12 Monkeys, Syfy Series
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted on 5/22/18, edited & updated several times since for:
SEASON 2 / SEASON 3 / SEASON 4
This Syfy TV series is loosely based on the Terry Gilliam film from 1995, which in turn was inspired by the 1962 avant-garde short film La Jetée by Chris Marker. In Gilliam's film James Cole was sent back in time to gather information on the origin and nature of the pathogen that caused a world-wide plague in 1996, so that scientists in the future could devise a vaccine to halt its spread then. In the series, James Cole (Aaron Stanford) is sent back to stop it from happening in the first place, thus saving the lives of over 7 billion people. If he is successful he expects to be erased from existence, or at least his adult self would disappear. His younger self, orphaned at the age of 6, could lead an entirely different life in the changed world. I've thought about doing this review for a while, but I could say that about many other series, both current and past. The final season will begin in less than a month, June 15, 2018. The previous three seasons are all on Hulu, but none at syfy.com for some reason. I've just finished a re-watch of Season 1, so I felt it was about time to do this. Better now than never, right? The first two are also on DVD & Blu-Ray, but S3 is not, at least not for Region 1.
EDIT: Seasons 3 & 4 will be released on Blu-Ray August 14. No DVD for S4, DVD for S3 still only other regions than U.S. Click on images for purchase.
It should be expected that any time-travel story will be convoluted, even more so when it is extended over several TV seasons, short as they have been. Not that 12 Monkeys is similar in plot to Lost (another show I had intended to write about but never did), it is just as convoluted and unpredictable. Since time-travel is likely impossible we don't have to worry about plausibility, but the scenario does lend itself to changes in course, with the revival of characters who had been killed or wiped out of existence by various events. Some viewers might say that's cheating, but it is in the nature of the genre, and it's to be preferred to losing great characters altogether. The question then becomes how well is the story developed, how good is the writing and acting, and is the flaunting of the concept of change and renewal consistent and justifiable? While I am sure the creators knew their end-game from the beginning, it is possible a few points were tweaked because of impressive performances from different actors, justifying extra screen time even if the events were originally intended for a different character. The acting is very good across the board, my favorites fluctuating between episodes due to who is featured. Several start out as antagonists, then switch to being allies, then back and forth a few more times, thus extending the unpredictability. The cast list in the Overview column is limited to those in the first season, in roughly the order of their appearance, not necessarily their prominence in the story. I may add others when I get into the later seasons.
I don't want to jump the gun and speculate about the final season, but there have been hints along the way that I expect to be resolved. One of those is possibly telegraphed by the current promotion that features the image of Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail, symbolically depicting the eternal cycle of renewal. In the Season 1 finale, Cole's friend José Ramse (Kirk Acevedo) says "It took time-travel to invent time-travel." I won't go into how and why he comes to that conclusion, but his experience is eerily symmetrical timewise. While his statement is correct it is also limited to only his own perspective, he was not aware of the full implication of that fact. In this way, it is similar to a concept expressed in a tag-line from another show, the old Sci-Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica: "This has all happened before, and it will happen again." Is time immutable, fate inevitable? Will everything play out the same no matter how hard you try to change it? What if there are forces you can't even imagine determined to see that events unfold according to their own design? Other than Ouroboros, another metaphor for the story could be an onion, with a seemingly unending number of layers. Expose one and eliminate it, another is there to take its place. Since this is a series and not a one-off film, the plot can't be wrapped up easily or quickly. When Cole goes back to 2015 and kills the man they think most responsible for the plague, nothing changes. There must be others involved. In the future of 2043, the mission's leader Katarina Jones (Barbara Sukowa) and her assistants scour over every scrap of newsprint stockpiled, as well as a few computer files still accessible, to determine the next course of action, the next likely person or company to target. Since Cole's actions in the past sometimes cause minor variations in future events, each time they go through those archives they see something they missed the first time around, or perhaps something that wasn't there the last time they looked.
