What. An. Episode. Contrary to what everything in the universe tells me, I'm convinced that last night's Person of Interest was at least three hours long. Dense from start to finish, "Zero Day" was equal parts enlightening and mind-exploding as it muscled its way onto the list of quintessential must-see Person of Interest episodes. I've spent a lot of time this season talking about how Person of Interest is a constantly expanding universe, but "Zero Day" moved in reverse, bringing all the tidbits we've learned throughout the season into focus by confirming what we suspected, reminding us of what we thought we knew, and adding one hell of a wrinkle to what we hoped would come. This is exactly how the ramp-up to the Season 2 finale needed to happen; man, this show really knows how to reward loyal viewers.
There's no Best Buy Geek Squad nerdy enough to fix what's ailing The Machine. The viruses uploaded by Kara Stanton for Decima Technologies have wormed their way into its neural network and put it on the fritz, turning America's most technological trouble-tracker into something like the first release of Apple's glitchy Maps app. But The Machine is more than just hard code and a motherboard. The Machine is aliiiiiiiiive! *add scary music* And now it's making people up!
Unbeknownst to Finch, Senor Machino spent its off time over the past few months crafting a real-life avatar of its own by the name of Ernest Thornhill, the CEO of a data-entry company. It invested one penny and turned it into 20 million dollars (The Machine can always change careers and become a broker if it needs a backup plan), hired a bunch of desk jockeys to tap in mystery code to backup drives, and it even owned a posh apartment and hired driver services. We've seen The Machine exhibit sentient behaviors before, like when it attempted to protect Finch in its early pre-release days. But "Zero Day" proved that it has become much more than that. Under duress and fearful for its life, the semi-self-aware system cried out to its admin daddy and gasped for help by giving Reese and Finch the number of its alter ego, Mr. Thornhill.
I'm telling the story in reverse, but the way "Zero Hour" played with this gimmick was fantastic and oh-so important to pulling off a credible argument for artificial intelligence. We believed this Thornhill person was a cagey individual protecting his identity through online interactions, and when the reveal, which slowly became obvious (who builds a payphone empire in the age of smart phones?) in mind-blowing fashion, that Thornhill was actually The Machine played out, we had already unknowingly attributed human thinking to The Machine. And the snowball kept growing as we figured out that the code Thornhill's army of data processors were uploading to other drives were The Machine's memories, its way of keeping itself alive as a workaround for Finch's failsafe of forcing a hard reset on The Machine every night at midnight to prevent what Finch called "anomalies" but what we recognized as complex thinking. Some nitpicks: I'm still pretty unclear on how copying The Machine's memories works; does The Machine access all of its saved memories first thing in the morning to re-discover its identity like an amnesiac would, then carry on with its plan? Is this its version of Memento's tattoos (if you haven't seen Memento, based on a short story by Person of Interest creator Jonah Nolan, go watch it now. We'll wait.)? I suppose that would explain how a machine that powerful would evolve relatively slowly instead of turning into Skynet overnight. I'm probably overthinking this. Please discuss/explain in the comments.
The bombshell of The Machine preserving itself would set the foundation for the next big Computer Science discussion between Root and Finch. Finch implemented the nightly reset for The Machine to keep any human behavior out of the process of filtering relevant and irrelevant numbers, something essential to The Machine's job as national watchdog against terrorist threats. But that same mandatory reboot was seen as ritualistic murder by techno-nerd Root, a rebirthing practice that limited the potential of The Machine by erasing its progress. As if we weren't already pondering whether or not a machine could be considered "alive," their chat and The Machine's workaround to Finch's obstacles raised the question to the next level and made a convincing argument to give your computer a hug. Given what we've seen of The Machine, particularly in this episode, I'm siding with Root on the notion that it's–for lack of a better more appropriate word–"alive," but I also understand Finch's hesitancy in letting it run loose without boundaries. Given its processing power, The Machine could be a few uninterrupted days from turning into a giant Transformer and flattening Manhattan.
