How you do matters as much as what you do. By that metric you’re all just terrorists and I kill terrorists.
We know Sarah Shahi is returning as Sameen Shaw on Person of Interest, but in what capacity? Here I’m going to discuss and analyse popular theories on what Samaritan might have done to her and wait patiently for the show to blow it all apart in the most spectacular way (let’s face it, we’ll all be wrong).. The main theories seem to be
- Shaw playing double-agent; and finally
- Samaritan manipulated the neurotransponders seen in ‘M.I.A’ and have stuck one in Shaw’s brain.
Of course season five promises to be a season of epic proportions—I, as a fan, absolutely cannot wait to see the ethical and moral clashes between the team in rebuilding The Machine; how they will remain undercover and hidden with Samaritan hot on their tails—but it’s Shaw’s return that has everybody speculating. We all know Shahi is back (and kicking ass)—but we don’t know how. So I’m going to try and pick apart popular theories, and I ask you—how do you think Shaw will return? With a bang, that’s for sure. I can’t even tell anymore if I mean that as a euphemism or not. It really isn’t, is it, when you break someone’s tailbone…
THEORY #1: TORTURE TO THE POINT OF NO RETURN AND/OR BRAINWASHING
As discussed at San Diego Comic Con, Shaw’s return will initially be met with some hostility and caution, and understandably so. In the panel, Amy Acker (Root) claims that she would stick by Shaw’s side no matter what, whereas Jim Caviezel (Reese) takes a more concerned approach, even going so far as to suggest Shaw may be somewhat of a Manchurian candidate (in other words, a sleeper agent, for Samaritan). It’s interesting to hear this clash of beliefs. Acker’s Root spent the back half of season four tearing into the world to find Sameen Shaw; blinded by her love and emotions for her. Caviezel’s Reese must be wary of the sheer impact of torture and messing with a soldier’s mind—after all, Reese is an ex-CIA agent and he’s no stranger to the ugly side of an organisation.
Even way back when, this belief was rife. Joost Meerloo, a psychiatrist, wrote in his book ‘Rape of the Mind‘: “…The modern techniques of brainwashing and menticide-those perversions of psychology-can bring almost any man into submission and surrender…”
NB: “Menticide” is basically a very systematic, controlled effort to change an individual’s existing beliefs, morals or values—via awful methods such as torture, blackmail, etc.
Most notorious of all the sickening Cold War experiments is the CIA’s illegal program MKUltra, with many objectives including the induction of amnesia. At the expense of $10million, the CIA experimented on human subjects with illicit drugs, hypnosis and analysis of electronic brain signals. Featured on the show, (and based on the real-life case of Sydney Greenwood—you can read the observing doctor’s report here) Root undergoes torture in the hands of Control—that is an IV amphetamine lodged in one arm and an IV barbiturate in another. This aims to reduce the subject into a babbling mess who will divulge anything. Quite simply, an amphetamine is a substance that stimulates the central nervous system; a barbiturate is the direct opposite. The frequent administration and cyclical torture is enough to reduce any human into blabbing secrets.
The most well-known administered drug in the program is LSD. A psychedelic drug, it isn’t addictive but can induce paranoia and delusions; a distortion of reality. At first, the CIA wanted to know if they could use this drug to convince Russian spies defect, and if the Russians could do the same. As more experiments went on, covert administration also took place, to a point where operatives were slipping doses of LSD into healthy humans’ morning cups of coffee. It was administered to agency employees, doctors, office-folk and military officers to garner the reaction. Famously, one mental health patient was administered the drug in a Kentucky facility for 174 days, consecutively. You can read more about the CIA’s intentions here in the context of children (hey, biowarfare is seriously messed up), and you may remember the widely-reported case of Frank Olson, a biowarfare expert who plunged to his death in a suspicious suicide after being covertly dosed LSD and monitored for his reaction. After his trip, he lapsed into an abyss of depression, and his death is still being debated as a suicide or a CIA cover-up.
