[Spoiler Alert: Do not read ahead unless you’ve watched tonight’s episode of Person of Interest. Major plot points discussed in this story.]
Given what audiences who go to TV to find LGBT representation have gone through during this TV season, the fact that we’ve lost another queer female character in tonight’s episode of CBS’s Person of Interest. That’s right, in tonight’s episode, Amy Acker’s character, Root, met her end by a bullet that was meant for the creator of The Machine, Harold Finch (Michael Emerson).
With all the controversy that currently surrounds lesbian and bisexual characters dying on TV, creator/executive producer Jonathan Nolan and executive producer Greg Plageman talked to AfterEllen about the decision to end Root’s life and if they feel they fit into the trope.
While losing another queer female character never feels good, no matter the reason, the fact that Nolan and Plageman made themselves available to talk about this early so we could post this story immediately after it aired is a sign that showrunners/writers are becoming more concerned about how audiences will take these developments. (Also, we’ll have our post-mortem with Amy Acker posted first thing in the morning here on AfterEllen.)
images via CBS
AfterEllen: With a lot of different LGBT characters getting killed off, a lot of them being women, talk about just about the decision to have us say goodbye to Root. I know you shot these episodes last year before this became such a big story.
Jonathan Nolan: We shot it a long time ago, and we had been planning this story with the character for three seasons at least. We made a cryptic reference to this plot development in between seasons two and three. When we brought Root back to the show as a series regular on a redemptive path after a season or a season and a half in which she played an incredibly charismatic villain. You don’t do that lightly or flippantly. You want a story there, right? Her story was always about getting ever closer to The Machine.
We struggled with this in the beginning of the season—not because it was a trope at that point or certainly wasn’t quite in focus as it is now, but because we love working with Amy Acker, and we love this character, and it was really a question of being disappointed to show up to a set every day without Amy and not being able to write Root. And yet, this is where we’ve always wanted our story to go. What better plot development for Root than to become The Machine, which is essentially what’s happening here.
I don’t watch the other shows that have been the subject of all this controversy. I certainly hope we don’t feel like we’re committing the same sins. My read on it, again I don’t watch those shows, but you do get the sense that the feeling that people get upset when these characters are treated as disposable or when they’re treated cynically. There is nothing cynical about what we’re doing here. We love this character. One of the people we were talking to earlier referred to it as kind of an apotheosis of the character. This is exactly where we’ve been going, and the sort of surprise along the way was the relationship with Shaw, which we were delighted by and loved writing to and so happy that we got a chance in a show that frankly really didn’t have a lot of emotional intimacy. You have a lot of broken characters in the show. It was a delight to be able to write those characters. Their chemistries are purely organic and a really fun development of our storyline, but yeah, this moment, this episode for us is about a character transcending and becoming something different and in an incredibly heroic way. Root goes out like a fucking superhero, and we love that.
In the pilot, Finch tells Reese that they’re probably not going to make it if they do this. We’ve never given any bones about the fact that the survival rate on our show is low so I don’t think our fans will be blindsided. We have not tried to fuck around with their expectations or mislead them in any way while trying to preserve the surprise and the drama of the season. I certainly hope we don’t get lumped in there, but you can’t tell people how to respond to things. If people are upset by it, that’s truly their right.
AE: Having Root and Shaw hook up was great even though it was a simulation in Shaw’s mind. Sarah [Shahi] had told me that she felt it would be out of character for Shaw to go there since she’s so damaged from her time held by Samaritan.
Greg Plageman: I think for me isn’t that what matters anyway is the emotional factor of that relationship and the understanding that whether you think it transpired in simulation, or you think it actually even occurred off screen present day, that that’s understood between those two characters? I think what Jonah was saying just now, I really feel like the relationship was earned. Did if feel genuine? Did we do justice to those two characters in terms of how they were served? I really feel like for me it emotionally resonated for me. Whether you’re talking about the simulation or when she actually came back and met with Root, and that’s what mattered. It didn’t feel cheap. It felt earned.
As far as Root’s demise just to add to the prior question that you just discussed, when Root’s character was introduced, she was an acolyte of the machine. She believed that humanity was bad code. The person she sought out was Harold Finch. Harold Finch is the father of the machine and to her, that was Root’s first love. Her name is Root, after all. [laughs] And for her to go out the way she went out, to sacrifice herself to save the father of the machine, to me felt entirely appropriate, and, as Jonah said, you don’t know which way people can take these things. I really hope that the LGBT community understands that we try to do everything we could to do this relationship the service that it needed.
