Last night's episode gave us everything, and then took it all away. We got some well-written comedy, a major dose of fan service for shippers, incredibly interesting insights on how an artificial intelligence might experience reality, and a heart-disintegrating tragedy. I am still reeling.
Written by Denise Thé, "If, Then, Else," is part of a trilogy of episodes that find Team Machine and Team Samaritan meeting in direct conflict. This time, Samaritan has decided to rile up the Machine by destroying the stock market. Which leads to chaos and insanity among humans, of course — and allows Root to utter the immortal line, "We're going to save the world market." Because no matter what they may think about the evils of corporations and banks, she and Finch can't deny that destabilizing the U.S. market could set off wars, famines and worse.
The entire thing is obviously a trap from the beginning, but Team Machine's ethical urges overpower their caution. To stop the market crash, they need to upload a program into Samaritan's servers right at the source. Shaw goes on a mission to nick the password to the secure facility from one of the guys who works there, while Finch, Reese, Fusco and Root sneak into the server farm … and realize as soon as the Machine hijacks the surveillance cams that they are surrounded by a zillion Samaritan ninjas with machine guns.
And that's when time stops. Or rather, that's when we go deeper into the Machine's point of view than we ever have before. Root asks it for "a little help, please." And we get to watch as the powerful AI spends valuable seconds evaluating possible outcomes of the team's next moves. At first, it's not clear that these are potential scenarios, and we watch in horror as Reese is shot to death. Then the Machine retrieves a memory from early in its life, when Finch was teaching it to play chess. That's when the Machine first understood the virtue of playing out different scenarios in its lightning-fast mind first, before acting.
Each iteration of scenario has its own flavor. We see bravery, futility, snags, serious Root/Shaw flirting, a random passionate kiss between Fusco and Root ("Why not? It's a simulation!" Sim-Fusco explains) — and even some delightfully meta humor. There's a great bit where the Machine needs to speed up its model so it reduces all the dialogue to things like "Flirtatious comment" and "reply bordering on hostility."
After millions of nanoseconds tick by, the Machine reaches a decision. But not before recalling that Finch warned it against seeing life as a chess game. "People who treat life like a game deserve to lose," Finch says, voicing my latent convictions about people who obsessively cite game theory to explain everything from conflict to romance. Life is not just a game, and everyone alive is just as valuable as everyone else, Finch tells the Machine. Nobody should be used as a pawn.
With this ethical substrate underlying its decision-making, the Machine finally transmits a course of action to Root. Unlike many of the scenarios it modeled, this plan involves the whole team sticking together. First they'll upload the software, then they'll escape via a hacked service elevator. The Machine calculates they have less than a 3 percent chance of survival, but those are the best odds they've got.
Somehow Shaw manages to get the code out of the guy who works in the building, after talking down a suicide vest dude who is about to blow up the subway train she's on because he lost everything in the stock market crash. Acting on a tip from Fusco, she helps the guy feel sympathy for his fellow passengers by asking each of them how much they lost in the crash. It turns out everybody is terrified because they've gone broke. Even the security guy Shaw's after has lost his pension. The solution to violence and chaos, Shaw discovers, is to create a feeling of solidarity. Now that the man realizes he's not alone, he realizes he has to defuse the bomb.
Likewise, the members of Team Machine are not alone. Even though they are under attack from forces far more powerful than themselves, they manage to save the market — and make it to the elevator with just injuries. Reese has been taken out by a shot to the chest, which looks bad but non-fatal. Just in time, Shaw arrives to help. Unfortunately, that involves racing across the room to hit a button that will release the elevator — while getting shot at by a ton of bad guys.
Root tries to stop Shaw, and our sociopathic ninja realizes that there's only one thing that will shut the flirty hacker up. So Shaw gives Root an intense, passionate kiss. And releases the elevator. And dies like a hero, in a hail of gunfire, her eyes trained on the fields of Valhalla as the elevator doors close on Root's screaming face.
It was the perfect ending for our beloved Shaw, and it was a bittersweet moment for the series' producers. They told Entertainment Weekly that when actress Sarah Shahi (Shaw) came to them a few months ago and said she was pregnant, they were thrown for a loop. She'd been so integral to the show that they couldn't imagine it without her. But after going over every possible way to keep her, they realized that it just wouldn't work. They didn't want to hide her behind basketballs and flower pots for a season, and they realized that they couldn't write a pregnancy into the show. Producer Greg Plageman said:
And what we started to realize is that someone involved in what Shaw is involved in is almost irresponsible to portray as a mother on the show. We'd have to completely change the character. And I think Sarah felt that way too. She said "Well, let's do it with some guts then." And we felt that that was the most appropriate way to go about it.
We went deep into the Machine's mind, and deep into Team Machine's guts, and we lost Shaw. But we gained a greater understanding of what this show thinks about ethical decision-making. Game logic can only take you so far. Beyond that, you have to trust in community — and that is something that can't be quantified. It can only be lived.