*This article contains spoilers of the latest Person of Interest episode “The Day The World Went Away”.
Person of Interest recently killed off one of its most important characters, a character one could argue was the most significant in the cast save for Michael Emerson’s Harold Finch. The character that died was a reformed assassin turned key member of “Team Machine”, what fans of the show affectionately refer to the main cast as. In the show’s fifth season, we see this character take on the role of the matriarch within the team, to contrast with Finch’s father, as they raise the AI supercomputer (known simply as “The Machine”) they revived together as if it were their child. We see this character reunite with the love of her life (Sameen Shaw) after searching so long for her, and then bring her through the trauma she experienced while in enemy hands. Finally, we see this character die protecting the world in the name of the God she’s chosen to raise and believe in. The name of this character is Root, and to me, her identity does not matter as much as her actions. This article is a discussion of this show, but also my response to its place in the conversation of the “LGBT Death Trope”. While I respect and understand the frustrations associated with this issue, I have to take the side of the show’s team in regards to the trope, and how they handled the ultimate death of this character. I would argue that some of the criticism aimed at this show over this issue is indicative of how the spirit the “Bury Your Gays” criticism has been somewhat lost recently.
Why the outrage?
Before I get into my arguments, we need to clarify why some people are so hurt by this. Root is another among the disproportionate amount of queer characters (and queer women in particular) who have been killed on television (one of many just within a year), but it reaches further than that. The pain here is more acute because this isn’t just “another dead lesbian”, this was a character that formed one half of a fantastic romantic pairing consisting of two main characters, on a long running, popular, and critically acclaimed show that wasn’t about romance or sexuality, and in a relationship that developed organically across several years of story-telling. The fact that this all happened in a show that wasn’t too inclined towards romance in the first place is nothing short of a small miracle, and is a scenario that I believe only happened once before with Willow and Tara from Buffy. I bring them up because their relationship ended in tragedy as well, which goes into my larger point of what is really digging at the gut of queer Person of Interest fans that are mad about Root’s death; that her death represents another lost opportunity on something that has never really happened before on television: Telling a well done and consistently developed love story between two woman that are important to the show, on a series that is good, that does not end in tragedy. This has never been done in a mainstream and well-regarded show before, and that’s gotta suck for people who desperately wanted to see it happen, who just wanted to see Root ride off into the sunset with the girl of her dreams.
The 100 and bad timing
Ever hear of a show called The 100? If you did and you’re not watching it, it’s probably because you’ve heard of the backlash surrounding the death of the character Lexa. Remember that “miracle” scenario for lesbian romances on TV I was just talking about? Well, the beginnings of one were taking hold on this show when its bisexual main character started a romantic subplot with the dynamic character of Lexa, only for it to be brutally cut short in the show’s following season. People were mad, and it kickstarted an explosion of discussion regarding the overabundance of dead queer characters on television. The fact that Root’s death on Person of Interest only happened a few months after Lexa’s likely did not help matters. With that said though, those who are equating what happened on The 100 to Person of Interest are wrong to do so. Any similarities these death scenes have are superficial, because as far as execution and context goes, they’re worlds apart.
On The 100, Lexa was a recurring character (though many would argue she had more significance to the story than many of the show’s main cast members), that died within 2 minutes of consummating her relationship with Clarke (The 100‘s central character), in a death scene that plays almost like a bad parody of the pivotal death that initiates the final act of Buffy‘s 6th season (a show The 100‘s creator hilariously insists he hasn’t watched). The optics were terrible, it was cheesy, and it was a bit embarrassing how this strong character just stumbled into a room only to be hit by a stray bullet and die a random death at the hands of a deeply confused and murkily drawn character. Root’s death on the other hand was uniquely and skillfully handled, and was decided on several years before this episode aired. This was always where her character was supposed to end up, something that was set in stone before any decisions regarding her sexuality was ever discussed.
The context of the deaths were also completely different. As far as the relationship between the creative team and the fandoms are concerned, these shows are like night and day. Everything wrong with the way The 100‘s crew did in communicating with its fandom can be viewed in this depressing and lengthy timeline compiled by some dedicated fans of the show’s “Clexa” relationship. Long story short, it includes wildly unprofessional conduct, building of false hope, and blatant lying (including the aforementioned “Never watched Buffy” lie that gets completely debunked). In contrast, the Person of Interest team has never once shied away from the fact that characters would die on their show, and when directly pressed on the issue of the death trope in an interview, they answered it honestly (and even admitted to having watched Buffy before too!). There’s a right way to talk to your fandom about this kind of thing, and there’s a wrong way, and it’s clear to me where these two show teams fall on that spectrum.
