“Person of Interest” Season 4 will be the season of artificial intelligence, and showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman could not be more excited. The pair essentially blew up the premise of their show during its Season 3 finale, and when audiences return in Season 4 they’ll find main heroes Finch, Reese, Shaw and Root in a completely new world.
But that world might not be so different from our own after all. Zap2it spoke with Nolan and Plageman about the season finale, what’s in store for Season 4, the real-life situations they’re basing their AI predictions on and whether or not Root and Shaw will actually consummate the fan-favorite ‘ship.
Zap2it: How far back did you have this plan to let the bad guys win at the end of Season 3?
Jonathan Nolan: Greg, when did we come up with this?
Greg Plageman: Man, this one goes back a ways. We initially conceived the idea of an alternate machine. Decima was an interesting international organization, sort of without boundaries. We kind of have always known that there would be a proliferation of AIs; there would be this competing entity as early as this season, we talked about it. The only question for us was, “When would this thing finally take over?” We talked about next season, and we get to that point where we just can’t help ourselves and we pull story up. We say, let’s go for it, let’s blow it up and let’s figure it out from there. In this case, it felt like the right move. It felt like it dovetailed really nicely, too, when the idea came up that Samaritan effectively created Vigilance as a construct. That felt too juicy to pass up. It kind of all coalesced very nicely in a monster twist where Mr. Greer drank Mr. Collier’s milkshake. It was a blast.
I think the bigger twist was that it seems like you guys are throwing the procedural conceit out the door at the end of this season and our heroes have now lost their identities. Have you figured out yet how you want the show to move forward in Season 4?
JN: Yeah, absolutely. We like being reckless, but always with a plan. That was our pact with the audience, was that we would be reckless with them a little bit in terms of the risks that we take with the characters and the storylines, but that this was always going somewhere. This show has always been headed towards this season’s finale, and headed out of it, we know exactly where we’re going. There will be some fun surprises along the way. But one of the things that we were most excited about three seasons in is we had these superhero-like figures, but for Reese and Shaw and Root and Finch, their lives have been somewhat simple until this point because they just get to do the cool part. They just get to be the heroes.
They haven’t, until this point, been saddled with being real people. In superhero terms, they haven’t had to have their secret identity. Finch has dabbled in it over the years, they’ve all had fun playing at being one person or another, but they’ve never been locked into those identities. As Root put it in her closing voiceover last night, in a world in which everyone is watched, stamped, indexed, numbered, the only outliers are the people who don’t fit that mold. So our characters now, in addition to figuring out how to save the world and save someone’s world in New York every week, will have to figure out how to masquerade as real people. That, I think, proved irresistible to us as a writing challenge — and hopefully as an acting challenge for our amazing cast in terms of adding that new dimension to their roles.
This is a really big change for the series.
JN: In terms of the bigger story of our show, it’s game on. We’ve always flirted, we’ve always been headed in this direction of our show being about artificial intelligence and about the weirdness of the world that’s coming to us. We were a couple years out in front of the Prism story. We think we’re about five years out from the artificial intelligence story. We think there is a real possibility that when AI emerges, it will not do so publicly. That a company will build it in secret, and then potentially deploy it in secret to unknown effect and impact, probably within an industrial application first. Consider this: The company that is pouring the most resources into building AI right now is Google. There’s no secret about it. It’s very public.
We love predicting the future, and obviously — hopefully — the future is a little less dystopian than what we’ve presented at the end of last night’s episode. But we absolutely think this is where the world is going, with a multitude of AI essentially doing battle with each other in exactly the same way that corporations do battle with each other these days on the stock market and in corporate espionage and those terms. So we’re super excited at the larger storyline we’re trying to tell — and the smaller storyline. How these characters are going to deal with taking out the trash and dating [laughs] and having a day job.
I have to applaud you guys, because this show is so meticulously researched, and it’s really nice to have that on TV.
