For years, Person of Interest has been right on the cutting edge between commenting on current events and speculating about the future. With its final season, the show is depicting a futuristic nightmare — and yet, it's also more topical than ever before. We talked to producers Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman, and they told us the real villain of Person of Interest is Facebook.
First off, I've seen the season premiere of Person of Interest, which airs later this year in Australia . True to form, it's a brilliant hour of television that will keep you throwing things at your TV screen as the Machine Gang struggles to come back from their devastating loss at the end of season four. The super-intelligent Machine, which was built to predict terrorist threats but wound up trying to save ordinary people from smaller crimes, has been destroyed, and the race to reconstruct it from some memory chips is as intense as any thriller I've seen in ages.
I honestly don't know what I can say about Person of Interest that we haven't said a dozen times before — this is one of the best science fiction shows of the past decade. It's a brilliant exploration of artificial intelligence and the surveillance state, with some of the most memorable characters on television. And the first four seasons are on Netflix now! You have a whole weekend to get caught up before the show returns. (Here's our guide to which episodes from season one are must-watch.)
In any case, the season premiere is brilliant, and I'm now desperate to see the rest of the season. And after watching it, I had even more questions for Nolan and Plageman when I talked to them on the phone. Warning: Vague spoilers, and even vaguer hints, ahead.
The big shock in the season premiere is just how bad things have gotten for our heroes. Samaritan, a hostile artificial intelligence, has basically won the A.I. war, and now it can control pretty much everything. That includes keeping tabs on everyone, everywhere — and it also allows Samaritan to "activate" ordinary civilians as weapons against Harold Finch and his friends, by feeding them misinformation through their mobile phones.
The harrowing scene where our heroes first realise that anybody can be turned instantly into an agent of Samaritan is a reflection of real life concerns, said Plageman. In 2014, Russian hackers convinced a bunch of people that ISIS had blown up a chemical plant in Louisiana, sparking a panic. "I think there was even some misinformation fed to a French news station."
But Plageman wanted to show how much further the manipulation of people's reality through social media could go, in a terrifying scene where a whole train-car of people turn against Root. "Most people are now getting their information from Facebook," said Plageman. "Now it's tailored to you [and] what you think is newsworthy."
Does this mean Facebook is the real villain of Person of Interest? "I think we've been saying that for about five years," Nolan said with a laugh.
In general, that first episode of the season is aimed at setting the tone "right out of the gate," said Plageman. You see quickly "just how dire our gang's situation is," and "just what it's like to live in a Samaritan-dominated world. They're being hunted and there's no refuge."
And even beyond the threat of someone abusing social media to manipulate people into doing their dirty work, there's the fact that people like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Larry Page are in an "arms race" to be the first to develop an A.I. like the Machine or Samaritan, said Nolan. And they're not really stopping to think about what could happen when an artificial mind has that kind of power.
In general, we see even more this season that Samaritan is using exactly the same tools that Harold Finch and the Machine Gang have taken advantage of from the beginning. "Our guys have been taking advantage, for a couple of years now, of ubiquitous surveillance," said Nolan, and they have also been using their networks to "organise their own little merry band." Now, "we're seeing what Samaritan can do with that, given the same tools."
Samaritan is like a dark relection of the Machine and its operatives, added Nolan. "It's organised quite a lot like our guys — with an A.I. in charge, in collaboration with them, and assets recruited out of the general population by a machine that knows them better than anyone else does."
Asimov's Laws of Robotics "Establish a Hierarchy of Value"
The other thing that's really striking, at the start of season five, is that Harold Finch — who created the Machine — finally seems to be acknowledging that he made a mistake putting limits on it. In the past, Finch not only limited how the Machine could communicate with people, but also programmed it to delete its own memory every day at midnight, something the Machine went to elaborate lengths to work around. Now Finch seems to realise he was wrong.
"At the place where left our guys at the end of last season, Harold Finch was faced with the loss of his creation. And I think at that point, he suddenly realised how much he actually missed it. Also, he now realises what a Samaritan-dominated world is going to look like, and that there is almost no other alternative, at this point, but to attempt to rebuild it.
And I think this season we'll see Amy Acker's character, Root, imploring him to not only rebuild it but to take the limiter off, what it's capable of. There really is no alternative at this point, and I think Harold Finch has come to that realisation this season. We're going to see a different Harold Finch this season as well."
For his part, Nolan said that he's been struck by the way all the conversations about artificial intelligence in real life have focused on how to place limitations on it. And yet, everything the West has done for the past 200-plus years, from the Declaration of Independence onwards, has been about establishing that all intelligent beings have rights, said Nolan.
