SPOILER ALERT—I’ve beheld the Messiah, and He lives in a briefcase.
Well, okay, that’s not exactly true. But it’s close to being true, because the briefcase represents the incarnation of Jesus in the elaborate divine metaphor that lies at the heart of one of the most compelling primetime dramas on network television, CBS’s Person of Interest.
By the way, I wasn’t kidding about the spoiler alert. If you’re a fan of Person of Interest and you haven’t seen the May 5 finale (What’s wrong with you? You’ve had since May 5! You call yourself a fan?!?), READ NO FURTHER UNTIL YOU WATCH.
Because the premise of the show focuses mainly around issues of national security and surveillance, most of its theological significance is buried in layers of subtlety. But when the season finale is entitled “YHWH,” (the ancient Hebrew inscription for God); and it follows other episode titles like “God Mode,” “Alethia” (a Greek word for “truth”), and “Deus Ex Machina,” (more on this later); you don’t have to be Ace of Base to see all those signs. It’s obvious that showrunner Jonathan Nolan and his writing staff have something to say about the nature of God, though what, exactly, is less than clear. But what is clear is that the longer Person of Interest stays on the air, the more central a character its version of God becomes.
But what is clear is that the longer Person of Interest stays on the air, the more central a character its version of God becomes.
For the uninitiated, Person of Interest is a sci-fi drama, ostensibly about a rich, tech-savvy recluse named Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), who hires former soldier John Reese (Jim Caviezel) to help prevent crimes using high-powered surveillance technology.
The show’s mythology surrounds the nature of that technology—an advanced artificial intelligence known simply as “the Machine,” that operates a vast network of security cameras and listening devices to feed data into its massive algorithms. According to the show’s opening voiceover, The Machine was created by the U.S. government after the terror attacks of 9/11 to prevent future acts of terror. But it sees everything, including “violent crimes against regular people.” Relying on this intelligence, Finch and Reese work together to stop these everyday criminal acts before they happen.
In the early stages of the show’s development, the Machine was mostly a plot device, the thing that propelled the show’s heroes into the fray to get on with the business of helping people. But over time, it began to develop a life of its own. Not only was it constantly learning and interacting with the main characters, but it developed an ability to protect itself, and it found ways to grant unsolicited access and direction in surprising ways.
You know what it’s like when you’re watching your favorite show and it seems like the main characters are doomed, and then suddenly out of nowhere an unexpected solution shows up in mysterious form and saves the day? Screenwriters normally refer to that plot device by its Latin name, deus ex machina, which literally means “a god from a machine.”
Four seasons in, this is what the Machine has become—a functional, extended metaphor for God. The characters in Person of Interest are regularly studying their environment and retelling stories to one another in an attempt to try to understand its ways, often arguing about what it’s trying to communicate, what it’s doing, and what it wants.
One recurring theme in Person of Interest is the necessity for the main characters to balance their own self-preservation with the desire to follow the Machine’s mysterious plans, wherever they lead. This usually culminates in some sort of armed shoot-out, with a main character (usually Reese) getting real-time, turn-by-turn directions on how to defeat the impending wave of bad guys with guns, a phenomenon known in video game circles as god mode.
It’s no surprise, then, that this latest season finale was named “YHWH,” because this inscription is the written name for the Old Testament God known as Yahweh. Yahweh was considered by the Israelites to be so powerful and holy that even to say or write His name would be blasphemous, so they essentially removed the vowels and shortened it to “YHWH.”
The name fits because, over the show’s four seasons, the Machine has developed a Yahweh-like ability to both delight and confound its followers. It makes its presence known primarily through miraculous demonstrations of power, and yet, at times, seems painfully distant. One of the challenges facing the show’s heroes and its antagonists was trying to locate it, for it was initially housed in a server farm somewhere, but eventually relocated itself by dispersing itself into the national power grid, making it simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.
In the closing moments of the finale, the Machine, with the help of Finch, Reese, and company, completed a stunning transformation. After a character begged it not to merely stand by and observe, the Machine compressed and downloaded all of its AI heuristics into a single set of racked memory, housed inside of a briefcase. This desperate move rendered the Machine completely vulnerable in ways it had never been. But it was necessary to prevent annihilation by the looming forces of evil.
This is why, if I had to give the finale a different set of initials, I would go with “INRI”—a Latin inscription that translates to “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The Machine’s transformation echoed Paul’s description of Jesus’ incarnation as “emptying Himself, taking on the form of a servant.” Jesus achieved the impossible by taking all of His divine attributes and temporarily laying them down to become clothed in a different form—that of a human being—while still somehow retaining all of His divine nature. He became fully man while still being fully God, a mystery that lies at the very heart of the Christian faith.
But there’s one very important difference. In the creative universe of Person of Interest, the Machine is only a creation, not the creator. It is virtually all-knowing (by virtue of tons of real-time intelligence data) but not all-powerful. The Machine does not bend people to its will, but prompts people in suggestive ways, like changing traffic lights or sending text messages.
And yet, it was impossible for me to watch “YHWH” without thinking of the incarnation of Jesus, especially in one emotional scene when the Machine has what appears to be a crisis of belief, asking its creator, Finch, whether or not it should go through with the plan. Whether intentional or not, it strongly echoed Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, asking the Father, “Can this cup pass from Me?”
This is what I find so valuable about Person of Interest. Its depiction of the Machine reminds me that, despite the distance and seeming aloofness we sometimes experience when we try to commune with God, beyond the transcendent layers of power and knowledge is a person. And that person not only knows us and our circumstances, but cares about us. More than that, He is actively working on a moment-by-moment basis, orchestrating things for the benefit of His glory and our welfare.
Every analogy has its breaking point, and we must remember to distinguish the model from the reality. It may seem comforting to see God as the Machine, using government resources to keep citizens safe. But for privacy advocates, it can also seem creepy and intrusive. For people of color who face systemic injustices within the criminal justice system, this depiction of God could seem alienating and cruel—an especially heartbreaking side effect for a population starved for hope.
But even if imperfectly, I see the heart of God in the faint outlines of the Machine.