But whilst the Cold War experiments did not succeed in complete brainwashing, the idea of a Manchurian candidate is still a popular one and often explored in media. Brainwashing is not a foreign or new concept; it’s something yet to be truly scientifically validated. Can you actually whitewash someone’s memory to a point where they forget everything? The very first mentions of brainwashing came from totalitarian regimes in which ‘brainwashing’ was a term used non-scientifically, but more as a way of controlling a large population to conform to certain ideas or beliefs—much like the widespread and intense belief the Japanese population had in their Emperor in World War II. They had never seen him in person, but they believed him to be a deity—so when the Emperor finally surrendered in WWII after the nuclear bombings, via the radio, this was the first time the population had heard his voice—his human voice—an entire belief system coated around the Emperor as a celestial being of sorts came crashing down, devastatingly.
It may be a good time to state that for all the historical research and horrific experiments conducted, Person of Interest does remain a sci-fi show, even if most of its elements are quite, well, real. Though I can reel off fact after fact, the show-runners of course have a creative licence to extend that—and as we’ve seen for four seasons, they’ve done so, with admirable and scary accuracy. In terms of the show and Shaw, much can be implicated in terms of her time spent in captivity with Samaritan. She could’ve undergone Cold War-like experiments—or worse. Judging by Chris Fisher’s ‘POI Noir’ it doesn’t seem like Greer is playing nice.
In ‘YHWH’, Greer says to Control: “Samaritan’s no place for outliers, which means there’s no room for you. But don’t worry; you’ll be taken to a place where you belong.” Viewers of the previous episode, ‘Asylum’, will have spotted a docile Shaw being led by the arm into a black car, staring blankly out of the window as they drove away over Shelly’s (a Samaritan operative) voiceover: “Go home to your loved ones. Hold your daughter tight, because a new day is dawning. And those who impede progress – the disruptive, the aberrant – will be systematically purged from our society. There will be no mercy. No stay of execution. For some, this will be the end. But for others, a rebirth. A second chance to live the life they were designed for. Every life given a purpose. Samaritan will build a new world. A better world.” But viewers have spotted the way the camera panned to Shaw at the sentence “…a rebirth. A second chance to live the life they were designed for.” Does this give some indication of Samaritan intentions with Shaw? Weaponise her as a Samaritan agent, or even make something of a Manchurian candidate of her?
We have already seen Samaritan mess with human nature in the episode ‘M.I.A.’, which featured an idealistic town upstate of New York called Maple. Between Reese, Root and Finch, they find out that Samaritan are essentially controlling the town’s ups and downs, by essentially using Maple as an ant farm (or commonly known: a formicarium) to study human nature. We must remember that despite Samaritan’s huge harness of power and resources, it is still a baby compared to the weathered Machine. So what does this mean for Shaw? If Samaritan can mess with a whole town, can it not mess with an individual? Can it not give Shaw the ‘rebirth’ Samaritan desires? We know Shaw has an Axis II Personality Disorder—whatever Samaritan wishes to do, to give Shaw the ‘rebirth’ it desires, will Shaw’s disorder play a resistant role—or is that the very disorder Samaritan wishes to correct? After all, Greer notes of humanity’s compliance in ‘YHWH’ (and the Correction was to get rid of the disruptive, outliers and disloyal) and Samaritan has already recognised Shaw as a ‘sociopath’. Could they be taking that away from her by a series of neurological experiments? Or could they exploit that disorder for their own good?
‘Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control‘, an intriguing read by neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor, proposes interesting thoughts on manipulation of the temporal lobe of the brain, which is heavily implicated in emotion and memory, and also the rigidity of neurons in the brain upon manipulation. Yet it does not claim that brainwashing is something to look to in the future—that it’s completely possible at all. There are many conspiracies surrounding a thus far fictional Manchurian candidate, and Caviezel is right in picking an example out like that—but as of right now, there isn’t enough scientific evidence to support full brainwashing, even with studies of the brain itself. Most recently a study in rats—so one must question the face validity—showed that a fall in AMPA receptors in the brain may be associated with long-term memory loss—forever. As seen in conditions such as Alzheimer’s. However, with the show being sci-fi—you never know!
