12 Monkeys is starting to play some games with the viewer. Early on, “Atari” indulges in a time jump that—we find out—isn’t the result of time travel. (The series has been so diligent in time-stamping Cole’s journeys that the absence of a time-stamp hints something tricky is afoot.) It’s a flashback to 2032; Ramse and Cole, not yet recruited to Jones’s project, stalk a dog through an abandoned building. They’re starving, and this is their chance at survival: Kill the dog, butcher it, eat it.

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But Cole hesitates. Ramse urges him on. “You saw it, you kill it. That’s the rule.”

Cole drops his sights to argue. “Since when has that been a rule? That was never a rule!”

“Atari” shows characters preoccupied with rules, with turn-taking, and—it’s implied—with fairness in an unfair world. In the opening, Cassie balks at the prospect of killing The Army Of The 12 Monkeys, but concedes that the lives of a terrorist group don’t weigh heavily against the lives of the seven billion people they’ll kill. She also challenges Cole to reveal something, anything, about himself, reminding him of the imbalance between them; after all, he knows all about her past, present, and future.

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Most of all, “Atari” shows characters making one last move in a game they believe they’ve already lost. In 2032, as Cole shares their last scraps of food with the dog they’ve spared, Ramse says, “We’re going to die.” He describes their plight in the language of the board game Go: “We’re in atari,” he says, the stage when “you’ve got one move left, whether you like it or not.”

Ramse’s metaphor isn’t quite right, and 12 Monkeys plays with that imprecision. In atari, there’s only one move possible; there is no choice of moves. In this episode, over and over, characters find themselves boxed into a corner, but with one last choice, one last chance.

Ramse and Cole don’t die in 2032, and they still have choices, however unappealing. They choose not to kill the dog, to take their chances on finding some other food. When they’re jumped by the West Seven, the leader admires their fighting skill and invites them to join up… or be killed. It’s not much of a choice, but it is a choice, and Cole makes it, for both of them.

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With the West Seven, they waylay groups of survivors, take their meager supplies, and kill the few left alive. The leader, Deacon (Todd Stashwick), kills with deliberate relish. Cole kills doggedly, but with shrinking reluctance. Ramse refuses to kill unnecessarily, though it raises Deacon’s ire. Even here, there are choices, and Ramse makes his.

Jones (Barbara Sukowa) sends Cole (Aaron Stanford) on a desperate mission (Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy)

Back in 2043, the West Seven breach the time-travel facility, and Jones immediately makes her choice: “We have to save the machine. Nothing else matters.” As they overrun the compound, her options narrow further still. Trapped in the splinter chamber with Cole, no longer believing she can protect the device, Jones instead makes (what she believes will be) a final move, and it’s a good one: “I can send you back… Back to Dr. Railly for good.”

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She fails to send him back to 2015, but her hail-Mary pass to save civilization instead saves her—and, in a twist that time-travel narratives get to play, causes the raid in the first place. Cole jaunts back just far enough to be captured by the West Seven, who drug him to extract information, including an entry point.

In captivity, Cole begs his former lover, Max (Romina D’Ugo), for mercy. “You need to help me,” he pleads. “Or I need to leave without another word,” she spits back. It’s what Cole did when he and Ramse left the camp, and now it’s her turn, if that’s the move she wants to make.

Max’s loyalty is split. She was Cole’s lover, but she’s been with the West Seven since she was 13—“because I had no choice.” Maybe a child didn’t have a choice, but an adult does, and ultimately, she chooses Cole.

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Ramse, who gives the episode its title, embraces the state of atari. Twice, he finds himself in a fatal corner—and twice, he chooses not to move. When Cole comes to his tent to kill him (more mercifully than Deacon would), Ramse knows why he’s there. He even offers Cole a knife, saying “It’s what you came here to do. I don’t even know why we’re wasting time,” and “What are you waiting for?” Calmly capitulating to death is not the only choice, but it’s his only choice. Unlike Cole, Ramse won’t raise a weapon against his partner to survive.

In 2043, trapped by Deacon’s soldiers, he resigns himself to death without struggle or retribution. Over the radio, he tells Cole, “I’m in atari,” and awaits the bullets. But time-traveling Cole rescues him, which leads to a delightful moment where one Cole embraces Ramse while another Cole radios a panicky message.

This interweaving of timelines and events is one of the pleasures of time-travel stories, and it’s fun to see 12 Monkeys play with it a little more freely. This show delivers a consistent story, but at the expense of both character development and fun. Even the grimmest story needs some leavening, and drama hits harder when contrasted by a touch of levity. It also makes it easier to engage with the characters rather than seeing them as chess pieces—or, as Ramse might have it, as black and white stones—moved about strategically.

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The episode’s unifying theme of gamesmanship, turn-taking, and playing out last moves combines with 12 Monkeys’ typically strong narrative thrust to make “Atari” (credited to series creators Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett) one of the most cohesive scripts in the show’s short run. A unifying theme isn’t necessary to create an entertaining, engaging show, and it isn’t an indicator of a show’s quality, but it does suggest some ambition. Only four episodes in, 12 Monkeys displays an ability to weave its individual characters and plot points together into a coherent whole. If the show can breathe some life into its story and its leads, that will be a winning move.

Stray observations:

  • Max tries to absolve Cole of his intent to kill Ramse, but to no avail. “I walked up to him with a gun in my hand, so what does that make me?”
  • “No way they could know about those tunnels,” Whitley tells Cole. If a character says there’s no way the opposition could know about [thing], opposition probably knows about [thing].
  • Cassie to the returning Cole: “Where’ve you been? I mean, I know where—when. What took you so long?”
  • Cassie’s found the night room. Now they have a chance to make their move… once they figure out what that move is.
  • Chekhov’s monkey, a retraction: Ramse’s stoicism makes me think I was wrong in imagining him as Cole’s betrayer. His “We do what we have to do” looks more like forgiveness from this perspective.

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