As trailed at the end of the last episode, Samaritan has crashed the stock market, with two purposes in mind: firstly, the creation of worldwide instability; secondly, the setting of a trap for Team Machine, who will not be able to resist trying to sort it out. So while Reese, Finch, Root, and Fusco head for the New York stock exchange – Shaw, meantime, on a subway train waiting to, uh, speak to a man who has the stock exchange’s door access codes – Samaritan goons are waiting for them.Which sets up one of the most astonishing hours of television I can recall.
With four of Team Machine locked in a room in the stock exchange, Root asks The Machine for help – it is, of course, a kind of prayer – and The Machine proposes a solution which sends Reese and Fusco to sort out an escape route, while Finch and Root head to the control room to stop the stock market instability. Shaw can’t help, even though Reese is “busy making death threats to Samaritan operatives”: one of her fellow passengers, who suffered in the stock market crash, is revealed to be wearing a bomb vest, and is threatening to blow up the train. She shoots him and is arrested, while at the stock exchange Finch is fatally wounded.
Except… he isn’t. We rewind to Root asking The Machine for assistance, and it becomes clear that what we saw was The Machine gaming out a possible scenario for completion of the mission and protection of its assets, and as that plan doesn’t work it’s going to have to come up with another. In The Machine’s next scenario, Reese ends up dead, so that one is discarded as well. Now, generally, I can’t be doing with alternative realities, dream sequences, that kind of thing. But here there’s a point, and one which is amplified by frequent flashbacks to the early days of The Machine, and Finch teaching it how to play chess, which of course involves running through an almost impossible number of possibilities, the value of sacrificing a piece to ensure the success of a plan, and – to Finch – a moral dimension as well.
On top of that, it’s done with remarkable skill and wit – there’s subtext, context, metatext, whatever text you want. In one of the most amazing sequences, The Machine realises that it’s running out of time so runs a simplified simulation, with dialogue to match: Reese’s “coolly detached sadistic warning”; Fusco’s “self-deprecating enquiry”; Root’s “funny yet insightful retort”; Finch’s “mildly agitated declaration”; Shaw’s “annoyed attempt to deflect subtext”. It’s like a glimpse inside God’s own writers’ room, and it’s head-spinning.
Whatever The Machine comes up with, though, the odds are against everyone surviving, and there’s a growing sense of dread as the ending approaches. Shaw has managed to deal with the would-be suicide bomber, and joins Team Machine for its last stand. There’s time for her to be involved in two kisses: one we’ve been waiting for (and it’s all kinds of hot); and one which is surprising, but why not? It’s a simulation. And it’s noteworthy, in passing, that human intervention can still throw The Machine’s predictions a little off course. It isn’t enough, though, to improve the odds of survival, unless – kind of like chess, for example? – a high-value someone is prepared to sacrifice themselves for the rest of the gang… This isn’t my first rodeo, and I know that until we see a body no-one’s actually dead. But short of that it’s about as emotionally wrenching a scene as can be imagined, with Root – so long a baddie, then The Machine’s amoral disciple – now the human face of loss and pain. ‘If-Then-Else’ sets yet another benchmark for this astounding show, and is one of the best episodes of network TV drama I have ever seen.