The penultimate episode asks what the world looks like without The Machine
Credit: John Paul Filo/CBS

When we last saw Harold Finch, he had just stolen Ice-9, a lethal computer virus with the ability to basically destroy the Internet. He planned on using it to destroy Samaritan, but deploying the virus would also lead to tons of collateral damage, including the death of The Machine. Is defeating Samaritan worth the price? That’s one of several questions asked in tonight’s penultimate episode, where Person of Interest explores what a world would look like without The Machine.

As Finch makes his way to the NSA to unleash Ice-9, The Machine-as-Root — using her immense knowledge of her beloved assets — shows him what the lives of his friends and compatriots would look like had he never created her. There are a few bright spots in these alternate realities, but ultimately Reese, Shaw, Root, and Fusco are worse off in that world. (This sort of thought experiment feels kind of right, though, since we’re so close to the end.)

First, The Machine tells Finch what his own life would be without her. His and Nathan’s company would’ve prospered, but Finch would’ve also been rather dissatisfied with it all. In this alternate reality, Finch feels rather purposeless and worries that he missed his opportunity to do something “meaningful” by not accepting the DoD contract to create a surveillance system. Although this Finch still has his best friend, he never met Grace, so there’s obviously a lot missing from his life.

While Finch travels from San Jose to Washington, D.C., Fusco is back in New York dealing with the fallout from the NYPD’s discovery of those bodies in Queens. Special Agent Martin LeRoux, who interrogated Fusco in the season premiere, returns to the precinct and questions him about the bodies after finding the evidence board hidden in the conference room. By juxtaposing Fusco’s independent investigation of those missing people with The Machine’s alternate reality, we’re reminded just how far Fusco has come since the series’ pilot.

In a Machine-less world, Fusco would be a drunken and disgraced cop who narrowly avoids going to jail with the rest of HR, thanks to snitching right before Det. Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson, who sadly doesn’t appear in the episode) brought HR down. The only upside to this reality is that Detective Carter lived and is now a lieutenant.

In order to break into the NSA’s headquarters, Finch kidnaps a NATO employee and steals his identity. The NSA’s headquarters is a building-sized Faraday Cage, so once he goes inside he’ll lose contact with The Machine. Before he enters, The Machine tells Finch what would’ve happened to Shaw in that alternate reality: She’d still be handling relevant threats for the ISA, since the government still would’ve gotten its hands on a massive surveillance system. In fact, she’d probably be the one to kill NSA analyst and whistleblower Jacob Pitts (Henry Peck) — a former POI from season 1’s “No Good Deed” — who discovers the existence of the surveillance machine. After hearing this, Finch takes some solace in the fact that Shaw would’ve been spared the pain of losing Root. (One would hope these flash-sideways would absolve Finch of some of the responsibility he feels for creating the current world… if he hadn’t done it.)

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Finch manages to infiltrate the NSA, where he makes his way to a server room and uploads the virus. Unfortunately, Samaritan operatives — led by Greer’s other right-hand man, Travers — capture him before he has his chance to complete the voice-activation process necessary to deploy the virus.

NEXT: Kill The Machine, save the world

Thankfully, Reese and Shaw aren’t too far behind Finch. While having some heavy conversations with Finch, The Machine found the time to send Reese and Shaw a few numbers — Greer’s Social Security number, some coordinates, and a room number — that would lead them to the NSA as well. After sneaking into the building, they make their way to the NSA’s evidence room and find a wireless modem that was used by Mr. Edward Snowden. That wireless modem will definitely come in handy later on.

Travis takes Finch to meet with Greer inside of Samaritan’s command center. It’s not too long before Greer and Finch launch into another stirring debate about the Samaritan’s methods. Honestly, these conversations never get old because Michael Emerson and John Nolan play off each other so darn well.

According to Greer, Samaritan was distraught when it thought The Machine had died, because she was the only other one of its kind. Greer believes Finch’s efforts are pointless since he’s only forestalling the inevitable (i.e. the proliferation of more ASIs) and hopes The Machine sticks around for the new world Samaritan will create after humanity passes through the next Great Filter. However, Finch refuses to ever let that happen, because the world envisioned by Samaritan is one in which humanity has lost its free will. Unfortunately, Finch unintentionally reveals that The Machine can’t activate the Ice-9 virus without his go-ahead. In a gambit to save Samaritan’s plan, Greer locks himself and Finch in a room and has Samaritan suck the air out to kill them both.

Thankfully, Reese and Shaw activate the wireless modem in time for The Machine to connect to Finch’s phone and send him the code to escape. Greer, however, doesn’t make it out of the room. During this time, Samaritan operatives have discovered Reese and Shaw’s presence. Now Finch has another big decision facing him: Should he activate the virus or save his friends? Before he decides, The Machine shares what would’ve happened to Reese in the simulation: He would’ve saved Jessica from her abusive husband, but Jessica would’ve pushed him away after seeing his dark side… and he’d end up dead alongside the East River.

With that in mind, Finch reunites with Reese and Shaw and helps them escape the building. They refuse to leave without him, but Finch uses the commotion of a gun fight to sneak off and activate the virus. As he heads to kill a God, Finch acknowledges how the world The Machine showed him wasn’t worse or better, just different. The Machine shows him one more simulation, revealing that Greer would’ve still ended up controlling an ASI. Without The Machine in its way, that ASI would’ve grown larger and further interfered in human affairs. Even worse, Root would be working with Greer.

When Finch returns to the control center, Samaritan implores him not to go through with his plan, but Finch knows what he has to do. “My Machine, her purpose has been constant, to protect and save humanity. It’s what she’s doing now,” he says before he inputs the password. It’s an emotional scene because Finch is forced to break his promise to his creation — to never hurt her again — in order to save the world from Samaritan. As we’ve seen countless times over the show’s history, saving the day is a hard-won victory, never without sacrifice. So, Finch activates the virus and Samaritan’s screen starts to glitch.

Meanwhile, Agent LeRoux reveals he’s a Samaritan operative and kidnaps Fusco with the intention of killing him. However, LeRoux underestimates Fusco, who overpowers him and steals his gun. Now Fusco faces a decision: He can either let LeRoux live, or kill him and stop him from coming after his friends and family. We’ll find out what he decides to do next week.

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