This is a reposting of a series I did for Killer Moose.
So I got around to watching the first four episodes of 11.22.63, and I have so. many. feelings to share, darlings! Most of those feelings are kinda shouty. And kinda drunk. Because I was kinda drunk and shouty when I watched it.
Let’s establish something first: I hold the personal belief that time travel for tv shows is an awful idea 97% of the time. Because of the nature of television in particular, you will dig yourself into a hole of contradictory rules, muddled time streams, and contrived explanations. It is inevitable.
However, with 11.22.63 being based on a novel by Stephen King, it is working under slightly different parameters.
And all that said, the time travel — believe it or not — is not 11.22.63’s worst problem. No! Really! This isn’t the cocktails talking! Oh sure, the time rules are a bit peculiar and convoluted, but they’re not my primary complaint! For once I’m fine with the time stuff. My problems with 11.22.63 are all with the human element(s).
And what I mean by that is: the entirety of the plot begins and is driven by / dependent on our main character making TERRIBLE decisions.
I will now recount for you (with many spoilers) the plot of the first four episodes of 11.22.63 as I remember them through my many coping cocktails…
(NOTE: I have not actually read the book; this is all based on just the show. And I am avoiding as much information about the book as I can because I want to see if the show can stand on its own. That seems fair to me.)
Episode 1 — The Rabbit Hole
Ok. So we meet Jake Epping (James Franco) who works at a high school in Maine. English / Creative Writing it seems. He teaches adult students, wears sweaters, and is also a writer himself — but hasn’t written in a while because he’s been in the midst of a divorce. So, basically, he’s our Stephen King stock character. Whatever. I don’t have a problem with that.
We also meet Al (Chris Cooper) runs the nearby diner.
One day while Franco signs his divorce papers and talks about not writing, Chris Cooper goes in the back of the diner, returns a couple minutes later, and is suddenly much older! And is sick! Cancer!
Because Franco thinks this all a bit odd, Chris Cooper cryptically tells him that he will “explain everything.” Franco just sort of rolls with it.
Chris Cooper makes Franco walk into a closet that turns out to be a time portal. Or sorry, “rabbit hole” as Chris Cooper insists (and rather angrily so — like he’s pissed that Franco would refer to it as a time portal. I mean, you can call it a rabbit hole, Chris Cooper, that’s fine. But I don’t see why we have to get this shitty about someone else wanting to call it a time portal the first time. It is what it is.)
Anyway. I’ve gotten off track.
Franco realizes that this closet in the diner is a time portal. Oh — but that’s after he’s afraid of running into spiders in the closet. Really, dude? Some guy who aged very suddenly is now being all creepy and cryptic about you needing to walk into a deep dark closet in order to see something he can’t explain… and the most your imagination conjures up in that moment is “are there spiders in here?” Aren’t you supposed to be a writer?
Sorry. Off track again…
The time portal apparently drops you at a particular place/time in 1960 (October 21, btw.) And if you walk back through that spot in 1960, you’ll come back through the closet and be back in the diner in present day. Got it.
The one major catch, as explained by Chris Cooper, is that if you were to then walk through the closet a second time, the 1960 you were in resets. So: anytime you come back through the closet, the 1960 timeline resets to the exact same point every time.
Oh, and only 2 minutes passes in “present time.” No matter how long you spent in the 1960 timeline. So in the two minutes it took for Jake to sign his divorce papers, Chris Cooper was living in the 1960s for a couple years. And apparently got cancer.
Chris Cooper explains all of this, and then explains his grand plan. To do what? To stop the assassination of JFK! That’s it.
Ok. That is a terrible plan. The things wrong with this plan are numerous. Pretty sure I drunkenly shouted them at Franco’s face as Jake — for some unfathomable reason — actually considers listening to Chris Cooper on this.
You see, Chris Cooper explains “The Butterfly Effect” to Jake. His theory is that stopping the assassination of JFK will trigger such an effect that will prevent Bobby Kennedy from running for President… and Lyndon Johnson won’t exacerbate the situation with Vietnam… and basically the world will be a much better place.
That’s it. That is the total summation of his plan and his reasoning. Literally.
Yup — stopping the assassination of JFK will, according to Chris Cooper, affect only these very few direct things, exactly this one particular way, and only positively.
