(Aaron Stanford Amanda Schull) (Photo: Steve Wilkie/Syfy)

Bringing new viewers up to speed for the second season is a challenge, especially for a show that spent season one jumping around the space-time continuum. 12 Monkeys has a lot of characters traveling to different times and places, shadowy factions fighting for control over the past and the future, and a web of relationships and conflicted motivations. When a season two premiere tries to take viewers down a rabbit hole that deep, there’s always the danger of bogging down in backstory.

The opening monologue of “Year Of The Monkey” (voiced by Madeleine Stowe, who plays the substantially different Dr. Railly in Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film) does little to dispel that fear. Over a montage of first season highlights, it outlines plot points with would-be archetypal vagueness. Then the episode gets rolling with action, intrigue, and a bracing buddy-comedy tone that tempers the grandiose speechifying.

“Year Of The Monkey” dives in mid-chase, following Ramse as he runs from speeding black sedans through the stone streets of Budapest. Trapped on the Chain Bridge spanning the Danube, he sums up their long pursuit in a few words. “You almost had me in Shanghai. London, too.” As he distracts the nameless woman and her gunmen, a shadowy figure slips in, planting explosives on the cars. At Ramse’s wry command, the bombs go off and the captors fall.

It’s a bold move for 12 Monkeys, and it works. Action sequences have long been the show’s greatest weakness, but this is taut, confident, even audacious. (I laughed with delight at the musical flourish as James Cole strides up in slow motion, surrounded by flames.) Aaron Stanford and Kirk Acevedo have a relaxed, playful chemistry that makes their relationship—the sparring, the fellowship, the familiarity—immediately accessible. Their humor is essential to the show, cutting through the ponderous weight of the true believers’ language and leavening the apocalyptic tone. And it’s darned fun to watch.

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The chase scene is just one example of the assurance in “Year Of The Monkey.” (The season two premiere is written by series creators Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett and directed by David Grossman, who directed the affecting season one finale.) Exposition is dropped in conversationally. Cole teases Ramse—“He’s such an old man now”—hinting at their new age gap. He reminds Ramse (and us) that Dr. Katerina Jones’ serum “helps you heal faster, age slower… mostly,” handwaving Ramse’s youthful appearance. As Dr. Cassie Railly awakens in 2043, where Cole sent her to save her life, it’s natural for Jones to brief her on where and when she is and what their hooded captors want, just as it’s natural for Deacon to introduce himself and establish his place in the hierarchy. (Closer to the bottom than he’d like, and more disposable.)

In Manhattan of 2016, Jennifer Goines wanders into a speed-dating event with her vial of virus in hand, and Emily Hampshire delivers her usual scenery-chewing energy before swerving the scene into pathos. When her seven-minute match-up stops talking about his divorce and his boat long enough to ask her a question, she rants about the apocalypse, then pulls out a gun and challenges him to kill her, to stop her. He recoils and, newly resolute, she gives him some parting advice. “Stock tip: Invest in really deep holes.”

“Finally, someone’s going to stop me.” (Emily Hampshire) (Photo: Syfy)

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This episode doesn’t just re-establish relationships and plot. It introduces new alliances, torn loyalties, and terrible choices everyone must make. The back-alley surgeon (Brendan Coyle) who owes Ramse a favor tries to betray him instead, and Cole kills him for his treachery. Ramse begins determined to thwart Cole, sacrificing the world’s population to save his future son. But he ends the episode at Cole’s side, sharing the information that will lead them to Jennifer Goines. When Cole finally corners Jennifer and her fatal vial of virus, she’s giddy with relief. “Finally,” she breathes, “someone’s going to stop me.” Cassie, who once lectured Cole on the sanctity of life, takes to killing with unnerving aptitude.

With these shifting lines of loyalty and morality, it’s no surprise that Cole and Cassie end up in a stand-off. Seconds before, Cole told Ramse they’d do “whatever it takes” to stop Jennifer Goines from releasing the fatal virus. But at the crucial moment, he can’t—or won’t—kill her, even to save millions of lives. “You don’t need anyone to stop you,” he tells her. “You have a choice.” He repeats the words almost exactly to Cassie when she demands he step aside to let her shoot Jennifer. That’s the core question under 12 Monkeys’ tangled timelines and split loyalties, its decade-spanning plots, and its sometimes simplistic philosophy. Is fate immutable or is it set? Can one person change the past, change the future, change themselves? And what is worth the sacrifice?

I was afraid 12 Monkeys had dug itself in too deep, that it would be swamped by the need to brief viewers on its dynamics, its time-travel mechanics, and its international intrigue. But like Cole and Ramse plunging off the Chain Bridge, it jumps right in. This returning episode lays out the show’s connections, conflicts, and mythology in broad, clear strokes even as it deepens them. As season two begins, 12 Monkeys is investing in really deep holes—and “Year Of The Monkey” makes that look like a smart investment.

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Stray observations

  • Welcome back for season two of 12 Monkeys! Season one was an unexpected pleasure, so here’s hoping this one is, too. If not, it’s not the end of the world. Oh, wait…
  • That opening monologue is a clumsy two minutes. But after the season one finale recontextualized the premiere’s voice-over, I’m extending 12 Monkeys some trust, even in its clunkier moments. For now.
  • I love how cranky Ramse is with the now much younger Cole. Seeing his partner eye the edge of the bridge, he says, “Don’t do that. Don’t do that.”
  • Chekhov’s monkey: It’s hard to believe Brendan Coyle was brought on for a single appearance as Dr. Kalman, the Markridge turncoat. After all, in a time-travel story, death doesn’t necessarily mean the end of a character. But I also hoped Robert Wisdom would return, and that hasn’t happened yet.

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