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Person of Interest breaks TV's rules in a standout episode

The CBS techno-thriller has a heart. You just have to go looking for it sometimes.

Person of Interest
Shaw (Sarah Shahi) isn't doing so hot.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for May 15 through May 21, 2016, is "6,741" the fourth episode of the fifth season of CBS's Person of Interest.

TV writers have a term called "schmuck bait." At its heart, it has a kind of contempt for the TV viewer, but it's also probably necessary for any successful TV show.

Basically speaking, schmuck bait is anytime a series teases a situation that would vastly change the series' status quo. (Here, I should state that there is a trope of the same name delineated over at TV Tropes, but it has nothing to do with this definition.) A character's life is threatened, or she says she'll take a job in another town, or a couple threatens divorce. But by the end of the episode, all is well, because you know the series can't change the game too much. It's a TV show!

The reason for the term is that only a schmuck would fall for the setup. You'd have to be pretty naive to think that, say, Sam Malone would leave Cheers forever, or that any one of the main ER doctors might fall prey to some medical malady themselves. And yet these situations set up solid drama for a show, which is why they keep coming back.

Thus, as viewers become savvier, TV becomes more and more of a balancing act — schmuck bait rises up here and there, and the show has to find ways to subvert it, to let the viewers know it's two steps ahead of them. Such an episode is Person of Interest's "6,741."

Nearly everything in this episode could be called schmuck bait

Person of Interest
This picture doesn't really have much to do with this article, but I like it.

I could fairly easily spend several thousand words explaining the surprisingly complicated backstory of Person of Interest. In the interest of brevity, I'll say that the show is a sci-fi gem about a world secretly ruled by dueling artificial superintelligences known as the Machine (which is on the side of the show's heroes) and Samaritan (which is on the side of their enemies).

Both Machine and Samaritan represent the global surveillance state run even more amok than usual, as they use the gigantic global network to track individuals, fight crime, and rain down all manner of death and destruction. In the show's fourth season, former ISA agent and current Machine operative Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi) was captured by Samaritan forces. Unable to save her, the others on the side of the Machine eventually assumed she was dead.

She wasn't! (Remember, this is an article about schmuck bait.) Yet the show took its sweet time bringing her back. Fully four episodes passed from when she last appeared in significant fashion (in the fourth season's 21st episode) to "6,741." That gave her lengthy absence — which turned out to last nine months — the kind of emotional and psychological weight that gave it a real feeling of permanence, rather than a quick plot twist meant to goose the drama.

In one sense, then, everything that happens in "6,741" is schmuck bait. Shaw escapes captivity way too easily. She finds her old friends way too easily. Indeed, everything comes a little too easily when you stop and think about it.

And when she starts killing said friends, you realize there's another shoe hanging out there somewhere, waiting to drop. It might, indeed, occur to you that this is a dream episode (which it sort of is, as everything is happening inside Shaw's head as Samaritan probes her thoughts to ascertain her friends' weaknesses and how Shaw might be used against them).

Of all the types of cheap storytelling devices you could employ, "It was all a dream" is one of the cheapest. Yet not only does "6,741" get away with that, but it gets away with all other manner of twists that should seem cheap, right down to seemingly killing off two regular characters. (It might be the show's final season, but the bloodbath probably wouldn't happen in episode four.)

So how does Person of Interest get away with all of this stuff that could feel cheap? It has two tricks up its sleeve. The first is Shaw herself, and the second is that it roots everything in an epic love story for the ages.

This show has one of TV's best love stories

Person of Interest
Root (Amy Acker) cares for Shaw.

The very first time Person of Interest fans met Shaw was in a second season episode told from her point of view, as a brutally effective ISA operative on the trail of some of the show's other characters. The character (and Shahi's performance) proved so popular that she was added to the cast on a regular basis in season three.

But the series has always contained a trace of the idea that Shaw is at once part of the central band of heroes and just a little bit apart from it. Person of Interest has always been fond of breaking apart its usual formulas to pursue episodes that take more experimental bents, yet a great many of these have involved Shaw herself, including the aforementioned introductory hour and a thrilling season four episode, told from the point of view of the Machine, that detailed its desperate attempts to keep her from dying.

This is because of that outsider quality Shaw has, because of the way her borderline sociopathy and easy facility with violence (often on display in "6,741") keep her from entirely blending in even with a rather ruthless band such as this one. Thus, "6,741" avoids feeling cheap (or like schmuck bait) because Shaw is so damned good at what she does that any chance to watch her do her thing feels like its very own special treat. She doesn't seem to have a softer side, and that's why fans love her.

Except she does, and it's in her softer side that "6,741" finally transcends its "it was all a dream!" setup. See, Shaw has been circling another member of the group for what feels like eons now, the genius hacker Root (Amy Acker).

The series has never made a huge deal of their romantic connection (or, really, any romantic connection on the show), but the chemistry between Acker and Shahi is potent enough that when Root is the one to find Shaw early in "6,741," it feels like the episode will simply turn into the two women casting longing glances at each other, and that approach will work.

And, see, even if this is all a dream, it allows the show to explore just how deep Shaw's feelings for Root truly run. The climax of the episode, no less, presents a Shaw who has yet to betray her friends completely, because every time it comes time to kill Root, she simply can't do it. (In the simulation viewers see, Shaw shoots herself instead of killing her lover.)

Accusations of schmuck bait fall away when such hugely dramatic steps are taken (and undone) in the name of character development as significant as this. Shaw isn't the sociopath she's been sold as. She has, somewhere, a beating heart, and as the show heads into its final stretch of episodes, it's now with the hope that Shaw and Root might find each other, no matter the odds, and finally be happy together. (Given this show, that doesn't seem likely.)

When Person of Interest debuted, the series was written off as slightly cold, as a techno-thriller that lacked anything human to it. As the series went on, it became ever more clear that it had that chilly feeling because so many of its characters were, themselves, machines, made that way by an increasingly impersonal society.

And yet here, in the middle of all that, is one of the best love stories on TV. The implication is clear: If we survive the coming AI war, it won't be because we've placated either superintelligence; it will be because we've remembered what makes us human in the first place.

New episodes of Person of Interest air both Mondays and Tuesdays at 10 pm Eastern on CBS. The first four seasons are available on Netflix.

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