Cole had initially made contact with Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), and even though his first mission fails he feels she is his best hope of figuring things out, seeing as how she will later work with the CDC. The mission came to be because of a recorded message Dr. Railly had left just before she died in 2017. While incomplete and garbled with static, it seems to be a plea for Cole's return to help her. Jones is worried her continued involvement might change her future, that she might not leave the message that started it all. But Cole insists since he's the one risking everything, and by that time Cassie fully accepts his story and wants to do what she can to help him. In the beginning, it is Cole and Jones who are intent on doing whatever it takes, no matter how many times it takes, to stop the plague. Cassie and José act as the conscience of the mission, the moral center. The roles reverse several times throughout the season, and continue to change later, with Cassie more ruthless and Cole backing off his earlier intensity. Jones never wavers though, she must see the mission to completion, since she desperately wants to reunite with her daughter who died from the plague. Cole and Ramse had been friends for a long time, beginning shortly after the death of Cole's father. They are brothers in the sense they were in an orphanage together, and had endured many hardships since. They survived the plague years together, avoided or fought off scavenger gangs together, at least until they were forced to join the West VII, a large gang run by Deacon (Todd Stashwick). After a few years they are successful in escaping that group, later encountering Jones and her crew. Their bond is as strong, if not stronger, as any biological brothers. Their world can be harshly cruel, even if at times it presents them with unexpected gifts. Their bond is sorely tested when José encounters someone from his past, someone who sets him on a course to oppose Cole's mission. His new-found happiness cannot be jeopardized by any change in the past. And that's all I'll say about that at this time.
The actors I suspect of having their roles extended are Todd Stashwick and Alisen Down. Deacon is a brutal gang leader, preying on the weak, a cold-blooded killer intent on making things a bit easier for himself and his followers. He was in a couple of episodes mid-season, then returned at the end, and his arc continued through the second season and into the third. His character does go through some changes, at times adding a bit of comic relief, but it would be difficult to say he ever became sympathetic, just not as malicious as in the beginning. Alisen Down plays the mysterious Olivia, one of the master-minds behind the Army of the 12 Monkeys. She's probably just as evil as Deacon, but that is masked by her calm and methodical behavior, including her mesmerizing voice. Both of them are characters you can love to hate. I love Stanford and Schull's chemistry and their story arc, and consider Acevedo's Ramse the strongest character emotionally, even through his changes of mood and demeanor. Sukowa's Jones is mostly stoic, unemotional, a scientist intent on the work, but her exterior cracks every once in a while, revealing a very lonely and vulnerable woman. But my overall favorite is Emily Hampshire as Jennifer Goines. That's a gender swap from the movie, which had Brad Pitt as Jeffrey Goines, son of the man whose company developed the virus. In both film and series, Cole first meets the younger Goines in a mental hospital. Even though Jennifer is innocent of the crime for which she has been accused, she rightfully belongs in that institution. She's highly intelligent, but also the epitome of the saying "nuttier than a fruit cake." We slowly learn the reasons for that, but that gets into events in Season 2. Until I continue the review for those episodes I'll just say that every time Emily is on screen is a treat, and it is advised to pay attention to everything she says even if it sounds like gibberish. It will all become clearer later.
There are a few scenes that are a bit cheesy, but acceptable due to the actors' deliveries. Episode 3 had something that really bugged me, Cassie and other doctors taking off their surgical masks right in the middle of a crowded tent during a viral outbreak in Haiti. Yes, we got to see Amanda's beautiful face more, but otherwise it kept throwing me out of the scene. I suppose they may have tried it with the masks on but the dialog was garbled, but they should have been able to fix that with re-recording in post production. One thing that was good about that one is it solidified our early perceptions of the characters, with Cole relentlessly pursuing the mission at all costs, while Cassie begins the decline of professionalism that gets her ostrasized, which we knew had happended in the pilot, although we hadn't yet seen the reasons dramatized. The only other complaint I have about Season 1 is for the editing of scenes toward the end of Episode 8. It could have been more tense if not for the fact it was too easy to realize Cassie and Cole, while at the same place, were experiencing things at different times. Other than that, it's a very good (but short) season of television, with one of the better pilots I've seen, and a great cliffhanger at the end. If you can watch just the first two episodes and not feel compelled to continue, then the show is not for you. If you get to the end of the season and don't want to start right in on the next, I would definitly be puzzled by that reaction. This was at least the fourth time I've watched it, maybe the fifth, and I still like it as much as ever. I'll continue with this in a couple of weeks when I get to the end of Season 2.