GP: That’s really nice of you to say. When I met Jonah and he pitched this idea of what he wanted to do with the show, I thought it was so thought-provoking. It was an idea that had an incredible engine for a television show, but it also was something that really sticks to your ribs when you walk away from it. There’s books we’ve all read, stories and links we all send each other that are just chilling. Some of the stuff that I’m reading right now is just bone-chilling, and you step back from this and you wonder if people really know what’s going on. And this idea, this proliferation of our artificial intelligence, which is sort of the next big thing we’re tackling on the show, some of the things and the entities that are out there developing this without a thought, perhaps, as to whether we should make it friendly or have a moral construction about it is totally terrifying. [laughs] I call up Jonah sometimes and I just say, “Have you bought an island yet?”
Are we supposed to be looking at Samaritan as the “bad” machine and our Machine as the “good” machine?
JN: I think the thing about AI that we started hinting at at the end of this season was Finch’s growing angst over his creation. The episode in which the Machine finally apparently tells them to kill someone, we were so excited for that episode because it represented a quantum shift for our team and the Machine, and also foreshadowed the darkness of the finale in that the stakes are raising. The question of: Is the Machine — this Machine that we’ve been working at the behest of that Finch built, that’s grown and metastasized into something else — is it the protagonist, is it the good guy or gal? If Samaritan has been put together and assembled, is it really the villain of the piece?
These are questions we love to play with, because the thing about artificial intelligence is whatever form it finally arrives in, you can be assured that it will be surprising. It will either be surprisingly banal or surprisingly aggressive or surprisingly benign or limited or unlimited, but whatever form it arrives in, by definition it will be different than our intelligence, and therefore hard to read and hard to understand. To this point, there’s been a lot of speculative fiction about AI that reduces it to very human terms. I think viewing the Machine or Samaritan as human would be a profound mistake. They’re not. They’re different, and so their agenda may well be different.
Did Finch manage to get his computer out of the library before it was destroyed? Will he have a way to communicate with the Machine in Season 4, or will he have to do so through Root?
JN: That’s a good question.
GP: I think that is a really fun challenge. Next year will be figuring out how are these guys going to hide from this almost omniscient entity that can track them. But more importantly, what is Harold Finch going to do now that he clearly expressed his ambivalence on the stand about the Machine he created? Given that the Machine told him to kill the congressman last year and he stepped away, what happens now when there’s an even more powerful artificial intelligence out there that’s tracking them that’s predatory? The relevant numbers are now Samaritan’s job. This is the deal that Greer struck with the government, with Control. Now the question is what happens with the irrelevant numbers.
You both aren’t on social media, but have you heard any fan reactions to the finale yet? I feel like many viewers were not expecting that.
JN: The energy that cable is bringing to television is this kind of fearlessness. You don’t want to be the show that does 100 identical episodes. Our show’s somewhere in the middle. We love the story engine of our show, we love the franchise of our show, we love the idea of entering a new person’s world each week and trying to figure out what that person’s life is and where the threat is coming from or whether that person is a threat to someone else. We never want to step completely away from that. One of the shows that we modeled this show on was “The X-Files,” where you had all of that playing out against this massive backdrop. We’ve confidently pushed in this direction of continuing to raise the stakes on that storyline. The only thing we know how to make is a show we ourselves would be excited to watch, and so that involves a certain amount of kind of fearlessness and breaking things and seeing how to fix them.
I don’t know if you guys know about ‘shipping —
GP: What? What is that?
JN: Don’t be coy, Greg. You’ve been teasing the ‘shippers all season.
We have to talk about Root and Shaw, because I think a large group of fans really want those two characters to have some sort of romance. Is there any hope for those ‘shippers?
JN: That is the storyline that launched a thousand ‘ships.
GP: Raw? Shoot?
JN: Yeah, we haven’t decided which name we like for that ‘ship. We love the chemistry of those two together. It’s just hilarious and fantastic. It’s clear that Shaw is slowly coming around — or being less pissed off — with Root when Root flirts with her. I don’t know, Greg. Where is that storyline going?
GP: I don’t know, but it sounds really exciting to me.
JN: You’ve got to be careful with “Person of Interest” when you’re rooting for your ‘ship to set sail. It’s usually in a tragic fashion, so file that one under “be careful what you wish for.”
Is there anything else we haven’t talked about for Season 4 that has you really excited?
JN: Bear’s secret identity? We haven’t talked about that one yet.
GP: We definitely need to have Bear flashbacks this season, I think. I definitely don’t think we’ve utilized Bear as a surveillance tool as much as we can.