Up to this point, 12 Monkeys has wrangled its story—a world brought down by plague, a scientist sacrificing subjects to forge a road to the past, a single man striving to prevent the outbreak that killed seven billion people—by keeping a tight focus on the mission, the man, and the moment.

“Mr. Cole is the priority, then we worry about the core,” Jones tells her team in tonight’s episode. She’s speaking of the tracer signal: Staying locked on Cole, tracking him in time and space, is the single most important task. All future missions rely upon calling him back, and that need eclipses all others, including the need to preserve the machinery. But it functions as a metaphor for the show as well. Stay locked on Cole and the story stays strong. Lose sight of him and it falters.

The characters and emotional arcs of 12 Monkeys have stumbled over its eight episodes, but the story mechanics stayed strong. The show has clearly conveyed the potentially confusing jumps through time and space with seemingly effortless focus, and kept the larger narrative free of distractions by keeping everything centered tightly around James Cole.

Until tonight.

“Yesterday” inverts most of the expectations the series has established, not entirely successfully. Cole spends his scant minutes of the episode in a dark cellar while his compatriots from 2043 leave their shadowy time-travel bunker for the sunny, spacious halls of Spearhead, a longstanding post-plague institute searching for a cure to the constantly mutating virus. Years ago, Col. Foster (Xander Berkeley) staged a coup, assassinating the world’s military and political leaders when they proposed to abandon medical research in favor of retreating to isolation. His teams have harvested every hard drive, server, and processor within 500 miles, building a vast network with one goal: to find a cure for the plague. With Jones’ help, he says, they can be one year from engineering a vaccine capable of predicting viral shifts before they occur.

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12 Monkeys’ tendency to under-use character actors tempered my pleasure at seeing Xander Berkeley’s name in the credits, but the part has some meat to it. Col. Foster is urbane, commanding, and irrationally committed to his own path. Despite Spearhead’s bright passages, immaculate labs, and white-coated personnel, Foster derives his sense of purpose not from reason but from faith. His introduction, reading scripture from a leather-bound book over the core that drives their servers, intimates that his true aspirations are metaphysical, not physical. Ramse scoffs at his claims of cures, and Foster scoffs right back, “It does require a certain… faith.”

Depending on your perspective, 12 Monkeys is either expanding the horizons of its universe or it’s losing its focus on the taut, well-told story at its center. Both of those are true, just as Cassie can look at Wexler’s bombed hideout and see an abandoned site, and Cole can stand on the same hillside and see a countryside ravaged by plague.

I’ve described Spearhead as “sunny,” and it is, relative to the rest of 12 Monkeys. Compared to the show’s usual shadows and gloom, low daytime light seems positively cheery. Life at Spearhead looks pretty cushy for the post-apocalypse: fresh greens for salad, wine in gold-rimmed glasses—they use asparagus tongs, for goodness sake! Comfort is a powerful silent incentive to maintain the status quo. It’s not surprising a community living above ground—with fresh food and sunlight and art classes for their children—believe this life is worth preserving, and their counterparts who subsist in the dark, grubby splinter facility want to reset the clock.

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Jones sees Foster as a zealot, an autocrat with a glib tongue and a hair trigger who’s eager to get them under his yoke; Foster sees Jones as a mad scientist sacrificing anything and anyone in her mania to recover her lost life—and her lost daughter—in defiance of “the natural order.” She wants to right the past and erase the present; he spurns the past and promises a blessed future.

Ramse (Kirk Acevedo) meets Samuel (Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy)

Ramse’s the only one who balances the pull of past and present. At Spearhead, he finds his lost love, Elena (Amy Sloane) and badgers her for leaving him five years ago… until he meets Samuel, the son he never knew he had. Ramse immediately starts to teach Sam his favorite game with the stones the kids use to learn their biology lessons, using this piece of his own past (and the “ancient, ancient game” of emperors and kings) as to forge a connection for their future. Leaving, Ramse doesn’t try to persuade Elena or Samuel to go with him. He understands why Whitley’s father “wants his kid to be here, as opposed to the basement you’re in now,” and he wouldn’t want less for his own child. Fatherhood gives him a new perspective, the ability to look beyond the mission of the present and imagine a future in this world.

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In a time travel tale, it’s inevitable, even desirable, that past, present, and future get tangled up. Until tonight, 12 Monkeys conveyed its timeline shifts with clarity, even grace, allowing room for surprises without resorting to cheats. But “Yesterday” trips up in that tangle, muddling the timelines in a way that’s difficult to resolve.

After the 2015 air strike on Wexler’s outpost, called to eradicate the dose of airborne M5-10, Cole awakens in the cellar of the bombed-out building, injured and trapped. Calling for help, he’s answered by a girl, Ada, who speaks English, and her father, Mikhael, who doesn’t. Moving a massive post with the help of the unseen man above, Cole shimmers in and out of place as Jones tries—and fails—to pull him back to 2043. He splinters back into the cellar and, realizing the plague he’s just seen released has already spread across the countryside, he asks what year it is. Ada answers: It’s 2017.

I’ve looked at this from several perspectives, and I haven’t found one that makes a lick of sense. Does Cole awaken in 2015, speak to Ada, then reappear in 2017 to find her and her father still there, lifting that beam? Does Cole awaken in 2015, call for help, then splinter to 2017 where another English-speaking Chechnyan girl with a strikingly similar voice happens to be in the same ruins? Did he splinter to 2017 at the moment of the strike? In the last few minutes of “The Keys,” there’s no hint of Jones attempting to recall him.

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Maybe next week’s episode will resolve this seeming discrepancy. Maybe it’s a question of perspective, of seeing around the corner of the story. But even if there’s a rational answer to this piece of misdirection—even if it isn’t an outright cheat—the muddiness of its delivery undermines the one aspect of 12 Monkeys that’s always felt strong and compelling and honest.

Stray observations:

  • It’s just possible the version of this episode Syfy provided to me doesn’t include a crucial shot or piece of dialogue. If you saw something in the broadcast version that explains Cole’s jump to 2017, I hope you’ll describe it in the comments.
  • One of the first things Ada says to Cole is an ominous question that never pays off: “My father says to ask you, does anyone know you are here?”
  • I’m all for storytelling shorthand, but Cassie entering the gates of the blast site and instantly determining “No one survived and there’s no body” is absurdly abrupt.
  • Col. Foster’s sermon over the server: “Whosoever shall dwell in the shelter of the most high will rest in the shadow of the Almighty, for we shall rise phoenix-like from these ashes of death and decay.” It sounds like Col. Foster’s written an original piece of scripture.
  • Chekhov’s monkey: For a split second, I thought Cole had started a new timeline, preventing one outbreak and moving seamlessly to an alternate 2015 to prevent another. This isn’t what happened, but it would fit neatly with Foster’s questions about predestination: “So you succeed and the virus materializes in another form. What if this, all of this, were meant to happen so that we could find the cure?”

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