This show should be just as fun as a barrel of… well, you know. It’s a time travel adventure in impressive command of its mechanics. It has well-drafted, well-cast characters in key positions: Kurt Acevedo as Ramse, Tom Noonan as The Pallid Man, Barbara Sukowa as Jones. Last week, “Atari” showed the writers can construct a script thematically unifying several stories without stalling the over-arching plot.
“The Night Room” should be wall-to-wall excitement. Cole and Cassie have found the legendary night room lab. They’re forced into confrontation with The Army Of The 12 Monkeys. They meet with Jennifer Goines, who holds the secrets of the virus in her confused head. This episode should be bananas.
Like the splinter apparatus that sends Cole into the past, 12 Monkeys is a collection of technologies and techniques that should be operating with laser-like precision… but it keeps hitting the wrong target. And like that apparatus, the core is running out of juice.
The best moments between Cole and Cassie are the lightest, where their characters get some room to breathe. Staking out the decoy business housing Markridge’s night room, Cassie asks Cole if he sees “anything weird” about the building. He reminds her, “I’m from the apocalypse. Everything here looks weird to me.” That’s a laugh line, and also a reminder of how fundamentally different their lives have been, how fundamentally different they are. It’s a spark of humor and humanity, letting them connect over the disparity between them.
That connection is too rarely shown. The show keeps telling us that there’s a bond—of fate, and also of feeling—between them, but it does little to establish it. That wouldn’t be an issue, except that 12 Monkeys keeps falling back on that relationship to bolster its drama, and falling flat. By repeatedly positioning the trust between Cole and Cassie as central to the narrative but failing to build the emotional core of that relationship, the series continues to make the emptiness of their dynamic its largest problem.
Aaron Stanford and Amanda Schull manage their scant moments of levity well, but the show often bungles more dramatic attempts to demonstrate a bond between the two. In the last minutes of “The Night Room,” when Cole is trapped in the lab with Jennifer as Cassie watches from the observation room, he catches her eye and flicks his gaze to the big burn button, established earlier as the last-ditch fail-safe method to eradicate all organisms in case viral containment fails. The buttons are in two separate rooms; two people need to hit them near-simultaneously to trigger the burn.
This could be a flash of instinctive understanding and a quick wink to the audience before the foreshadowing pays off. Instead, it’s a slow, clumsy countdown to inevitability. Cole looks at the button on the lab wall, looks at Cassie, looks at the button. She shakes her head, he nods his. He purses his lips—maybe in impatience, which I can sympathize with—and she hesitates. She looks at the button on the console, she looks at him. He raises his eyebrows, she knits her brow, they both pout ruefully. This exchange of significant looks takes 30 seconds. That sounds brief, but it’s an eternity in action-sequence time, and far too long to convey the silent affinity 12 Monkeys keeps telling us exists.
When The Pallid Man reveals that Cole murdered Dr. Henri Toussaint in Haiti, Cassie shoots him a look of betrayed shock. “I trusted you!” And that’s the crux of it: She did trust him, with an ease edging into gullibility. She assumed his goals were her goals, his best interests were her best interests, his morals were her morals. Cassie had no road to acceptance, no skepticism, no struggle or confusion. She just… trusted him. We know that because she told us, and now she doesn’t trust him, and we know that because she tells us.
That signals a larger problem with the character. Every episode spends time on James Cole’s soul-searching and self-reproach, but Cassandra Railly has little interior life. She divulges her history as exposition, little biographical details that justify her hideout at her grandparents’ shop or her easy access to the CDC or her presence at a crucial moment in Haiti, and her motivations are similarly simple and expository: “I just want to heal people, fix things,” she says. She’s as naive or as knowing as the situation requires.
When Cassie confronts Cole over killing Henri, two tacit details in the scene could be either subtle dramatic irony or simple oversight. Cassie doesn’t tell Cole that Henri was more than a colleague. And neither of them excuses Cole with the brutal truth: Cole’s bullet killed Henri quickly, sparing him interrogation by The Pallid Man, who at that very moment terrorizes Jennifer Goines in pursuit of the pestilent Frost M5-10 strain, and who rammed bamboo stakes into Cole’s fingernail beds with a smile, just to pass the time. This sums up 12 Monkeys: Sometimes it’s well-crafted enough to indulge in knowing understatement, and sometimes these gaps feel like inattention to detail.
Even if the script can’t always be relied upon for witty understatement, Tom Noonan can. He continues to portray The Pallid Man with unnerving good cheer. Meeting with Ivan, Jennifer’s one-time colleague and sole surviving staff of the night room, from the gentle he shakes Ivan’s hand to apologize “for what happened to your friends back there” to the way he ducks down to engage him with a smile, Noonan radiates genial concern that makes his ruthlessness doubly chilling.
Emily Hampshire brings a skittish intensity to Jennifer Goines, investing the stereotype of a poetically disturbed prodigy with poignant humor and a vein of ferocity. When they appear together, their madness meshes imperfectly to forge a weird, almost familial chemistry. His stern “Jennifer Goines, you are needed downstairs” might as well end with “You are in a world of trouble, young lady.”
It’s hard to believe that in an episode of television with a time-traveler encountering (what appears to be) his own pestilent corpse, an abducted mental patient foiling the plans of a terrorist death squad, a series of test subjects turned inside-out, and a clandestine biological warfare lab cleansed with fire, the most entertaining portion is the conversation between an old man and a young woman, but that’s what happened this week. And now Jennifer Goines is on the loose, free from her psychiatric imprisonment, free from the tortures of The Army Of The 12 Monkeys, and free from her father. She’s got The Pallid Man’s pendant, she’s got all the pass codes to the Goines empire, and she’s got no one hold her back.
- With Markridge’s security on the way, Cole’s looking for a way out of the night room. “We’re fish in a barrel in here.” Not fish in a barrel, silly Cole! Monkeys! Monkeys in a barrel!
- The show deftly counters the inherent flexibility of time travel with reasons for haste. When the technicians scramble to repair the splinter apparatus, Ramse yells, “Take a day to fix it. Take a week. Take a month. It’s a time machine!” But, as Jones and Cole remind him, the machinery gets more compromised every day, and so does their safety, both from the virus and from West Seven.
- Cassie isn’t the only character who’s implausibly naive when the script demands. When Jennifer doubts the night room’s security, Ivan asks, “You don’t think someone would try to steal this thing?” Golly, Ivan, who would steal an astronomically valuable biological agent that your tycoon boss wants engineered for shadowy reasons of his own? And why do you think it’s underground, behind an endless series of locked doors, with only one person cleared to access it?
- “On a first-name basis with Dr. Railly now?” Jones asks Cole. Moments later, he calls after her—“Hey, Caterina!”—to invite her to his quarters for a friendly drink. He’s on a first-name basis with both Cassandra and Caterina. I continue to suspect Jones is 2043’s Railly, with a change of heart and a change of name, though I can’t explain the accent.
- Chekhov’s monkey: “I cannot tell a lie, so I told you half a truth,” Jennifer Goines tells The Pallid Man. And the other half? “Buried. Desert island. Palm trees and coconuts.” Who wants to bet that’s a literal tropical island?