Person of Interest is the kind of clunky CBS crime drama your dad might watch. It’s also some of the most socially relevant science fiction on TV. And for some viewers, it’s an oasis of compelling lesbian subtext in the hetero desert of American network television.
The show’s writers do a good job of balancing these three disparate elements, although this week focused more on the queer subtext angle. For the past couple of seasons, the relationship between hacker/assassin Root (Amy Acker) and former government agent Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi) has been decidedly flirtatious. And in this week’s episode, they finally kissed.
Root/Shaw was able to fly under the radar. The show’s primary audience has a median age of 60, and it’s possible to interpret Root and Shaw’s relationship as platonic if you’re not looking out for it. Online, it was a different matter. Root and Shaw have inspired a ton of fanfic and art, and led to Person of Interest getting a regular recap column on After Ellen. Both actresses are supportive of the pairing, with Shahi saying last year, “I was on The L Word for a while, I knew what was happening.”
To set the scene, Shaw and Root are part of an outlaw team of hackers, assassins, and former spies, working to save the world from a Skynet-like computer overlord. Shaw is a self-professed sociopath whose main interests are killing people and eating junk food, while Root is a genius who worships an artificially intelligent surveillance computer as a god. Not your typical romance.
Most of their interactions involve violent crime, and Shaw seems permanently annoyed by Root’s presence—although to be fair, Shaw finds everyone annoying. Root, on the other hand, lights up in pure glee whenever Shaw is nearby. She’s constantly finding pretexts to talk to Shaw, has saved her life several times, and hits on her at every opportunity. The reason why this pairing seems so plausible is that Shaw actually tolerates all this, which is very out of character for someone who is notoriously short-tempered and violent.
Arguably, Root/Shaw is a rare example of a slash pairing becoming “real” canon. There are plenty of shows with queer characters and relationships, but they’re almost always introduced that way, like Jack Harkness in Doctor Who, or Kurt Hummel in Glee. Slash pairings typically stem from homoerotic subtext—intentional or unintentional—between characters who are not explicitly depicted as gay or bisexual, like Dean/Castiel in Supernatural, or Sherlock/John in Sherlock. Root/Shaw was one such pairing, although this season saw the writers develop their relationship on purpose.
On the one hand, slash fans have a new precedent for a same-sex pairing that became canon, without the potential ambiguity of Korrasami on Legend of Korra. There is no way to argue with an episode that acknowledged the fact that Root had been flirting with Shaw for months, saw the two characters discuss their feelings and kiss onscreen. Unfortunately, the ending was a lot less satisfying. Just seconds later, Shaw was (apparently) shot to death, in a blatant example of “Dead Lesbian Syndrome.” Sure, you can have a canonically queer romance, but only if things end in death and disaster.
To make matters worse, this is the second time Person of Interest has killed off a female character of color, after Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson) left the show in 2013. Meanwhile Detective Fusco—one of three middle-aged white guys in the cast and the show’s most pointless and charmless character—lives on.
Root/Shaw came very close to being a step forward for LGBT representation on mainstream network TV. Instead, it now feels a lot more like queerbaiting. By failing to acknowledge the subtext of Root and Shaw’s relationship until now, Person of Interest kept the interest of people who were invested in the pairing, without having to “risk” any controversy with the rest of the audience.
There was a fair amount of foreshadowing that one of the main characters was going to die, but from a narrative perspective it really could have been anyone. Shaw was one of the less likely choices, but only until you find out the real reason for her demise: actress Sarah Shahi is pregnant with twins, and can’t film the rest of the season.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Shahi had this to say about her departure from the show:
“One of the things I remembered [showrunners] Jonah and Greg saying regarding Taraji’s exit was that every character’s story has a beginning, middle, and end. Every journey has that. I don’t know if this is Shaw’s end, per se, because the 61 million dollar question is, is she or isn’t she dead? But given what’s going on in my life right now, it would definitely be a challenge to go back with two infants and try to be present as the character and to meet the demands of the show. But who knows? It’s definitely a goodbye for now, but not goodbye forever.”
So, there’s a slim possibility that Shaw will return to Person of Interest, although she’d have to recover from multiple seemingly lethal gunshot wounds first. For devoted fans of Root/Shaw, this is cold comfort.
Photo via Person of Interest/fanpop