At this point I realize Chris Cooper has a profound misunderstanding of how The Butterfly Effect actually works…
AND YET… after making the weakest pseudo objections to the logic of all of this, writer/English teacher Jake WHO SHOULD KNOW BETTER is convinced! He agrees to go ahead and do it. Because why not?
At this point I realize Jake Epping is the singular worst person to be allowed to go back and fuck with time.
But alas Chris Cooper apparently feels differently than I do, because he gives Jake a handy folder he compiled of information on Lee Harvey Oswald, tracking his movements and such. He also provides Jake with some cash, a 1960 ID, a social security card, charge cards, etc… As well as a book with sports outcomes scribbled in it so that Jake can make gambling bets and continue making money for the 3 years he will need to live in the past. (Clearly Al loved Back to the Future Part 2.)
PS Jake’s fake name in the past is “James Amberson.” I mention it because it really started to bother me. “Amberson” sounds like someone just saying “Anderson” weird. ALL THE TIME. Why couldn’t his name just be James Anderson? Wouldn’t that have been simpler? And more inconspicuous? It’s like forgoing the totally common and innocuous “Campbell” for “Candpell” and needing people to constantly double-check what you’re saying..
I feel like this could have been thought through a bit better…
Anyway… Jake walks through the portal, gets a haircut (as Chris Cooper advised), gets the right clothes (as Chris Cooper advised) and buys a very conspicuous bright yellow convertible (in direct opposition to what Chris Cooper advised). He ambles about town, eats pie, and then decides he is going to go make a bet for more money! Because he blew all the cash he had on the fucking car.
Jake then arrives at the seediest possible bar to make an outrageous high-stakes bet with about the seediest, shadiest looking group of people. A $3500 bet, to be exact. IN 1960!! For fuck’s sake, Jake! YOU PAID $700 FOR THE DAMN CAR!
At this point I realize that Jake Epping really does not deserve to live.
Jake wins the bet, of course. And naturally, the seedy and sinister guys are not happy. So Jake runs and hides out in a motel even though he knows they are following him BECAUSE HE HAS A VERY CONSPICUOUS BRIGHT YELLOW CONVERTIBLE THAT HE DOES NOT EVEN ATTEMPT TO HIDE.
This entire sequence, I’m sure, is supposed to be menacing. But you’re seriously telling me he wouldn’t have a moment and go “well I fucked this up, but hey! that’s right, I have a time portal, bitches!”
Seriously, I’m confused. Why wouldn’t you go back to the time portal and reset the day? It’s only a day. It sucks, sure. But you fucked up. You get to still keep the cash you made. And you already have the clothes! Go back to the present, reset the time, come back with a better plan, and start again! Buy a better (and cheaper) car this time. Boom! You’re already better off than you were a day earlier.
But alas no. Jake just hides in a motel. Of course the thugs come for him, but he distracts them! With a viral video on his iPhone!
How exactly does Jake do this? I DO NOT KNOW! There’s no way he’s streaming it… Are you telling me Jake actually fucking DOWNLOADED that ridiculous dancing parrot video??
At this point I realize there is no possible answer that does not make me think less of Jake.
So Jake manages to escape the thugs. And he still continues merrily on with his plan! He even drives to a bridge to throw his iPhone into a lake/river/some body of water.
At this point I would like to questioning this decision as well!
Was there really nothing he could do with it? Having it did just save his life, basically. I would expect it might be useful. Even if not, it doesn’t even cross your mind? You couldn’t bring a charger with you? I’m not sure exactly how the outlets/wiring in 1960 would handle it, but it’s honestly not even a consideration you’d make? Because what if it worked? What if you could charge it? Even if only occasionally? That would be great! Wouldn’t having a few particular downloaded apps come in handy? All you have to do is not parade it around in the open all the time. And fuck, even if you did, it’s 1960! 1) It’s not like anyone would know what they’re looking at enough for it to be woefully dangerous. 2) even if people are spooked by the device, they are unlikely to burn you at the stake for it. Keep it hidden, use it sparingly, have a reasonable and vague explanation for what it is if anyone does find it and ask.
I swear. to. the damn heavens. you had better not tell me you’re throwing the iPhone away because you don’t want to “accidentally affect time.” BECAUSE YOUR ENTIRE GODDAMN PLAN IS ABOUT MAJORLY FUCKING WITH TIME!
