[This is a review of the Person of Interest series finale. There will be SPOILERS.]
Endings are hard. That's especially true for television, a medium that hasn't really had to think about its stories as being on a single, finite course until the last 10 years or so. Television series were built to last, to go on indefinitely, or until the network decided it was time to shut things down. But not so long ago, television turned a corner; the medium began to be filled with programs that aimed to have as distinct endings as they did beginnings – something TV has typically been far better suited towards – they began to concentrate more on the needs of one overarching narrative that told a distinct and limited story. This kind of attention paid to the larger narrative is especially popular on shows outside the traditional broadcast networks, so when a show like Person of Interest comes along and helps upend certain notions about procedurals and larger storylines beyond the crime-of-the-week stuff that typically fuels them, it is both dismaying to know that such a program is leaving the air, but also thrilling to see how the heck they plan to bring the series to a satisfying conclusion.
Back in 2011, creator Jonathan Nolan's CBS TV series felt tailor made to be a long-running CBS drama. It checked all the requisite boxes for the sort of crime procedural the network has spun into ratings gold on more than one occasion. But along the way, something started to happen. Like the AI at the heart of its story, Person of Interest began to show its potential by doing things differently and by choosing to focus more and more of its attention on an ongoing sci-fi-oriented storyline that, as the series became increasingly serialized, meant it was essentially making it more and more difficult for new or casual viewers to simply jump in, watch and episode and leave fulfilled (which is a staple of CBS' success). Suddenly, viewers were being asked to keep track of new character names and a plotline that involved rival AIs battling it out for control, and the fate of, humankind.
In other words: Person of Interest sacrificed a chance at joining the 10 Seasons or More Club in favor of telling one specific story through to the end. It was a bold choice; one that endeared the series to its hardcore fans and helped make the truncated fifth and final season something of a tense, and sometimes emotionally shocking endeavor. It also meant that the finale, 'Return 0' would do like the series itself did and stay true to the plot that had driven its stories.
When it comes to the notion of finding the right end, then, the idea that Person of Interest had a singular plot to resolve gave it a distinct advantage, placed it in a much more convenient place than other recently concluded CBS series, like, say, The Good Wife. The penultimate episode, 'exe.' knocked down all the appropriate pins, removing such obstacles as Samaritan's number one fan John Greer (John Nolan) as well as gang boss Carl Elias (Enrico Colantoni). The hour also finally gave the Machine a voice and a personality in the form of the recently departed Root (Amy Acker). It wasn't an actual resurrection of the character, but it was an emotionally satisfying way of keeping Acker – who had become an essential part of the show – on while at the same time imbuing the Machine with necessary human-like qualities that offset the abstract nature of the AI, ostensibly shifting the audience's emotional connection from Root to a machine as the series hurled toward its conclusion.
That emotional transference serves the finale well, as the hour begins in medias res with Finch and the Machine talking on a rooftop, while flashes of Fusco, Shaw, and Reese go by, hinting at unpleasant and definitive fates for all of them. The opening sequence places the events of the season in a loop, drawing things full circle back to the season premiere where a recording of Root's voice played over a shot of Team Machine's subway station in ruins. The callback gives season 5 a welcome self-contained feeling, like every plot thread was set to be paid off exactly as it should be, and the realization that the recording is the Machine rather than Root is itself the finale circling back to the beginning of the series. It's fitting, then, that 'Return 0' doesn't begin with the usual opening credit sequence wherein Michael Emerson explains the show's conceit. He doesn't have to do that any longer, he doesn't have to provide the Machine with a voice or a reason to exist. It's the beginning of the end, but the Machine has a voice, she can speak for herself, which serves as a beginning of its own in some sense, one that gives the series' parting shot the sort of pleasing uplift that confirms it's just the end of one story, not all of them.
Although the hour carries a sense of finality, it doesn't overwhelm the atmosphere of the episode or threaten to take the audience out of the story by constantly reminding them this is the end. The greatest strength of 'Return 0' is that it functions like any other episode of Person of Interest and yet it also feels entirely distinct. A lot of that has to do with the episode's amazing score that enhances the weirdly elliptical chronology the hour uses to its advantage.
That's certainly true of Reese (Jim Caviezel) sacrificing himself to eliminate Samaritan once and for all, while also saving the Machine from the Ice 9 virus. The deal he struck with the Machine is a fitting conclusion for the character, one that's enriched by the brief moments between him and Finch that grant both men a rare chance to display affection and emotional vulnerability. Seeing Acker on the rooftop interacting with them both also adds to the impact of Reese's story come to an end, one that's punctuated with the cruise missile launched by the overbearing Samaritan in a last-ditch effort to save itself.
Jonathan Nolan described the finale as a "bloodbath," which is sort of true – seeing as how everyone winds up either shot or stabbed. But it's surprising how well the hour played with the question of who would survive and who wouldn't. After Root's shocking death, it seemed as though the entirety of Team Machine might end up in the same boat. While the violence served a necessary purpose in terms of raising the stakes of the finale, Person of Interest managed go one step further, to deliver the sort of conclusion that felt right for each of its characters. From Fusco's appreciation of putting his days as a corrupt cop behind him to the slight ambiguity of Finch finding Grace (Carrie Preston) to Shaw receiving that phone call and walking off with a smile on her face, each ending was satisfying – even when it hinted at a new beginning. Endings are hard, but Person of Interest managed get its ending just right.
Person of Interest seasons 1-4 can be streamed on Netflix.