My last point to conclude on this is that breaking through a brainwashed period—which I cannot imagine and has never been experimented on, for the sheer ethics of it—would likely result in some serious PTSD. If you brainwash someone for good—and Samaritan has the time (nine months) to do so—then how do you break someone out of that? How do you trigger memories and emotions already gone? And if so, what are the drastic consequences of sudden remembrance?
THEORY #2: SHAW IS A DOUBLE AGENT
This seems to be a somewhat popular theory, mainly due to Shaw’s personality disorder. Can Samaritan indeed break through Shaw’s extreme loyalty to her team and her mission when she is arguably more immune to emotional torture than others? Pain, on the other hand, is a different ballgame; pain isn’t simply mental. Pain can be induced physically, neurologically, and personality disorder or not, Shaw isn’t immune to that.
I guess the popularity of the theory lies in that Shaw could be an outlier because of her personality disorder. The quick counter-argument would be that Samaritan has already recognized her as a ‘sociopath’ (‘Asylum’) and must be accounting for ways to torture or gain information from her despite that. However, since Shaw’s capture there have been no raids on the subway base for the team—so one could optimistically say that Shaw hasn’t cracked under pressure. But what of the phone-call in ‘Asylum’? Was that made of a drug-induced Shaw, or had she actually cracked? Martine (Cara Buono) says to Root she has—but I think it’s in wide agreement that she was simply mocking Root and her feelings for Shaw.
In terms of her personality disorder allowing her to withstand Samaritan’s torture—which to be honest, I’m not entirely convinced of—it can be said that her personality disorder could convincingly allow her to feign loyalty to Samaritan. We’ve seen that Shaw has no problem killing others (in fact, in early days she seemed to quite enjoy shooting people) and if she is indeed weaponised by Samaritan and dispatched on missions to eliminate targets, she could do so without feeling any guilt at all. That’s not to discount her character growth: we know she cares, and she values Team Machine—but an Axis II Personality Disorder doesn’t just go away. Whilst I’m not entirely sure Shaw could withhold nine months of torture unscathed, I do believe she can carry out missions for Samaritan (even if it involves cold-blooded assassinations) or even covertly spare the target’s lives without Samaritan knowing.
As ever, there’s a problem with that too. Would they keep a team on the field to keep tabs on Shaw, to make sure she’s following orders? And if she is playing the double-agent, will she be hooked up to Samaritan via earpieces and phones to track and follow her every move, much like Martine was? I don’t think Team Samaritan are foolish enough to simply let Shaw run amok with their missions without keeping track of her, knowing she sacrificed her life for Team Machine in ‘If-Then-Else’, and there’s a lack of clarity as to how Shaw could prove to Samaritan she’s working for them. By killing a target/outlier in cold blood? Had she already done so, with regards to Control’s right-hand woman Schiffman and the shady assassin? By feigning compliance and a docile nature after the torture she’s endured? Who knows? But the idea is a tempting and a badass one, because there’s nothing I’d like to see more than Shaw resist Samaritan’s clutches and come back to the team unscathed, working for them all along. However, Shaw is only human; she is not defined by her personality disorder. Whatever torture she has endured, she surely cannot withstand nine months of its brutality. And what happens if Shaw’s mission is to take out Team Machine? How will her loyalty to Samaritan be tested then?
Something I’ll say time and time again is that the subway base for the team has not been raided, unlike the library was. Whatever Shaw’s endured, I can’t think she’s blabbed about it—because Samaritan would utterly destroy the base, and the location of the team is surely one of the first questions Team Samaritan would ask Shaw.
