-arching plot, to great success.

Aside from the main characters, it has to be mentioned that perhaps the most surprising and certainly most unique forms of character development is realised this season in its approach to the machine. From the beginning of the show it has been apparent that the machine differs significantly from other computer programs in that it seems to have a certain degree of empathy, as Finch has been teaching it to recognize the value of human life.

A clear example of this came to the forefront in the previously mentioned episode If-Then-Else, which can be seen as one of the best episodes out of the entire series and perhaps the whole of television. It shows the machine at its most machine-like, running endless simulations in order to determine the best possible outcome, but also at its most humanoid, in that it cares so much about keeping the team alive. The duality is brilliant.

Season 5 builds on this by making the machine more involved than ever. In a stroke of Science Fiction genius, what started out as a plot device for a basic CBS procedural has grown out to be a fully fleshed out character in its own right. Its arc not only defines the series as an exceptional piece of sci-fi storytelling, but actually facilitates satisfying ends for the majority of its main characters.

Which is not to say that the only character that matters is the Machine. On the contrary, season 5 above all reminds us why we have grown to love these characters. Their resilience, their intelligence, their compassion and their sense of purpose. All are at display in what can be seen as a near perfect sendoff. It certainly stands out as one of the more emotional finales in recent memory, and all of that is thanks to these strong characters.

We hope that our exploration into the evolution of Person of Interest has spurred new viewers to attempt the show and also given veteran fans some fresh perspective on how this show edged its way into all of our hearts.

To be regarded as an achievement within television is one thing, but to be regarded as something exceptional within a genre is something altogether greater. When the Science Fiction of our age is looked back upon, we have no doubt that Person of Interest will be held in the highest regard, as an overlooked classic of our time.

Image credits: CBS

Co-written by Christopher Hart

Lead Writer and Copywriter

Chris is a Copywriter for a major bank. He an MA in Publishing and a BA in Comparative Literature. He's also a self-published author (Altered Stone).

His areas of interest include LOST, The Leftovers, The Prisoner, Y: The Last Man, Supergirl, Wonder Woman, BioShock, Supergiant Games and Josh Malerman.

Co-written by Joey Duis

Features Writer

Joey has a Masters degree in Communication, works as an SEA Marketeer, and is living in The Netherlands.

He enjoys watching as much television series and films as he possibly can, while using the time that is left to play Fifa or Pokémon.

Fun Fact: Joey's Rattata is in the top percentage of Rattata.

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  1. “FBI agent named Joss Carter” <— That's NYPD detective Joss Carter(played by Taraji P. Henson). When even the small details are wrong, one must wonder if the author is a true fan of the whole show, or just one of those viewers that after abandoning it after season1 the reason they returned is coz they heard about the femslash pairing and reduced role for the original characters & storylines…
    "satisfying ends…near perfect sendoff" <— Totally disagree with that characterization of the series finale episode. IMHO, it was the opposite of that. A show can't expect to not be cancelled when they treat their lead actor/character with such disrespect and disdain, as was during seasons4&5 and the ratings reflected that. It wasn't enough to shoot the character multiple times, they had to be missilestriked too? They couldn't even be bothered to get right the birthdate on the headstone. Predictable&Disappointing are words that should be used to describe the series finale and that "sendoff" has affected my view of what was up to that point my fave show.

    1. You couldn’t be further from the truth with that assumption. Truth is mistakes happen. Thank you for pointing it out.

      [[[SPOILERS AHEAD]]]

      As for Reese’s characterization, I disagree with you. From the first episode Reese has always been a man who was looking for purpose in his life. In the end he dies a hero, in a blaze of glory, for a purpose he believes in. That’s all he wanted and needed from the beginning.

      Furthermore, he sacrifices himself so Finch can live. The man who became his friend and gave him something to live for when he was at the lowest point in his life. Who saved him in a sense. In Reese’s own words: “Told you. Pay you back all at once. That’s the way I like it.” His death is not an injustice. It’s his own decision.

      To me Reese’s ultimate fate is a satisfying end to his personal journey as well as his relationship with Finch, which is what makes it so emotional. Unfortunately you do not feel the same way, which is fine. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. It does not define who is a ‘true fan’ of the show, or who isn’t.

      1. I respect your opinion even if I disagree.

        While watching S 1-3, I didn’t think Reese was going to make it out alive, but I changed my mind by the end of season 4.

        [[[SPOILER AHEAD]]]

        It was probably one of the most heroic & honourable deaths I’ve ever seen onscreen (unlike Root’s), but still… the fact he just died wasn’t fitting at all to me. I recollect S4, all the time POI wasted on Reese flashbacks, John / Iris dynamic, and «Terra Incognita». It seemed like it was all leading to John realizing he could have more out of life than work / killing… like an attempt to move the character forward, giving him something to live for and forget his “lone wolf” death wish he had in previous seasons. Instead he just died. Like death wish was still the only thing he’s good for.

