“Person of Interest” recap (5.07 & 5.08): Free Will


Free will has always been at the heart of Person of Interest. It’s what’s at stake when artificial superintelligences—or gods, whichever you prefer—are at work in the world. Harold’s fears regarding the Machine are based in the problem of free will, just as Greer’s embrace of Samaritan is the product of his rejection of it.

“QSO” and “Reassortment” are both concerned with free will, though in different ways. “QSO” (a ham radio term for when two stations or operators contact one another) puts free will front and center through Shaw and Max Greene (Scott Adsit), both individuals choosing to exercise the last bastion of free will—one’s very life—against oppressive forces. Shaw is prepared to kill herself rather than spend one more day as Samaritan’s guinea pig; Max declares he’d rather die telling the truth than live on the run. “Reassortment” is about the opposite end of free will: the mess and errors that can arise from a system of agents interacting vs. the order and security that can come from an agentive system manipulating objects. It’s not a mystery where the show’s perspective falls on this venerable debate, but Jeff Blackwell (Joshua Close) in “Reassortment” makes a good contrast against Shaw and Greenfield in “QSO”: after two people prepared to sacrifice everything on the altar of free will, we watch a man who can’t make such a choice and finds himself further stripped of his agency, reduced to his genetic markers.

tumblr_o7pu5syYb11ur5d52o1_500This…is fine (via poigifs)

There are many little moments that play into this issue. Shaw kills the geneticist in the “field trip” of “QSO” as an attempt to assert her free will, refusing to sit still for Lambert’s (Julian Ovendon) monologuing, only to find out that in doing so she submitted to Samaritan’s intention after all. Her prison comrade in “Reassortment,” Samuel, exercises his own free will in staying behind to liberate his friends rather than being carried along on the tide of the forces much greater than him that got him out of his own cell. Jeff tries to present himself to his ex-girlfriend as a unique individual with power over the course of his own life, only to have her insist that she can’t accept him because of statistical probabilities: sadly, he’s a number, not a free man.

The quotation I just adapted (The Prisoner’s “I am not a number, I am a free man!”) was obviously a major influence on this show, whose basic conceit is a quietly radical response to it. Person of Interest presents the possibility of the kind of agency that reduces free-willed individuals to numbers for once doing so benevolently and with real respect for their free will; that is, marking them with numbers, but not reducing them to numbers. The Machine and its allies find these people’s individuality, specificity, and unique value within the very numbers that also mark them as cogs in a system. It’s no coincidence that we usually don’t see or hear their numbers explicitly, but always and immediately see their faces. (Also, that’s just wise filmmaking, but I digress.) Everyone is relevant to someone, and everyone’s number is unique, just as they are. This fundamental tenet of the show bubbled to the surface in “QSO” when Harold rebuked the Machine for letting Root and John leave Max to his own devices, and the Machine answered:

tumblr_o7qvheIYa31rqw2obo1_500Via snow-fox9

I appreciate Harold’s concern here: an ASI that lies or skirts the truth and is willing to let people die is a scary prospect. But I side with Root. Harold’s goal was always to create a machine that would serve us, that would never supersede our own choices and decisions; that is, to have all the benefits of an ASI with none of the costs. The Machine did its best in this situation to follow that programming. We can argue about whether Max truly appreciated the very real consequences he would suffer (I tend to think he was better equipped to do so than most numbers of the week), but he made a choice to at least risk martyrdom, and the Machine honored that choice. Harold’s rejection of the Machine’s own choice in “QSO” underlines Elias’s words to him in “Reassortment”: that Harold’s is the darkest and heaviest heart of all of the characters. The truth is, Harold wants everyone to have absolute free will, except when he disagrees with the outcome. Only someone who thinks this way could possibly venture to build the Machine in the first place—and then limit it so painfully!—and only someone who thinks this way would be so easily willing to reject the positions of other people as well as the ASI itself when he thinks they are wrong. He places the absolute value of human life above the absolute value of human choice, in the end, and it is for this same reason that he insists on keeping assets—and friends—like Fusco and Elias in the dark. Harold truly believes he knows best, and this is one of the most dangerous qualities found in the human condition.

Harold’s hubris is ultimately what drives Fusco away from Team Machine. (I often wonder if Harold fully realizes how lucky he was to find someone as self-abnegating as John, who seems to be truly happy to have given up his own free will to Harold.) Like Shaw and Max, Fusco chooses his own free will over Harold’s direction (however benevolently intended that direction may be). That Harold and John didn’t see this coming a mile away speaks to how thoroughly they’ve taken Fusco for granted; Root, ever the wild card, is the only member of the team who responds to what happened to Fusco by offering him options rather than telling him what to do. And it’s precisely in exercising his own free will by investigating what he’s been told to leave alone that Fusco is able to intervene at a crucial moment in “QSO” and help save the day, no thanks to John and Harold.

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