May 11, 2015

Welcome to the Machine

The most interesting theological discourses on television these days come from a series that ostensibly has nothing to do with religion: Person of Interest.

With the battle now fully engaged between the Machine and Samaritan (echoing C.S. Lewis's contention that the Earth is, in fact, "enemy territory"), the one remaining challenge is providing John Greer (aka Decima, played by John Nolan, Jonathan Nolan's uncle) an underlying motivation that matches those of the rest of the cast.

The problem, as Kate points out, is that "the abstract nature of belief" makes "religion difficult to write about," even when couched in equally abstract metaphors.

In order for Martin Luther to argue against indulgences (a practical reality), he has to believe in something far more abstract (that the soul cannot buy its way into heaven or out of accountability). In order for Joseph Smith to argue against infant baptism (another practical reality), he has to believe that Adam and Eve's Fall from God's presence did not entail a fall into sin.

A "bigger worldview lies behind most theological arguments," and that's what often goes missing in the mundane scramble after plot. But it has to surface sometime, else the plot will end up chasing its own tail. At the end of season four, we do catch a compelling glimpse.

A skeptical Control confronts Decima in what can be analogized to the conflict between the Confucianists and the Hobbesian legalists of the Qin Dynasty. Confucians focused on the primacy of ethics and a virtuous ruler, while legalists believed that the whims of any ruler could be subsumed by the objective machine of the law.

Or in the case of Person of Interest, the algorithm. Outside a shrinking number of crumbling Marxist states, the most familiar implementations of legalism are Sharia and the Mosaic Law.

Under legalism, we have the right to do nothing, except for a finite subset of actions the state allows. By contrast, to assert that rights are inalienable" and "god-given" means that we have the right to do anything, except for a finite subset of actions the state deems to be crimes. And even then, we are "presumed innocent."

Legalists see only chaos in such expansive views of liberty. Like Hobbes, they argue that "[T]he purpose of the commonwealth is peace, and the sovereign has the right to do whatever he thinks necessary for the preserving of peace and security and prevention of discord."

In the tension between these two perspectives, we find the foundations of Christian theology as reflected in Milton (or The Pearl of Great Price), which casts the War in Heaven as a conflict between a Hobbesian view of life (man must be forced back into heaven) and one in which man has free will (and can only return via grace).

Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down;

And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice.

The Machine is the "still small voice," while Samaritan is the enlightened despot. But in dramatic terms, while "justice" and "redemption" can be pursued forever (which is why we'll never run out of police procedurals), it's impossible to square Samaritan's objectives with reality. The world is too analog to "take over."

Every quest for world domination suffers the same fate: This too shall pass away. Entropy always wins in the end (perfectly symbolized by the fates of self-made enlightened despots like Elias and Dominic).

I can imagine Samaritan being oblivious to its own mortality, while John Greer is not. Hence his mission. The Machine knows its limitations, hence Root's procurement of the mysterious bulletproof attache case for reasons none of them understands at the time.

I think Jonathan Nolan is getting a better idea of what makes his machines tick. In the season four finale, Greer does a good job of articulating why the threat of filling the streets with stormtroopers was a diversion all along. He comes quite close to paraphrasing the legalist approach to pragmatic governance:

  • The ruler exists to monopolize authority in order to prevent its abuse by feudal magnates [or federal bureaucrats].
  • Special tactics or "secrets" should be taken by the ruler to ensure that others do gain not control of the state. Withdraw[ing] from affairs except to manage the course of ministers, the ruler . . . obscures his motivations. By these means, no one can subvert the state through sycophancy, but may only try to advance [within it] by heeding orders.
  • The ruler uses the legal system to control the state; if the law is applied effectively, even a weak ruler will be strong.

The question is whether the show can avoid going down the Terminator rabbit hole. That seems the only way Hollywood knows how to resolve conflicts involving sentient machines: "Robots take over the world!" Samaritan will have to take over something quite different. "Robots take over the government!" won't do either.

Jonathan Nolan has created the most ingenious cyber thriller on television (the mesh network episode was one of the smartest ever). He's resorted to both "conspiracy mode" and "Dr. Evil mode" that I worried about here, but has managed to keep pulling the rabbit out of the hat so far.

The best solution can probably be found in how churches and states have sorted themselves out of the past two millennia. Greer could argue, for example, that for all its notoriety, the Spanish Inquisition was a much less gruesome affair than the Thirty Years' War, and that his way will bring more "souls" to "salvation."

On a side note [spoiler alert], Nolan exercises the tightest cast control in the business. He pulled a "Scully" with Sarah Shahi (for the same reason as Gillian Anderson). Like Scully, they've kept Sameen  alive, so I presume she'll be back. Camryn Manheim as Control ended up in dire straits, but I presume she'll be back too.

Enrico Colantoni is not so dead he can't come back. I liked Winston Duke as Dominic (another great bad guy from Nolan), but he's pretty dead. Martine (Cara Buono) is pretty dead too (after turning into the Terminatrix there for a while). Meanwhile, the Machine is in a literal box, reduced to a ghost in a shell.

Which means that, as things stand right now, we're back to the original cast size. You see, Joss Whedon, it can be done!

Oh, and the theme music for the penultimate scene of season four was recorded in 1975, but sounds like it was commissioned for this episode.

Related posts

The Difficulty of Writing About Religion
The Two Hands of Person of Interest, Season 3
Person of Interest
The IT enemy is us

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
5/11/2015 10:35 AM   
I'm looking forward to Season 4 now! I rewatched the Season 2 final episode this weekend--one of the best in television history (I love how Root claims she wants to set the Machine free, but actually seeing it done sends her into despair; she wanted to see the Machine freed, yes, but mostly she wanted to SEE the Machine). I was disappointed in the Season 3 finale although pay-offs for Carter and Control throughout the season were excellently done. Nolan has set some fairly high bars for himself, not just with the Season 2 finale but with specific episodes such as "Lethe" and "Aletheia". Hopefully, he will continue to reach them!