12 Monkeys: Not Just the Best Time-Travel Show, But One of the Best Shows Ever
Where are you right now?
On the first sunny and temperate Friday night in at least two weeks, after a deluge of storms, I stayed in and watched TV. There is nothing special about that, in fact it might seem a little sad. But shed no tears and spare no pity for me. The reason I stayed in to watch TV was because the SyFy series 12 Monkeys aired its two-hour series finale. More like a feature film than a double-episode on basic cable, the episode (and the series) raised the bar on excellence in storytelling, especially when the story happens all out-of-order.
When I was about sixteen, I vividly remember sitting in my Grandmother’s bedroom (she was in the hospital at the time) and watching Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys on TV. The story, partly cribbed from a 1960s Left Bank art film, details a bootstrap paradox involving a time-traveler, a plague, and a violent shooting. I recall as the film ended and the strains of Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World” played, I began to cry. In that moment, my hormone-addled teen-brain understood something about life, fate, and our helplessness to affect either thing. Stone sober though I was, the clarity disappeared from my mind after a few seconds but the tears kept flowing. For reasons I could never fully explain, I love this film. So, when Terry Matalas and the SyFy network said they were rebooting the story for their television show of the same name, I was intrigued but skeptical.
As much as I still love the film, the television version of 12 Monkeys is the far superior version of the tale. It’s faithful enough to the original film that it’s recognizable, but by the end of the first season the differences are what makes this show most intriguing. They raised the stakes considerably, which is no small feat when the inciting incident is a viral plague that ends the world. The show should be remembered as one of the best-crafted shows of all time. The writers — along with the cast and crew — really told a complete story here, one that fits together in ways that other wonky sci-fi concept shows often fail to achieve.
This ends the spoiler-free discussion of the show, so if you’ve not seen it watch it (streaming on Hulu and available through Amazon and other digital vendors) immediately. It’s well worth the investment, and while you may not weep at the wonder and futility of the universe when its over, you will definitely shed some tears. Spoilers for possibly everything below.
The first season of this show is, essentially, an extended version of the film’s plot. There is a plague that a time-traveler is sent to stop after scientists led by a woman named “Jones” find a recording in the future from a Dr. Railly that mentions the traveler by name. The traveler’s stated mission is to track the source of the plague, but in this time-travel scenario the past is immutable. However, in the show, this is not the case. This version of Jones, whose first name is Katarina and is played magnificently by Barbara Sukowa, wants to change the future with a single gunshot. James Cole, played by Aaron Stanford, is to “splinter” back to 2015, shoot a man named “Leland Frost,” and then he would vanish as causality corrects itself into a future without the plague. However, Cole fails to change anything of consequence until he saves a life, the life of his friend-turned-enemy Jose Ramse (played by Kirk Acevedo).
This is a violent show, and, especially post-apocalypse, human lives aren’t worth very much. That level of violence is a risk for any show. The Walking Dead, Westworld, and the short-lived Revolution come to mind as immediate examples of this. The characters we are supposed to root for murder people so indiscriminately that when the time comes for them to weep over a dying friend, it’s hard to really care. Even at their most ruthless, Team Splinter (as the group of heroes is called) is on the side of life. The people they kill in their present die to further their aims of resetting the world. If their mission is successful, those who fell in the fight will live on in the plague-free world. In the past? Well, those folks will stay dead, but since they kill the world with a plague one could argue they have it coming.
12 Monkeys belongs in the conversation with The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad as possibly one of the best-written shows ever on TV. It sets a clear tone, establishes its own vocabulary, and creates a world both wholly separate from the one most are familiar with but incredibly relatable to their world, whatever it may be. Matalas and company have a very clear philosophy here, one they take their time to articulate but is made all the better for it. When it comes to time-travel shows, the focus is naturally on the things that are important in the past or the future. However, what the writers of the show want us to focus on is the now. Interestingly, it is the villains who articulate that message throughout most of the series. Their goal is to destroy time because they believe it will create a kind of eternal “now” where they can be with their loved ones forever.
We don’t actually hear the explicit argument against that until the middle of the last episode. Cassandra Railly, played by Amanda Schull, considers allowing the villain’s plan to unfold as they wanted in the final moments. (More on that, in a moment.) Giving an impassioned speech to Cassie, Cole argues that the value of relationships, of consciousness itself, is only derived from the fact that they end. If they are able to be together for eternity, then eventually they will wonder why they were ever together in the first place. Instead, he argues, he and Cassie should make the most of the time they have left, so that when their story does end it will have been one worth telling.