Jake starts following all of Chris Cooper’s folder instructions. Specifically he follows around a particular FBI spook guy (whose name I never properly retain) while Lee Harvey Oswald hangs out in Russia. Until at one point Jake makes a detour to a phone booth in order to try and call his own father. Because…???
Jake fails to call his own father because random weird static. After Jake has left the phone booth, a car crashes through it! In the midst of the wreckage, a dead woman opens her eyes and tells him “you shouldn’t be here.”
Oh! Right! Quick note I forgot earlier, btw: “You shouldn’t be here” is the same thing a creepy homeless type man says to Jake each time he’s come through the portal. Creepy homeless guy has no name I heard or remember, and Jake and Al refer to him as Yellow Card (because of a yellow card in his hat.)
Does Jake look at all of these very creepy bizarre things, take a moment, think “fuck. ok yeah. this is probably a terrible idea. the universe just tried to kill me for calling my own dad,” and go back to the time portal??? NOPE! He does not. Not even for a second.
Also the boarding house Jake was staying in suddenly and mysteriously burns down… And! while inside a Tex-Mex restaurant trying to spy on FBI Whatshisname Spook Guy, the universe tries to catch Jake on fire. The universe fails (because Chris Cooper specifically advised on how the universe will try to catch you on fire in that particular restaurant). Instead a giant chandelier crashes down, almost on Jake’s head. Seriously.
Yet despite the fact that the universe persists in clearly trying to destroy him for attempting to involve himself in even minor things, Jake continues to believe that altering something as major as “The Assassination of JFK” is TOTALLY A GREAT IDEA.
And PS, Chris Cooper? Let’s talk for a second about how instead of a mild “you can feel time just sort of… pushing back…” you tell it like it really is, huh? INSTEAD try saying: “Ok. So the entire universe is basically going to be trying to straight up murder you. Fair warning.”
Because listen — if you assholes decide that this awful plan of yours is still something you are going to try no matter the fuck what, then fine. But then can we at least acknowledge what’s actually going on here? That you are two assholes trying to fuck with the very universe in spite of the universe not liking that much?
Chris Cooper may be dead in the present timeline, but fear not! He will appear repeatedly in flashback/memory to remind Jake not get invested in anyone else!… to not care!… to not push on time! because it will push back!
DESPITE THE FACT THAT STOPPING JFK FROM DYING IS ENTIRELY HIS PLAN!!!
So in case this isn’t clear, this is the basic gist of it:
Al: “Jake… don’t push on time… don’t change things… it pushes back.”
Jake: “So… the entire reason I’m here? Stopping the JFK assassination? That should definitely be a no go then, right?”
Al: “What? Fuck no. Still do that.”
Jake: “Ok! Just checking!”
Oh — and maybe I should also point out that Chris Cooper is convinced the universe gave him cancer as punishment for trying to intervene. And the possibility of this does not seem to deter Jake one iota.
Episode 2 — The Kill Floor
Ok so episode 2 is a bit of a narrative detour about stopping an abusive father (Josh Duhamel) from murdering the entire family of Harry, one of Jake’s present-timeline adult students for whom Jake has particular fondness. As such, episode 2 is less in the way of infuriating and is even effective on a certain level.
Make no mistake, Jake is still running around making questionable choices in his handling of the situation, but at least I can support his overall goal of killing an abusive alcoholic husband who murders his own wife and children (and who also wants Jake to kill a cow with a sledgehammer to prove he’s a man.)
Sidenote! Orphan Black Boy Clone Ari Millen is there for some reason. It freaks me out. A lot.
Anyway — go ahead and shoot the abusive husband, Jake!
Jake does shoot him, by the way. But only once. Because Jake loses the gun and doesn’t try to pick it up again during their entire altercation. Because Jake is virtually useless at most things. Instead he strangles Josh Duhamel with an electrical cord, and (hopefully) saves the future of his student.
We’ll see about that. What familiarity I do have with King as a storyteller leads me to believe that something larger is at play with this detail. Or at least I hope so. Because I’d give this entire story way more credit if, by killing this one abusive father Jake sets off a chain reaction of infinitesimal differences that somehow culminates into fucking his mission over.
