Syfy's 12 Monkeys show may be concerned with stretching out a two-hour movie into an open-ended TV series, but it's definitely not dragging its feet. We're only five hours in, and the show's already burning (no pun intended) through a lot of plot. And it's already turned everything we thought we knew on its head.
The basic plot of "The Night Room" has to do with Cole and Railly finally tracking down the Night Room where the virus that's destined to wipe out humanity is stored — only to find that the Army of the Twelve Monkeys has gotten there first and nothing is what they expect.
But the theme of the episode has to do, much more, with the notion of the ends justifying the means. Both Cole and his boss, Dr. Jones, are confronted over the extreme things they've done in the name of changing history. And in the end, Cole seems to triumph — only to find that his victory isn't what he expected, and maybe his ruthless approach didn't pan out so great after all.
The episode begins with some strong hints that Dr. Jones is cutting corners on safety with the whole time-travel project, what with the time machine being badly damaged in the West 7 attack:
She insists it'll be fine for Cole to "splinter" the next morning — even though Ramse points out that it's a time machine, and they could wait a month and still send Cole back to the same day and time. Jones is concerned because the time machine's core is degrading, and meanwhile the virus could mutate and become deadly again, plus Deacon could attack again. And meanwhile, Cole seems worn out by having taken more jumps than anybody planned on, and he just wants this to be over with, so he can cease to have ever existed.
Jones has some drinks with Cole, Ramse and Max, and seems to be becoming part of the gang:
The show even seems to be encouraging its viewers to come up with a drinking game, like taking a shot every time Jones says something about Cole's vital mission. This show knows it's a Friday night head-scratching time-travel show, and it's not going to pretend to be anything else. Heh.
So here is where I started to have some slight suspension of disbelief issues in this episode, which were mercifully brief. Max has heard horror stories about a German doctor who turns people inside out, and now she thinks she was hearing about Dr. Jones. She heard these tales from Deacon, the thug leader of West 7 — and she always dismissed them as just scare stories, to frighten people out of abandoning the gang.
But I can't quite buy Deacon, based on what we saw of him last week, sitting around spinning tales about German doctors doing crazy time-travel experiments. Or, for that matter, caring about other people's hearsay. Deacon wouldn't need any additional threat on top of "I'll torture you to death slowly" to keep people from abandoning West 7, and I don't see him as the curious type, exactly. But maybe we'll learn more about him soon, and his apparent fascination with a German mad scientist that he'd never met will suddenly make sense.
In any case, Max was right, and Jones was in fact a mad scientist who experimented on people. Ramse breaks into Jones' quarters and finds some needlepoint, a music box, and hints that Jones maybe had a child in addition to the short-lived marriage she mentioned when they were drinking. And he finds gruesome photos of nasty time-travel experiments:
Jones insists that it'll all be worth it, if they can change what happened. And it's not just the 7 billion plague victims she's trying to save, but all of human civilization. The art, the music, the literature, and the accumulated knowledge.
But Ramse points out what he already told Jones earlier in the episode — it's not working. Nothing has changed. They're still here, and there's no sign that Cole has changed the timeline at all. And even if Cole does change the timeline, what they do here and now still matters, it's still real, Ramse argues.
Oh, and incidentally, among Jones' stuff is a weird chart of timelines, with musical strings attached to it, in which 1987 (a year they haven't got enough power to jump to "yet") plays a huge part. Hmmm...
Meanwhile, Cole is facing his own music — the Pale Man reveals to Cassandra Railly that Cole killed Henri, Cassandra's lover, in Haiti. This is after Cassandra has already spent a chunk of the episode talking about how she can't be as ruthless and gung-ho as Cole, and she just wants to be a doctor and help people and cure diseases, not fight terrorists and break into labs all the time.
Here's Cassandra's face when she finds out Cole murdered a good man for, apparently, nothing:
Later in the episode, Cole launches into a whole story about how he and Ramse tried to set limits on their use of violence in the post-apocalyptic world, but slowly descended to killing people for food and shelter. Until they killed an old couple, and the woman fought back, but then seemed to forgive Cole when she was dying. Cole says he's been chasing forgiveness (which he can never deserve) ever since.