Of course, stopping the villain’s mad plan to destroy time itself is just half of the problem. Their group is made up of more than a few people who are out of their own times. In fact, Emily Hampshire’s Jennifer Goines is there twice: a young version from 2018 and an older version who lived on through to 2043, the time where the final battle takes place. Jennifer is this 12 Monkeys’ version of Brad Pitt’s character in the film, named Jeffrey. However, she is the heart of this show and my favorite character from the moment she appeared on-screen. There could be ten Jennifers, and it still wouldn’t be enough. So, for the good guys to come out on top at the end, they had to ensure the beginning happens.
Railly and young Jennifer are sent back to 2018. The former is fated to die in her office in Cole’s arms, and the latter is fated to lead a band of badass warrior women across the apocalyptic hellscape. The other characters are all sent off to be where they are supposed to be and die when they are supposed to die. The reason? All to get James Cole to where he needs to be in order to solve the real problem: time-travel “drove time crazy.” For reasons that took 45 episodes of television to explain, James Cole is the reason all this happened. (Much like the film.) Cole’s last mission is a lot like his first: he has to disappear. But rather than being unmade because of the rules of causality, as he’s told in season one, the time machine has to use its sci-fi magic to erase him from all of time.
You see, despite his speech to Cassie, Cole lied to her. Because he was the first to travel through time, he essentially made it “work.” Like in the film, it is time-travel that creates the problem the people using it are trying to fix. The only way to ensure that the plague doesn’t happen, and our heroes live full, happy lives is to make it so the central hero figure never existed at all. In the final shots of the penultimate act of the series, James Cole is alone and has to press the button himself to do it. He is not the first fictional hero to have to sacrifice himself to save the day, but he does. And it works.
Along with how this show made a point to examine the value of human life, there are other crucial themes. The first is that there is no time like the present. Instead of looking to the past longingly or towards the future with fear, appreciate where you are right now. And, who you’re with. There are other themes woven into this narrative, enough so that fans of this show will have things to talk about for cycles — I mean, years, to come. Meditations on the value of revenge, when to keep a secret, when not to, no one is beyond saving, and that love exists outside of causality. All of this heady shit stuffed into a sci-fi epic with delightful and exciting capers through the ages.
Shows like Firefly and The X-Files have lived long past their release dates. Some have come back (and maybe shouldn’t) and others have stayed lost to time. The 12 Monkeys fanbase has always been small. Still, it’s fiercely loyal, and with good reason. The show is excellent, and because it was written with a master plan in mind, rewatching it only deepens your appreciation of it. The line “you little shit” in one episode reflects how a reluctant daughter is more like her mother than she cares to admit. A little more than a dozen episodes later, a revelation gives that line a whole new meaning in that moment. It doesn’t change it, but rather strengthens the original idea. This series is full of moments like this, and fans (old and new) will keep these cycles rolling along again and again for as long as we enjoy two-dimensional visual art.
This is one of the great series finales for one of the great series in this “golden age” of television. It answers all the questions, tugs at all the heartstrings, and still delivers a satisfying and happy ending. Or does it? The final shot of the series shows Cassie and Cole impossibly reunited. But the camera pulls away from them and focuses on a red-orange leaf in the trees. Now, it’s autumn where they are, so this isn’t exactly strange. But it does suggest that perhaps Cassie never stopped the villain’s plan. Instead of saving the world, they could possibly be inside that “red forest” the villains talked about. All of the characters get happy endings — save for Alisen Down’s Olivia — and it just seems too perfect. Perhaps, rather than save the world, they failed their mission but got a happy ending anyway?
This is a deliberate move on the part of the writers, leaving the audience with something to discuss and debate now that the show is off the air. Like The Sopranos’ sudden smash to black, fans of 12 Monkeys can pore over the series, building their cases and making their arguments. And there is no definitive answer. Executive producer and showrunner Terry Matalas told TVLine that while he believes they actually saved the world, other writers believe them to be in the Red Forest, “and those people have dark souls,” Matalas said. A character in the show even tells us this, by saying “the right ending is the one you choose.” The ending Matalas and company chose for this underrated series couldn’t have been more perfect.