Person of Interest, one of the most complex and compelling shows currently on TV, will be entering its fifth season on CBS, when it returns with new episodes in 2016. In the meantime, you can check out and catch up with episodes from the beginning, as part of the “Prime Crime” line-up currently airing weekdays on WGN America, or you can binge-watch on Netflix (Season 1-3 are available now, and Season 4 is available on September 22nd).
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Michael Emerson reflected back on the show’s evolution while also giving a preview of what’s still to come. He talked about how far the show pushes boundaries, having this team become such a tight family, the unexpected humor, turning points for Finch and Reese (Jim Caviezel), that this season’s end will have to be a bit ambiguous to leave the door open to return, rebuilding the Machine, flashbacks, his hope that the good guys will prevail, in the end, and what a cross-over episode might look like.
Collider: Are you hoping that the fact that WGN America will be running all of the previous episodes of the show that it will catch people up in time to bring new viewers when Person of Interest returns to CBS in 2016?
MICHAEL EMERSON: Yeah, I hope it does find a wider audience. I think there’s a chance that it will find a younger audience that we didn’t quite reach. And maybe it’s a way for people that got behind to catch up. And then, they’ll start watching the current season.
Person of Interest has always been an interesting show because it feels like it started under the radar as just another CBS procedural, but it’s really evolved into one of the most complex shows on TV. When you signed on to do this show, did you think that you were just making a procedural with an interesting hook that hadn’t been explored, or did you always know that Jonah Nolan and Greg Plageman would keep pushing the boundaries of it?
EMERSON: I didn’t know how far they would push it. I expected it to be a procedural because it was CBS and because that’s the traditional way that they do things there. I had thought it was an edgier show than I expected on CBS, and it has proven to be. I didn’t dream that Jonah and Greg would go as far out there as they have done, which is great. I’m really happy that we have this over-arching dilemma of the artificial intelligences at war with one another. I think that raises a lot of interesting questions and good stuff for our writers to play with.
When you think about where this story and these characters were at the point that this all started, compared to where they are now, is there anything that’s most surprised you about the journey that you’ve taken with this character?
EMERSON: I didn’t foresee it to end up being such a family. It’s an odd family, with Root, Reese, Fusco and Finch, but they have each other’s backs, they have a respect for one another, they look out for one another, and they have a little bit of fun together. I like how much humor has evolved in the show. Even though the circumstances are always dire and the missions seem to continue to be suicidal, they are very colorful people. I sometimes feel like I’m in a comedy, but I’m the only one who knows it.
Adding Bear, the dog, to the show also seemed to have really changed things.
EMERSON: I know, we really turned a corner when we got the dog. I think it’s because it’s such an unlikely domestic detail. Dogs suggest home and hearth and relaxation, and all the things that don’t seem to fit into the world of Finch and Reese, and yet it does. Even in the midst of chaos, and even on a suicide mission, you can still be human.
How do you think the partnership between Reese and Finch has most changed and evolved? Do you think there were turning points for them, or do you see it as more of a slow evolution?
EMERSON: It seems very gradual, but I can remember a couple of places where we did turn corners. Giving the dog a bath went a long way to contributing to the sense of them being a fun odd couple. And there was the scene where I measured Mr. Reese for a new suit. There was something so familiar about it, and a little dear and silly. Anytime they’re talking about what they like to eat or drink, or their taste in entertainment, and the everyday people talk, it’s so humanizing for them. It’s evolved slowly into a relationship that people enjoy. Jonah always says that no TV succeeds, if the audience isn’t invested in the characters. No matter how high concept or flashy, it’s about the characters, at the end of the day. And I think that holds true on Person of Interest.
What have you enjoyed most about working with Jim Caviezel, as your partner in crime in all of this?
EMERSON: I like the odd couple-ness. He and I are completely different actors and completely different kids of people, altogether. It’s an unlikely partnership, in any sense, as people and as actors, and yet it somehow works. It’s one of those chemical accidents that you hope for, but cannot manufacture in the performing arts. I have liked that relationship. There’s a tension to it, but underneath the tension, there’s respect and a caring.