And Cole says to Railly that she shouldn't ever be like him.
Which is where the episode pulls one of its sly reversals. They bring in Jennifer Goines, who's been a prisoner of the Twelve Monkeys since the second episode. And she's just found out that Cole killed her father — and you think this is going to turn into another round of blaming Cole for being goddamn ruthless and horrible.
Jennifer is pretty stoked. In fact, her existing crush on Cole (which amusingly causes her to be a total jerk to Railly) gets cemented once she knows he killed her daddy. Later in the episode, the Twelve Monkeys dudes leave because they can't get into the vault with the proto-virus — there's a security system that basically causes them to melt and stuff. But they know that the one person Jennifer will open the vault for is Cole, as long as Cole thinks they've taken off. Jennifer, apparently, will do anything for Cole.
Anyway, this is an interesting turn in the "Cole is reprehensible" storyline — he suddenly meets someone who approves of his methods, whole-heartedly.
Also, at the start of the episode, we get a better look at Young Jennifer, visiting the Night Room before the big massacre that sent her to the mental institution. And it seems as though she was definitely skating on the edge already:
Meanwhile, while the Pallid Man is busy torturing Cole and expounding about why they need a super-virus to fix the world, he also shares another new piece of the puzzle — he's taking orders, or inspiration, from someone called the Witness. A guru? A leader? My guess is, the Witness is another time traveler. But maybe that's too obvious.
So we finally get a look at the source of the virus, and it looks like this:
This image is intercut with some of Dr. Jones' weirder experiments, so it certainly looks as though this skeleton was sent back in time. At one point, the Pallid Man mentions the skeleton is very old — at least, the virus is hundreds of years old. So maybe the skeleton was sent back in time hundreds of years in the past? This is an unexpected piece of evidence for the theory that Jones and company caused the plague apocalypse they're trying to prevent.
Except that there would have to be a timeline where they live in a plague-free future and still decide to send someone back in time, for some other reason. And that person somehow is infected with what becomes the plague. At the very least, I'm going to be very grumpy if this turns out to be a grandfather paradox kind of deal, where A leads to B leads to C leads to A, and there's no actual first cause. That's a massively overused trope, and I'm still hoping for something a bit different here. But we'll see.
And then something else surprising happens:
When Cole gets too close to that skeleton, he starts wigging out, in pretty much the same way that he did when he came too close to his past self in last week's episode.
So is that Cole's skeleton? All signs point to yes — unless this is a massive fake-out.
And then Cole and Railly manage to initiate the Big Burn, sterilizing the lab and destroying the samples of the virus. (And killing a couple of the Monkey thugs.)
And it's very, very satisfying:
In the end, the Pallid Man flees, but he's got Cassandra Railly as his prisoner. Will he be able to coerce her to help him? And even if she does, what good will she be to him?
And meanwhile, Jennifer sees Cole vanish, on top of him angsting in front of her about his failure to dissolve along with his timeline. So she definitely knows something is up here:
Alas, Cole returns to a future that's very different from the one he left. Cole hasn't been erased, and the time machine is still there. But the facility looks a lot less shiny and official, and it's full of junk. And there are no helpful scientists around. Instead, just lots of huddling refugees. Now the facility is run by West 7:
So it looks like Cole can change the past, in pretty major ways, after all. I was starting to wonder. (And apparently Cole can remember the "original" timeline, which is convenient.)
So there you have it — Cole already succeeded in his mission, apparently, but the effects aren't what he expected. This has a nifty effect of both raising the stakes and avoiding the feeling that we keep chasing the Road Runner only to watch it slip away, week after week — instead, we're seeing lots of progress, but with some surprising complications. And now, we're left wondering about this new timeline, but also about that skeleton, the Witness, and just what really caused the plague apocalypse, since the Big Burn didn't solve anything.
And this show also gets major points for dealing with the "ends justify the means" thing in a surprising way — instead of doing what most TV shows lately would do, which is to "prove" that in the end, results are the only thing that matter.