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Last week, I criticized 12 Monkeys for concentrating on mechanical storytelling competence while the central relationship between Cole and Cassie falls flat, for cleaving to a straight-forward narrative at the cost of straight-up fun, for… well, for not being bananas enough.

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This week, the show gives us “The Red Forest.” It’s a little messy, a little chaotic, a little goofy. It’s a little bananas. And it’s a lot of fun.

After five episodes of tidily accumulating story, 12 Monkeys breaks the unwritten rules of its universe: keeping Cole and Cassie almost entirely separate, introducing new characters without explaining them, and sacrificing brisk story beats for ambiguity, outright mystery, and an always-welcome burst of humor.

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Teaming up Cole with Aaron Marker (Noah Bean), Cassie’s former fiancé, makes great sense, combining Aaron’s Washington-insider access with Cole’s brutal dispatch, but it’s also an unexpectedly strong character pairing. At first, this seems like the worst buddy team ever, but they complement each other with gratifying ease.

We get a preview of Aaron’s big-picture savvy when Sen. Royce asks about his interest in Leland Goines’ death. Aaron deflects smoothly: “Goines was a very big campaign donor. I would like a heads-up if anything is coming our way.” His incompetence in physical confrontations gets lampshaded, too, from the moment Cole captures him and leads him to his car. Knife at his throat, Aaron steels himself before giving a tough-guy speech (“You ruined our lives, you son of a bitch!”) and smashing into a parked car, a move that only triggers his airbag and bloodies his nose, with no visible effect on Cole. Aaron’s ineffectual slapping at the loose airbag sums up his feeble attempts at tough-guy stuff.

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Aaron doesn’t need to be a tough guy; Cole is tough enough for both of them. Aaron stands back and offers advice, he plays good cop to Cole’s bad cop, he calls in favors, he harvests information from his many contacts. His strengths are valuable, and his weaknesses are farcical.

James Cole (Aaron Stanford) & Aaron Marker (Noah Bean) are buddies! [Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy]

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Aaron’s mistrust highlights how delusional Cole sounds. When he balks at the story that Cole and Cassie are right now being held hostage by terrorists, Cole snaps “The other me! That’s why I need you.” Aaron doesn’t buy anything Cole says… except that Cassie’s in trouble, and that’s enough for him.

The script, credited to Christopher Monfette, chips away at Aaron’s skepticism, first revealing Cole’s knowledge of a classified CIA operation, then Cole’s (and Cassie’s) claims of cultists raiding a biological lab prove true, then Aaron shoots Cole (“Not me, the other me”), and finally he watches Cole vanish. This tangible proof is buttressed by the intangible, in the form of Cole’s disconnect from the minutia of contemporary life. (“What’s 911?,” “What’s a license plate?”) “The Red Forest” earns Aaron’s belief as the pilot never quite earned Cassie’s, and the episode—and probably the series as a whole—benefits from that.

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While Cole and Aaron track her down, Cassie is hauled into a dark, cavernous room and forced to ingest some flowery hallucinogen as a prelude to her meeting with The Witness. The resulting sequence, a montage of saturated red underbrush and a house flickering in and out of decay, doesn’t reveal much, relying instead upon vivid imagery and haunting vagueness. Here are the words recited to Cassie, with the woman’s many repetitions edited out:

You are walking through a red forest and the grass is tall. It’s just rained. Most of the blood has washed away. There’s a house in the distance, cedar and pine. You’ve been there before. You’re not alone. There’s a man. You see him, you go to him. You know him, like a memory of tomorrow.

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The scenes surrounding this ritual do tell us something. The unnamed woman (Alisen Down) ushering Cassie through her vision speaks to The Pallid Man as at least an equal, and maybe as his better. What’s more, they speak of The Witness as if he is another person, not some distant, imponderable figure. He’s real, and he wants to meet Cassie because “you’re important, and he has plans for you.”

Then Cassie breaks away. Again, the action sequence is 12 Monkeys’ greatest weakness. Why do two leaders and two henchmen allow a drugged, surrounded prisoner to run off into the warehouse? Why do the two armed underlings wait around to be instructed that “We can’t lose Dr. Railly,” while the slower, frailer old man follows her immediately? Why does Cassie wear stacked heels on a super-stealthy mission, and why can’t anyone track her by the clip-clop of those heels on the concrete floors? Why do Aaron, Cole, and Cassie dawdle around just inside the exit, talking their heads off about how she must leave now as a gunman sneaks up? It’s flabby, it’s slack, and it discharges the episode’s built-up tension.

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Even so, this is the show’s strongest episode. In both of Cole’s alternate timelines, Jones speaks of the sacrifices made in the name of the mission, tacitly invoking the lives lost to the machine and the ethical choices made by those shepherding the project to completion, explicitly describing the physical and mental costs to Cole, whose mind is splintering as competing realities fight it out in his memories and whose body deteriorates with every trip.

“How many jumps do I have left?” Cole asks her. “Is it enough?” Jones gives him the only possible answer: “It has to be.”

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This week’s episode sacrifices some of its narrative thrust for evocative imagery, energy, and an intoxicating dose of mystery, while adeptly playing with the possibilities of a time travel tale. It’s not the first episode I’ve enjoyed, but it’s the first time an episode’s end has left me pining for more. With “The Red Forest,” 12 Monkeys goes from merely competent to intriguing. Is it enough? It has to be.

Stray observations:

  • First up, Chekhov’s monkey, a retraction: In Cole’s alternate timeline, Jones has never heard of Cassandra Railly. Apparently the parallels between the two are poetic, not literal, and I’m just plain wrong that Jones is the future Dr. Railly. That’s the danger of speculation, and I hope you’ll join me in the comments with more speculation. We can all be wrong together!
  • “Have you fired a gun before? You point it and pull the trigger at what you want to hi—” “I got it, I got it!”
  • Adam Wexler, digital terrorist, says, “America keeps its secrets in a glass case with a sign that says ‘Do not break.’ But I have a hammer. And I will set you free.” Hey, buddy, most glass cases don’t have to read “Do not break,” because that’s the implicit meaning of most glass cases. I think you mean “In case of emergency, break glass.”
  • So, a Senator’s aide can just take off at mid-day? 12 Monkeys, if you want to continue your streak of bland story consistency, please include a scene next week in which Aaron gets chewed out for blowing off his after-lunch meeting with Sen. Royce. (Just kidding! Please do not continue with bland consistency. More bananas, please!)
  • At the end of “The Night Room,” I looked forward to Jennifer Goines on the loose. But “The Red Forest” briefly shows Jennifer going straight from the hands of The Army Of The 12 Monkeys to the hands of Markridge’s security team. Dang it.
  • Chekhov’s monkey: The actual Red Forest, also know as Wormwood Forest, is a contaminated area within Chernobyl’s exclusion zone where radiation poisoning turned the trees reddish-orange. Adam Wexler was last seen in Chechnya, where the plague breaks out in the alternate timeline. Looks like we’re going to Russia, kids!

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