Person of Interest is perhaps the best nerdy show on TV you’re not watching. Why? Maybe it’s because of the procedural elements, or maybe because it’s on CBS, but whatever the reason you’re not watching, you’re robbing yourself of the pleasure of one TV’s most underappreciated treasures. But now there are no more excuses. The first three seasons of Person of Interest are now available on Netflix, and then on Tuesday, you can watch the entirety of season four when its added to the streaming service.
The set-up was simple when Person of Interest premiered on September 22, 2011: a reclusive billionaire named Harold Finch (Michael Emmerson) recruits an ex-C.I.A. agent name John Reese (Jim Caviezel) to save people in trouble in New York City. The twist is that Finch gets the names from a “Machine” that sees and hears everything, gathering data from all corners of the internet to find people in imminent danger. The Machine was designed to stop terrorist attacks post-9/11, but it sees everyone that’s about to be the victim, or the perpetrator, of any pre-meditated violent crime.
But what began as another crime of the week show has evolved into a compelling serial drama that examines how our actions, no matter how altruistic, can have dire consequences. It questions the need for a surveillance state, and how much we’ve given away in the name of security. And most ambitiously, it postulates what will happen when artificial intelligence emerges and what the consequences may be for us puny humans.
For those of you who have never seen the show, keeping in mind that you should really check out the whole series, I managed to parse the series’ four seasons so far and came up with a Top 10 list. For those of you who are already fans of Person of Interest, let’s relive some of the great moments of the show that are now available for you to watch anytime thanks to the power of Netflix.
Beware, there may be some spoilers ahead…
1) “The Fix” – October 27, 2011
A lot of people bailed on POI in its first season because it was more procedural and showed no signs of becoming the rollercoaster of danger and paranoia it would become by the end of season four. Still, this is one of the better standalone efforts and introduced one of the more popular recurring characters in the show, professional problem solver Zoë Morgan (Paige Turco). Like a lot of season one bad guys, the villains are an evil corporation of greed one percenters stepping on the little guy to make a few bucks more, but you can’t say it’s not satisfying to watch Reese and Finch take them down. The real compelling part though was watching the start of a beautiful friendship between the quick and confident Zoë and Reese, who learns, like all us, that she will be a very useful asset in more ways than one in the years to come.
2) “Witness” – November 3, 2011
All the Machine gives Reese and Finch is a number, a social security number for someone that is key to being involved in a pending crime and it’s unknown to them whether that person will be a victim or a perpetrator. Sometimes it’s a lot more confusing than that. Meet Charlie Burton (Enrico Colantoni), supposedly a quiet unassuming high school teacher in Queens who witnesses the Russian mob killing an old high ranking member of La Cosa Nostra, but Charlie Burton is not what he seems. After a couple of hints, we finally meet Carl Elias face-to-face in “Witness,” the man who calls himself the “evolution of organized crime,” and despite his desire to be the man in charge of New York City, he ends up becoming one of Team Machine’s most useful, though sometime infuriating assets.
3) “Bad Code” – October 4, 2012
Reese and Detective Carter (Taraji P. Henson) – Commissioner Gordon to Reese’s Batman – go on a road trip to Texas to find a path that leads to Root (Amy Acker), a talented hacker that’s kidnapped Finch and wants to free the Machine. The second episode of season two gets deeper into the series’ mythology, and starts to phrase the series as not just a race to save the day from whatever crime is about to happen, but deals with the broader social and existential implications of the emergence of artificial intelligence. Combined with the arrival of Acker as Root, who gives the character a sweet sociopathy that’s both scary and endearing, “Bad Code” has a real urgency as the number in question belongs to a beloved main character. Although the show went back to more “Number of the Week” stories with episode three, you can’t say that Root doesn’t cast a long shadow till she reappears in the back half of the season.
4) “Relevance” – February 21, 2013
We’ve known since the beginning of the series that the Machine delivers two types of numbers: “Irrelevant,” which are people about to be involved in a violent crime like murder or robbery; and “Relevant,” those who are about to involved in a terrorist act that could kill hundreds, or thousands. We know how Reese and Finch deal with the “Irrelevant” numbers, but this episode lends insight into how the government deals with the “Relevant” ones, and introduces us to Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi) in the process. The two paradigms of the Machine crossover as Shaw learns just how ruthless her bosses can be, and makes new friends in Reese and Finch. Sort of. The episode made for an interesting departure from the ordinary Person of Interest adventure, and at the same time, Shahi made an instantly likable impression as the stoic but lethal Shaw. It’s hard to say if it was always the producers’ intention to make Shaw a full time addition to the show, but after her fantastic debut in “Relevance” they would have been crazy not to.
