“Cassandra Complex” opens with Cassandra Railly pointing a gun at James Cole. It should be a potent image, but Cassie’s gun is empty, and so is the scene.

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In its first two episodes, 12 Monkeys neatly conveys the mechanics of its particular form of time travel, and it continues to do so in “Cassandra Complex.” The hasty conference as the technicians bicker about where—and when—to send Cole on his next mission gives even greater detail about its possibilities and limitations.

Jones refuses to send Cole back to visit Jennifer just before her abduction or to interrogate Leland once more before killing him. “At the risk of proximating his previous self?” she asks. “That is out of the question!” But it isn’t out of the realm of possibility, which tells us something valuable about this technology: paradox doesn’t prevent excursions to the past, only makes them risky.

It’s not just the nuts and bolts of its central technology that 12 Monkeys gets right. Last week, I described how supporting players flesh out the show’s worlds, past and future, to make the impossible feel plausible, even logical and inevitable.

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That makes it all the more galling when the series stumbles on more conventional fare, getting bogged down in establishing the central relationship between Cole and Cassie, or mishandling the fight scenes that should suffuse each episode with tension and force.

In tonight’s opening, Cole trains Cassie to shoot in the face of danger, to draw and fire without hesitation. It’s not just an exercise in pulling the trigger; it’s a test of her willingness to do so. But even a moment’s thought shows how hollow this scene is. Both characters know the gun is unloaded, so there’s no consequence to pulling the trigger—and no reason for her to hesitate. She does it because the script calls for it. It’s an attempt to imbue the moment with a gravity its circumstances don’t merit.

“Cassandra Complex” takes steps to strengthen the relationship between the leads, which is central to the show’s story and to its success. Cassandra’s faith in Cole is too easily won in the pilot, with little opportunity for her to experience the usual stages of doubt or denial, and the subsequent episode—though it managed to show Railly’s value as an ally and an equal to Cole, not just another target to interrogate—did little to develop rapport between the two.

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Seeing them so comfortable together, holed up in Cassie’s late grandparents’ storefront, gives their partnership room to expand. More than anything else in this episode, Cassandra teasing Cole about General Tso’s chicken—“That guy’s a general?” “… yes!”—feels like a bonding moment, finally offering a glimpse of the affinity between them that the show’s been trying to sell from the beginning.

But it’s not enough.

Despite her swift conversion to Cole’s mission, Cassie doesn’t seem to grasp… well, anything about its fundamentals, including how time travel works: When Cole says he needs to talk to Dr. Henri Toussaint (Lyriq Bent), she scoffs, “Cole, he’s dead.” “Yeah, he’s dead now.”

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She tries to dissuade him from traveling to Haiti because “it’s dangerous” and “there were gangs!” In his own time, Cole patrols a post-apocalyptic wasteland roved by murderous scavengers. In her time, Cassie’s seen him infiltrate a psych ward, kidnap, and even kill to further his mission. She tended his life-threatening bullet wound. But she doesn’t fathom how dangerous his world is… or how dangerous he is.

She doesn’t realize that Cole would kill Henri—would kill anybody he has to—to keep him from spilling the location of the night room to The Army Of The 12 Monkeys.

Amanda Schull as Cassandra Railly, in Haiti (Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy)

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Cassie’s petrified with fear—not only for herself, but for a world laid waste. Any outbreak could be the plague that wipes out civilization. She’s wracked with guilt and anxiety that she won’t avert that vast, anonymous death. But she’ll be burdened with more personal guilt if she learns that she’s contributed directly to the death of her colleague and, however briefly, her lover: that by giving Cole his name, his location, even his photograph, she brought about Henri’s death.

The scene in which Cole shoots Henri makes the most of its slowness. In this, it’s an improvement over most of 12 Monkeys’ action scenes. Instead of feeling flabby or lagging, as they often do, this scene’s pace is calculated, showing us every instant as Cole faces the necessity of killing Henri and does it with terrible deliberation.

His point-blank execution of Leland Goines in the pilot demonstrates Cole’s willingness to kill those he believes creates or unleashed the plague. Now it appears he’ll kill anyone, innocent or culpable, to further his mission.

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Despite the image in the opening, where Cassie points a gun at him and he yells “Do it!,” Cole doesn’t want to die. He wants to live long enough to accomplish his mission and be erased. From the beginning, this underlying idea permeates 12 Monkeys. Cole wants to reverse some unspoken past by uncreating himself. Once he successfully prevents the viral pandemic, he expects to wink out of existence.

In the pilot, Cole speculates that anyone would “do things, terrible things,” to survive. But it’s not exactly survival Cole is bargaining for. He’s trying to survive just long enough to undo the past, and undo himself.

Stray observations:

  • Jones, pointing the danger of Cole revisiting the past he’s already traveled to: “What if Leland is killed before he tells us about the 12 Monkeys?” An episode that rewrites Cole’s time-travel history and their investigation, would be fascinating. An episode where technicians squabble over the abstract dangers? Not so fascinating.
  • The police think Dr. Henri Toussaint is missing, but Jules (Jeff Clarke), Cassie’s colleague at the CDC, knows he was shot while collecting medicine in Haiti. For a moment, I thought the discrepancy was the result of time travel, but Cole hasn’t yet traveled to Haiti in 2014 when those conversations take place.
  • I don’t trust Jules. Do you?
  • The detective asks Dr. Railly, “You were at J.D. Peoples last Thursday?” Last Thursday? The police sure take their time interviewing witnesses to the abduction of a “very dangerous” mental patient.
  • Tom Noonan continues to be unsurprisingly great. Agreeing chattily with Henri that, yes, he’ll probably kill him, he adds, “But there’s other things we could try.” His pale face splits into a grin. “But they’re worse.” That smile just kills me. Or worse.
  • Cole and Ramse are former members of The West Seven, a scavenger group. But there are a lot more than seven of ‘em, and now they’ve found the facility… and Cole.
  • Chekhov’s monkey: Jones’ teasing in 2043—“That’s sarcasm, Mr. Ramse”—mirrors Cassie’s delivery-guy joke. It’s one small echo, but it spurs me to mention something I’ve been wondering for three episodes now: Is the corpse at the CDC a red herring, another body wearing Railly’s watch? Is Jones the future Cassandra Railly, putting on an accent and an alias?

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