In its most unsettling episode since “The Kill Floor,” the past (and his own bad decisions) catch up with Jake Epping/Amberson. There’s a speeding car careening into a bus, an FBI agent determined to cover his ass, and run-ins with the bodies Jake has left in his wake (a few of them not so nice). By the time those bullets go tearing out of Lee’s rifle, Jake has no shortage of blood on his hands, but it’s the last body that falls the hardest.
All that happens before the 15-minute mark. Talk about efficiency in storytelling. While last week’s installment felt like nothing so much as a game of hurry-up-and-wait, “The Day in Question” races to what one might assume would be its climax—that being, of course, Oswald’s attempt on Kennedy—and then gets down to the long, hard business of grieving, letting go, and attempting to carry on, even with a broken heart. While Stephen King may struggle with the endings of things, the final installment of what’s turned out to be a pretty solid King adaptation nails its landing, making it clear, more than any other episode in its limited run, that it’s not really about Kennedy. Kennedy, for both the storytellers and for Jake himself, is just a means to an end.
That said, that Kennedy stuff was pretty terrific, and a great example of how writers and directors can build suspense in ways both expected and unexpected. That first 15 minutes sprints past just as Jake and Sadie do, with even the credits playing a role in the feeling of immense unease. While previous alterations to that gorgeous opening title sequence have mostly signaled upcoming plot points (such as the gun in the case being swapped for reel-to-reel tape) or events that have already taken place (the bedroom on fire; Sadie’s scarred face swapped in for Oswald’s). But all those minor adjustments really pay off with this episode. Suddenly, the subtly shifting credits change in a way that’s not so subtle, with those taut red threads suddenly limp or disconnected entirely. Have some droopy little strings and a missing clock ever been so unnerving?
Still, less than a quarter of “The Day in Question” is spent on Oswald’s attempt and Jake and Sadie’s dash, and while it ends with quite a wallop—would all actors could handle death scenes with the grace of Sarah Gadon—it’s merely the first stop on what seems like Jake’s 1963 and 2016 tours of sadness. In his confrontation with Agent Hosty (Gil Bellows of Ally McBeal), Jake’s obvious impatience and lack of concern seems puzzling, but when his endgame becomes clear—get back to Lisbon, check on the future, and then reset the past and do it all again—it simply seems like a time-traveler’s first step in the seven stages of grief.
But Sadie isn’t the only person for whom Jake feels real affection. The return of Leon Rippy isn’t enjoyable, per se—in a dark and gloomy episode, there’s perhaps no moment more dark and gloomy than Harry’s “He was my dad”—but it is a hell of a performance, and an eye-opening one, as well. Rippy is great as the Harry in both worlds, and they’re quite different. One has been crippled by life, but found at least some peace. The other was spared the horrific violence that left him alone and gravely wounded, but was ripped apart by the world just the same. Rippy’s brief scenes are not merely two of the episode’s high-points, but some of the best in the series as a whole. When I look back on 11.22.63 in the future, I’d be willing to bet that his is the first face that comes to mind.
He’s not the only highlight, however. Sarah Gadon cements her status as the cast’s MVP with her few scenes, which run the gamut from terrified sprint into a bus to tearful death to bemused conversation with a dirt-covered crazy person. She’s joined by Constance Towers, who plays Sadie after a long, happy, and apparently award-worthy life. It’s in the dance that both versions of Sadie share with Jake that both women really shine, wordlessly conveying an unnameable warmth and making it somehow easy to believe that somehow those two people are connected, in another world or another lifetime or on another plane. That’s a big leap to ask audiences who initially tuned in for a JFK time-travel tale, and so sweepingly romantic that it could easily have turned cloying or silly. But thanks in no small part to Gadon and Towers—not to mention Franco, who doesn’t always rise to the occasion in “The Day in Question” but positively aces that final scene—it feels, like the dance itself, as though it exists in a warm pool of light, something gentle and fragile and precious that can only last for a moment but may linger forever.
That’s where the series leaves them, and perhaps that’s where we should, too. For all its faults, 11.22.63 has quite a knack for hitting you hard when you least expect it. It’s a show that soars when it focuses on what things feel like, rather than what they are. That quality of rising above the mundane and into something transcendent exists in nearly all of the best sequences in the series, from Harry Dunning’s first quavering monologue to Bill’s ugly yet graceful leap out a window. It’s there in both love and in fear, as the reappearances of Frank Dunning and Johnny Clayton remind us. And it’s there in all great art, on the page or on the screen. Plot matters, certainly, but emotions, like memories, linger and grow sweeter with time.
- Casting directors often deserve much more praise than they receive, and 11.22.63 was exceptionally cast. Constance Towers was particularly inspired, and so much better than trying to hide Gadon under tons of age makeup and prosthetics.
- I caught REDRUM on the wall of the depository and a guy who could have been Randall Flagg in the crowd. Any King easter eggs I missed?
- Seriously, that credits sequence though. Take the threads off that gun and the bullets could go anywhere…
- Cheers to all the commenters who called Sadie being the girl in the pink car way back in episode one. I salute you.
- Book stuff: I thought this was among the more faithfully adapted sections of the book. Still some big changes, but the spirit of the ending and of the Dunning stuff was right on the money. And I am so glad they just had JFK and Jackie on the phone.
- That’s all she wrote! Personally, I hope Carpenter tackles more King in the future, because I think this was a pretty solid adaptation of a book that seemed pretty close to unadaptable when I read the thing. Thanks so much for reading, commenting, and reaching out in Twitter. I’ll be there geeking out and looking for more easter eggs all day—come say hello!