Person of Interest Is More Than The Sum Of Its Tropes

*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’s character represented a lot more than this EW article would suggest.

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? AbsolutelyPerson 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.

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7 thoughts on “Person of Interest Is More Than The Sum Of Its Tropes

  1. Not sure if I completely agree with you but a well written and respectful piece for sure. Here’s my thing though…. I hear what upset LGBT Person of Interest fans are saying on Twitter, and they’re right: The show’s social media accounts, its season five preview, and a load of other promotional materials were really amping up the Root / Shaw angle like they’d never done before, not even during season four with the infamous “If-Then-Else” episode which effectively made things canon.

    The charge is that the powers that be behind Person of Interest, from the network to the producers to the writers on social media have been —- and I use this term very carefully —– “baiting” the LGBT audience. You don’t throw up tweets from the official Person of Interest Twitter talking about “Romance Person of Interest style” with an image of Root and Shaw if you’re not reaching out towards that particular fan community. To claim otherwise is either stupid or disingenuous on their part. So I get the anger, and I think its justified.

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    1. Why shouldn’t they be amping the Root/Shaw dynamic up though? It is one of the only two romantic relationships on the show (the other being Harold/Grace, which has almost entirely been depicted via flashback), its steadily gained importance on the show and its been a key component of some of the most outstanding episodes of TV I’ve ever watched. The show most definitely should be talking it up.

      Because, most importantly, its delivered; there’s no ‘baiting’ here. “6,741” is one of the most poignant displays of love I’ve ever seen (and to anyone who claims ‘but it was all just a simulation’ has missed the point) and that it was from Shaw’s perspective makes it even more meaningful. The ‘message across the airwaves’ in “QSO” is another, as is Root showing just how far she will go for Shaw in “Sotto Voce”. I can’t think of too many other shows on TV right now that can show such moving displays of connection between two characters than what Person of Interest has done here.

      Root dying doesn’t invalidate that. In fact, it may even end up amplifying it. There’s still 3 episodes to go as of when I write this, and Amy Acker will still be in them…

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    2. No, the upset LGBT PoI fans are wrong. The show’s social media account is run by a CBS staffer and the promotional videos are all done by CBS. Again, this is not a choice done by the people running the show but by outsiders.

      Wow, you really went there. Baiting. I don’t think you understand what this term really means so let me spell it out for you. How have the PoI team (not the CBS staff) baited the audience? The showrunners (Jonah and Greg) have told us that this show is not a romance show. They have cautioned us that deaths were going to happen. They also apologized in advance for this episode. Did they say Root was going to live? From all interviews, Jonah and Greg never did. They never gave false hope to the LGBT audience. They even went so far as to ask an interviewer if and why they wanted spoilers. Did they focus much of their time on Shoot more than Reese, Finch, Fusco, Bear? Chris Fisher’s noirs seem to suggest ample focus on all the characters, not just Shoot.

      The charge that the PoI team baited the LGBT audience when it was out of their control is preposterous and misguided at best. They have no leg to stand on here but if they want to get angry because their couple didn’t make it to the end on a show that is entirely not about romances then so be it.

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      1. I think you misread what I wrote. I’m not “going there” when it comes to discussing baiting —- its already there, a term and subject being brought up by the very community who feel they are victims of it. I’m just observant of that community via the channels they communicate in and that’s what I’m referring to in my post. I do feel sympathy for them, and even if you don’t agree that it actually is taking place or that the producers/writers of the show are to be blamed (and its a fair point, it could be the CBS promotional team…. not really sure who’s running the official POI account), the fact is that fans of the show exist who do feel it is baiting. You can argue that they’re wrong, but it doesn’t erase that they’re there nor does it mean that the things they are feeling in relation to the killing off of this specific character aren’t real. To say that the upset LGBT POI fans are wrong is absurd. They don’t have to prove that they’re right. They’re feeling what they’re feeling, accept that.

        There’s a larger issue underlying the outcry about Root and Person of Interest and its about a larger, dubious trend. Person of Interest has the misfortune of airing in the wake of the fallout over The 100 and its LGBT character death that launched a viral outcry turned movement. A succession of LGBT deaths followed and Person of Interest is the latest one, particularly gut wrenching because the character dies so close to the end of the series. I guess overall I’m suggesting that everyone be open to at the very least understanding why this subset of fans are angry. I love Person of Interest, its the only show I’ve watched live from its pilot all the way through, and I’m not writing it off even with the gut-punch death of Root. But I get why there’s anger and I do think LGBT audiences deserve better.

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  2. No, the upset LGBT PoI fans are wrong. The show’s social media account is run by a CBS staffer and the promotional videos are all done by CBS. Again, this is not a choice done by the people running the show but by outsiders.

    Wow, you really went there. Baiting. I don’t think you understand what this term really means so let me spell it out for you. How have the PoI team (not the CBS staff) baited the audience? The showrunners (Jonah and Greg) have told us that this show is not a romance show. They have cautioned us that deaths were going to happen. They also apologized in advance for this episode. Did they say Root was going to live? From all interviews, Jonah and Greg never did. They never gave false hope to the LGBT audience. They even went so far as to ask an interviewer if and why they wanted spoilers. Did they focus much of their time on Shoot more than Reese, Finch, Fusco, Bear? Chris Fisher’s noirs seem to suggest ample focus on all the characters, not just Shoot.

    The charge that the PoI team baited the LGBT audience when it was out of their control is preposterous and misguided at best. They have no leg to stand on here but if they want to get angry because their couple didn’t make it to the end on a show that is entirely not about romances then so be it.

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  3. Thank you Pin, could not have said that better myself. If any Gay Baiting was done. It was done by CBS to get ratings. And now CBS don’t want this amazing show on their schedule. Wow! None of this comes down to the team behind the show, Jonah and Greg have no control on what promotional material is released. I get why people are upset about gay characters being killed off on TV shows, but in the case of Person of Interest, this just does not apply. Thank you Kenny for a really well written and respectful article, you have done a great job of explaining what all of this means.

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  4. I hate anyone telling me what I am allowed to feel or whether my feelings are justified. (Not this article but the comments).
    I believe this was planned before Root’s sexuality was determined and even before POI were asked (and strongly hinted at) the death of Root and/or Shaw I expected deaths in the final season because it is that kind of show.
    I am happy that Root died in a heroic and in-character way (she always expected to die fighting Samaritan), what I don’t like is the suggestion that it is somehow better for Root that the Machine has kind of immortalised her. I know Root loved the Machine but I think Shaw and the rest of Team Machine eroded a lot of her misanthropy and I’m not convince that season 4/season 5 Root would want to kind of be an AI, I think she’d rather be human and have a human relationship with Shaw.

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