"And we've been spending the last 20 years trying to be more mindful and considerate of the other animals whom we share the planet with," added Nolan. "We're definitely moving towards an acknowledgement of intelligence as something that should have protections nailed down, a more mindful sense for what intelligence constitutes, and what protections should be built for it."
So Nolan thinks it's weird that every single conversation about A.I. begins with the idea that we should put chains on it.
We always think of artificial minds as property — "as things that we own and control, first and foremost," Nolan said. Isaac Asimov intended his famous Laws of Robotics as "a jumping-off point for great drama," rather than a real prescription. And in fact, Nolan pointed out, "each and every one of the robot stories is immediately about how the laws don't work."
But at the same time, Asimov's laws "remain the kind of gold standard in terms of what we think of in terms of A.I., and yet they begin with the presumption that an artifical intelligence is worth less than a human being. The first and second laws establish a hierarchy of value."
So when Root and Finch debate over whether the Machine should be free or still under constraints, they're really arguing about self-determination, and whether we ought to treat artificial minds the same way we treat flesh-and-blood ones, said Nolan.
Will Person of Interest Become Part of the 100 Controversy?
One of the biggest reasons why a lot of people are desperate to see the final season of Person of Interest is the relationship between super-hacker Root and the badass assassin, Shaw. This is one of the best same-sex pairings on television, and the writers have promised that the relationship will get to develop on screen this year.
But through the vagaries of television scheduling, Person of Interest's last season — which was filmed nearly a year ago — is finally airing in the immediate aftermath of a controversy over lesbian characters being killed off, which was kicked off by The 100.
So I had to ask if Nolan and Plageman are worried that the Root/Shaw storyline might wind up becoming part of this same controversy, assuming that either Root or Shaw dies this year.
"We've never shied from killing off our characters, and this season is no different," Nolan said. "Our team does not make it out intact." In fact, he says that depending on how you reckon who's a "series regular," you could say that a majority of the regulars are dead by the end of the season. "We're equal-opportunity killers."
"It's a bloodbath," Nolan added. "This is the last season. This is the end of our story. We've said from the very beginning that the stakes are very high. Which kind of feels like, to us, that puts this in a different category."
"There have been plans in place for where these characters' stories would go for many seasons. And we've stuck with that plan. This has been a long time coming. We were hinting at some of the things that are happening this season at Comic-Con three seasons ago.
What was not expected — and [was] a thing that happened along the way — is this relationship that developed between these two characters. Which is something that came organically out of the chemistry between the actors, what we put on the page, what they did with it, where it went. It kind of wasn't necessarily part of the plan. It was something that happened organically. So it's a very cool relationship, and it's one we've had a lot of fun writing to. But ultimately, the plan is the plan."
And honestly, they were just thrilled that Amy Acker and Sarah Shahi had that kind of chemistry — that's the sort of thing you can never plan on having, on any television show, and when it happens, you have to run with it.
Nolan said "there are some unfortunate tropes that play themselves out" — but insisted that drama ultimately comes from having high stakes, and showing people paying a high price.
"We didn't want to back off from writing the characters' stories the way we wanted to, just because it's been handled with varying levels of grace before," Nolan said. "I haven't seen The 100. I don't know anything about what happened on that show. I remember sort of the originator, or the progenitor, of this trope on Buffy. And I remember thinking that was kind of a shocking thing for the show to do. But on a dramatic level, it was exciting."
But at least, can Plageman and Nolan promise that Root and Shaw will go out as heroes, whether they live or die — and not just catch a stray bullet?
Nolan responded by saying these are "two incredibly kick-arse characters. Certainly, two of the most kick-arse characters I've ever had the chance to write. And we want them to go out in style, go out doing what they do." At the same time, he said, there's a larger story playing out, one that relates to both of those characters, but also has more at stake.
Nolan has seen more than enough TV shows "where it doesn't feel like the characters got their due." But in the case of Person of Interest, "I feel like we got to do all of the things we wanted to do this season, and I feel like every character is treated with the utmost respect." Nolan added, "we wanted to do more seasons of this show, but I'm very happy with the way it turned out. We got a chance, I think, to honour each of the characters the way that they should have been honored."
Plageman agreed, saying that the fans want to see "respectful treatment of these relationships, and I think we definitely come through on that account. At the same time, [Nolan] and I have never been ones to write something, just because the fans want something a certain way. You can't do that."