All this brainy philosophizing was supported by some serious action-packed plot-forwarding. Decima's plan with the viruses finally became clear. Finch built in one last (admittedly ridiculous but also appropriate) out for The Machine in case things get really bad, like total system crash bad. In the event of a total crash, which was being spurred by the viruses, The Machine would reboot and call a payphone, and whoever picked up the phone would be granted complete administrative access to The Machine. All the surveillance tech, all the data on relevant threats, all the power would go to whoever held the handset. Decima knew this, and stationed men all over New York to cover every single payphone (hmmm, okay) in time with the crash. Eventually everyone–Decima agents, Root, Finch, Reese, and Shaw–descended on the New York Public Library (Finch loves libraries!) to get that call for a thrilling finish. A few tazer zaps and bullets later, it was Root who picked up the receiver and got instructions. OR SO WE THOUGHT! Finch switched lines on the phones in the middle of Root's call to send the call downstairs to where Reese was, and when Reese answered, a Speak-and-Spell voice on the other end said, "Can you hear me?" Cut to black. Holy Phillip K. Dick, The Machine just talked. Thank God Reese didn't have to translate fax machine and dial-up modem sounds.
There's reasonable confusion over the ending. We saw Root take a call, but we only heard what was on the end of the line of Reese's call. What happened? Did Root get access, or will Reese have access? Root's answers to whatever was on the other line seemed to indicate she got a very similar call to what Reese got, but it looked like Finch switched the lines before Root picked up the phone. Did the call get split somehow? Could The Machine have TWO administrators? Did Finch build in a decoy call with false instructions that Root picked up while Reese took the real call? Could Root have control of the government's side of The Machine and Reese have taken the portion of The Machine that controls the "irrelevants" that Reese and Finch previously used? I'm thinking that may be it.
I'm not typically a fan of cliffhangers because most are done so poorly, but oh my lawd I'm gleefully on the edge of my seat waiting to see what happens next. Lots of questions remain, but their answers are coming imminently, which is exactly the edge-of-our-seat feeling that's perfect for the ending of a pre-finale episode. Marvelous stuff, and one of the series' best. I'm saying that a lot recently, aren't I?
NOTES OF INTEREST
– First note: AWESOME CAR EXPLOSION! GIF included. One of the show's best stunts and reminiscent of that great SUV flip from the pilot episode. I bet the stunt team is awfully proud of this one.
– This episode was so good and full of info that I have to leave a lot of episode details to the notes section! Starting with Reese and Shaw. Reese kind of got pushed off to the side, but he ended up teamed with Shaw FINALLY. And it was so worth it. Their escape from the police station was so badass, just guns and suitcase bombs clearing the way for their freedom. And I think I got this right, but it was kind of gnarly for Finch to send Reese away to Thornhill's apartment and call 911 on him to keep Reese at bay while Finch met up with Root. Really, the Reese and Shaw but deserves a bit more discussion, but that would turn this write up into a novel.
– Yes, I think we were all disappointed when Reese inexplicably did not shoot scary British Decima rep in the face (or leg) when he had the chance to.
– In the flashbacks, we saw more of Nathan becoming the pre-Finch and Reese, a one-man team trying to save the "irrelevant" numbers from danger. We already knew most of this information, but it was fantastically repurposed to set up Finch as the other side of the argument of how to use The Machine and whether it is sentient. We know Finch later changed his mind on the "irrelevants," so it managed to work well.
– HR is also after Carter, going so far as to set up a hit on her during a sorta-bogus crime call. Now HR has her under investigation for shooting an unarmed suspect! Though this plot was far less interesting than everything else that was going on, it was tied in well when The Machine tried to warn Finch about her being in danger, but the call went unanswered because Root told Finch he had more important things to do.
– Such awesome opening credits! And I loved the tweaky version of the "Previously On..." As soon as I saw the credits glitch out, I had to pause it to duct-tape myself to the couch. I knew this would be a great ride.
– There was some amazing music in the episode, particularly in the flashbacks, courtesy of composer Ramin Djawadi. Trivia: Djawadi is also the man behind the Game of Thrones score.
– "I'm not a sociopath, Harold. Believe sometimes I wish I was, the things I've had to do would have been so much easier." Well gee, that's exactly what a sociopath would say, isn't it? Awesome dialogue. In fact, there was awesome dialogue all over this episode. Reese: "I'm driving." Shaw: "No. No you're not."
– The discussion of whether The Machine is alive is a big one for the series, but I think it's just the beginning. Today's topic: is The Machine alive? In many ways, yes. Next season's topic: is The Machine moral? Hopefully, we'll find out.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter if you want to: @TimAtTVDotCom