Syfy's time-travel show 12 Monkeys has a pretty grim premise, involving a plague apocalypse that kills 7 billion people and turns the world into a Hobbesian nightmare. But it can still get nastier than that, as last night's episode amply proved. Spoilers ahead...
Dr. Jones' horrible crime
The centerpiece of "Tomorrow" is the horrible decision that Dr. Jones makes. She slaughters half the people at the Spearhead Project in order to steal their power core for her time machine.
And to make this happen, she convinces everyone that the Spearhead leader, Col. Foster, has lied about finding a cure for the virus. Foster, she insists, has only cured the 2033 mutation of the virus, not the two mutations that have happened since then.
But Ramse's ex-lover, Elena, seems pretty darn sure that Foster actually did cure the more recent strains, based on first-hand knowledge. And towards the end of the episode, we see Jones furtively burning some papers, including one which apparently shows proof that Foster cured a mutation from 2041. (It's really hard to read the paper, but if you slow the tape down, you can see where it says 2041.)
So Jones lies and manipulates everybody, because she would rather gamble on the notion of preventing the virus from ever being released in the past — even if there's a certain way to eradicate it in the present. This is pretty much entirely due to the death of her daughter Hannah, but also her remorse over the terrible things she's done — things which will never have happened if her plan succeeds.
We get lots of signs that erasing Hannah's death is Jones' primary motivation — she fingers a locket with a baby picture when she feels briefly remorseful for all the slaughter. And her last words to Foster before she shoots him are about the main difference between the person Foster used to know and the person she is now: back then, she was a mother.
But we also see some reminders that she also desperately wants to erase her own horrible actions. Her slaughter of the innocents is artfully juxtaposed with her speech to Cole, in 2041, about how history won't remember what they've done to erase the plague, and she's very grateful for that.
Incidentally, the scene between Jones and Foster, before she shoots him, is probably the best moment in the episode. The whole debate over changing the past versus securing the future gets a bit more nuance — Foster points out that the dead live on through their words. You can still read Shakespeare, and other dead authors. He admires Jones' brilliance, but wishes he could meet the person she would have been if she hadn't gotten pulled into this dark obsession. She replies that soon, he will.
Unfortunately, Jones' lie is kind of unconvincing — you would think that people might want to do some fact-checking before embarking on wholesale slaughter based on her say-so. And even if you believe that Foster hasn't cured the latest strain of the virus yet, that doesn't mean he won't succeed eventually.
(Plus why not send Foster's cure of the 2033 strain back in time to 2015, so Cassandra Railly can mass-produce it? Just a thought.)
Which leads me to the weakest part of the episode, and the part that annoyed me when I first watched this episode a couple weeks ago. Jones' attack on Spearhead only succeeds because Whitley, her military leader, is able to convince his father Frank Whitley (who's the head of security at Spearhead) to change sides. This is a huge change of heart for a man who's been estranged from his son for 10 years, and who has been described as having an unbending devotion to duty.
So the scene where Whitley convinces his dad to betray his own people — including, later, shooting his own men in the back! — really ought to be something special, right? But no. It's actually a weirdly brief exchange, where Whitley Jr. just insists that Foster hasn't cured the latest strain of the virus, and Whitley Sr. has too much faith in the old man. And that does the trick. Later, Frank Whitley conveniently gets gunned down in the fighting, so he's not around to ask any further questions.
I didn't buy Frank Whitley's sudden betrayal of his own people, whom he stood by after they staged a bloody purge 10 years earlier. It felt weirdly hand-wavy, as though the episode just ran out of time to make Whitley Sr.'s motivations hold water.
Watching this episode a second time, I was able to look past the Whitley Sr. stuff a bit more, because a lot of the rest of the episode is pretty decent. And you have to admire the show's willingness to make its heroes completely horrible people.
The other big change of heart in the episode is a bit more sketched out — we see a series of flashbacks to 2041, showing when Cole and Ramse first came to Project Splinter. And meanwhile, in 2043, we see Ramse turning against Jones and her project.
In 2041, Ramse and Cole are at the end of their rope. It's winter, they're freezing their balls off, and they have no gear or food. They foolishly attack a group of men who've caught a deer, and wind up getting taken prisoner by Whitley, who beats the crap out of them — until Jones hears Cole's name and decides he's the time traveler she's been waiting for.
Cole thinks Jones is crazy and refuses to volunteer for her nutso project. But Ramse is the one who forces Cole to take part, even foiling Cole's nearly successful escape attempt. Ramse says that they've done terrible things to survive, and he's made his peace with it — but maybe Cole hasn't. And this is a chance to fix everything, in a way that running away to Florida can't. Ramse says that making Cole do the time-travel thing is a way of "saving his soul."
