Hulu/Steve Wilkie
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After the furious, claustrophobic menace of “The Kill Floor,” 11.22.63 and Jake “Amberson” both settle in to take care of some business. It’s important stuff. Some of it’s even good stuff (and a lot of it is). But the trouble with checking items off a to-do list is that it can be pretty flat. It’s got to get done, but it’s no cow-killing, if you know what I mean.

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Still, Jake Epping’s planning to be in Texas for quite awhile—taking care of the Big Bad Dunning seems to have restored his confidence in the whole “saving Kennedy” thing—and so the small things must be addressed. The most satisfying of these developments involves giving Jake some people to talk to (because his quota on plausibly mumbling to himself is pretty much filled). First, he gets himself a sidekick in the person of Bill Turcotte (George MacKay), a young, frustrated kid who goes from holding Jake up at gunpoint for info to joining Team Time-Travel in a flash. Bill’s involvement would be welcome even if his only purpose was to give Jake some company (and someone to explain things to), but MacKay imbues Bill with a winning boyishness and simplicity that makes his acceptance of Jake’s story wholly plausible. MacKay helps ground the whole affair in the past more than anything else has to date. He’s not winking, and he’s not doing anything hyper-stylized. He’s just a kid who wants to do something that matters, even if he doesn’t think he’s anything special.

He’s also funny—their trip to a strip club is an episode highlight, particularly when Jack Ruby shows up—and while that might not seem like much, it’s a much-needed jolt of what feels like reality. Sure, Jake’s on an insane mission, but life continues, even if he did travel in time. It’s the same benefit to two other welcome additions, Miz Mimi (Tonya Pinkins) and Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon), who returns after a quick appearance in the first installment. Pinkins and Dunhill both do terrific work, but it’s Dunhill who takes center stage.

Jake’s got a sidekick now, and a job, and a place to live, but he’s also got a love interest—and with Dunhill, James Franco gets a scene partner who, like Chris Cooper, brings out the very best in him. If you’ve come for in-depth analysis of Jake and Sadie’s scenes together, from their dance to their smooch to her brief but top-notch cold shoulder, prepare to be disappointed—what is there to say beyond ‘great’? They’ve got plenty of chemistry, and play the connection so simply and honestly as to make it palpable without overselling the point. “I don’t see any need for us to waste our time, do you?” she says, and the show doesn’t either. Here’s the romance. You know how this goes. Let’s not beat around the bush.

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Unfortunately, “Other Voices, Other Rooms” isn’t as successful in every instance where it gets right to the point. Jake goes from being a part-time substitute teacher to a beloved member of the faculty in no time flat, and from a guy still shaken by killing someone to just another time-traveler nearly as quickly. Yet in spite of these giant leaps, the episode still feels a bit like it’s just checking off those to-do list items. Jump two years in the future? Check. Get over brutal scene at the Dunning house? Check. Find Oswald? Check. Get apartment? Check. Acquire surveillance equipment from a guy who doesn’t think it’s weird that you want to buy your wife’s apartment without her knowledge? Check and check. Not all these things fall flat, largely thanks (as stated above) to the other people who’ve joined Jake’s world in one way or another. But there’s no denying that, rather than neatly conveying the events of a sprawling story in an efficient way, 11.22.63 seems to have merely skipped ahead to the next chapter.

When the show does slow down to catch its breath, however—like in that beautiful dance, or in Bill’s slack-jawed staring through the closet at Lee and his wife—“Other Voices, Other Rooms” really hits its stride. Nowhere is that more true than in the brief moments we spend with Oswald. Daniel Webber’s got a hell of a heavy load to lift, and he acquits himself remarkably well (as do writers Brian Nelson and Quinton Peebles). There’s a lot of risk that comes with portraying a fictional incarnation of a historical figure, particularly when the choices made about that character directly impact the plot. Because Jake has to learn about Oswald gradually, so do we. But while Lee remains, by design, something of a cipher, Webber and the episode’s writing and directing teams give the audience just enough to chew on to make him a magnetic (and frightening figure). There’s just something not right about him, but what is it that’s wrong, exactly?

There’s a streak of violence that makes him seem immediately guilty, but also a lack of self-awareness and control that might make him the perfect patsy. There’s arrogance, but also innocence, and lots of anger mixed with no small amount of fear. There’s his voice, which just feels wrong, and the tension in his neck and shoulders that makes him seem a constant threat. It all builds and mixes and boils before running over in the episode’s final scene, in which Oswald goes off outside a rally for General Walker, the politician he may attempt to assassinate. What have Jake and Bill learned about Lee? Not a whole lot, but what they do know is there’s just something wrong there, and that’s the kind of discovery that matters.

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It may not pack the punch of the first two installments, but “Other Voices, Other Rooms” is a solid place-setting episode. Sometimes the work’s just got to get done. But if they can continue to pair the necessary-but-dull stuff with scenes like Oswald’s explosion, even the slightly dull stuff won’t be remotely boring. It’s far, far from a waste of time.

Stray observations

  • “We could have spent the last two years learning fucking Russian!” “I couldn’t learn any Russian!”
  • “Shut your cake-hole, Rafael.”
  • That was one hell of a dream sequence. Who knew Josh Duhamel could be so terrifying?
  • Some of 11.22.63’s it’s-the-past schtick comes across as a little smug (not unlike some of the Kardashian kids moments on The People vs. O.J. Simpson), but all of the casual racism, particularly in that gas station scene, felt earned, honest, and thoughtful.
  • We also got a bit of Cherry Jones there. Can’t wait to see what else she does. Cherry Jones is a damn national treasure.
  • Book stuff: this is an episode where obviously there was a great deal of deviation from the book. I’m not sure all of it works—time will tell—but I think both the continued inclusion of Bill and the change in Mimi’s role are thoughtful, very positive changes. And yeah, I missed the It stuff, but we can’t have everything we want.

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