"Death Benefit" was a funny little episode. It clearly knew what it wanted to accomplish going into the hour, but it didn't quite know how to get there. So instead of cutting directly to the chase, it spent the first 45 minutes drawing our attention away from the fact that it wasn't doing much, with help from some classic Person of Interest tricks—including Reese's hilarious wisecracks, story-pushing shootouts, and a laundry list of suspects and details that would ultimately prove to be *ahem* irrelevant.
Think about it, did we need to meet that angry machinist union leader early on? Was it pertinent for Reese to walk in on number-of-the-week Roger McCourt (guest-star John Heard) and his sexy aide engaging in "policy positioning" on his desk? When we learned that McCourt buys homeless people free lunches, did it mean anything to the overall story? Did we need to see Root and Shaw ride off on a motorcycle, with Shaw embracing Root's hourglass figure, the two of them clad in tight leather motorcycle gear, Shaw's back arched, her shapely posterior pointing toward the blessed gods who gave it to her...
Sorry, I got lost for a second there.
The answers to those questions are no, no, no, and hell yes (luckiest motorcycle in the world!!!), but just about everything before the final act of "Death Benefit" was unnecessary to understanding the episode. The entire first chunk was, for the most part, Congressman McCourt denying any knowledge of Decima Technologies until he admitted that okay, yeah, he does know Decima Technologies and he's in their pocket. None of it was boring filler—in fact, Reese was very entertaining to watch, as he was on top of his game—but I found myself wondering if everything was going to pay off by the time the credits rolled.
And boy, did it! By the end of "Death Benefit," the team was split up, Finch was missing, the bad guys had gotten Samaritan off the ground, and there was a hole in Shaw. And most importantly, one of the show's most interesting questions had been asked: Would the Machine encourage killing an individual in order to save others?
To get to that point, Person of Interest first had to expose McCourt as a government fat cat who greased his palms with the cash of the highest bidder. "The business of governments is business," he said, essentially confirming everything you've ever feared about our elected officials in the highest levels of government. And that cash-flush bidder was Decima Technologies, which wanted to use McCourt's position as a legislative bottleneck to help get Samaritan access to the NSA surveillance systems it needed to become an all-seeing eye with no limits (in contrast to the Machine's limitations, which Finch built to to prevent exactly this type of potential abuse).
Because Finch and Reese figured that Decima was trying to kill the publicly anti-surveillance McCourt when they were actually trying to protect him, they were awfully confused as to why the Machine would send them his number. He wasn't a victim, and he wasn't exactly a perpetrator. That's when Reese proposed the idea that the Machine gave them McCourt's number to kill McCourt, in order to prevent Decima from going online and likely killing scores of people as a result. The death of one marginally innocent man in order to save thousands more. Reese was ready to pull the trigger—and he wouldn't've been aiming at McCourt's leg—but Finch wasn't having it. Finch explained that their job was and always will be to protect people, and if the Machine wanted them to commit murder, he was NOT cool with that. In fact, he was so not cool with it that he was ready to unplug himself from the operation (except the episode said it more eloquently than I just did). Whoa!
That kicked off another one of Person of Interest's stunning sequences, this time scored by Daughter's "Medicine," in which we saw the enemy get the upper hand and our heroes take a devastating loss. With the authorities closing in, Reese, Finch, and Shaw hoofed it through the woods, Shaw got shot, and they barely made it out alive. Meanwhile, Decima's Greer was making arrangements with Senator Garrison to prove Samaritan's worth to national security, and even though Finch hoped that letting McCourt go wouldn't result in Samaritan moving forward, a phone call from McCourt to Garrison proved that it did. Greer gained full access to New York City's surveillance system for 24 hours, and then he shuffled off to an underground lair somewhere to watch Samaritan boot up. Finally, he gave Samaritan its instructions: "Find me Harold Finch."
As Reese and Shaw hobbled through New York avoiding law enforcement, Finch looked up at one of the many security cameras in disbelief, possibly unable to understand how his creation could ask him to commit murder, possibly acutely aware that the same system he used to protect people was now being used against him with Samaritan. Probably both. It was an absolutely devastating scene, like watching a father feel disappointed in his child, and it was all the more painful to see the look of total helplessness on Reese and Shaw's faces as they turned around and noticed that Finch had disappeared, most likely giving up on the operation altogether.
What started off as a simple episode ended up being one of Person of Interest's most depressing lows. The team has never been this vulnerable, and the enemy has never been more powerful and in control. However, it's hardly unexpected. McCourt was a slimeball, but he knew what direction the world was going in. He knew this was inevitable. And I'd bet that Finch knew, too.
– "Death Benefit," more than most other episodes, focused heavily on one of Person of Interest's prime tenets of privacy and protection, a debate that intersects with recent real-life events (even PRISM was name-dropped in this episode). As McCourt told Finch, "These programs are always going to be
controversial, but also inevitable. People get up-in-arms whenever they go
public. But eventually the noise dies down. Because the truth is, people want to
be protected, they just don't want to know how." Chilling. It also echoes what Finch has told Reese in the past.
– Haha at all the opera jokes. "Screeching cats."
– "I could shoot you in the leg, sir." —Reese, offering McCourt an easy way out of commiting to a trip to the opera.
– Greer to Garrison: "Surely you didn't think that in a world where you were surveilling everyone, that no one was watching you."
– What happened on Root and Shaw's mission to Miami? Good times, I guess!
– It was never confirmed whether the Machine actually gave McCourt's number to Finch and Reese in order to kill him, but assuming it did, that's a big change from the lesson about the value of human life it taught Root just a few episodes ago.