Person of Interest post-mortem: Showrunners discuss emotional finale and the return of Taraji P. Henson
It’s been a high-stakes year for Reese, Finch, Root, and the team on Person of Interest, which closed its latest—and best—season in predictably dramatic fashion.
The show’s success is due in large part to creator Jonathan Nolan, who has collaborated with brother Christopher on blockbusters like the Dark Knight trilogy and Interstellar, and co-showrunner Greg Plageman, who has written and produced procedural hits like NYPD Blue and Cold Case.
EW had a chance to talk with Nolan and Plageman about the show’s fourth season, Shaw’s captivity, and what it was like to welcome Empire star Taraji P. Henson back to the series.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s been quite the roller-coaster season since Team Machine disbanded, as they found themselves caught not only in the crossfire of the so-called cold war with Samaritan, but also brewing tension between Elias and the Brotherhood. The finale managed to tie these storylines together in an unexpected way.
GREG PLAGEMAN: What we find really interesting is that Dominic and Elias have been on sort of this track, two organized crime villains battling for supremacy all season. But for the first time, the cold war between Samaritan and the Machine spills over into their world and winds up with negative consequences for them as well.
Let’s talk about the arc of the Machine. As the episode “Control-Alt-Delete” proved, it’s really become a complete, living and breathing character.
JONATHAN NOLAN: For me, the Machine has always been a character. Science fiction has not often found a great home on the mass market … It’s a bit of a niche genre. I’m a science-fiction fan, but am always connected more with sci-fi that is the most grounded. What we wanted to do with the show was to really, really dig in with some of these ideas. In the pilot, Michael Emerson beautifully articulates in a six-minute scene walking through Central Park the idea of the Machine. [These ideas] later became grounded in the revelations from Ed Snowden and the rest about the programs the NSA were in fact actually working on. The idea for us was that there would always be a presence, that the Machine starts as the narrator of the show. The Machine is the one telling us the story, and as the story goes on and on, the narrator becomes more involved in its own show—becomes more fleshed out as a character, exactly the way we think [artificial intelligence] right now is developing. So the Machine starts as a voice, it has eyes, it can see but it can’t talk back to you. From the beginning, the Machine has been essentially muzzled. As we’ve gone through season after season, we’ve added one more facet each time.
I’m thinking of one of the last scenes in the finale involving Finch, which struck me as one of the most poignant in the entire series.
NOLAN: You finally see an emotional interaction between Finch and his creation. It’s taken us 90 episodes to get there, and we feel like we’ve earned it every step of the way. I was kind of amazed by Michael Emerson’s ability to give it real humanity.
When Detective Carter was killed off last season, you revealed that it was planned from the very beginning. This season, actress Sarah Shahi’s pregnancy led her character [Sameen Shaw] to become a Samaritan captive. How did you develop this plot point?
PLAGEMAN: Obviously, that’s something we didn’t necessarily plan. But after we sat and hunkered down and really thought about it, we realized we had a bit of gold there. We felt that this was something we could utilize in a really interesting fashion. This is definitely a storyline we would like to resume in the ensuing season.
Speaking of Carter, she made a surprise “return” this season in a rather emotional episode. Can you discuss how that came to be and what it was like to welcome Taraji P. Henson back?
NOLAN: Yeah, it was great. We had said from the beginning, when [she] left the show, that “Everybody lives forever in flashbacks.” We always intended to bring her character back in exactly this fashion. We reached out; she was so excited to come back and we were excited to have her back. Then, of course, Empire came out in between and blew up. We’re thrilled for her. But it was so nice to have her back on our show. Carter was the heart of the show, and to have her back with us, interacting with Reese in that way, was just so much fun.
Person of Interest is one of the rare shows that flips between being serialized and being a procedural. Does that bring any challenges?
PLAGEMAN: It’s an enormous challenge and one we really enjoy. We never want the show to be either/or. The procedural elements provide us with a strong engine, and we feel that every episode can be an opportunity to explore character. But we feel really strongly that there has to be a larger story to the show. What is the show really about? We’re really ahead of the curve on certain things: the death of privacy, surveillance, Snowden. Now it’s artificial intelligence. We’re kind of hoping that when people look back on the show, they’ll say, “These guys were talking about it back then.”
What goes into your collaborative process?
PLAGEMAN: [Jonathan] comes in the room and spews a lot of crazy stuff and everyone’s mind gets blown for a while. Then we buckle up and make it a reality.
NOLAN: That’s a bunch of nonsense! The great pleasure for me in television has always been the collaboration. It has proven to be the best part of it, the most gratifying and the most exciting. The show to me has never been creatively stronger than it is [now]. These [actors, producers, and writers] are killing it. That’s Greg, that’s [writer/ executive producer] Denise [Thé] … It’s just so satisfying to sit back and watch how dense and rich and complicated this world has gotten.
Jonathan, can you tease anything about Westworld, the new HBO series you’re involved in along with your wife, Lisa Joy, and the Bad Robot team of J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk, before its premiere later this year?
NOLAN: You know, artificial intelligence, clearly something I’m very interested in [laughs]. It’s a big part of Westworld. Another opportunity to explore those ideas in a very different way. The A.I. in POI is omniscient and formless and hiding and working in the data. The A.I. in Westworld is very much flesh and blood.
Person of Interest