        1. Thank you very much for your response Jill. I agree with much of what you’re saying.

          I feel like the John / Iris relationship could definitely have been handled better, and I agree with you that it probably has to do with the reduced season order. I think due to that, the writers made the conscious decision to focus more on his relationship with the other main characters, Finch in particular. And I get why they wrapped it up in the way that they did, even if it was sudden. He has been through so much that I can see why he wouldn’t be emotionally suited for a conventional family life. It’s a shame that the show wasn’t able to give him this, but to me the core of the show is his relationship with Finch, so I am glad that they used the limited time they were given to focus on that instead.

          And it is in his relationship with Finch, that I believe we can find the reason for his death. To me, it comes across as not just a simple death wish, it’s a wish to grant Finch the happy life he deserves. Throughout the show Finch’s actions have been all about doing the good thing, often at his own expense. In doing this, he has given all of these characters a chance to turn their life around. But he himself has lost the love of his life in Grace.

          Maybe Reese’s relationship with Iris has made him realise that he won’t ever be able to live a normal peaceful life, or maybe not. The fact is that he does see that it is still a possibility for Finch. The man who has sacrificed so much to do the good thing. And gave him the chance to see how it can be important to save one life. Like he says:

          “When you came to me, you gave me a job. A purpose. At first… well… I’d been trying to save the world for so long… saving one life at a time seemed a bit anticlimactic. Then I realized… sometimes one life… if it’s the right life… is enough. ”

          So in sacrifing himself, Reese saves the life of his friend. To me it’s very fitting that after five seasons of Reese saving people, his final action is saving the life of his closest friend.

          It’s very selfless, and maybe Reese deserved a happy ending of his own. But I think there is something beautiful in seeing that his friends (and the cause) mean so much to John to sacrifice himself, especially since he started out the series looking for meaning in his life.

  2. Love Person of Interest but not the homosexual innuendo! It is so not necessary and hur t the show–in my and many others’ opinion. Keep the show decent and family friendly please!

    1. author staff

      Hi Elizabeth, thanks for the comment. Although I see your argument for making the show suitable for family consumption (nothing wrong with good wholesome SF), I think you’re in the minority on this one, as many people adored the Shaw and Root romance. There is a surge in lesbian romances on television of late and I think POI handled this better than any other show.

      1. ‘Although I see your argument for making the show suitable for family consumption’ – I don’t see their argument at all. Except for the one episode, nothing about Shaw and Root’s relationship was not family friendly.
        What was not family friendly – is the violence in the show (explicitly showing torture for example) which is why POI is not and never was a family show. Queer relationship has nothing to do with it.
        POI worked great for its GA and whoever is willing to show violence on screen to their kids, should have no problem with f/f romance!

        1. author staff

          A very good point about the violence being the main point that doesn’t make the show suitable for children. My colleague (one not involved in the writing of this article) also raised that exact point recently.

          The relationship being homosexual shouldn’t be an issue at all; I agree wholeheartedly there (my colleague saw the original comment as homophobic, whereas I hadn’t seen it from that view).

          In my answer, I was simply placing myself in the shoes of a parent is all; if I wanted to show my child some SF, I might think twice with POI, because of that one episode that you mentioned and also the violence. But I’m not a parent, so I’m perhaps not best placed to make this judgement.

          Thanks for the thoughtful answer.

  3. Person of Interest has been dead to me since May 31st, 2016. The day Root went away.
    I loved this show up until nolan ripped off Joss Whedon by killing off Amy Acker’s character to make her an avatar for a God-like entity. I really hope that next Acker’s character will be more lucky I’m tired of seeing how all of her great characters eventually die for shock value.

    1. While I agree that the way Root went out was regrettable, I disagree that it was only for shock value. To me it’s a fitting conclusion to her character arc. She started out as this lone wolf, using her hacking abilities for criminal purposes. After meeting Finch and his machine, she slowly starts on a different path: to do good. At the end she is no longer a criminal without friends or family, but a hero who has found love and friendship. And so she ends up sacrificing herself for the man who gave her this happiness, if only for a short while. It all comes from her choice to do good.

      And considering how important the Machine was to her, I think she would consider living through in the Machine as the highest honor. Besides, it allows Amy Acker to give life to the characterization of the Machine, and I couldn’t imagine someone more perfect for the job.

      Root was a great part of what makes Person of Interest so incredible, but to me the show is about more than just her character. Her presence is felt throughout, even after her death. If anything, it made the conclusion even more impactful in my opinion.

      1. Completely disagree.

        Back to the start, Root was all about transcendental humanism and machines being better than people. Back to S3 for Root to be carried on as a simulation to give a voice to TM would have been a logical and meaningful move. The idea is quite good on its own, it reinforces the concept of Root as Analog Interface.

        But POI narrative & the characters have seriously outdated / changed since then.

        The whole point of the second half of the show was that both Root and TM were growing, developing as characters. Root learned to value certain people, started creating connections. She has learnt not only to value human life, but also to love and respect people in her own life. She would still die for TM, yes, but… she would LIVE for Shaw (and I believe her relationship with Root was smth that changed Shaw, stopped her from becoming emotionless killing machine).
        But it seems like the writers were aiming for a transcendental thing with her demise – like that’s what Root’s ultimate goal always was. It feels like ignoring the fact that Root’s changed because of her human relationships, like they basically decided to eliminate abt 30 eps of character development for Root (and for Shaw as well).

