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Syfy’s 12 Monkeys reimagines the movie as a low-budget opera

Here’s a show about fate vs. free will. You know. That old chestnut.

12 Monkeys
Dr. Cassandra Railly heads from past to future in season two of 12 Monkeys.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for July 17 through July 23 is "Memory of Tomorrow," the second season finale of Syfy’s 12 Monkeys.

12 Monkeys, Syfy’s TV riff on the classic 1995 time-travel movie, sometimes feels like an opera thrown together on a budget scrounged from the "Leave a penny; take a penny" dishes of this great nation’s convenience stores.

The show’s ambitions are huge. It’s grown from "just" a show about time travelers from the future trying to stop a plague that ends the world into one about a post-apocalyptic battle between two factions over the fabric of space and time itself. A major plot point this season involved the villains going back in time to kill people with weapons made of their own bones from the future — thus creating endless paradoxes that tore apart time’s structural supports. This is not a show that tends to play it safe.

And yet it’s also a series where the actors will be sitting there, the camera jiggling as they stare at some off-camera menace, and they’re forced to suggest the scope of the problem more than actually depict it. It can sometimes feel like a radio drama with images.

This is not entirely fair, I suppose. The show has very good visual effects — as displayed in this finale when an entire city reveals itself to be a time machine and warps in and out of existence. It’s just that everything it wants to do is so huge that it sometimes feels as if TV can’t contain it. For better or worse, 12 Monkeys plays for keeps.

Looking for a TV show about fate versus free will? This might be the one.

12 Monkeys
The world tilts into chaos in future and past on 12 Monkeys.

Back when the show’s second season began, I posited in a review of the series up to that point that it was fundamentally a religious drama, where time travel played the role of God. The characters attempted to seize the power of God for themselves with their time machines, but they were always competing against the immutability of history. They could delay the plague but never entirely defeat it.

At first, the villains’ plan, which involves destroying time itself because they believe this will also end death, seems completely bizarre and unnecessarily destructive.

And yet the more the show examines it, the more it seems like the natural extension of what our heroes are doing. After all, their plan to reverse the effects of the plague and thereby "resurrect" a whole bunch of dead people is on the same continuum.

What 12 Monkeys plays around with, then, is the idea of whether there’s any such thing as free will, short of trying to tear apart the systems of the universe.

Every so often, the characters will make bold choices about what they’re going to do to make things right, execute gigantic plans — and then realize whatever they’ve done has only caused history to continue along its merry way. Time’s a river, and we’re all pebbles, giving it the very mildest of friction.

This is, of course, a staple of time travel fiction, in which there are many, many stories where, say, a time traveler’s attempt to kill Hitler as a child only ends up reinforcing Hitler’s evilness or something similar. It’s also a staple of television itself, where the characters can never change things too much, lest they suddenly tear apart the very fabric of their show.

Where 12 Monkeys went with this in season two was, ultimately, to suggest that when you’re unable to escape time itself, then the only winning move is not to play the game. Except, as the finale revealed, even then you’re pretty much screwed.

You can still lose, even if you don’t play the game

12 Monkeys
Railly (Amanda Schull) and Cole (Aaron Stanford) have a doomed romance.

For most of its run, 12 Monkeys has centered on the doomed would-be romance of James Cole (Aaron Stanford) and Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull). Railly’s recording of a message in 2017 mentioning Cole by name while she’s dying of the plague kicks the whole story into motion, with Cole traveling back to 2014 to meet her for the first time.

Since this is television, they’re soul mates, but 12 Monkeys does a solid job of suggesting the two are meant to be. Stanford and Schull have good chemistry, and though the show occasionally works a little too hard to throw roadblocks in their path — as when Railly briefly hooked up with another guy early in season two, mostly because the story needed her to — it’s usually good about examining what it would mean to be meant for someone who lives separated from you by decades of time.

After all, if you’re going to argue that certain people are fated to end up together, that’s potent material for a time travel drama (where they can be separated by oceans of hours) to mine. And it plays into the show’s deeper examinations of fate and free will, of the idea that if something has already happened that devastated you, you’d probably do whatever you could to change it, no matter how ill-advised.

The best choice of the season’s final two episodes, then, is how Cole and Railly, finally together in the same time and place (the 1950s, specifically), decide to stop playing the game and give in to their feelings for each other.

They have the kind of epic sex only doomed lovers on TV shows are allowed to have. They conceive a child. They decide to settle down in the 1950s and let the apocalypse come when it will, even as the rest of time is being wiped out all around them. (12 Monkeys depicts the end of time via gigantic red storm systems that swirl through the sky and coat the ground below them in blood red. It’s a neat visual.)

Yet Cole and Railly must also know there’s a dark inevitability hanging over everything they do. The house they’ve settled in is one they know from haunting visions they’ve had, spurred by the mysterious Witness, leader of the villains. So they know it means something, yet they think their choice to leave the game behind might protect them from what’s to come.

Would you believe it doesn’t?

12 Monkeys argues it’s impossible to change time — both there and here

12 Monkeys
Heck of a time machine you have there. Shame if something happened to it.

Time continues to collapse, the red storms finally reaching the two in the 1950s. Madeleine Stowe — the actress who played Railly in the 1995 film — turns up to issue Cole warnings about what is to come.

Reluctantly, the two head back into battle, returning to the post-apocalyptic future of the 2040s to save their friends (whom the audience got to see slaughtered previously, in one of those "have your cake and eat it too" moments time travel shows can indulge in).

And in the end, the two are separated yet again, Railly taken by the villains even further into the future while Cole more or less stays put. (The season’s final images show him going after her; we’ll have to wait for season three to see if he makes it.)

In the future, Railly discovers the villains’ ultimate plan: They’d been counting on Cole and Railly deciding to leave the game behind and fall in love, because the child she’s carrying will grow up to be the Witness, who will orchestrate almost all of the dark events that have swirled around the two, right down to invading Railly’s consciousness and causing her intense psychological trauma.

It’s meant as a twist ending — and I’m grateful to the show for ending the endless speculation about who or what the Witness is, which quickly grew irksome over the first two seasons. But it’s also perhaps the saddest moment in the whole thing. No matter how hard you try to simply live your life on 12 Monkeys, you’re always going to be caught up by forces beyond your control, to the point where you end up creating your own destruction.

Because the truth of the matter is that 12 Monkeys is, on some level, about what it means to live inside a TV show. The characters are all trapped amid whatever massive web of index cards the show’s creators, Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett, first dreamed up and pasted onto their writers’ room wall way back in season one.

Normally I resist TV shows that feel too "designed," for lack of a better word, where the characters are jerked around at all times by a massive plot that the writers have dreamed up to ensnare them. That’s especially true when said stories feature figures like the Witness, who need to effectively be omniscient in order to set up their universe-spanning plans. Such shows often leave the characters no room to breathe and exist as human beings separate from the plot.

But 12 Monkeys is different, at least a little bit, because the characters go along with the plot, so long as they think they’re inventing it. And once they’re realized they’re trapped by it — that the forces opposing them, whether the Witness or their show’s writers, are all-powerful — they do their best to withdraw, to live their lives with as much meaning as they can muster.

But the ultimate point is how impossible that is. We’re all of us trapped by time, hoping we might make a mark upon it, only to be caught up and carried further downstream. Fate is a torrent, and all you can do is keep your head above water.

12 Monkeys is available for digital download or on Hulu.

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