As much as I love SF/F shows, I think the majority would work best as limited series. Tell the story and be done, in as few episodes as possible. If they last too long they have to continually reinvent themselves, but still risk running out of ideas. It's fortunate that this series has had only thirty-six episodes through three seasons, and yet has still ventured far beyond the original premise. I hope the creators planned it all from the beginning, but even if not they still need to maintain a consistency of plot and character development. On a positive note, the amount of story they are able to cover in so few episodes is incredible. On this re-watch I obviously knew how the season would end, but was still amazed how much story was packed into each episode, both in the 'present,' as well as past and future scenes. As I said above, character dynamics change several times throughout, with allegiances tested and rivalries formed between factions, and later new factions are revealed. I don't want to spoil things, so details will be brief, but I should reveal that at the end of Season 1 Cassie travels to the future, with Cole remaining in 2016. At the very end of the first episode she returns to 2016, angry with Cole since she thinks he has lost his will and is unable to do what needs to be done to complete the mission. He is able to talk her down, prevent her from killing the target, but they are able to destroy samples of the virus. When they get back to 2044 they discover that for the first time their actions have produced positive results. The plague still occurred, but at a later date, and fewer people died. Cole insists his change in tactics, helping someone rather than killing them, is what made the difference. Cassie is not fully convinced, and their relationship remains tense.
In Season 1 we learned it was Leland Goines (Zeljko Ivanek) and his company, the Markridge Group, that initially developed the virus. The Army of the 12 Monkeys was attempting to steal and release it, and they also had other plans. Actors added to the cast this season include Scottie Thompson, part of a group of twelve known as the Messengers, who were raised by the 12 Monkeys from infancy to take over Jones' time travel facility, then go back in time for a nefarious purpose. Thompson's appearances are brief, but her arc is of significance to a couple of other characters, and she does reappear in Season 3. Michael Hogan and Brooke Williams both show up because of changes in the time stream, but I won't elaborate on that nor give any indication of how long they stick around. I will say one of them is the beneficiary of a 'Groundhog Day' type of episode. Jay Karnes has a recurring role as a government agent, who first encounters Cole and Cassie on their mission to stop the Messengers in 1944, and they later re-meet in 1961. At that time he says something about knowing Cole for a long time, Cole says it was just once in '44, so he nods and says, "Ah, right." Gale knows about the time travel, and realizes those other encounters haven't happened for Cole yet. He is in one episode of Season 3, and I hope we'll see him again in Season 4. Madeleine Stowe, who co-starred in the movie as psychiatrist Kathryn Railly, has a brief but memorable role in the Season 2 finale. When I first heard about that I thought she might be playing Cassie's mother, who died when Cassie was young, or maybe even Cole's mother, who was only mentioned once in Season 1, and I've always felt we'd see her at some point.
Something I didn't mention about the first season was the introduction of a person, or supernatural entity, known as the Witness. It may have been mentioned before the sixth episode, with the phrase "The Witness has spoken," but not seen until then, by Cassie in a drug induced hallucination. Yet he(she?) is still shrouded in mystery. Through two seasons, there have been at least three people that either some of the characters, or the viewing audience, suspected of being the Witness. It seems the concept of Ouroboros was introduced earlier than I recalled, appearing in drawings done by Jennifer, all of which she believes depict future events. It is also referenced in occasional dialog, such as "We have to cut the head off the snake!" and "We can't keep chasing our tails forever." While I can recommend this series, I can't guarantee you'll like it as much as I do. Some might lose interest when plot threads don't lead where they expect, or dislike what happens to various characters, or become frustrated when events can be for nought due to the magic of time-travel. Some may think certain concepts are too preposterous. You can't get more preposterous than people who want to not only end the world, but end time itself, which they think means they'll be able to exist in a perfect moment of time forever. Even if the Witness is real and has an agenda, it is possible everyone has misinterpreted the message. As wild a ride as it's been so far, I recall Season 3 being even weirder, and I'm anxious to experience that again. The first two seasons had thirteen episodes each, but only ten for the third. Twelve more days until Season 4 premieres, and I'll update this one more time before then.
When Season 3 was announced as having only ten episodes, I suspected it would be the end of the series. That feeling was reinforced when the schedule was announced. All ten episodes would run on one weekend, the first four on Friday, with three each on Saturday and Sunday. However, some time before the broadcast they announced a renewal for a fourth season. On this rewatch I decided to binge these in the same manner, with the exception of watching the first one last Thursday, then three each on successive nights. Toward the end of Season 2 yet another aspect of the 12 Monkeys had been revealed, that of a vast complex known as Titan, which itself was one big time machine. Supposedly it was where the Witness would be found. Something else that had happened was Jennifer getting stranded in 1917 during World War I trench warfare, another callback to a scene from the Gilliam film. She is in France for nearly five years before the team discovers where and when she is, and retrieves her.