Because THAT, folks, is the actual fucking Butterfly Effect.
The immediate important development from this episode, however, is that over the course of his farmhouse-murder side-mission, Jake meets Bill.
Bill is a young guy who nearly stops Jake from murdering Josh Duhamel because Bill was hanging out, wanting to murder Josh Duhamel himself! Because Josh Duhamel killed Bill’s sister and her baby.
Oh and, uh, one other major detail:
Bill found a piece of newspaper from Jake’s folder on JFK. Twist!
Bill is understandably wtf?? about all of this, so Jake caves and decides to tell Bill everything. Because I hate characters keeping secrets in things, I am ok with Jake doing this. And since Bill has nothing else to do with his life, he wants to help!
At this point I realize I would like this all so much better if this was the beginning of Jake and Bill’s epic, probably-doomed love story.
Alas, that is not how it goes.
Episode 3 — Other Voices, Other Rooms
Jake and Bill are now an official team! They install themselves in a crappy apartment in Fort Worth in order to spy on Lee Harvey Oswald (returning from Russia) while Jake takes a teaching job at the nearby high school.
We are fast-forwarded to 1962. Jake is working at the high school, teaching English once again.
At this point I remember that Jake is supposed to be a well-read writer… but this realization only makes me more upset. It was better when I’d forgotten…
Jake is well-liked by everyone. He is the sole crusader/defender of Ms. Mimi, the only black woman around. 1960s!
We are also re-introduced to Jake’s would-be love interest with whom he had an obscenely bland meet-cute briefly in the first episode (Sarah Gadon). Enter the generic, unbelievably pretty blue-eyed blonde woman! Their milquetoast romance is already making me yawn.
Meanwhile Jake and Bill set up hidden microphones in Lee Harvey Oswald’s apartment so that they can record all of his conversations. Once again, I question this decision.
After an indeterminate amount of surveillance on Oswald’s apartment, at last FBI Whatshisname Spook Guy arrives to speak to Oswald! Will he order Oswald to kill this General Walker fellow, thereby lending wobbly evidence to Chris Cooper’s belief that if Oswald kills him it proves he also killed Kennedy??
We don’t find out! Because they all start speaking Russian!
Ahem. Wait — weren’t you following this exact same trail, Chris Cooper?? Didn’t you do a shit ton of research into Oswald? You didn’t think this might happen? Couldn’t you have mentioned it as a possibility? Or, hey, you all knew Oswald was in Russia. Did no one consider that knowing even a spattering of Russian may have come in handy?
Jake and Bill record the whole conversation. But since it’s in Russian, they need to translate it. Jake goes out to get a dictionary from the school library. While he is gone Bill is attacked and their recording equipment all stolen! Gasp! By whom??
By the shitty neighbor guy who thinks they’re a gay couple!
Because OH YEAH IT’S 1962 TEXAS AND YOU GUYS DIDN’T THINK THAT THROUGH!
Hey, I’m not saying the shitty neighbor guy is right. He’s not a good person. Fuck his entrenched homophobia!
Remember: I’m also a person that actually still wants a Jake + Bill love story out of all this!
HOWEVER! When your mission is to stay under the radar and not draw attention to yourselves…? Unfortunately it is a known reality of the time and place you’re in that you two living together and, uh, doing every damn thing together is going to look odd to some people, and you are going to draw attention.
So all I would like to point out is that maybe you probably should have at least considered that? In some way?
Anyway. Shitty neighbor guy destroyed all of their recordings because…??? So Jake and Bill are back to having nothing. And then Lee Harvey Oswald has a violent altercation with the police after a rally with the General.
And that brings us to the end of Episode 3.
Episode 4 — The Eyes of Texas
Fast forward again! Aka 3.25.63. Jake and Bill are now in a new apartment in Dallas, continuing to follow Oswald. They are now pretending to be brothers, so I can only assume they have learned from the situation in Fort Worth.
In other news, the blandest romance on the planet stubbornly continues between Jake and Lady Whitbread (because fuck it — I haven’t even bothered to learn her name.)
The recording equipment is all back, Oswald and FBI Whatshisname Spook Guy are speaking English now! Which is a shame. Because NOW it means that Jake is jumping to conclusions left and right about everything goddamn thing they are saying. Jake is convinced the CIA is involved now.
