Review: Did ‘Person of Interest’ do right by last night’s casualty?

alan-sepinwall
Senior Television Writer
06.01.16 53 Comments

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A review of last night's Person of Interest coming up just as soon as you get me the really big gun and a hair scrunchie…

Well, damn.

By opening the season on a flashforward featuring a recording of Root's voice warning us of what was to come – and by never showing us Root making that recording – Person of Interest seemed to be implying she was the safest of all the members of Team Machine as we headed into the home stretch. And because I had that thought in the back of my head, all of her talk throughout “The Day the World Went Away” about how the world itself is a simulation, how the Machine contains perfect copies of each of them, etc., never registered to me as warning signs of her imminent death, even though in hindsight they obviously should have.

Earlier today, Vox's Todd VanDerWerff published a story interviewing a bunch of showrunners about the rise of character deaths on TV, and how the audience has become desensitized to it as a device because it happens too often and is rarely done well. Within that, he also talks about the Bury Your Gays furor that rose up in the wake of The 100 doing a bad job of killing off one of its prominent lesbian characters, which is part of a disproportionate number of queer characters dying relative to how many there are on TV to begin with. And IGN's Eric Goldman spoke with PoI showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman at length about Root's death, and about what kind of fan response they expect given the overall trend. Both producers note that this episode has been sitting on a shelf for a long time, and said they hoped that their audiences would feel Root's death – along with her quasi-resurrection as the new voice (and personality?) of the Machine – was true to her journey on the show, and to this apocalyptic moment here at the end.

And I would say that, for the most part – especially working within the constraints of Sarah Shahi's availability for the last season or so – they did very right by the character. Not only did Root get a big hero's death – first with the stunt where she was firing the big gun at the same time she was steering the car with her foot (backwards, no less!), then swerving to take the bullet meant for Finch (making it a deliberate, heroic choice on her part to give up her life for his, as opposed to Tara on Buffy or Lexa on The 100 getting killed by stray bullets they didn't even see coming) – but the version of her lying on the slab on the morgue would surely take a lot of comfort in knowing that a digital copy of her had become one with her beloved Machine.

This is where she's always been headed in a way. We were introduced to Root as a sociopath killer who was obsessed with the god that Finch had built, and in time the Machine taught her the value of human beings (in the same way that she herself once learned it from Finch) and put her on the team with Harold and the others. For her to merge in this way with the Machine – even if it's not the original her – maybe isn't as good an ending as her and Shaw opening up a bed-and-breakfast that's secretly the base of their global troubleshooting business, but it's still one I imagine she'd have gladly signed up for, given her fervent devotion to the Machine and what it was capable of doing.

The episode's a victim of lousy timing – Root fans (and/or Root/Shaw 'shippers) might have still been upset had this aired much closer to when it was actually filmed, but it wouldn't have come across as yet another example of both the Bury Your Gays issue and this spring's high fictional death total – yet if you can separate it from that, this was a terrific farewell to one version of Root, even as the show gets to keep another version around for the closing chapters(*), and one who might be able to offer Shaw a bit more emotional closure before all is said and done.

(*) In that way, it's very evocative of Amy Acker's stint on Angel, where Fred, the character she had played for years, died late in the final season, but Acker got to stick around playing Illyria, the demon who took control of Fred's body. This is a very specific kind of typecasting…

We're at a stage in the story where, as Finch notes several times in “The Day the World Went Away,” Team Machine is hopelessly outmatched by Samaritan's forces. Deaths were going to be inevitable, and not just of ancillary characters like Elias, whose story on the show comes full circle when he's shot in the head outside of the housing project where Reese once tried to protect him. Win or lose, there was no way our heroes were going to come out of this fight fully whole, not for the stakes to feel as real and as dire as the show has insisted they are for a long time. That Vox piece talks about how so many shows have taken to bumping off minor characters for shock value, and/or not properly laying out the stakes and the emotional impact of a given death. Person of Interest didn't do that. This season laid out the importance and the danger of fighting Samaritan, and this episode gave Root plenty of opportunity to articulate her feelings about this journey – including the idea that Team Machine is the only family she's had since she was little – and about the possibility of her death. She died with her (high-heeled) boots on, every bit the badass killer and Machine acolyte she'd always been, and a part of her gets resurrected as the voice of her deity. That's better than I feared some of our heroes would get before the end. 

And as the series' 100th episode, “The Day the World Went Away” did a splendid job of not only seeing off Root in a thrilling and earned way, but in revisiting the larger journey of Harold and his assistants. It was peppered with callbacks – the housing project, Finch stupidly going to the coffee shop where he first dated Grace, Nathan and Carter's names coming up while discussing those who had already fallen – and Harold's confrontation with the FBI agent brought things all back to his origin story as a treasonous hacker who mistrusted the real system and had to build his own to correct it.

In talking about Monday night's episode, I noted that Harold's decision to bring Elias along to deal with the Voice was a big step towards him breaking his long-standing moral code. Last night, the code shattered altogether, as his grief and rage over Root's death became the tipping point for him (in a superb moment from Michael Emerson) vowing to kill Samaritan at any cost. As Reese and Shaw survey the aftermath of the jailbreak the Machine created to enable Finch's escape – putting 600 criminals on the street who could endanger the kind of ordinary people Team Machine once spent all its time helping – it occurs to Reese that the Machine's earlier phone call with Finch's number wasn't warning them that he was a potential victim, but a potential perpetrator. Samaritan is very bad, but is Finch going to have to become even worse in order to stop it?

That was rough. And excellent. I can't wait to see what comes next, even as I fear more tragedies yet to befall our heroes.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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