But in 2043, Ramse discovers he has a son, and that his ex is still alive. So he tries to get Elena and Samuel out of Spearhead before the attack happens, but they wind up getting caught in the middle of the fighting. Plus Elena convinces Ramse that Jones lied about the cure. After everything else Ramse learned about Jones in earlier episodes, this is the last straw, and he's apparently turned against her.
When Cole finally returns to 2043 (more on that below), Ramse insists that Cole has to stop with the time-traveling — even though if Cole does stop, all of this killing will have been for nothing. Ramse keeps insisting that "it ain't working," and that they can't actually change the past. (Even though Eyepatch Ramse would like a word with him.) Those deaths in 2017 will always have happened, including Cassandra Railly's.
Here's the tail end of the scene where Cole and Ramse have their falling out:
Unlike the scene between Whitley and his dad, this is a bit more fleshed out, and it's given time to breathe. But it's also left kind of vague. Like, I think when Ramse says "What about my son?," he means "What if you succeed, and my son will never have been born?". But for whatever reason, this is left implied. And given the huge bond we've seen between Cole and Ramse in the past, I would have liked to see Ramse's motivations spelled out a bit more explicitly. But I guess Jones' lies are motivation enough, on their own.
And the same past-vs-future debate that we saw between Jones and Foster comes back again — Ramse insists that all the people Cole is trying to save in 2015 are already dead, and their deaths were meant to be. Meanwhile, Cole says that Ramse's son is already dead, because "there is no future." The only choice we're offered is between two utterly nihilistic viewpoints, or two versions of fatalism.
In any case, things end in a bad place between Cole and Ramse, with their difference of opinion over the futility of time travel left unresolved. Of course, Cole already knows that he's "supposed" to keep traveling, because the dying Cassandra told him.
Cole watches everything die all over again
Since I've been pretty harsh about a couple things in this episode, I ought to balance that out by praising a lot of the visuals in this episode. Director T.J. Scott (who's also worked on Gotham and Orphan Black) finds some really inventive camera angles for the slaughter at Spearhead and the bittersweet restoration of the time machine — but the sections of the episode where Cole is stuck in the middle of the plague are especially beautifully filmed.
There's one great bit, where a woman tries to break into the quarantine zone, and she gets gunned down, and we see her dead body alone in the middle of a bridge, shot from above. Also, the shot of Cole looking out at a hillside full of bodybags is terrific.
So Cole has jumped from 2015 to 2017, while staying in Chechyna. The plague is in full swing, and his intervention with Evil Snowden hasn't helped anything. Luckily, the U.S. military has been alerted to watch for Cole, so they can fly him straight to Baltimore, to meet up with the doomed Cassandra Railly at the CDC. The soldier who transports Cole is immune to the virus, but she's already lost her husband. And she clings to the vain hope that they're going to find a cure.
Also in 2017, we get a glimpse of Jennifer Goines, who's out on the loose and has apparently become a manic street preacher. She's gotten a following of young women, who eagerly listen to her weird, disjointed speech about the apocalypse, and the crimes of the fathers and the burdens carried by mothers and daughters. And she points out that twelve isn't a "primary" number — unlike thirteen.
When Cole meets Cassandra again, it's been two years for her and "a lot has happened" between the two of them. She calls him James now, and seems to have been through a lot. And as she lays dying, she tells Cole that he's going to find the answers he seeks — he just has to stay on his path. She can't tell him any of the things they've learned in the past two years, because otherwise she'll change what's already happened for her.
The scene where Cole watches Cassandra die (see a snippet above) is incredibly sweet and moving, as he keeps promising her he won't leave her side and she won't have to die alone. He's heartbroken that whatever he does, she always dies on him, but she keeps urging him to keep going because it'll be worth it somehow. Even though whatever they've learned or accomplished in the past two years, it hasn't prevented any of this. And she's still toast.
And as Cassandra dies, she adds a bit more to the show's already bursting mythos. Like, when she gets momentarily confused, she asks Cole if he's found the Red Forest. (And then she remembers that hasn't happened for him yet.) When the Army of the Twelve Monkeys was drugging and hypnotizing Cassandra, the Striking Woman kept talking about a red forest — but apparently, this is a real place. Someplace that Cole is going to be searching for, in his future.
After Cassandra dies, Cole disappears into thin air, snatched back to 2043. And then something really weird happens:
The scratch on Cassandra's watch, which happened back in the first episode, disappears. Is this just so that the future version of the watch, which Cole finds in 2043, won't have a scratch so Cole can re-scratch it in 2013? Or does this mean that something has just happened to change those events — and Cole no longer tried to kidnap Cassandra in 2013 and scratched her watch? If it's the latter, what's suddenly changed? (And either way, why does this happen at the moment of her death? This is pushing time travel a bit closer to being magic.)
Anyway, on second viewing, I appreciated the darkness of this episode — between the images of a plague-ridden 2017, and a brutal massacre in 2043, it shows a willingness to push the show's boundaries further. Even if some parts of the episode still don't quite hold water.