How Person of Interest transcended the trope
In the discussion of the death trope that has been happening recently, nuance has been absent from much of the conversation. Not a lot of people want to get at what ways this trope is damaging to television as a whole. Besides the amount of queer characters dying on television, the central issue is how “disposable” they’ve become. Pointless deaths added for shock value, or badly executed deaths that don’t make a lot of sense within the context of a show are the main problem with the trope. Killing queer characters off has become such a problem because no one’s thinking it through, but Root’s death on Person of Interest seems to indicate nothing but thought and planning. It was a brilliant conclusion (and perhaps an evolution) to her character that has been foreshadowed and set up for years, and the pay off made for some powerful television.
The final conversations between Root and Shaw (one of which took place in the middle of a fire fight) were as sweet and romantic as they were true to the core of the show and those characters. The lead up to her death, how she saved Finch’s life (and in her mind, the world), that amazing action sequence where she fired a sniper rifle at a pursuing vehicle whilst steering her car with the heel of her boot, and her final push to get Finch to safety even as her life was slipping away was a master class in how to send off a beloved character. As clear as it was throughout the episode that this would be Root’s swan song, her death was still devastating since it puts you in the shoes of Finch as his anxiety rises and the only thing he wants to know is if his friend made it out OK. The reveal of the Artificial Intelligence Finch and Root were raising together adopting Root’s voice, and the moment when Finch’s brief hope for her survival quickly turns into despair at the realization of what this means was a uniquely devastating moment that could have only occurred on this show. The slow, sinking dread I felt as the camera panned down to Root’s cold corpse is a feeling I’m never going to forget.
There are certainly factions of people who aren’t going to be OK with what happened. Root dying the episode after her love is finally returned to her was a real emotional gut punch (one I like to refer to as “The Joss Whedon Special”), and her death contributing to Finch’s decision to follow her plan in unleashing the full capabilities of the Machine is not going to sit well with people that can’t stand “man-pain” motives in television. But Root didn’t just die for to contribute to Finch’s pain, and Finch isn’t doing as Root wishes because of that pain alone. He’s following her will because she was right and he was wrong, and her intervention is the only reason the Machine is capable of the incredible feats it performs to rescue Finch towards the end of the episode. Her legacy lives on through the Machine, as it has become every bit hers as it is Finch’s, and the feelings she conveyed towards the rest of the team and what she meant to them will not go unexplored in the show’s final stretch. If you don’t think Shaw will confront her feelings about Root’s death in future episodes, than you’re crazier than Root is assumed to be by the show’s cast.
Person of Interest transcends tropes because it defies what is expected of them. This is the show that ended an episode in its final season with the “It was all a simulation/dream” trope, but still had it be one of the most emotional and powerful episodes the series has ever produced. The issue with that trope is that its a often a cop-out, a way of flirting with cool ideas without really committing to them in order to play it safe, but this show managed to take that concept and turn it into something with real meaning and emotional stakes. Sure, you can say that this show falls into the dead queer character trope because it featured a queer character that died, but it defied everything that made that trope so damaging by simply having an amazing character bow out in style.
Root was not disposable, she did not suffer a meaningless or random death, and she went down fighting and being what most would consider a badass. Her legacy lives on not just through the machine or her friends, but through the quality of the show’s writing, Amy Acker’s performance, and what she meant to a lot of people watching at home. You can’t reduce her into being just “another dead lesbian” as some have tried, because her actions, not her identity, are what defined her life and death. Do people have a right to be upset over what happened? Sure, this is a multi-faceted issue that is highly sensitive to a (let’s face it) continuously trashed demographic on television. Can one take issue with painting this show and Root’s character over with the same brush as more disastrous examples of this trope at play? Absolutely. Person of Interest (and modern stories in general) are already composed of elements that have been used in the past time and time again. Tropes are often unavoidable, but treating your story, your characters, and your fans with respect and dignity are things one can control, and I’d be hard pressed to agree with anyone that would say that the Person of Interest team didn’t do just that with “The Day The World Went Away”.
Quote of the Day:
“Listen, all I’m saying is that if we’re just information, just noise in the system, we might as well be a symphony.”
Root, Person of Interest.