July 19, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “12 Monkeys”


Time-travel tales are everywhere on TV these days–Timeless, Making History, Time After Time  and Frequency will join Legends of Tomorrow next season, and even Game of Thrones dabbled in the genre this year.  But the works that take themselves seriously are fiendishly difficult to pull off, apt to fall into traps of timelines that coexist and overlap, and inconsistent rules of causation.  It’s the reason why most stories in the genre, even mammoth ones like Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (and its inferior Hulu adaptation), keep their missions finite and discrete, stories in which a protagonist travels to a particular time for a particular mission, succeeds or (more often) fails, and deals with the consequences.  Give credit to Syfy’s 12 MONKEYS for plunging heedlessly into the full-on time travel rabbit hole and grappling with the nature of time itself, even if the result has been a self-important mythology so dense as to be barely penetrable.

12 Monkeys Season 2 rushed past the premise of the original Terry Gilliam/David & Janet Peoples film (itself inspired by Chris Marker’s near-abstract La Jetee), as heroes Cole (Aaron Stanford) and Railly (Amanda Schull) disposed of the plague that had doomed the future planet.  That, of course, didn’t solve the world’s problems, and series creators Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett proceeded to freely mix the quasi-mystical along with the quasi-scientific, with characters known forebodingly as The Witness, The Mother, The Daughters, The Primaries and The Messengers, along with a Red Forest that both indicated the coming end of the world through a cataclysmic eruption in time, and gave its inhabitants hallucinatory visions of past and future.

The season’s penultimate episode had provided a Darkest Timeline, one in which Cole and Railly were unable to stop a “Paradox” in 1957 (an event in which a then-current Primary was stabbed fatally with a bone from her dead future self, ripping the time-space continuum), thus failing to keep the Red Forest under control, while in the show’s “present” of 2044 the other series regulars, including Ramse (Kirk Acevedo), Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire) and scientist Dr. Jones (Barbara Sukowa, a long way from her Fassbender past) were mowed down in what turned out to be an entire… time-travel city?  That they’d had visions of via the Red Forest?  Honestly, who knows.

The season finale, written by Matalas and directed by David Grossman, found a loophole to all this, as yet another mysterious figure imprisoned in a mental hospital (played by Madeleine Stowe, an awfully high-class guest star for this series) told Cole in 1959 that he could return to 1957 through some Red Forest tea and stop that paradox.  After some initial qualms–he and Railly had enjoyed 2 years of semi-marital bliss, culminating in her disclosing that she was pregnant–he did so, stopping the future Red Forest from overrunning the world.  But of course that led to more problems, and the final scenes found characters scattered in time everywhere from 1917 to 2163.  In the latter timeframe, Railly discovered that she was the object of worship, and that the child she was carrying would become The Witness that was causing so much temporal trouble.

Whether or not this all made a kind of sense, it required so much time to set up and effort to comprehend that there was little room for anything else.  (The episode did find a bit of space for some Jennifer Goines pop culture humor, though, this time in a rousing speech that incorporated lines from Braveheart and Independence Day.)  More seriously, the show’s reliance on loopholes and sudden rule changes to permit plot reversals meant that the emotional stakes have been lowered, since characters that die in one version of the timeline are promptly brought back in another.  Apart from all that, the ambition of 12 Monkeys constantly causes it to run into Syfy’s strict budget limitations, and the show has never solved the problem of the scant chemistry between Stanford and Schull, not to mention a tendency to let the actors overdo it.

In the current post-apocalypse of Syfy’s scripted line-up, 12 Monkeys, along with the equally wide-ranging The Magicians, is at least trying to be distinctive despite its shortcomings–and thanks to the new economics of TV distribution, its low network ratings haven’t kept it from being renewed for a 3rd season.  Perhaps Season 3 will discover a timeline that brings the series more in line with its high ambitions.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."