CBS only ordered 13 episodes for this next season. Does it feel like the last season, in terms of story, or do you think the show could come back for another 13 or even switch to another network beyond that?
EMERSON: I don’t know. All of those things are unknowns. It feels like we’re coming to the end of something. It’s a problem for the writers because they have to write what will be an ending and a finale, but it has to have a little bit of a back door built into it. It has to be a little bit ambiguous, on some level, so that the story could continue, if necessary.
After the events that happened last season, it would have been devastating to leave it there, and not come back and give some sort of closure.
EMERSON: Yeah, I don’t think they could have gotten away with just ending it with us going out into a hail of bullets with the Machine in a briefcase. I think there would have been a human cry about that.
Now that the Machine needs to be rebuilt, does Finch feel like he’s getting a bit of a do-over, in some way?
EMERSON: He has an opportunity to tweak it and maybe undo some of the safeguards that he originally built in, to let the Machine be able to fight for itself and to fight for its own existence. That’s one of the opportunities/dilemmas of the first few episodes. The Machine that rises from the ashes, how much will it be like the old one, or will it have new qualities? Finch and Root will argue that out, philosophically, because she has a different vision.
With it essentially being up to Finch and Root to rebuild things, will those differences of opinion lead to some tension between them?
EMERSON: Yes, there will be tension and there will be some uneasy compromises.
Root is clearly the most unpredictable of the team, and is still very much a wild card, in many ways. What do you think it was that finally got Finch to see her as more of an ally than just strictly an enemy?
EMERSON: It’s accumulated over time. In a world full of dangerous enemies, she was at least helpful and useful. I think it goes a long way with Mr. Finch that Root is so dedicated to the Machine. You have to like someone that loves your child, even if they’re a little bit scary. I think he has an uneasy familial feeling with Root now. Because of the circumstances, now they’re roommates, which is an odd set-up. When you think back to how, at one time or another, each of them kept the other prisoner for periods of time, things are a little easier, but a little more complicated.
With the shorter season, will we still get a good balance of flashbacks, or is it harder to work those in when you have fewer hours to tell the present-day story?
EMERSON: We’re shooting lots of flashbacks, particularly in the opening episode or two. There’s always been a revisiting of the Machine’s past. Now that we are trying to revive the Machine, it’s a good opportunity to revisit the education of the infant Machine, to dramatic effect. We learn a little bit about the past of the Machine, in its childhood. We get a bigger picture of Finch as mentor and teacher, and we get the particulars about how he groomed the Machine. It’s interesting.
In a perfect world, when all is said and done with the story you’re telling, would you like to see all of the work that this team has done mean something in the bigger picture of humanity, or is there no way for it to end well for any of these people?
EMERSON: I don’t know. I wonder what the writers have up their sleeves. It can’t end with Samaritan in charge, can it? That would be so dire and so hopeful. Ours is an upbeat show. The good guys will prevail. Maybe ambiguously, but someone gets through this into the light of day again, I hope.
One of the cool things about this show being on WGN America is that it’s being aired with Elementary and the promotional items of the two casts together led me to wonder, if you could do a cross-over wither another show, is there anyone that you’d like to see Finch and this team interact with?
EMERSON: Wow. We’ve seen that happen on other shows. Homicide and Law & Order overlapped casts for awhile there. But, I don’t know. With our show, you get not just a specific narrative, but a style of storytelling. I don’t know how you’d maintain the style of the two shows, if they’re different, and they would be. I don’t know. That’s an interesting idea. With what show? The Big Bang Theory? They could have a fantasy episode, or Mr. Finch could move in next door. Sherlock and Finch might be like matter and anti-matter. They both perform the same function in their respective narratives, so they might implode or something. There might not be anywhere to go because they’re, in essence, the same character. Maybe that’s the angle that a writer would use. Where can you run with that? That would be interesting.
Person of Interest is airing weekdays on WGN America, as part of the “Prime Crime” line-up. Seasons 1-3 are now available at Netflix while Season 4 will be available on September 22nd. Season 5 will premiere on CBS in 2016.