Getting cold out there. Make sure you stay warm. Share your heat with others. It’s only gonna get colder. Good morning from the non-democracy of North Karolina.
Damien Patrick Williams and Ian Vincent are two humanoid beings I respect to the utmost. So when they recommend a thing, I listen. They recommended “Person Of Interest,” which, at the time of its airing received very little of mine. But as I entered into the long, dark cave of The Winter Hiatus of my stories, I took them up on their recommendation.
Wow. Spoilers follow.
The show is something of a Trojan horse; you go in expecting one program–a bog-standard procedural with a Super Crime Computer gimmick–and over the course of the series it mutates into a very different show. And then it does it again. The premise: kung fu hobo John Reese (played by an understated, whispery Jim Caviezel) is recruited by rich paranoid Harold Finch (oh thank Christ Michael Emerson’s back) to aid him in a secret crusade. Finch built a sophisticated surveillance system called, ominously, The Machine, yes, capitalized, stay with me, that predicts crime. It spits out a Social Security number, the bearer of which is about to be involved in violence, either as the victim or the perpetrator. Finch uses his 1337 h4xx0r status to support Reese as he beats the living shit out of people and shoots out their kneecaps. PoI was, at this point, Batman if he were split into two dudes. Simple, but fun. The cast is rounded out by the wonderful Taraji P. Henson as the audience stand-in, a homicide detective named Joss Carter who’s alone in a roomful of crooks; Det. Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman and his beautiful disco hair), one of the aforementioned crooks that Reese strongarms to the side of the angels; and Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi), a CIA spook with…let’s not call it an overabundance of The Feels. Fairly standard. Smart Guy, Tough Guy, Tough Lady, Funny Guy, and Tough, Funny Lady. There you go, the formula is complete, go forth and make a less depressing 24.
Towards the end of the first season, though, there’s a rumbling. A stirring. The idea that maybe we’re dealing with something else. In a flashback, Finch’s business partner remarks that he talks about The Machine as if it’s alive. Finch turns to the security camera, which served as The Machine’s POV. Yes, the computer has a POV. Because it’s a character.
Going forward from there, the show goes from karate-kicking crooked cops to a thoughful, nuanced examination of artificial intelligence, the definition of life, and how humans interact with nonhuman beings.
I know, right?
Before I talk further on that, let me deliver on the synchronicity I promised in this installment’s title.
Last month I was lucky enough to get to meet Warren Ellis at a talk and book signing. When they say “never meet your heroes,” spit in their face and tell them they’re going to Hell for lying, because he was warm, funny, and super gracious. Having sampled his voice (which is WAY less sepulchral than I thought it would be) I decided to reread his fantastic Cunning Plans, a book of talks he’d given to tech companies over the past few years.
One of the book’s throughlines is the idea that technology isn’t becoming indistinguishable from magic; it’s mimicking its functions. Invisible powers swirl through the air, and we can command their power if we know the right incantation/code. AR apps let us see the invisible world, marked off with waypoints like dolmens. You can catch beings of this world, imprison them in the piece of magic glass in your pocket, and use them to battle other daimones–just hit your local PokeStop. The tools and methods of the shaman and cunning men of ages past are replaced, or maybe supplemented, by those of the code monkeys and hackers.
Back to our show. A character called Root (played by Amy Acker, into whose service I am sworn because Christ on a bun she’s incredible) bumrushes Finch and Reese’s little family, demanding to know The Machine’s secrets. She’s later accepted into its service, despite torturing Shaw with a hot steam iron, and that’s the crux, for me, of the entire narrative.
Finch and Root take on almost mystical qualities with regard to The Machine, in that if it is God, as they often call it, they are in direct communion with it. Finch is the alchemist, getting to know its will indirectly, like viewing a black hole by the distortion it leaves. Root, on the other hand, has direct contact with the thing. It speaks to her, literally whispering in her ear through little Bluetooth earpiece. And the look on her face when she hears that voice is ecstasy. A Saint Teresa for the Information Age.
Finch and Root are doing what magi and shaman have been doing for centuries. If you can learn the source code, be it to the universe or a network, you can hack it. And once you’re inside, there’s nothing you can’t do.
I’m not finished with the series yet; I still have the truncated fifth season to go. But what I’ve seen so far has left me with a huge respect for showrunner Jonathan Nolan. He rolled a Trojan horse of a show up to CBS’ gates, and what popped out is a show about communing with the Other. Now there’s a trick that would have impressed old John Dee himself.
I have a lot to say about the dreaded 2016. What a goddamn mess. Maybe later on. Maybe after the New Year emerges from its dripping chrysalis. Our national hagiography is starting to look like the cover of Uncanny X-Men #141.