“How about the girl?” one man asks another. “You gonna see her again?”

“I don’t know.”

It’s a perfectly ordinary conversation. Any co-workers could chat like this, anywhere, anytime. For Cole and Ramse, that moment is at the end of a dangerous sortie to a long-abandoned site in the wasteland. They’ve fended off attacking scavengers, even killed a few of them. It’s just another day at work.

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12 Monkeys’s pilot did a lot of heavy lifting last week, introducing characters, relationships, individual timelines, and the mechanics of time travel. This week, the series relaxes and shows off a little more personality.

Kirk Acevedo as Ramse, Aaron Stanford as Cole (Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy)

Kirk Acevedo brings a persuasive ease to the role of Ramse, Cole’s confederate and confidante. Their banter gives a welcome level of realism to their mission and the attack that follows, and to the series as a whole. Cole isn’t just a time traveler, or even just a time traveler unravelling an arcane conspiracy: He’s a time traveler unravelling an arcane conspiracy so he can prevent the plague that devastates humankind.

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That’s epic stuff, and it’s a relief to see him treated not as a hero or as a savior, but as… just a guy. A guy who riffs with and razzes his co-worker, who makes your-mother jokes.

Just as Acevedo brings depth and credibility to Cole’s friend and colleague, Tom Noonan brings a very different flavor, but a similarly effective one, to his role (whom Syfy identifies only as The Pallid Man). He’s equal parts eerie and avuncular, never retreating into histrionic evil. The light, calm quality of his voice gives terrible gravity to the few moments when he abandons that friendly manner. Most of his menace comes from the contrast between his affect and his acts.

In addition to some welcome character moments, this episode makes thoughtful use of space and setting. Cole’s time in J.D. Peoples, the private institution where Jennifer Goines has been confined for the past 773 days, gives us a chance to become familiar with the halls and rooms of the hospital and to contrast them with the flaking, rotting walls of the abandoned site Cole and Ramse search in their present time. It’s a tangible reminder that everything Cole sees in the past is a world long dead.

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“Mentally Divergent” begins to play in earnest with the possibilities of a time travel narrative, how its smallest incidents and accidents can affect the future. Cole’s unintended journey to North Korea puts his face in a CIA database, letting Aaron track down his record and leading Cassie to the mental hospital where she finds him. Cassie steals Jennifer’s patient file, which is why Cole couldn’t find it in his own time. And Cole—and Jones—accept the risk of including Cassie in their mission, despite the danger that interfering in her timeline could erase every trace of the mission’s origins.

The complex interweaving stories of a time travel narrative aren’t enough to drive a series, no matter how tidily they’re constructed. This episode suggests that 12 Monkeys could deliver the compelling characters that flesh out an elaborate plot, that give us a reason to care about the story as it builds.

Thoughtful casting makes any show better. It’s useful in a series that tests our suspension of disbelief in every episode, and it’s vital to a show that tells a story out of order. Any character we see this week could appear as a past or future self next week, and even characters who are killed off can reappear earlier in their timeline. (Jeremy, Robert Wisdom’s character, gave us a scant minute of exposition last week and appeared as a corpse this week, but there’s no telling how large a role he will have in future episodes of past events.) Actors who imbue their characters with honest personality help ground an ambitious story, and 12 Monkeys is starting to feel appropriately ambitious.

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Stray observations:

  • There are hints that the scope of this mission, and of this series, could expand. When Cole asks if he’ll be sent to the 1987 meeting Leland Goines spoke of, Jones tells him, “We don’t have the power to send you back that far. Not yet.” That not yet is important.
  • Jennifer Goines and a scalpel is an unnerving combination.
  • Both Jennifer and her psychiatrist see signs of legitimate mental disorder in Cole. With the trauma he’s been through (and it’s implied there’s a good deal of history the audience isn’t privy to yet), it would be more surprising if he didn’t exhibit some of the signs of PTSD.
  • The hospital is named for David and Janet Peoples, who wrote the screenplay to 12 Monkeys (1995), the title of tonight’s episode, “Mentally Divergent,” is a line from the film, and Jones’ promise that they’ll deliver Cole to 2015 “right on the money!” replays a similar promise from the film, with similarly disastrous results.
  • The patients are watching The Adventures of Mark Twain. “What’s your name?” “Satan.” “Uh-oh.”
  • Cole’s threat to Jennifer Goines echoes The Pallid Man’s threat to Cassie. The Pallid Man tells her, his voice light and easy, “I don’t want to do this to you, I don’t, but if you ignore this message and make some kind of attempt to scream or to contact the authorities, I will.” Cole tells Jennifer, ““I don’t want to hurt you but I will if I have to.” For the moment, there’s no telling whether that similarity is inattentive writing, coincidence, or a conscious parallel between the two characters.
  • Chekhov’s monkey: “Just remember, you’re not from there, you’re from here. We do what we have to,” Ramse reminds Cole after they dispatch the gang of attacking scavengers. Does everyone else have the feeling Ramse will repeat “We do what we have to” with heavy irony in a future episode? Ramse’s preoccupation with (and strikingly clear understanding of) the attractions of the past—“you got the food, you got the sights, the girl”—suggest a Matrix-style twist coming up. (I hope it’s obvious that link includes a spoiler for The Matrix.)

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