The first season of Syfy's 12 Monkeys ended the other day, so now we can take a step back and look at what this show is actually about. And it's not at all what we thought. In particular, the Army of the Twelve Monkeys isn't what we thought it was. Spoilers ahead...

The Army of the Twelve Monkeys looked like a garden-variety doomsday cult, which was determined to unleash a plague to wipe out most of the human race. But by the end of the season, it's become clear that they're more like a time-travel cult. Their true obsession is closing the circle of causality that led to their own existence, and giving rise to those twelve blue guys whom we see as babies in 2015 and adults in 2043.

We see hints earlier in the season that the Army of the Twelve Monkeys is really obsessed with time travel, especially the Striking Woman — when she drugs Cassandra Railly, her whole spiel is about the Red Forest, which is a reference to the way that time-travel energy turns plants from green to red. And they make a big deal out of putting the two versions of the Pallid Man's medallion together and causing a big paradoxical explosion.

But in this final episode, it's even more clear that all of their ideology and visions are based around the idea of creating some kind of perfect causal loop in which the time travelers, Jose Ramse and James Cole, create the conditions of their own existence. The Project Splinter time machine, which they help to fund, is very important to them, and in 2043 their blue-skinned offspring are willing to do anything to get access to that same time machine.

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The plague, in the end, seems to be just one piece of their plan, one detail in a larger vision of circular time travel.

(And Jose claims that the time machine wouldn't even exist without him going back and creating it — "you had to have time travel to make time travel" — but I'm not sure if that's actually true.)

The finale, "These Arms of Mine," shows the Army of Twelve Monkeys' circle completing, with Jose Ramse coming back to the time machine in 2015, and then getting himself killed by Cassandra Railly. Jose's death is supposed to be the last anyone hears of James Cole, who goes on the run afterwards. And meanwhile, the blue men seem pretty confident that events have played out exactly as planned, when they succeed in taking over the time machine in 2043.

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The interesting twist at the end of the episode is that Cole, Ramse and Railly thwart the Twelve Monkeys' perfect vision. Cole doesn't abandon Ramse after all, because he's come to understand why Ramse betrayed him and how guilty Ramse felt about it — so he goes back and rescues Ramse instead of just letting him die on the floor. And Railly, who's also been shot, gets sent forward in time to 2043 in the hope that Dr. Jones can save her. This startles the blue guys, who did not see her arrival coming at all.

And Cassandra Railly's appearance in 2043 — mortally wounded — creates all sorts of potential problems for anyone who's interested in creating a neat circle of causality. Because she's supposed to leave a message for Cole in 2017 that causes him to go back in time in the first place, and also we've already seen her dying in 2017, not 2043. So the blue guys are in trouble if their existence is dependent on a settled causality, because Dr. Railly just messed that all up.

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This happens right after Dr. Jones has finally decided that you can't change the past, after all, and everything she was doing was for nothing — and then she gets a dramatic demonstration that she was wrong, after all.

What you won't do for love

The other big crux of the episode is exactly what people are willing to do, or not do, for the people they care about. Cassandra Railly is willing to let Cole beat the shit out of her ex-boyfriend, Aaron, and then let him die screaming in a fire — because fuck it, Aaron chose the wrong side and decided to let the entire human race perish for a chance at saving Cassie.

So Cassie is doubly horrified and pissed later on, when Cole isn't willing to shoot Jose Ramse, because it's complicated and Ramse had his reasons, and they can work it out, etc. etc. You can see from the look on Cassie's face that she's thinking, "I just let my boyfriend burn to death, and you're not willing to shoot your ex-friend?" So she takes matters into her own hands, which leads to both her and Jose getting shot.

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And back in 2043, the facility gets overrun by the blue guys, helped by Deacon and embittered ex-Spearhead staffer. And Dr. Jones, who's been willing to sacrifice anyone and anything for her big time travel project, is suddenly willing to blow up the machine to save Whitley and her other remaining followers. And she actually hands the machine, and herself, over to the blue men.

One of my problems with the second half of 12 Monkeys' first season has been the way it's handled its key relationships — there have been a lot of times when the show has skated over personal conflict instead of giving it room to breathe. In particular, Jose Ramse's change of heart and his decision to turn against Cole felt like a plot turn rather than a character turn.

But this final episode does give Cole and Ramse a few good moments together, and Jose stops talking about plot mechanics long enough to say that he's felt guilty for stabbing Cole in Tokyo for 28 years, and he's not willing to kill Cole a second time.

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And Ramse insists that Cole's only motivation for going back in time to try and stop the plague, over and over again, has been to save Cassandra Railly — the same way Ramse has been motivated by love of his son. (Or Dr. Jones by love of her dead daughter.) This is probably too simplistic, and Cole insists it's not true — he's already shown, in earlier episodes, that he cares as much about erasing the awful things he did to survive as about anyone, or anything else.

Anyway, the theme of doing terrible things for (or to) the people you love has sort of come full circle with this final episode.

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Jennifer Goines, scary lady

The other piece of this episode is Jennifer Goines stepping forward. She's running her own company now, and she gives a bizarre corporate presentation where she talks about cloning the dodo and tearing down patriarchy and stuff. And then she has another one of her hilarious scenes where she's really, really into Cole and can't stand Cassandra Railly. She gives Cole lots of helpful info about where to find Ramse, but then it turns out she was actually told to tip Cole off by the Monkeys.

And then Jennifer gets on an airplane for a world tour, loaded up with what appear to be samples of the deadly M5-10 virus, to wipe out almost all the human race. We know from meeting Future Jennifer that she feels remorse for what she's done as well as what Ramse has done — but she also knows enough to give Ramse the medallion so he can go back in time and play his part in the disaster.

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And Future Jennifer seems to believe that Past Jennifer's actions can't be changed, but some things can still be tampered with at the margins.

So I'm calling it right now — they're not going to be able to stop the plague. Cole and Ramse probably have tangled their timelines up too much with the events that lead to the plague's release, to be able to make any meaningful difference. But they can change how the plague happens, or make it play out somewhat differently.

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One thing's for sure — having Cassandra in the future is the kind of game-changer that actually opens up a lot of fascinating possibilities, and I hope she stays there for a while.


Contact the author at charliejane@io9.com.

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