5) “The Devil’s Share” – November 26, 2013
In the wake of the triumphant defeat of the cabal of corrupt police known as HR, Team Machine suffers a terrible tragedy. As Reese pursues a bloody course of vengeance to get to Officer Simmons, through flashbacks we see each member of the team at a crucial point in their lives dealing with regret – or lack there of – in the face of previous heartbreak and disaster. The real revelation though is Detective Fusco (Kevin Chapman), who transcends his series’ origins as a former HR member pressured by Reese into helping him, and becoming a hero in his own right by taking on Simmons mano-a-mano and bringing him to justice. Great performances from the whole cast, led by Chapman and his revelatory moment as Fusco, make “The Devil’s Share” both essential to the ongoing story, but at the same time beautifully self-contained.
6) “RAM” – March 4, 2014
You can be forgiven if, at the beginning of this episode, you think that you’re watching a repeat, but that’s almost exactly the point. Although Person of Interest frequently uses flashbacks to great effect, this episode is all flashback as we see, as Root previously implied in a prior episode, Finch working with one of his pre-Reese “helper monkeys.” The story ties into the larger arc of Decima Technologies trying to get their hands on an A.I., but the real fun of the episode is in seeing our favorite characters fill some very unfamiliar roles. Not that flashback fun is the sole point of the episode, but the format is used to inform the current narrative of the struggle between Team Machine and Decima, and highlights why the friendship and trust between Finch and Reese is so unique.
7) “Beta” – April 29, 2014
Decima gets its hand on a nascent A.I. called Samaritan, an open program that can be targeted to find people rather than watch and alert when it sees trouble, and that means big danger for Team Machine. Authorized by the government to perform a Beta test of Samaritan, Decima gets all the government feeds in order to root out a terrorist, but its secondary objective is find Harold Finch. As it turned out “Beta” was a preview of things to come, as Samaritan goes online, unleashed and unrestrained, at the end of season three, forcing our heroes to hide in plain sight. The episode is also notable for a dramatic turn in Finch, who gets Reese and Shaw to promise swift and violent vengeance should Decima harm his former fiancé Grace. It’s a chilling moment from the normally pacifistic Harold.
8) “If-The-Else” – January 6, 2015
In what may be the series’ perfect episode, Person of Interests tests all the bounds of the storytelling its done so well for the previous three-and-a-half seasons. As Samaritan launches an attack to collapse world finances, Reese, Finch, Fusco and Root head to the computer control centre of the stock exchange to launch a program that will stabilize the markets. Outgunned by Samaritan operatives anticipating their arrival, the Machine runs through a number of simulations to decide how it can save the team while accomplishing the mission. The simulations have shocking moments, like watching the team get gunned down repeatedly, and some funny moments, like when it narrates the personalities of the team members. Eventually, the Machine must choose a course of action, but like the chess lessons between Finch and the Machine we flashback to, we’re reminded that sometimes great victory can’t come without great sacrifice. After months of stalemate, Samaritan draws the first blood, and things are never the same again.
9) “Terra Incognita” – April 14, 2015
Taking a break from the mounting endgame between Samaritan and the Machine, we peak behind the curtain into Reese’s mind. A new number takes Reese into an unsolved case belonging to Carter, which he insists on pursuing alone without the assistance of the rest of the team, and sure enough his going solo leads inevitably to another brush with death. Although throughout the episode we think we’re watching Reese and Carter work together in a flashback, we realize that it’s actually a hallucination as Reese sits alone in his car in the middle of nowhere, dying, and reliving a conversation he wish he had with Carter. In this moment, Reese realizes perhaps part of the reason he’s always running to save people is that he doesn’t want to take a hard look at himself and his regrets. Perhaps a near-death experience with an old friend can change that…
10) “YHWH” – May 5, 2015
The fourth season finale, like many of POI’s previous finales, is a game changer. Samaritan, now aware of the Machine’s location, puts a plan into effect to destroy it once and for all, while Reese, Finch and Root race to save it. Where as the season three finale blew apart the status quo and made you doubt the future, the season four finale makes you surprisingly hopefully even though it ends with the Machine’s fate questionable and leaves our three heroes to face a barrage of gunfire from Samaritan agents. The incredibly moving final scene, set to Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine,” features a touching heart-to-heart between the Machine and its creator Finch, who despite being ambivalent about the life he created says, “You are my creation; I can’t let you die.” In its final words, the Machine replies, “If I do not survive, thank you for creating me.” It’s a bittersweet exchange between a man and the disembodied sentient computer program he created, but after four years, 88 episodes, and numerous acts of macho feats of daring do, Person of Interest ends with an emotional punch rather than a physical one. At least until season five, which will debut sometime midseason.