Cole and Cassie are separated. She's in Titan, he's desperately searching for the place that can move in both time and space. She eventually is able to escape, they reunite, and settle on a new agenda. Thinking they know the identity of the Witness, they begin a search which starts in 1953, when they once again ask Agent Gale (Jay Karnes) for help. They see the Witness, or at least the one being presented as such, but he and his guardians escape using portable time-travel devices. Luckily they are able to track their location, and knowing the exact time and place where he will be, they return to the future to gather reinforcements for his capture. Things don't go according to plan, and once again the loyalties of the group are tested, pitting Cole and Cassie against Jones, Deacon, and others. Unfortunately, the Witness once again makes his escape, and Cole and Cassie, now in possession of two of the portable devices, continue their search, this time to 1899 London.
At the very end of the eighth episode, James Callis (Battlestar Galactica) is revealed as Athan, the Witness as an adult, or rather, a person presented as being the Witness. At least Athan thought that was his destiny. He has spent his entire life wandering the time stream, learning as much as possible of history, literature, art, and science. He has been told that he is to return to Titan and begin the process that will end time, to reward the faithful with that perfect moment frozen forever. Along the way his conviction has wavered, especially after the death of Sebastian (Rupert Graves), the last of his guardians. Episode 9, "Thief," is one of the best written and acted episodes of TV I've ever seen, not just for this show. Athan meets someone, and the experience changes his outlook on his life and destiny once again. Eliza (Claire Cooper) is a woman who has abandoned her station in life to work at a hospital for the poor. Athan has lived in many different time periods, is knowledgeable of medical techniques and medicines far beyond her time. Since he possesed a portable time device he had been able to travel to the future to get medications not available in the 19th Century, for his own use, and he also gives some to Eliza to treat her patients, and herself. He thinks he could be content staying with her, yet later reveals his secret, inviting her to travel to a better future with him. Fate has other ideas.
The final episode is a very wild ride, with Cole and Cassie trying to convince Athan he controls his own future, he doesn't have to fulfill the prophecy as foretold by the 12 Monkeys. Jones and her crew catch up to them, they still want to kill the Witness, Cole and Cassie are trying to protect him. Then Titan shows up, more fighting, more revelations of intent, Athan gets away, Olivia (remember Alisen Down?) reasserts her authority, which causes Cole and Cassie to reconcile with Jones. I actually need to rewatch that finale again before this Friday, just to make sure I have all the twists of the plot straight before continuing. We've lost several more characters along the way, but I feel certain time loops will restore some if not all of them. One other thing. In the very last scene of the season, Cole's mother is mentioned again, so that leads me to believe we will see her in Season 4. I have a theory as to her identity, and if right it's something that will blow Cole's mind.
The schedule for Season 4 was different, but similar, to the way they rolled out Season 3. This time there were eleven episodes, with the first three airing on Friday, June 15. Three more on each of the following two Fridays, with the final two episodes on July 6. I've seen several comments about it being the best series finale ever, which I'm not prepared to echo at this time. I was pleased with the very end, can't imagine a better one, but there were other elements along the way that didn't satisfy, mainly because they were clichés and expected by that point, plus I didn't get answers to all the questions I had. I was wrong about the identity of Cole's mother, but I think my guess made more sense in the context of other things said and done (or not done) over the years. Still, it was not an unsatisfactory reveal, and almost as symetrically poetical as I had envisioned.
The Ouroboros artifact used in promotional materials is only part of the one we see in the first episode, in a medieval setting, then later in a present day museum. There is a middle piece, vertically bisecting the circle, which has several tile pieces like dice that rotate, with a different image on each facet. Using clues from a story Cole remembers his father telling him, one that Cole's mother had written before she disappeared, he is able to select the images in the proper order to reveal another clue, which points to a place in the Western U.S. in the 1860s. Before they venture there, a couple of other things happen, including Cassie going back to 1971 to confront, and possibly kill, the younger version of the person they believe personifies the Witness in the future. Cassie is not successful in that endeavor (that time at least). By the end of the series, I'm still not convinced that the person who believed themselves to be the Witness actually was. It is possible the Witness was just a concept, and while there were several who had that potential, it may be a concept that was never realized. The stated purpose and destiny of the Witness was never fulfilled. Or was it?