In other other news: random side character Miss Mimi has uncovered that Jake is actually “Jake Epping” and not “James Amberson.” Immunization records, digging, blah. She demands ANSWERS! (Not really. She politely asks to be told the truth.) Jake feeds her a story about FBI Witness Protection.
Oh — and Miss Mimi is sick somehow? That’s a thing? Did the universe decide to give her cancer instead? Why? That seems extra shitty of the universe. Can I blame Jake for this? Too bad. I’m going to. I BLAME JAKE!
Do you know what else I blame Jake for?
Bill it seems has caught some of Jake’s terrible decision making! Because he keeps becoming fixated on Marina Oswald! I.e. the wife of the lunatic would-be-CIA-puppet-murderer you guys have spent three years following!
THIS IS A TERRIBLE CHOICE, BILL! CLEARLY JAKE HAS INFECTED YOU!
There is more bland love story with Lady Whitebread… Her and Jake finally spend the night together, and the next morning Jake finds an envelope of pictures of them both… It’s very boring and it’s probably just Lady Whitebread’s husband or some other explanation, but Jake is excellent at jumping to conclusions!
He naturally immediately assumes that this OBVIOUSLY THE CIA who are following him! And alas you know there’s a problem when it is BILL who acts as the voice of common sense in the situation.
To absolutely no one’s surprise, it totally IS Lady Whitebread’s husband, Johnny (hi, TR Knight!) who has been having her followed. See, Johnny has tracked her down and says he’s not going to give her a divorce. Upset by this turn of events, Lady Whitebread shares her traumatic husband history with Jake. It involves a clothespin.
I realize that through my coping cocktail fog I am unsure what exactly her story is supposed to mean. It forces me to google “11.22.63 men’s penis clothespin” in a search for answers. And oh yay — it’s because in the book, as I understand, Johnny is essentially a product of an abusive religious upbringing (with the clothespin intended to stop impure thoughts and masturbation.) Oh, and apparently he has OCD. This will decidedly color how I perceive the character from here on out.
Also at this point I realize that I am having to watch far too many scenes I don’t care about with Jake and Lady Whitebread.
Anyway… because apparently Jake hasn’t made enough bad decisions yet this episode, he drags Bill along to follow Oswald and FBI Whathisname Spook Guy all the way to what Jake is CONVINCED is a super secret CIA bunker for super secret CIA meetings that are TOTALLY HAPPENING. But nope! It’s just a whorehouse. Alas that does not deter Jake who now decides that the super secret CIA meetings must simply be happening in the whorehouse! Thus he continues to not-at-all-subtly spy on FBI Whathisname Spook Guy. He is rightfully caught trying to spy on another room, of course, and is attacked by a mob of whores… who beat him… with shoes. Jake is then arrested.
No. Really. None of that is a joke. That’s what happens. And it may literally be my favorite thing that’s happened in the show thus far.
Obviously a bit cranky with how things have gone, Jake confronts Johnny directly about leaving Lady Whitebread alone. He even gets to oh-so-heroically taunt the abuse victim about his abusive upbringing.
At this point I realize there is a part of me that wants Johnny to just outright murder Jake. Sure, Johnny’s not a good guy (I mean, he still did assault Lady Whitebread on their wedding night), but at least he seems more interesting to watch than Jake. Lady Whitebread totally doesn’t have to be involved!
PS: this also may have something to do with the fact that TR Knight is probably the most interesting actor in the show so far.
By the end of the episode it seems that Johnny has granted the divorce. Suddenly.
To celebrate the free continuation of their bland love, Lady Whitebread takes a casserole dish of something over to Jake & Bill’s apartment-house. Was that Yellow Card also slinking around the house? I don’t know anymore…
Naturally, Lady Whitebread wanders down into the basement(?), finds the recording equipment, and gets to listen in on the Oswalds having sex. In Russian. She seems shocked.
End of episode.
So that’s it, folks. That is the first four episodses of 11.22.63!
We’re already halfway through the series, and from here on out I will be recapping by the week. New episodes drop on Hulu on Mondays. I will have recaps on Tuesday, and I think it’s fair for you to expect about the same level of cogent thought as I have displayed thus far.
I dunno you guys… this show might break me.