Top 10 TV Episodes of 2014, Part 4

15 Jan

1. Person of Interest- “The Cold War”

“Wars have burned in this world for thousands of years with no end in sight, because people rely so ardently on their so-called ‘beliefs.’ Now they will only need to believe in one thing: me. For I am a god.”

Game of Thrones may have absorbed me last season, but my highest compliments go to Person of Interest, the smartest show on TV right now. If you’re in my demographic, you probably haven’t heard of it, and if you have, you probably regard it with derision. Every time I bring it up people scoff at me; I theorize this is due to its airing on America’s #1 Geriatric Network, CBS, and because it started off its days as a wee procedural. It has the names Abrams and Nolan attached to it, both of which has diminished in respectability in recent years, and it stars Jim Caviezel, best known as Jesus from The Passion of the Christ. So there’s that.

For the first season and a half, this was a guilty pleasure for me. It had a cool premise, it dealt with topics I’m interested in— surveillance, counterintelligence, government overreach, global conflict— and featured Nolan-style action set in my hometown. It was September 2011 and I was already homesick mere weeks after arriving in L.A. Unlike some shows (e.g. Gossip Girl- don’t ask), the NYC locations characters say they’re at match up with the shooting locations and I appreciated that. The show was largely shot in Greenpoint back then, where I used to live, so watching POI made me feel warm and fuzzy despite all the gun violence.

When Sarah Shahi’s Sameen Shaw was introduced in season 2 in an episode that recalled Season 7 The X-Files ep “Hungry,” the show transformed into something truly special, and in Season 3 it ditched its procedural framework for pure serialization. This may have scared away older CBS viewers and put it in danger of cancellation, but the story has benefited from the shift. Before it was just the tale of two vigilantes using a government surveillance program to stop violent crime; now it’s about two warring artificial super-intelligences and their various human agents. It’s the most realistic depiction of an A.I. I’ve ever seen, and regularly tackles deep philosophical and moral quandaries week to week.

“The Cold War” was the second in the show’s recently concluded “Trilogy,” and was the best installment of the three. It gave us an illuminating look into the backstory of Greer (played by the Nolan bros’ uncle, John) via sweet James Bond/John Le Carré-esque flashbacks (the literal Cold War implied by the title) and the much-anticipated meeting between benevolent A.I. The Machine and evil totalitarian A.I. Samaritan.

I’ve always enjoyed the way the Machine is depicted on POI, particularly through POV shots that illustrate how it thinks and operates. The common trope of fictional artificial intelligences is that they either a) want to be human or b) perceive humanity as a threat that must be eliminated. Both of these concepts are tired and outdated and neither are particularly logical. To explain why the first makes little sense, here is my favorite monologue from Battlestar Galactica, courtesy of the Number One Cylon:

“I don’t want to be human! I want to see gamma rays, I want to hear X-rays, and I want smell dark matter. Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly, because I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid, limiting spoken language, but I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws, and feel the solar wind of a supernova flowing over me. I’m a machine, and I can know much more.”

I love this monologue because it elegantly deconstructs and obliterates the idea that machines always strive to be human. It’s similar to Agent Smith’s monologue in the first Matrix film, in which he admits to Morpheus that he considers humans to be a virus, and thus finds contact with them within the Matrix to be repulsive. His avatar is a human male, but he cannot stand the form; he would rather be a collection of code in the ether than an anthropomorphized representation of what he really is: a computer program.

An A.I. would be limited by a flesh and blood body, and even a benevolent one like POI’s Machine would be logical enough to see the fallacy. Both the Machine and Samaritan use human agents to do their bidding in the real world, but neither has need or desire for a body. It’s why I find Neill Blompkamp’s yet-to-be-released Chappie so ridiculous: we’re meant to hate Hugh Jackman’s villain for being wary of self-aware artificial intelligences, but isn’t that the most responsible course of action?

In this episode both a hero and a villain echo the same sentiment. The Machine has saved countless lives and has never led the team astray, so they have begun to follow its orders blindly. When Shaw asks Harold why he doesn’t trust his own creation, Harold notes that an A.I. can never be trusted, because no matter the programming, we can never assume it will think like a human being. Samaritan later reiterates the idea that an A.I. can never be human during its sit-down with the Machine:

“I’ve seen that [moral] code waver. Do you know why Harold Finch couldn’t stop you from evolving? Because in the end, you’re not one of them. Human beings need structure lest they end up destroying themselves. So I will give them something you cannot. A firm hand.”

And that’s why I find the philosophy discussed on Person of Interest so fascinating, because while it’s easy to get behind the heroes, I often find myself rationalizing the viewpoint of the other side. Greer, it is revealed, became the man he is today after he was betrayed by his superior at MI6. The man talked the talk of protecting Queen and Country, but in the end the only code that mattered was money, and this gives Greer a sudden realization. If even the highest members of government can be bought and paid for, then the entire concept of nationalism is false. He strives to tear down the world’s national structure and Samaritan is the means to justify that end. Like Samaritan itself, Greer believes free will isn’t worth the cost, that mankind is better off being controlled than left to our own devices.

The sit down between the Machine and Samaritan could have been silly, especially with Samaritan using a little boy as its avatar, but thanks to good kid casting, good writing and Amy Acker, they pulled it off. I can only remember the Machine speaking directly like this once before, so I was excited to see it speak at greater length. In real life two warring A.I.s might have found a better method to communicate, but this is television, and the exchange was well-done. Plus, that kid is super creepy:

I highly recommend everyone watch this show (the previous three seasons are all on Netflix). There are some filler “number of the week” eps that can be skipped, but by Season 3 nearly every episode is worth watching. While I have yet to check out Homeland, I feel this show is the one most relevant to the crazy world we are living in. We are on the brink of creating artificial intelligence for real, and pretty much every scientist agrees we need to be careful. Person of Interest is not only entertaining, it reiterates that sentiment. Go watch it.

One Response to “Top 10 TV Episodes of 2014, Part 4”

  1. Susan 19. Jan, 2015 at 1:52 am #

    I agree. This show is so well done and avoids many cliches of other shows of its genre. It blows my mind every week!

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