“Person of Interest” recap (5.2): Falling Through Time

Where to begin?

This, of course, is in many ways the Machine’s question this week. After a series of glitches, it becomes clear the Machine is unstuck in time: It’s experiencing everything that’s ever happened to It at once. This problem leads to other problems, some comical, some terrifying, and some just sad. But mostly, it’s a wonderful device for examining last week’s topic of memory from another angle.


Some salient facts about human memory that make our lives what they are: 1. We put memories in order. It may not be the accurate chronological order, but we construct from them a narrative, a story with an arc that makes sense to us, to give our experiences meaning and context. No memory is an isolated fact; it’s part of a story. 2. Memories fade with distance. Pain experienced last year, once remembered, is a faint, dull throb; pain experienced yesterday is a sharp line; pain experienced now is a searing stab. 3. Memory is fluid. As we re-remember things, we don’t simply call up stored data as a computer does; we re-experience them and re-inscribe those experiences with new narrative understandings. We add or change or remove information based on what we’ve learned since then or things we’ve heard; we rarely notice we’re doing it. (Hence the notorious unreliability of eyewitness testimony.)

I mention all this in order to provide contrast with the Machine. In “SNAFU,” The Machine’s memories are not subject to the kind of fluidity people’s are: Its records of what has happened are impeccable, incontrovertible. If the Machine remembers something, then that something happened.

For as long as we’ve known It, the Machine’s memory has seemed to function like human memory anyway. This was an effect of the combination of Harold’s labors and the Machine’s nature. It puts Its memories in chronological order, anchoring itself in time and enabling Itself to create the kind of narratives that humans do. Root mentioned context at one point, and she meant the information surrounding a data point that gives it fuller meaning in the now, but context relies on the past as well. Footage of John shooting at people looks very different when you know the events that led up to that act—that he’s trying to save someone. You need the past to understand the present. For the Machine, pain and hurt don’t recede necessarily with time the way they do for us. But Its immense compassion combined with Its sophisticated contextual skills allow It to forgive, to understand people’s misdeeds—even directly against It—in light of their good works and their bonds, their relationships; the balance of their hearts against a feather.

Having The Machine be “falling through time” is an immediate problem because without context—without memory functioning the way it should in a relationship—It can’t understand Its family. It reclassifies Harold and Root as threats because it can only see the heaviness in their hearts, not the lightness. Constant, simultaneous failings blot out the grace. It fails to give Root credit for the transformation It Itself helped her achieve. It fails to understand the things Harold did in the past that threatened It, some of which were necessary, some of which were his own failings. “I promise I will never hurt you again,” he assures It. “You are hurting me now,” It answers. The pain of Day 0 is as present as ever when every day is Day R.

The Machine doesn’t seem like Itself for much of the episode; It seems a lot like the Skynet-type A.I. Harold has always worried It might be. Lacking the emotional and intuitive human intelligence that comes with context and narrative memory, It judges too harshly and too logically, tapping into a frequent trope of A.I. fiction. Deities are often described as being outside or beyond time: they’re eternal, but they are also not subject to time in the chronological, one-day-after-the-next human sense. They experience everything always, and nothing in the way we can understand it. Falling through time in precisely the same way, the Machine becomes a vengeful god.

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