I Almost Missed It: 12 Monkeys

“Amanda, you have to watch this show.” I have been accosted with that line a lot over the last ten years, what with the influx of well-written, expertly-directed, and artistically-executed television. I almost gave this show a pass. Almost. I mean, the 12 Monkeys movie was okay, but I didn’t think that it would be worth a television show. As it turns out, I was delightfully mistaken.

There isn’t much I wouldn’t do a for a great science-fiction, well, anything. I’m a sucker for it. You’d think that I would have latched onto this time-travel meets post-apocalyptic vibe much sooner than I did. I didn’t give the show much thought beyond, “Hey, wasn’t that a movie?” So, in spite of my own reservations, I loaded up the first episode of the first season a few weeks back, and sat back in my leather chair with popcorn, looking to at least get some good snarky tweets in. (I don’t do scathing, so snark is as bad as it gets with me.)

Thankfully, only a few moments into the first season of 12 Monkeys had me good and hooked. Its writing, cinematography, and atmospheric narration had my rapt attention. The in media res flavour of its first scene — wait, how bad are things that these dudes are openly armed and roaming the snow-dusted streets of Questionable Town, USA? — was a major point in favour of execution. So, I kept watching and, as the season ticked on, I kept finding more and more reasons to keep watching.

Time travel is a difficult concept to accurately communicate without falling into a fantastical hole that science dare not dwell. Star Trek: The Next Generation was one of the few shows that I can recall from the pre-oughts that took great pains to mediate time travel paradoxes introduced by wormholes. If we left it to Sliders, well… best not to think about that. Continuum’s frail writing aside, it also managed to handle time travel with a semblance of sensitivity. Out of all of the time travel centric television I’ve watched over the years, 12 Monkeys’approach is by far the most reasonable and logical.

Temporal paradoxes fall into two categories — consistency paradoxes and causal loops, both of which are addressed within 12 Monkeys’ lore. Enabling a large-scale consistency paradox is the entire driving force behind the show’s main story-arc: change the past to prevent the future. Destroy a virus before it has the ability to savage the world’s population and the 2043 reality that is presented will simply cease to be. Enter our first traveller, James Cole, and his fanatical mission to destroy the virus in the distant past… of 2015.

Cole’s character is almost feral at the beginning of the show, ferocious from long years spent surviving in the unforgiving future. His hair and beard lay unkempt and wild, symbolic of his untamed nature, lending him a menacing edge that works both for and against him as he travels through time and interacts with the major plague players of the past. When Cole meets (kidnaps, really) Dr. Cassandra Railly, a respected virologist, she has no idea the roller coaster she’s about to embark on.

Cole demonstrates a benign causal loop, scratching Dr. Railly’s watch from the future to see it scratched in the present, to gain her trust. The catastrophic, physical paradox that Cole enacts by touching the two watches together (the same object cannot occupy the same space in the same time), should have caused the consistency paradox to unmake the future… but it didn’t. The quest for plague prevention stretches ever onward.

Unfortunately for Dr. Railly, her whole life falls apart waiting for Cole’s return a year later. She loses credibility as a virologist, her boyfriend in D.C., and pieces of her now warbling sanity. Cole’s return unseats Dr. Railly’s present and she becomes inextricable to Cole’s mission to hunt down the virus. While he splinters in and out of her life, she finds herself hardening to the possibility that the world might end — she realizes that if she is going to survive the whispers and mystical violence surrounding the Army of the 12 Monkeys, she will have to steel herself.

What I love most about 12 Monkeys, outside of the expert storytelling and character-driven narrative, is the subtlety in the midst of chaos. Dr. Railly begins to adopt Cole’s ferocity as Cole melts and softens to Dr. Railly’s reality. Dr. Jones, the architect of both the time travel device and the serum the travellers use to tether themselves to 2043, is initially seen as a benevolent (though prickly) force, though her eventual fall from grace is what enables a major character from the future to enact revenge in the past. The brotherly relationship that exists between Cole and Ramse is a delight to watch unfurl (and eventually unravel), as the two men evolve and change, much as their individual circumstances have dictated. Even Jennifer Goines’ evolution from Deranged to Disturbed had me sitting on the edge of my seat.

As the first season drew to a close, with the physical ramifications of the consistency paradoxes marking the travellers with headaches, nosebleeds, and visions, 12 Monkeys had me firmly in its grip. There would be no way for me to step laterally into other time-travel-fuelled narratives — Terry Matalas had spun a story that I couldn’t shrug off, even if I had wanted to. 

The second season’s inexorable consequences have left me reeling. Time is fractured. The red forest is swallowing the future. The ripples of unchecked retrocausality have begun to destroy whatever threads of hope that Dr. Jones and her team had been desperately tying together. I can’t wait to see how Cole, Dr. Railly, and Dr. Jones dig their way out of the deep hole that has appeared under their feet.

(Original Post: The Daily Crate)