And Maybe This Isn’t The End At All: Thoughts on Root and Shaw
If someone had told me a few years ago that I’d be fangirling over a CBS show I’d probably have told them they were full of crap; network television tends to not skew towards my interests. And yet, here I am, having spent the last month or so throwing off my sleep schedule to watch CBS’s “Person of Interest” to its bittersweet conclusion. The show started out as a standard procedural and, over the course of five seasons, evolved into one of the best serialized stories I’ve seen on television. While I do enjoy a war between rival artificial intelligences, it was the romance between Root and Shaw that won my heart. The writers of “Person of Interest” twisted a lot of tropes with the pairing, and while they unfortunately did not avoid one particularly problematic one, they got a lot more right than wrong with Root and Shaw.
There were a lot of great character relationships on “Person of Interest”, and they all carried emotional weight which helped ground the story as the plot evolved and unfolded. Most of these were platonic; the show was never focused on romance. (Sure, there was Harold’s story of having to let the love of his life go to protect her, and the woman John loved dying, throwing his life into a tailspin, but that was all backstory.) The fact that Root and Shaw’s relationship got as much traction as it did while not being the focus of the show was impressive.
The “will they/won’t they” between the characters didn’t truly start until the 3rd season and it wasn’t until the season 4 episode “If-Then-Else” that subtext became text—Shaw laid an epic “Big Damn Kiss” on Root before sacrificing herself to save the team from the bad guys. It was significant not just because it was a great kiss, but also because it was a moment I hadn’t seen given to women. In my experience, it’s usually the guy who gets the kiss and the moment of noble sacrifice. (i.e. Han and Leia in “The Empire Strikes Back”.) To see Shaw get that moment, and going down guns blazing, was mindblowingly awesome.
However, Shaw’s alleged death (written in due to actress Sarah Shahi’s maternity leave) created a potential problem; having the character off-screen for so long can leave the audience indifferent when they reappear. (“Game of Thrones” has had this problem at times.) Fortunately, the “Person of Interest” writers did an amazing job of keeping Shaw present in the minds of viewers, and they did it via her bond with Root, who got to go on a quest to find the woman she loved. The show demonstrated multiple times the extreme lengths to which Root was willing to go to get Shaw back. This lead to plotlines which flipped even more traditionally male-dominated tropes on their heads. Seriously, how often do you get the whole “I will find you” trope when it’s ladies involved? It was pretty damn cool.
(A quick aside: while I have been giving the writers major kudos, as they deserve, I’d be remiss not to call out the superb acting on the show. I don’t know how Amy Acker does it, but damn can that woman sell heartbreak, longing, humor, and hope in the face of impossible odds. Season five was a standout season for Sarah Shahi, too; it’s not that she wasn’t amazing in previous seasons, but this season in particular is really, really, rough on Shaw. The character has been psychologically tortured for nine months, and Shahi manages to convey the aftermath of Shaw’s traumatic experiences while bringing all the ass-kicking, quips, and courage we’ve all come to love about the character. But let’s get back on track.)
It was Root’s unwavering belief in Shaw that held their relationship together during their separation. There was a whole episode in season five, devoted to Root trying to get a message to Shaw, that is particularly powerful; especially after seeing the torture Shaw suffered. (I could write a whole article about the episode titled “6,741”, where we finally get to see what Shaw endured, and who she was thinking about.) The build-up makes it all especially devastating when, not long after Root and Shaw’s highly anticipated reunion, Root was killed protecting Harold.
By this point the we—the audience—had been pining for Shaw along with Root. We got a moment of joy when they finally found each other, and then we had to share Shaw’s pain at the loss of Root. Root’s sacrifice was an incredibly moving, and well-done, story. (Though it brought up some conflicting feelings for me, but that’s a whole other article that you can read here).
Now, this would normally be the end of the story, but the “Person of Interest” writers had one last card to play—Shaw’s interactions with the artificial intelligence who had taken on Root’s persona. Going into the finale, I had some serious doubts about what the writers were going to do with the relationship between Shaw and “Root” (using quotes to distinguish between Root and her AI counterpart, not to disparage). As a result of her torture via a computer simulation, Shaw struggled with being unable to determine what was real and what was a simulation after her escape, on top of dealing with grief of losing Root; how the heck was hearing Root’s voice at this point anything but cruel?
Yet, the writers pulled it off. Ultimately, Shaw got a chance to say goodbye to the woman she loved, which was something she’d been wrestling with. It was a surprisingly beautiful and cathartic moment for both Shaw and the audience. (I didn’t think seeing someone touch an ethernet cable could make me cry. I was wrong.) When the epilogue rolled to reveal a reconstituted “Root” calling Shaw back to work via a pay phone I actually found myself happy, wondering what kind of adventures they’ll have. If love is, as the show says, about being seen, and I’d add seen for who you are, the relationship between Root and Shaw was the perfect embodiment of that. Neither tried to change the other or asked the other to change for them, which is probably one of my favorite things about their relationship. These were two very complicated people, yet they still found and connected with each other, despite the odds.
The best stories don’t always give the audience what we want (although sometimes we get lucky); they take us on a journey. Maybe that journey isn’t always perfect, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful. I, for one, will always be glad I got to tag along on Root and Shaw’s adventures. After all, it’s not every day that we get such epic love story between two amazing women.