Spoilers ahead! You may want to skip the next few paragraphs. I've written quite a bit, then deleted most of it, all containing massive spoilers, mainly about what I feel are inconsistencies in the overall story. Please note, none of this changes my love for the show. I'm sure the producers and writers knew the beginning and end, and several stops along the way, but a few things must have been thought of on the fly. They might deny it, but my questions persist. I'm not going to detail all of them, just say certain actions by the 12 Monkeys and the Witness seem conflicted. Why do this thing, when they were also planning this other thing? If the Witness had the perspective of the future they would know what worked, what didn't, and then plan accordingly and rewrite the past. Two major questions that I don't think were adequately explained is the importance of James Cole and Jennifer Goines. Several times Cole has to ask people how they know who he is. The clues from the artifact make sense because Cole's mother heard the story from him in the future, then went back in time to meet his father and give birth to him. But how does a teenage girl holding that artifact in medieval times know about James Cole from the 21st Century? Things we learned in Season 2 explained why the lives of Cole and Cassie were spared numerous times when it seemed more logical for them to be killed. Yet something happened in Season 3 to negate that importance.
Similar things relate to the person I suspected of being Cole's mother. There were several times Cole said that Jennifer Goines was the key to everything, and I suppose things future Jennifer did in the finale reinforced that, along with the many times her input was an encouragement for the team to stick together. But I had thought something else. There were multiple times throught the series when she could also have been killed but wasn't. It would have made sense if she had been the one to go back in time, meet Cole's father, get pregnant, run away, then return to leave baby James, and run away again. In Season 1, Cole's father said that 'Miriam' told him to keep James safe from the 12 Monkeys. When we meet 'Miriam' in Season 4 that's just misdirection, someone else takes that name when they meet Cole's father. The only thing that makes sense is if we consider Jones' time machine as a sentient entity itself, in the same way The Doctor's TARDIS is a sentient being that directs him to times and places where people need his help. Jennifer seemed to think so, talking to the machine and calling it "Old Girl." Remember, it took time travel to invent time travel. Apparently it took time travel to lay down all the clues of what was to come, for Jones to realize the potential of her husband's work and make it happen, and perhaps the 12 Monkeys to get glimpses of that from time to time, but completely misinterpret the clues.
There were also inconsistencies in the way they presented the possibility of paradoxes, when two of the same thing or same person interacted with an earlier or later version. One time they have to be physically touching, another time the effect is felt when they are in close proximity. Jones interacts with her earlier self, in very close proximity, but neither feel the effect. A couple of episodes later, both Cassies feel the effect when they're several yards apart and not even in the same room. Another complaint will likely be argued by others. While a comedic break was welcome at times, Emily Hampshire was sufficient in that regard, always a highlight. Other attempts at comedy didn't work for me, the other actors couldn't pull it off like Emily. Something else some men (maybe some women) might argue about involves a scene in this year's sixth episode, "Die Glocke." No, I'm not a prude, but just because you're in a French chalet with a bunch of Nazi officers around, doesn't mean you will easily find female dominatrix attire, and even if you do it's no reason to subject your lead actress to such an exploitative outfit. Amanda Schull would be a distraction no matter what she wore, but that gave me a strong "Oh god, I'm so sorry for what they're making Yvonne Strahovski wear on Chuck" kind of feeling. I'm wondering if they wanted Emily to wear that outfit, as she sang Pink's "U & Ur Hand" to Hitler. That would have made sense, and yet I would still have felt uneasy about it.
End of spoilers. In spite of any comments above, I still recommend the series enthusiastically. It's one of the best of the 21st Century at least. Well written, superbly acted by everyone involved, with a more than satisfactory conclusion, even though we are left with a few variables that could be debated for years to come. It travels back and forth through time, all around the world, yet never loses sight of the fact that home and family, that what you do NOW, matters most of all. The main reason time means anything is that it is fleeting, always creating more nows to appreciate. I know I'll be watching it again in the future, and when I do I'll be noting each and every clue they laid down throughout. I'm sure that even knowing everything in advance will not lessen the dramatic impact of each and every revelation, each sacrifice or death, even if followed by a resurrection, but most definitely when it is not. If you have Hulu, it should definitely be in your queue. If you don't, it's an excellent reason to sign up. If you still collect physical media, click on the images above for discs from Amazon. Whichever way you choose to watch, I don't think you'll be disappointed.
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