AE: That said, did you guys ever think, okay once we’re out of Shaw’s head maybe we should have them have that big moment or do you kind of feel the same way Sarah did?
GP: Doesn’t that feel kind of maddeningly literal? It’s kind of pathetically literal in a way. The escalation of the stakes as we had it at the end of the show and where Shaw’s head at is present day, to say like now we need to see that as well without that being understood it to be. That feels moot. And listen, the reality, I think it’s been elegantly disguised in the way the episodes play out.
JN: The episodes are in exactly the order we always planned them. We shot them out of sequence because Sarah had twins which is why she had to step away from the show in the first place. I think, to Greg’s point, it does feel a little literal to complain that we haven’t seen the consummation of that relationship. We have. Shaw was always the one who was wary of the relationship. Root, in a genuinely lovable, open way has always been teasing Shaw. Shaw was always the holdout, which to me made it all the more emotional in that episode where you realize that Root is her safe place. For me, that’s an incredibly emotional scene, and it took nothing away because she was the holdout, to see that for her this relationship, this emotion’s very real. That’s all I need.
CBS gave us 13 episodes. You make lemons into lemonade. We had limited time with the [Shahi]. I’m very proud of what we’ve done I just think as we said, aided with the beautiful sequences from episode four, the audience gets to use their imagination to imagine that Root and Shaw get that consummation when she does, in fact, return.
GP: Even if it were a simulation that’s Shaw’s mind, that’s Shaw’s mind. That way you call an affair of the heart or whatever you want to call it. I think that’s what our intent was.
AE: Was it always the plan to have Root’s voice become the voice of The Machine? I thought that was just so fitting.
GP: We teased that at Comic Con three seasons ago. One of the audience members said, “Hey, will the machine ever get a voice?” and the whole audience erupted, which is cool because you realize the slow burn thing we’re doing of anthropomorphizing an artificial intelligence over the course of five seasons one piece at a time was working really well for the audience. Our response had been ‘yeah but be careful what you wish for because you’re not going to like it when it happens.’ This is what we were referring to. Root becomes Root. Root becomes a God. It’s a little bit of type casting for Amy Acker. She’d done this before, and she’s fantastic at it. It’s one of the things I’m proudest of with the show is the slow burn of The Machine slowly taking on form and emotional shape for the audience.
AE: And just to be clear, Shaw knows Root is dead at the end of the episode, right? When Reese gets the call, you just see this look on Shaw’s face like she knows. Or does she not know and we’ll find out in another episode how she reacts?
GP: She gets it. The whole point of Shaw is she neurodivergent. She’s not like us. Does not process things the same way. It’s incredibly challenging as writers and for Sarah as an actor to say you’re experiencing enormous fucking grief but that’s not how your character reacts to things. It’s kind of a really cool moment because it’s that much sadder. She doesn’t have the normal mechanisms. She can’t cry it out. That’s the reaction she makes when the person that she has spent seven thousand iterations of these last months dreaming about.
AE: What can you say is coming next for these next episodes before the end?
GP: For fans who are mourning Root. Don’t worry. Root and Elias [Enrico Colantoni, also killed off in the episode], rather, they’ll have plenty of company by the time we finish.
JN: We can assure you it’s not gender politics.
AE: It’s kind of like [Agatha Christie’s mystery], And Then There Were None, where it’s just like gradually we’re just going to lose one after the other.
GP: We will go saying we’re trying to break your heart.
JN: The dog makes it. We can tell you that much.
AE: I’ll be as curious to see what the audience reaction is after the episode.
GP: I certainly hope it’s not just about the superficial aspects of what we’re doing. It’s unfortunate that there are some similarities to these other things. We dearly love these characters. We don’t do anything lightheartedly, and I think if there’s any perception that some of these things have occurred to goose the ratings or publicity stunt. We’re done. We don’t give a shit about the ratings. This is the story we wanted to tell.
Person of Interest airs Mondays and Tuesdays at 10pm on CBS. Check back tomorrow morning for our interview with Amy Acker.