In 2002, Harold and the Machine played a game of Hide and Seek. One buzz to his phone for “yes, I see you”; two for “no, I can’t.” A year later they played another game: Hit or Stay? Harold was testing the Machine by having it help him cheat at blackjack (one for hit, two for stay), but the same vocabulary would allow her to save his life later that night. Two nights ago, Shaw and Samaritan played yet another game: Dead or Alive?
These games all have two things in common. Firstly, they’re all based on a binary, just as computer coding is: 0 or 1. Secondly, at this point in the show, they’re all really the same game. Seen or not is functionally the same as dead or alive, and has been since the end of Season 3. Last night, in “ShotSeeker,” the question is whether the choice between Hit or Stay is the same as Alive or Dead—or vice versa. Is it Hit or Stay that keeps you safe?
As is often the case on Person of Interest, the episode’s central question is exemplified by an argument between Harold and Root. Harold is all for Stay; Root, for Hit.
Ever since Harold’s great mistake—building the Machine and handing her over to the unscrupulous government—he has been a man of caution. He thinks, observes, and plans very carefully before taking any new steps. He tries to consider every angle and every possible consequence. While I was at first taken aback that he would treat Root with so little trust in his rather literal Machine vs. Samaritan cage match (who would have thought we’d ever see a Faraday Cage match on television), by the end of the episode it’s clear why he did it. Root is a variable he can’t control. It’s not that he thinks she would certainly do something regrettable with access to the simulations; it’s that he can’t be certain what she would do, and so he has to eliminate that variable to allow himself to run the test at all. So it is that Harold continues to advocate for keeping friends in the dark, for not ever being aggressive in strategy, and for letting the simulation run as long as possible without taking further steps, even as the simulated Machine loses over and over—10 billion to 0 and counting. Stay.
Root, on the other hand, thrives on chaos. (Like I said, a variable that can be neither controlled nor entirely predicted.) Her reformed, ethical, less-violent phase has never eliminated that from her personality. It’s part of what makes her so formidable, and has characterized her relationship with the Machine from the start: she wanted to set it free, to do what, she neither knew nor speculated—she just wanted to find out what that would be. When she and the Machine gained a bond, she happily did whatever the Machine told her without knowing why, taking joy in the excitement of finding out along the way. See and adapt, act and react, is how she works and an important part of what makes her powerful. So it is that she advocates for arming the Machine, for giving her the ability to “shove back” on the playground, and for taking more aggressive action. Hit.
Meanwhile, the Hit or Stay debate is taken up by three other characters: Fusco, the number of the week (whose name I could not find anywhere), and Carl “Invictus” Elias (Enrico Colantoni). (I’m making his middle name “Invictus” for the rest of eternity now.) Fusco has always known there was more going on than he understood, and for the most part he was okay with that; this season, he’s started pushing for more answers as everything around him gets weirder and weirder, but since he’s always been a grounded character, it’s threats to simple, human things he cares about that push him further this week: his son and his partner. Fusco is a fully redeemed, honest to goodness quality investigator who cares about helping people now, and when he feels his ability to protect and serve is compromised, he doesn’t hesitate. Over Finch’s objections, he runs straight at the threat, not even knowing what it is. Hit.
The number, on the other hand, is experiencing a crisis of conscience because, in his way, he’s always been passive. He works in an incident evaluation center for ShotSeeker, a surveillance capability that listens to the whole city for gunshots, and while he’s dispatched “a thousand cops to a thousand crime scenes,” he’s never cared. He’s never followed up. It’s the combination of a name he knows and fishy data that sends him out to do his own investigating. (One might note the similarity to Harold after Nathan’s death: a name he knows and fishy data.) He’s in the process of experimenting with Hit after a lifetime of Stay, and nearly dies for it; but still, in the end, he wishes he’d done more rather than stayed in his place. Hit.