The most consistently entertaining dramatic series on network TV right now is The Good Wife. Person Of Interest, though less consistent, isn’t that far behind it. It may not be a coincidence that both these shows are more fully engaged than any of the competition in addressing the serious issues of their times—the ones that people have nightmares and screaming arguments about—and processing them into popular fiction. A recent storyline on The Good Wife exploded into an episode that treated paranoid fears about unchecked government surveillance as the stuff of high comedy. Person Of Interest, which is obsessed with the same subject, is both pulpier and more big-picture.
The Good Wife’s satirical view of an NSA-like organization showed a bunch of catty nerds spying on people’s private conversations and playing office politics; the idea that what they were engaged in had grown out of some genuine need to protect the country didn’t really enter into it. A fair share of the characters on Person Of Interest can be fairly characterized as monsters. But the season finale, which manages to sum up the past 23 episodes while hurtling toward the inevitable cliffhanger, reminds you that some of the worst monsters are motivated by what they see as patriotic ideals and noble goals. In the words of the filmmaker Jean Renoir, the terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons.
Collier, the Vigilance leader who is making his television debut as host of a show trial, sees himself as the only thing standing between a free country and a bunch of powerful thugs who are “trading in our democracy for a police state.” When Finch, trying to prevent further bloodshed, confesses to having invented The Machine and tries to explain his reasons for doing so, Collier sneers that Finch seems to think that a dictatorship is fine, so long as he’s the dictator. The line boomerangs back on Collier, whose devotion to democratic principles in his own organization is summed up when he executes a colleague, shooting him at point blank range, and then asks, “Anybody else want to put it to a vote?” When Collier is accused of being a man of violence, he indignantly replies that he and his people have never killed an innocent person—emphasis on “innocent,” with the reminder that Vigilance reserves the right to tell anyone whether they’re innocent or not. This episode is a fine capper to a terrific performance by Leslie Odom, Jr. as Collier. Playing a man whose twisted principles have crowded everything else out of his life, he makes Collier a paradoxical figure: a charismatic cypher.
Others who have never had an appealing moment on the show before, notably Camryn Manheim’s Control and Boris McGiver as the rumple-faced field agent Hersh, who always looks as if he were experiencing pangs of irritable nostalgic for one night in the distant past when he managed to get to sleep for five or six consecutive hours, finally get to demonstrate some bravery and honor. As for Finch, Michael Emerson is practically playing Robert Oppenheimer by now. When Collier refers to The Machine as a “weapon,” Finch objects, and Collier asks him what he would prefer to call it. “I would call it the best I could do,” he replies.
Of all the people holding forth in the courtroom sequence, Finch is the one who’s closest to being right, and who is most sincerely troubled by the possible implications of The Machine’s existence, but he’s also the one who sounds least convinced of his own rightness. He really does do the best he can, but he isn’t convinced that a different man might have found a way to do better; that’s what makes him the hero. He often looks close to tears in this episode, and his long-suffering goodness might easily have become tiresome. Michael Emerson takes the curse off that, partly through dogged professionalism and partly just by being the captivatingly weird presence we’ve all come to know and love.
All through the “trial,” the Mephistophelian Greer appears oddly good-humored, even amused about the whole thing. It’s only after the trial falls apart that he reveals that Decima has been running the show the entire time; in fact, Decima created and funded Vigilance, and recruited Collier, in order to stage the ultimate false flag attack and scare the government into approving the latest expansion of the surveillance state. (He chides Finch for having made this necessary, by building a machine that did its job too well. From Richard III to Dick Cheney, there will always be people who do not welcome peace, because they have no idea what it’s supposed to be good for.) In an episode that takes its title from a device of Greek tragedy, and that climaxes with Root expounding on the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box, Greer rhapsodically talks about the new age that Decima is bringing in, envisioning a future when “a pantheon of super-intelligent beings will watch over us, using human agents to meddle in our affairs.” (Noticing the sickened expression on Finch’s face, he drily adds, “Someone has to be in charge.”)
The season ends with the new corporate-surveillance system triumphant for the moment, and the surviving heroes scattered to the wind, to rely on silence, exile, and cunning while they plan their next moves in the fall. But the most unsettling thing in the show may be the way that Greer, at his moment of victory, politely corrects Samaritan when it invites him to issue its orders. He’s moved heaven and earth and killed countless people, not because he craves power for himself, but in order to bring to life something so powerful that it can tell him what to do. It must make him feel like a real live boy. The terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons, and some reasons can suddenly make you feel sorry for people you’d really like the pleasure of simply hating.