Last night's Person of Interest was deceptively light, following a jewel heist caper with Shaw that suddenly took a left turn. And it left us with profound questions about how far we should go to eradicate surveillance technologies from our lives.
The ostensible number of the week was a hot jewel thief who blew into town to pull off a heist with a handful of other Euro baddies. Shaw quickly figures out how to join the gang so she can keep an eye on the number — while Root keeps an eye on Shaw. A few wrong turns have taken Root underground for a while, so she's on "talking into Shaw's ear" duty in the Underground Lair while Shaw makes no secret of her obsession with the number's ass.
Of course the number is a thief with a heart of gold. When he finds out that the mission was actually to steal some deadly Marburg virus (oh so newsy, Person of Interest, with those Ebola references!) he wants no part of it. Unfortunately, his buddies are happy to steal the vials of virus and hand them off to "somebody" in New York. We never find out who that might be, but I'm guessing it's somebody connected with Greer and Samaritan.
Of course, as soon as the Marburg is involved, the case "goes relevant" as Shaw puts it. Her old gang from the Northern Lights days come in to shut the whole operation down and get that ultra-deadly infectious disease off the street. There's an incredibly interesting conversation between the two operatives, who start chatting about the difference between Samaritan and the Machine (they just know Samaritan as "2.0"). One operative — who was trained by Shaw — asks the other one if she doesn't think it's kind of depressing that they used to get numbers "to investigate" but now they just get numbers "to kill." The other operative just shrugs it off and says that their job isn't to ask questions.
It was an intriguing glimpse of how the transition to the Samaritan regime looks to people who don't actually realize there's an AI war going on. As intelligence agents, their job has become a lot more bloodthirsty — they've gone from being investigators to assassins. That's what things look like in a Samaritan-run world.
Even more intriguing was the job that Finch, Reese and Root were working while Shaw tracked down the virus. They'd gotten a tip that Samaritan's puppet governor of New York gave several million dollars to a foundation that's using 3D printers to manufacture cheap tablets for every kid in the state. The organization is kind of a cross between real-life companies OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) and Bre Pettis' 3D printer company MakerBot. In the show, the company is, as Finch says, aiming to do pure "social good." Except the fact that Samaritan funneled money to it means that there's a dark side.
Most likely, it means that Samaritan is hoping to use those tablets to spy on the kids and their families — while also feeding the kids the information that Samaritan wants them to have. They're basically Orwellian devices. So Finch and Root have to destroy the incredibly expensive 3D printer factory that makes them to cripple the program. The problem is that the tablets aren't in themselves a problem. As Finch notes, there is possibly one line of problematic code in their operating systems. Is it worth depriving New York kids of this incredible educational opportunity in order to thwart Samaritan's plan?
That's what the Machine Gang has to believe, if they are to keep fighting in this war. "Mussolini built schools to make the people love him," Finch says, suggesting that Samaritan is a kind of "amoral" version of Italy's fascist leader during World War II. But the fact is that those tablets could have done some good, despite Samaritan. And if the Machine defeats Samaritan at some point, the tablets could have been nothing but a social good.
Ultimately the question is how much good we're willing to sacrifice to stamp out the possibility of evil.
Of course these philosophical niceties quickly become moot in the final moments of the episode, as we realize that Samaritan is beginning to catch on to the Machine Gang's masked identities. At one point we see Samaritan catching on to the fact that Root is an unknown "deviant" when she's tinkering with the security on the 3D printer factory, shutting down the surveillance feeds so that Finch can unleash a worm that causes the printers to overheat catastrophically.
At the end of the episode, when Shaw and the thief have gotten the virus bottles back in a major shootout, helped by Reese and Fusco, we watch a major vulnerability open up in the Machine Gang's camouflage. The intelligence agent who knows Shaw sees her with the goods, and says her name. As Samaritan focuses in on her face, trying to get a fix on who she is, the agent lets her go. He's realized that she's doing something underhanded but good, and that helping her might be a better idea than helping an organization that hands out assassination orders like candy.
As the gang escapes, we watch the agent erasing the footage of Shaw from the NSA's surveillance records. And then watch Samaritan retrieve the erased footage for analysis. This is not good. Not good at all.
What was remarkable about this episode was that it managed to pull such a complex story out of a story whose mystery has been solved pretty much from square one. We know Samaritan is behind every bad thing that's going on, including the virus heist and happy spy tablets. And yet we still manage to get a complicated scenario, where we see all the unexpected ripple effects caused by Samaritan's secret authoritarian takeover. A worthy project for making cheap educational tablets is funded; a government spy becomes disenchanted with his job; and a thief manages to stop a terrorist plot.
Nothing is what it seems anymore, and even the most benevolent actions are deeply corrupt. This is what it means to live in a society full of duel-use technology. An educational project can be used to ferret out social "deviants." A violence-averting machine can turn into an assassination algorithm. And the only people left protecting the innocent are living under assumed names, underground, knowing every day might be their last.