For weeks now, 12 Monkeys has focused on the conflict between personal obligations and moral duties, and the way we all let the one corrupt the other. The show is about Jones’ hunger to see her daughter alive again and Ramse’s drive to preserve the world in which his son exists. It’s about James Cole’s bond with Cassandra Railly. It’s about the comradery between Cole and Ramse that’s sustained them for years, and how their competing goals turned their lifelong brotherhood to poisonous rivalry. It’s about Jennifer Goines’ need to make Daddy happy, and her glee when Daddy falls.

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That theme of connection is all over “Shonin,” from Nakano’s remark that the Himalayan corpse could be Leland Goines’ legacy to his daughter to The Pallid Man’s frequent invocations of Olivia’s father. Ultimately, 12 Monkeys is about the value and cost of relationships. Tonight’s episode is about our need to connect, and how that need leaves us vulnerable to someone canny enough to exploit it.

As the conflict between Cole and Ramse intensifies, the show reveals more about their shared history. Facing off in a brutal fight, Ramse smack-talks: “I should’ve killed you when we were kids!” They’ve known each other since childhood, maybe from the foster homes Cole mentioned to Cassie. When they call each other “brother,” they mean brother.

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

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That lends something deeper, darker, sadder to Ramse’s mission. Ramse’s sacrificing the brother he’s stood by for years to save the son he barely knows, leading to the best fight scene 12 Monkeys has managed. That isn’t the compliment it sounds like; action sequences have been a weak spot throughout this season. But Cole and Ramse’s fight is briskly competent, with a tension that suits its emotional freight.

Kirk Acevedo spends long stretches of of this episode silent, telling the whole story with his face. After a season accustoming viewers to a new locale with every time jump, there’s a powerful weight to the short chapters and long years of his prison sentence. Grieving Elena, dreading his son’s erasure, pulled out of his time, locked away in a foreign prison—and a notably strict prison, he’s primed to be receptive to any gesture of kindness.

Olivia’s letters balance practical and emotional appeal. She offers protection for his son, provides materials to pass the time, and leads him to defeat his prison-yard bully. But she offers emotional connection, too, and he’s hungry for it. Olivia calls Ramse by name, repeats his story to him, and asks him to write his own history. She promises, “You are not alone, traveler. You are important, valued, loved.” It’s classic cult-recruitment language, and it works for a reason. To a man out of time, in a world where his very name is meaningless, these are potent words.

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She tells Ramse that she “can’t intervene” in his incarceration, and maybe she can’t. But can’t can also mean won’t. Ramse’s captivity is valuable to The Army Of The 12 Monkeys, giving him a long stretch of time to ruminate on their teachings, and on The Art Of War. Those years pare down Ramse’s righteousness to something just as inflexible, but crueler and more calculated. And those years with no kind voice but Olivia’s bonds Ramse to her, and to her cause.

“You are the key to our next cycle,” Olivia tells him, and that phrasing is remarkably candid. He isn’t a man to them, but a tool. That’s nothing new for Olivia; she tells Jennifer that her own father “had plans for me. I was a thing in a box with printed instructions.” There’s more than one kind of prison, and the prison of expectations can be as strong as a cell.

Leland has plans for Jennifer, too, and the look on Emily Hampshire’s face as realization dawns is heartbreaking. Again, just a taste of her history gives new shades to her present. Her mother was “in and out of these places,” and Jennifer fears being like her: being confined, being abandoned by Leland, maybe being spoken of with that same casual cruelty.

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When Jennifer says, “I kept your secrets,” she’s speaking of the night room, but her father’s reaction—the way he grasps her and draws her face close to his, and especially the camera angle that creates the illusion of his mouth resting on hers—hints at other secrets that some families keep. In a terrifying hush, he instructs her, “That is something never said out loud. Not even here, not even with me.” As he strides out, he takes a squirt of sanitizer from a dispenser, washing his hands of his daughter.

Leland’s callousness undoes him, leaving Jennifer susceptible to Olivia’s gentle overtures and the promise that she can “be a daughter again,” but 12 Monkeys revels in the idea that even the purest, most benevolent impulses can lead to fatal mistakes. Cole gives a tangible example of that at The White Dragon. He warns Leland Goines off buying the biological sample for the virus it contains, and Goines’ eyes light up. “Virus? There’s a virus in that thing?” Sparking Goines’ interest in the corpse, Cole perpetuates the very cycle he’s been sent to prevent, the cycle that Olivia so fiercely maintains with the help The Witness and his notebook of memories.

The weakest part of tonight’s episode is a particularly tedious piece of maintenance, and an almost inexplicable one: the interminable sequence of flashbacks to previous episodes, many of them from just last week. It’s hard to reckon who exactly this sequence of clips was aimed at. It’s too tedious a retread for regular watchers and not really sufficient to bring new viewers up to speed.

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Retreading old ground isn’t always bad. I wish 12 Monkeys could follow in its protagonist’s path, traveling back in time, retreading its own footsteps. Now that it’s declared itself a meditation on the competing needs of love and duty, Cole’s opening monologue—so unearned and unaffecting in the show’s first minute—is rendered poignant, even powerful. So much of 12 Monkeys works best in retrospect, which is appropriate for a show where the fate of the world depends on one man jumping backward through time, sacrificing everything he’s ever known to save the past for the future.

Stray observations:

  • Leland kicks the containment unit for the viral sample! Then Cole and Ramse have a whale of a fist fight next to it, smashing stuff left and right, and no one thinks to wheel it away from the fracas, even though it’s on a dolly!
  • It’s odd to look at the engineer of a plague and think “I expected better of you!” but Leland Goines’ self-amused racism—from ninja and kamikaze jokes to his relief that Markridge’s silent partners don’t wear beards and turbans—is offputting.
  • Jennifer’s ready to be sprung: “Jailbreak. Freedom. Rita Hayworth and a tiny hammer!”
  • Leland’s wig is the 13th monkey, right?
  • Jennifer’s bedroom scene at the mansion has a handful of allusions to The Shining: that sea green paint, the shape of the triptych mirror, the long shot of her staring toward the bathroom.
  • To avoid bleed-through from future episodes, I’ve been watching week by week, but I suspect 12 Monkeys disproportionately rewards binge-watching, delivering its accumulation of mythology and emotional punch in big wallops. Whether you’ve been binge-watching or keeping up weekly, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that in the comments.
  • Chekhov’s monkey: Leland boasts, “Markridge is 10 years away from human cloning—who isn’t?” With cloning and time travel in the mix, it would become entirely possible for the Himalayan corpse to be Cole or Ramse, or anyone else on the show, and not be.

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