THEORY #3: THE NEUROTRANSPONDERS
This is by far my favourite theory. The entire episode ‘M.I.A.’ revealed to us that Samaritan was mass-producing neurotransponders from the town of Maple and it’s too big a plot point to just throw away. The transponders are used as GPS tracking devices; the neuroimplants are something very, very real. They are currently in use, medically, for epilepsy and Parkinson’s patients—patients who have severe mental disorders, and whilst these implants are not a cure for these patients, electrical impulses sent by these implants can be life-changing. We’ve already seen in ‘M.I.A.’ that Samaritan experimented with one innocent woman in terms of the neurotransponders; who’s to say they can’t stick one in Shaw, too?
If I assume the device is similar to Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) in Parkinson’s disease, then I can explain it quite simply: it is a set of wires connected to the patient’s brain, and the battery pack is implanted into the skin. In Parkinson’s disease, the nigrostriatal pathway—implicated heavily in motor control—is depleted of dopamine (a neurotransmitter; you may be familiar with dopamine as a key neurotransmitter in the ‘reward’ pathways of the brain). Though the implant does not release dopamine, it does release an electrical impulse to ‘shock’ the pathway into working. It’s akin to a pacemaker. For a real-life case and a really interesting scenario in which a patient suffering from dystonia has benefited from DBS, I’d highly recommend you read this article.
But—and there’s always a but, isn’t there?—we’ve seen how Samaritan can manipulate such devices. Jeremy Lambert hacks into an abusive husband’s glucose monitoring device and consequentially kills him. There is no way of telling how Samaritan would use a neurotransponder in someone like Shaw, too. We know neuroimplants can deliver electrical shocks to the brain, and the transponder can deliver GPS coordinates. We also know Sameen Shaw has an Axis II Personality Disorder.
There have always been arguments over the classification of such personality disorders. Yes, Shaw is self-diagnosed—but with, essentially, the American diagnostic bibles clashing and coming under criticism it remains unclear as to the lines we should draw in diagnosing patients. Furthermore, because the topic is so murky, the aetiology of any personality disorder, neurobiologically—and this discounts environmental factors—is completely gray. We have no idea. Some research has linked aspects of borderline personality disorder with Bipolar Type II, inconclusively. Despite this (and as are often with mental health disorders), doctors and psychiatrists find a way to treat rather than look at the root cause—and one of the newly effective, game-changing treatments include…yeah, you got it: DBS.
To put it shortly, this could go hand-in-hand with theory number two—that is Shaw, working as a double agent for Samaritan, and doing Samaritan’s bidding—only this time she is controlled by the electrical impulses sent to her brain via this neurotransponder. There are a bucketload of worrying elements to this (let’s not get started on the ethics—because I will eat my arm if Samaritan cares about ethics). Firstly, the transponder implicates GPS recording—so Samaritan will be able to track Shaw, as well as her brain impulses.
Secondly, the usage of the neurotransponder is really down to Samaritan. Shaw doesn’t have epilepsy and nor does she have Parkinson’s; however, she does have an Axis II Personality Disorder and with Shelly’s dialogue of ‘second chances’ and ‘rebirth’, one must think—is Shaw a person to Samaritan as Maple was a town to it? Is she someone to study? Is Samaritan essentially using the neurotransponder as something of a shock collar whenever Shaw’s out of line in order to condition her into behaving the way Samaritan wants her to behave? There’s no clear aetiology or biomarkers for Shaw’s disorder—so from a purely scientific standpoint, I can’t imagine Samaritan meddling around with neurotransmitters. I can imagine them meddling around with electrical shocks—both as a rather Pavlovian condition scheme, but alternatively, as a reward and punishment scheme.
Commonly, the neurotransmitter associated with reward is dopamine. Taking this from a different standpoint, Hall & Carter (2011) looked at DBS and how this could affect drug-addicted individuals. Whilst the article acknowledged that there may be deeper, more harmful effects of DBS long-term, it did note that in Chinese heroin addicts, there was an improvement after treatment, and in a different cohort of different ethnicity, there were multiple research papers into alcohol addiction with favourable results. On paper, this is brilliant: if we can ‘heal’ addiction, that’s fantastic news. But fortunately for Hall & Carter, they don’t have Greer & co messing around with what might be. Think of it this way: the show, plus Vice News and DARPA have already warned us of what may happen if something like brain implants get hacked.