        It COULD (maybe) fit for S2–3 Root char, but not S4/5 Root. Not that Root who suffered so long & so much not knowing if Sameen was alive or dead. Not that Root who prioritize her feelings to Shaw over TM’s orders. Not that Root who plays chicken with TM, dicing with death. Not that Root who refuses to do another mission (twice!) without being sure it leads her to Sameen. Not that Root who gives such a poignant speech about living vs surviving in 5×7 (or 5×8?). Not that Root who says she finally feels like she belongs, holding Shaw’s arm. Etc, etc.

        Root was meant to die? Ok. But I’ll never agree/accept that «merging» with TM was in tune with the last seasons. Not anymore. Root’s arc was an amazing redemption road from a cynic murderer and (then) badass warrior to TM… to a woman in love, who learned to value certain people, started creating connections. For her it was a road to become a HUMAN, where TM was the cause, but Shaw – the REASON for it.

        Not as if I was confident that showrunners should have focused on «Root & Shaw love-boat» instead. Or that Root should have survived the finale. No. I love very much the idea that they «have carved out a sliver of light in the darkness of this narrative (…)» (Chris Fischer). But with the current edit (ending) their arcs seemed to be just thrown away in favour of a concept that was difficult to execute respectfully in their time constraints.

        1. Thank you for your response again, it is very well thought out.

          I don’t think that they’re ignoring the fact that Root’s changed because of her relationships. If anything, her death is because she has grown to value these relationships so much, and the importance of doing the good thing.

          I think it is important to separate Root from the Machine. The Machine adopts Root’s voice, yes, but Root’s story ends with her death. I don’t think the goal was to aim for a transcendental thing, but to highlight how much she values her relationship with Harold and the Machine. I can forgive any clunkiness because I think what comes after works really well. It’s fine if you don’t.

          Also, I think it’s important to recognise that she doesn’t ‘merge’ with the Machine, the Machine chooses her voice because it loved her. The Machine understands what her loss means, because Finch has taught it that. It signifies how much the Machine has grown. To me it doesn’t devalue Root’s life, it is an acknowledgement of their relationship.

          Throughout the show Root grows as a person due to her relationships with these characters. The Machine is not just a machine, it is its own character. And the two of them shared an unbelievably strong trust. The Machine choosing her voice is its way of honoring that bond.

          In terms of Shaw, we can see in the finale that, unlike Finch, it is hard for her to separate Root from the Machine. She ends up a hero, continuing to work with the machine in the same way that Root was doing. She will always have Root’s voice in her ear, but it won’t be Root herself. And throughout the show Shaw has learned to accept consequences and live with them. So while this is not a happy ending by any means, it’s one that Shaw can live with. And although it’s tragic, I think it works.

      2. Root was meant to die, all right. Somewhere in the future and the machine would have taken her voice and image eventually. Was it hard to make a time jump and show how in the future the machine is still watching over everyone using Root’s voice? No, it wasn’t.
        Root has changed, she found a family she thought she deserved to die. And that’s why she shouldn’t have died. nolan should have killed off finch – the least deserving person to die. See? It creates some additional drama and conflict plus Root blames herself and once again, like that time with Hannah, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Yes, Root should have killed Greer and destroy Samaritan and to stay alive to keep helping people and work with Shaw. She deserved that. But no, shock value and Fred Burkle turns to Illyria/Dr.Saunders/Whiskey turns Clyde Randolph cliché wins over logic.
        The worst part is that this nolan’s “idea” wasn’t even his own. Joss Whedon did the same thing already couple of times and even then it wasn’t so good.
        Like I said before, Person of Interest has been dead to me since May 31st, 2016. And nothing will ever change that.

        1. Agreed. I don’t think “The day the world went away” destroyed the show as much as the whole ending line (ep.10-13). Anyway, I think we can all agree that POI had only 99 episodes

  4. Thanks. Excellently written piece.

    But this…

    “Its arc not only defines the series as an exceptional piece of sci-fi storytelling, but actually facilitates satisfying ends for the majority of its main characters”
    “All are at display in what can be seen as a near perfect sendoff”

    …just makes me wanna unsee it.

    The ending was not even closely perfect.
    Most of S5 seemed rushed and sporadic – but okay, that was hardly showrunners’ fault (considering all the issues behind the scenes). Still I can’t blame CBS for ALL the season did wrong (to my mind).
    Last eps felt like steering into the realm of bad fan fiction & felt out of sync with where the story was going. The final story seems to ignore / undo the development the characters had in S4/5 and revert back to S2/3, thus making the ending so unfitting and unsatisfying for most of them.
    The show seemed to ignore the logical conclusions. It’s as if the writers KNEW the best ways to end character arcs and consciously decided to ignore them.
    There is a lot that bugged me about this season, really, and it’s kinda infuriating because I don’t understand how the logic in the writers room could get so skewed. I wasn’t left with big feelings but puzzlement and incredible disappointment. I’ll never be able to understand how’s that possible, to stan POI and… really like & stay tuned in for such a finale.