Well, ”The Watergate Tape” comes with both good news and bad.

In its fifth episode, Timeless finally manages to do some world-building, origin-story type stuff without merely dropping the name “Rittenhouse” and calling it a day. Better still, they jam down the accelerator on a few things other shows might be content to let percolate for weeks, if not years. And best of all, they finally invest some time in making their primary antagonist, the to-this-point blandly unhinged Garcia Flynn, a character worth watching. All good, and the last item well overdue.

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Every good news/bad news situation comes with that back half, however, and all that good stuff comes at a price. Unfortunately, it’s the one price that never bodes well for a show: to achieve the things listed above, Timeless chooses to sacrifice much of what makes it an entertaining watch in the first place. Not all hope is lost, of course. Abigail Spencer, Malcolm Barrett, and the still-improving Matt Lanter remain an engaging trio, and when Barrett’s given plenty to do, as he is here, he’s the show’s clear MVP. Writer Kent Rotherham still leaves room in the intrigue for a few moments of off-kilter humor, and manages to land the episode on the kind of twist that seems obvious in hindsight, but will likely still get a gasp or two.

Still, the net effect is one of flattening the show’s flawed but not inconsiderable charm in the service of big fat plot developments. As stated above, that’s not all bad, and the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I’m certainly not advocating for a Timeless without an overarching story. Nor am I saying the show always needs to be a romp through time—last week’s episode, a particularly strong one, wasn’t much fun—but if it’s not galloping along in an adventurous way, it had better bring something else to the table. For an example of the former, look to “Party at Castle Varlar”; for the latter, “The Alamo.” But after all that hard work to make audiences invest emotionally in this trio, Timeless blows them apart, and it doesn’t resonate emotionally in the slightest.

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There’s a chance this is intentional. It’s not hard to imagine that we’ll spend the weeks to come dealing with the fallout of Lucy and Rufus’s twin deceptions, fittingly paralleled in the great national deception that was the Watergate scandal. Perhaps the time-sensitive events of the week—an actual deadline imposed by Flynn, who nabs the three nearly as soon as they arrive in the ‘70s—force all three to table their respective grievances and senses of betrayal until a later time. It doesn’t feel that way, though. The whole episode comes off a bit like a book you skim to get the salient details. Oh, you know what happens, for sure, but not what it means to you, or to the characters, or for the future. It’s like Timeless made a Cliffnotes version of the story it actually wants to tell.

Case in point: Lucy and Rufus have a meeting with Mark Felt in a parking garage in which they tell him they know he’s Deep Throat and threaten to out him, and it’s… kind of dull? They didn’t skimp on the actor, either—Tom Amandes is a total hey-it’s-that-guy who had a particularly memorable villainous turn on Scandal. How do you threaten to out Deep Throat and wind up with just another scene? Perhaps this episode should have been handled in two parts, giving it all more room to breathe. Perhaps it could have saved one of its big revelations for later, buying some time in the process. Maybe there’s no solution at all. Regardless, Timeless aims to thrill and falls woefully short, because they can’t slow down for one damn minute.

That’s not totally fair, because the episode’s single best sequence takes plenty of time. To this point, Goran Visnjic has been mostly wasted, neither dialing up the villainy nor creating something more nuanced and compelling. He’s just the guy with the nice suits and the fancy guns. Here, however, he seems unhinged, deeply wounded in an irreparable way. Of Lucy’s journal, he says that she sometimes sounds crazy, and Wyatt speaks for the folks at home when he deadpans, “Yeah, Lucy’s the one that sounds crazy.”

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It’s fitting that these two spend the bulk of their screen-time together in this episode, as both seem crippled by their losses (though only one wants to burn the whole world down to fix things). Flynn’s reading of Lucy’s journal entry about Wyatt’s late wife works 10 times better, for my money, than either of the revelations concerning Lucy and Rufus’s secrets. This is a personal betrayal, even if it’s one that hasn’t happened yet. Lanter’s face registers shock, rage, grief, and denial in a matter of moments, and the episode’s final shot of him, staring at the wall of research concerning his wife’s death, hints at more pain and anger to come.

Watching these scenes serves as a good reminder of what Timeless can do when it isn’t trying so hard to be appointment television. Perhaps with more time, we’d have some idea of who The Doc is, and what role she may have to play. We might have a sense of what these team betrayals might cost Rufus, Lucy, and Wyatt in the weeks to come. We may, outlandish though it may seem, see more of characters like Jiya and Agent Christopher than the 30 seconds it takes for them all to get their hair ruffled by the ship’s departure. We get plot, and that’s good, but at this point, Timeless can do better.

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Stray observations

  • Big revelation of the week: scary Rittenhouse guy is Lucy’s dad. I’ll admit that I didn’t see that coming, and I felt pretty dumb for being surprised. More surprising was the fact that he was the guy on the other end of Rufus’s phone call.
  • Speaking of that Rittenhouse dude, that’s John Getz, another hey-it’s-that-guy.
  • While Lucy’s insistence that Rufus stay out of things in the first two episodes rubbed me the wrong way, it was almost worth it to see Rufus throw that back at her.
  • “Kanye?” “Sounds made up.”
  • “You don’t know how to pick locks!” “I was just trying to be helpful!”

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