Like 12 Monkeys’ first episode, “The Keys” begins with Cole, unseen, speaking to an unidentified listener. This time, we can guess who he’s talking to, and by episode’s end, it’s confirmed: He’s speaking to Cassie from continents away as the two of them await Cole’s fiery death, an immolation to wipe out a plague. Believing his mission is finished and his life forfeit, Cole loosens up, confiding to her the childhood secrets he’d withheld a week from now. (It’s a time travel tale; convolutions of the timeline and grammatical tense are elementary.)

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For two weeks now, 12 Monkeys has transformed itself. What was once a by-the-numbers sci-fi procedural laced through with false profundity is now a witty, well-paced adventure that’s not afraid to lighten up and have some fun. Cole has undergone the same transformation. The grim, hard catspaw of the first few episodes has softened, ever so slightly, into a man who can pause and smile at the pleasures of the past, who can revel in the world he’s been sent back to save.

When Cassie takes him to another gala—this time, to ask an archaeologist about The Army Of The 12 Monkeys—Cole takes in the food, the music, the art, all the gleaming delights of this night, of this world. His longing illuminates the cultural consequences of the plague as Jones’ ruminations in “The Night Room” didn’t, quite. “This is amazing, all of it,” he says with deep feeling. “I love this, the music, everything.” Most touching from a man who leaps from time to time, from place to place, on a desperate quest: “We’re here. Let’s be here.”

Cole (Aaron Stanford), enjoying the moment (Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy)

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Cole’s desire to take a brief intermission and just be contrasts with Cassie’s sense of urgency. “The mission is this way,” she throws over her shoulder, marching away purposefully. Her drive and his delay flip their usual dynamic, in which Cole directs Cassie’s research or hurries toward the next plot point as she scurries to keep up.

Even when Cole talks Cassie into dancing, she’s in charge, putting his hand on her hip, keeping the tempo, taking him by the chin to direct his gaze up from his feet. The song they dance to, Otis Redding’s “These Arms Of Mine,” is another callback to “Splinter,” and “The Keys” almost succeeds in traveling back in time to make the first episode stronger and more profound.

Held by the CIA, Cassie is at her coolest and most commanding. First, she pleads for the safety of the world’s population, then takes in her interrogator’s silence with quick certainty. “If your op were going as planned, you wouldn’t even be talking to me,” she says, understanding dawning over her face. “I can help you.” It’s the savviest Cassie has been, and this episode allows Amanda Schull her strongest performance of the series, letting Cassie act rather than react, and showing her vital importance to the timeline rather than telling us about it.

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Stephen McHattie is perfectly cast as the craggy elder statesman in charge of a shadowy op, but the paucity of his role continues 12 Monkeys’ streak of underusing great character actors: Robert Wisdom, Željko Ivanek, now McHattie. It’s a time travel tale, where even the dead can be revisited in the past, so here’s hoping all these characters return in the second half of the season. And McHattie inhabits his small part like few could. When he barks “Senator, we need to clean up this mess, and fast!” everyone in the room—and in the audience—believes him.

Like Cole, 12 Monkeys is telling a story out of order. Cole is getting better at it, and so is 12 Monkeys. Both the protagonist and the show are loosening up, learning to live in the moment, and to let those moments bring their natural gravity to the plot. It‘s still dragging in some spots. Cassie’s comprehension of the ins and outs of time travel is messily inconsistent (“But you were just here!” she blurts out when Cole calls from Chechnya, but only shrugs “You get used to it” when Aaron gawks over Cole‘s vanishing act), and the story grinds to a halt whenever Cole burns up time explaining them to her.

Aaron Marker’s combination of political acumen and goofy non sequitur grounds him in the show’s reality, and Noah Bean really sells those seemingly contradictory traits. Aaron can see the big picture, hedging against prosecution (and maybe against covert assassination) with well-placed documentation of classified information, and still spare time to worry when his tux flickers back to the future along with Cole. Aaron’s one-word description of his arrangement—“insurance”—echoes the last line of Terry Gilliam’s film, and it’s just one of a handful of allusions in the episode.

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Even the title, “The Keys,” is something of a misdirect: They aren’t keys to a door, but to a daydream. As a child, Cole fantasized about escape to a happier place, but when he reminisces about it with Cassie, he balks at telling her where he dreamed of going.

But with death staring him down, Cole opens up. “It’s the Keys,” he tells Cassie from Chechnya, where he’s surrounded by plague-ridden corpses and awaiting the firebombing that will wipe out the virus. His imagined escape is a glance toward the film, where Cole (Bruce Willis) is bombarded with advertising promising peace and rest in the Florida Keys. The Cole of the film misunderstands the ads, thinking they are (as they claim to be) a personal message to promising him “The Keys are lovely this time of year,” and—most relevant, most resonant—urging him to “take a chance, live in the moment.”

That’s more than a reference. That’s a a complex allusion to the source material that enhances the new character’s journey without diminishing anything for viewers who don’t catch it. That’s a grace note.

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12 Monkeys isn’t perfect, or even consistent, but it’s telling a sprawling story with tight efficiency and occasional grace, and starting to have some fun doing it. This show is learning to enjoy the moment, and I’m enjoying it, too.

Stray observations:

  • As Cole examines a dinosaur (see above), a docent lectures: “Mass extinction is a regular feature of our planet’s history. Tonight’s guest of honor comes from a world that we can only imagine. He saw the end of an era, and the world changed around him.”
  • “No, Cole, you can’t touch the art, you just look.” “Well, that’s bullshit.”
  • Cole scooping up the whole tray of tandoori skewers into a bouquet made me laugh out loud, and also gives me a goal for the next time I’m at a fancy party.
  • “We could just be us for a minute,” Cole tells Cassie at the gala, and she echoes it back to him when he shows up at the end, a week after she’s talked him through his own death.
  • The monkey plate is an artifact of an esoteric Druze sect, depicting “the pact of time’s custodian,” as Dr. Garrett tells Cassie. They used the dish to crush herbs into tea for ritual consumption, which sounds like the concoction The Pallid Man gave Cassie.
  • Adam Wexler talks like Technical Boy, the twerpy digital god from American Gods, and if death finishes his arc, I’ll be immensely grateful.
  • Chekhov’s monkey: The evolving timeline of viral strain M5-10 points more and more to it originating in Cole’s remains, creating an ontological paradox in which his time travel is causing the very plague he’s trying to prevent. Though he’s immune to the virus, he could still be a carrier of it or its precursor. Is that right? Is there a virologist in the house? Wexler gives this episode’s second mention (the first being the top-secret briefing that the opening) of 1987, so it looks like we’re going to mid-eighties China, or thereabouts, and presumably a meeting with Leland Goines.

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