In Hall & Carter’s research, they honourably search for the ‘cure’ for addiction; in Samaritan’s hands, it can quite simply be the reverse. With the right manipulation of dopamine receptors in the brain and shocking of such pathways, Shaw’s brain—despite her disorder—can be manipulated to an extent where she could become somewhat of a Pavlov’s dog herself. She may start to crave those shocks as a reward for her work, because she’s become so used to them. Without, I cannot say for sure—but I would assume it works a little like drug dependency (such as cutting opiates cold turkey or benzodiazepines—there lacks the stimulation of μ and GABA receptors respectively)—she will suffer through common withdrawal symptoms such as tiredness, fatigue, sweats, hallucinations—and if it gets worse—seizures, pain and even coma. In Hall & Carter’s promising research, there is room for serious and evil manipulation.
If this is indeed the case, as seen in ‘M.I.A.’, a craniotomy is involved in installing the device—and whilst I’m no surgeon—I would assume the same practice would have to be, to get the device out. In the meantime, if this is the scenario Shaw faces, Team Machine will somehow have to jam her implant (an electromagnetic field device, perhaps? Oh no…any physicists around?) because of the GPS debacle, whilst they fish the implant out of her skull. Furthermore, that’s over-simplifying the entire thing. We don’t know if Samaritan has indeed turned Shaw into somewhat of a ‘shock-addict’ to live, or if those shocks are punishment—or if shocks are involved at all. Perhaps it’s a way of monitoring her brain circuits and studying her like a lab rat.
Either way, the retrieval of Sameen Shaw will not be easy—and neither will extracting the implant, which I assume will be a necessary step. Lastly, the permanent effects going forward would be atrocious. We know Shaw is strong; we know she’s undergone torture and we know she has a high pain threshold. But when you undergo nine months of severe torture at the hands of Samaritan, things can change. And like I mentioned in the first theory about PTSD, Shaw’s disorder doesn’t make her immune from that because Shaw’s disorder—with the mental manipulation of Samaritan—is not inflexible. So one must ask, for all these theories, will Shaw remain the same, snarky, eyerolling, witty, badass we know? Or do we need to nurture her a little before she returns, truly?
In all honesty, and as every scientist concludes in their paper—literally—I’m not entirely sure. It could be an amalgamation of all three scenarios—who knows? I confess if I had to pick one scenario, it would be number three—an entire episode and the revelation of those neurotransponders seems too suspect to just be brushed off, in the water-tight plot-line of Person of Interest. Furthermore, these neuroimplants are widely used in medical conditions already; who’s to say Samaritan can’t go one step further and manipulate them?
It’s certainly a debate that won’t be settled or fully answered until Shaw blasts back onto our screens, and even then, I suspect there will be much talk of her behaviour and how she acts in concordance to the way she was before, and if this is a sign of any Team Samaritan manipulation. Will Shaw be the same? Will her personality disorder be affected by all of this? In short, there really is no simple answer, though each scenario is backed with scientific experiments and evidence—there is only your opinion on what might’ve happened to Shaw, how this will affect her moving forwards and of course the actual answer given to us.
Thank you for reading, as ever—I hope you found this article somewhat interesting and thought-provoking. It is perhaps a smear on humanity, if Team Samaritan finds a way to mess with Shaw’s brain circuitry—in a show that is geared up to be, explosively, man versus machine. What are your opinions on Shaw’s captivity and time spent with Samaritan? Do you have your own theories? Or kind of just sob loudly about Shaw’s situation (don’t worry, I feel ya)? How much of your humanity can you retain when a machine messes around with it so much, for so long? What do you think has happened to her, and what haven’t I covered? I’d love to hear your feedback—so feel free to sound off in the comments or tweet me at @NicolaChoi, as ever! Thank you!
Wait–AND ANOTHER! (I’m so calm. So calm.)