Michael Emerson on Person of Interest's Big Flashback: Reveals Aren't Glacial, Like on Lost

If you’re checking out Person of Interest and are surprised to hear that CBS’ freshman drama this Thursday at 9/8c will already delve into the mystery of “The Machine,” you are in good company. Series star Michael Emerson, who became all too familiar with Lost‘s storytelling and secret-keeping, was caught a bit off guard as well.

“I was used to the more glacial style of revealing that we had on Lost, where you would just get a little bit of a tease,” the Emmy winner tells TVLine. “I thought, ‘Oh, they’ll have to establish the rhythm of [Person of Interest] and the way we prevent crime before they started exploring [the Machine],’ but I think it’s a good move. It lets the audience know early on that we’re telling a story every week, but we’re also telling a longer, intriguing story.”

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The Machine, for the uninitiated, is a behemoth of a computer that Emerson’s Mr. Finch constructed in the wake of 9/11. Designed to flag possible terrorist threats for the U.S. government, the Machine also coughs up the Social Security number of individuals who are on their way to being part of smaller yet nonetheless serious crimes. That’s where Reese, a former CIA op played by Jim Caviezel, comes in, recruited by Finch to try to stop said crimes.

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Just last month, TVLine questioned POI executive producer Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight) on such a machine’s viability, and he maintained that given the technology that is out there today, this CBS drama is more rooted in “science fact” than science fiction.

Still, I had to share with Emerson my disbelief that a credit card purchase bundled with a toll booth swipe and a cell phone call could ever add up to someone being ID’d as a crime victim or perpetrator. He countered, “What we’re talking about here is a massive crunch of data — weeks of things, not just two or three events — and some beyond-sophisticated pattern recognition software. Like, buying and discarding untraceable cell phones would make a little red light go off on the Machine, or if you were regularly moving sums of money, or traveling in a certain pattern, or making certain contacts…. Within the logic construct of the show, it seems to be fairly well-explained.”

Triggering this exploration of the Machine’s origin is this week’s person of interest, who is already dead at the time he is flagged. “It can’t know everything, so what if it kicks out the number of a person that’s dead – what is one to make of that?” Emerson muses. “It puzzles Finch, but they proceed anyway. Because at the end of the day, the Machine is like Finch’s child and on some level he trusts it implicitly.”

Emerson says the ensuing flashbacks show us “a younger, happier Finch,” then “lay the groundwork for whatever trauma or loss will set him spinning off on the course he’s on now.” (The services of Lost lad Sterling Beaumon, however, were not required. Says Emerson with a big laugh, “We don’t go back that far!”)

Speaking of Ben Linus, how much did Emerson struggle with making Finch distinct enough a character? After all, the two gents both share a specific verbal cadence and an aura of mystery. “I’m not spending a lot of energy or, frankly, thought on that issue anymore,” Emerson admits. “Before we began, I had a number of things I had written on a notepad about how he would be different, but a lot of them turned out not right to play — and it’s no good to be different for its own sake and not have the scene stick.”

Instead, Emerson listens to a scene “as if it were a piece of music, trying to ring the right notes. I certainly prefer certain notes – having to do with ambiguity or mystery, occasional flashes of drollery, or I’ll use a rising or falling inflection or emphasize a word that wouldn’t normally get emphasized. But some of it is inexplicable to me, except to say it’s my instinct.”

One mystery that won’t be solved in Person of Interest‘s second outing, however, is how Finch came to acquire his conspicuous limp. “It does rise out of the backstory we begin to explore in Episode 2,” he says, “but that is a whole other story unto itself.”