Everyone is relevant to someone.
That has been the refrain of Person of Interest since late in its very first season, passed from Nathan Ingram through Finch to Root and all of us. At the time, it was a statement troubling Harold’s hubris in dividing the relevant from the irrelevant, and the cold, rationalist calculus of state agencies and social engineers that adopted it. But more than ever before, the series finale made it the show’s credo.
Everyone dies alone, and no one is coming to save you.
This line, which has also haunted the series, was always the first one’s opposing argument: isolation to counter the connectedness implied by relevance. John said it to Jessica before he even met Harold, and proved himself dreadfully right in failing to save her. In the beginning of “Return 0,” I assumed the Machine was referring to John’s words, and that the thing she couldn’t remember after “Everyone dies alone” was that no one is coming to save you. It seemed a poetic return, and probably accurate to what was to come over the next 43 minutes. But what we saw in the following time we spent with the Machine was images of no one dying alone—because the Machine was there. “Fifty-six million people die in this world every year. And I was there with all of them.” The episode finally resolved these two ideas into a celebration not purely of life itself, but of life as an opportunity for acts of meaning that form connections.
Of course, it’s after John shows up to take on the fate Harold wanted for himself that Root remembers that what comes after “Everyone dies alone” isn’t that “No one is coming to save you,” since John is, quintessentially, the one coming to save you. (In this case, to save Harold.) Instead, it’s that even though you die alone, you needn’t be dead alone. As the cop said to his partner, but unknowingly to the Machine too: “Sure. Everyone dies alone. But if you mean something to someone—if you help someone, or love someone, if even a single person remembers you—then maybe you never really die at all.”
In the end, then, the fact of dying isn’t what matters. It’s what you did to be remembered that really counts.
How will Person of Interest be remembered? Well, as a show whose best season was its third, certainly, and whose fifth dropped a number of balls. But it will also be remembered as a show with big ideas that it always managed to make concrete and interesting, that repeatedly predicted events that actually came to pass, and that drew every one of its recurring characters lovingly and carefully. There’s not much more to ask for. I suspect even some of the plot holes in this season (whatever happened to Chekhov’s Missile, for example?) only really bother me because the show has proven itself so meticulous and thoughtful in its approach to continuity in general.
But more immediately, the finale will be judged first as an episode of television, second on where we leave all the characters, and finally for its larger statements. As an episode, then, it was beautifully structured, every bit of action interspersed with the Machine’s countdown to the end—eight minutes, three minutes, thirty seconds, counting down to the satellite upload, the incoming missile, Harold’s bleeding out, and the end of the story. It was shot, as always, wonderfully, expanding the sense of scale one last time by having Samaritan address Finch by hijacking all of Times Square for everyone to see. In a strange sense, by the end of this episode, it’s even a story of alien invasion: a new Machine with little in the way of memory colonizing Earth from a satellite in space. (I still can’t believe this! They passed through Azimov into Arthur C. Clarke territory!)
It was also, of course, deeply emotional. One of the episode’s best scenes was a kind of memory shell game. Brace yourself: The Machine remembered Root for Shaw so that the Machine could give Shaw something to remember about Root, and about herself. “You always thought there was something wrong with you because you don’t feel things the way other people do. But she always felt that was what made you beautiful. She wanted you to know that if you were a shape, you were a straight line. An arrow.” Being a straight line or an arrow can mean a lot of things.
For Shaw, I tend to think it means two: she’s a steady constant, emotionally and operationally; and she’s profoundly purposeful. Whenever Shaw is announcing to someone that they will see no mercy from her, she says something like, “Well, you’re a bad guy. And I kill bad guys.” An arrow is a straight line because it has to be to fly true. Shaw’s steady, constant state makes her effective, and the purpose for which she employs that effectiveness gives her steadiness something to do. (To be clear, this doesn’t mean Shaw isn’t wild: she’s steady in her fearlessness. She’s what Fusco would call nuts, but she’s incredibly stable.) Root loved that about her. Root saw the beauty in near-perfect function, not the discomfort of difference.