George MacKay, James Franco (Sven Frenzel/Hulu)

On three separate occasions in “The Truth,” a man determined to help stop the Kennedy assassination takes off running at a furious, breakneck pace. Each time, it’s clear that nothing else in the world could be as important as that mad dash down the street, or through a hospital, or across a cemetery. In none of those cases does that sprint have anything whatsoever to do with Lee Harvey Oswald.

Advertisement

“The Truth” is every bit as smart as previous installments of 11.22.63, but for the first time, an episode fails to add up to more than the sum of its very thoughtful parts. The thread that connects the episode’s through-lines is the titular truth, whether in the form of well-intentioned lies, painful realities, confessions, political ideologies, or the things one can’t admit even to themselves. All of these truths are compelling in different ways, but for an episode in which quite a lot happens, it still feels a bit like passing the time—an entry which twiddles its thumbs while the audience waits for the next big thing that’s going to happen.

The most dominant story is, of course, that of Sadie and Jake. After an unexpectedly thrilling “previously on” (and seriously, as minor as it seems, that was a stressful and expertly-edited way of reminding us how tenuous Jake’s situation is), Sadie and Jake pick up right where they left off, with Sadie high-tailing it out the door after finding some mysterious Russian sex tapes in the basement. It’s Lee and Marina, of course, but there’s no easy way to explain that, and Jake’s terrible lie doesn’t fly either, so Jake loses the girl. Then he loses his job—wish we could have seen the conversation where Sadie tries to explain Jake’s basement to Deke—and seems all set to close the door on his life in Jodie and focus, as Al directed, on Oswald and the attempt on General Walker’s life.

That all changes with one phone call. While much of “The Truth” feels a bit sleepy, that’s not at all the case with Johnny Clayton’s attack on Sadie and a attempted murder of Jake. Clayton possesses next-to-none of Frank Dunning’s palpable air of physical menace, but seems no less dangerous, and in T.R. Knight’s more than capable hands, Clayton proves every bit as threatening as Dunning. Knight’s performance will likely thrill some (me included) and not others, as he doesn’t so much chew the scenery as inhale it, but not everyone can pull off that unhinged, not-all-there kind of villainy, and even fewer who also project a “nice guy” air. No single moment offers the kind of visceral terror of Jake and Frank’s visit to the kill floor, but Clayton’s bleach sales pitch comes damn close. It’s great bleach, makes your whites as white as the day you bought ‘em, and it will eat through anything—insides included.

Advertisement

Jake and Bill spend the early part of the episode preparing for the past (or the “obdurate past,” if you will) to interfere with the big day they’ve got ahead—that day being the attempted assassination of General Walker, which will tell them a great deal about Oswald’s guilt, innocence, or C.I.A. connections. But whether the result of otherworldly interference or the simple fact that life sometimes gets in the way, Clayton’s attack ensures that all the pair’s planning goes right out the window. The specter of Bill’s sister’s murder continues to loom large, here asserting itself in his continued attempts to connect with Marina (resulting in a brief but unsettling scene in which Oswald and Bill meet, with the former providing the latter with a Karl Marx text, which contains ”the truth”), as well as in the thing that ultimately ruins any chance of pinning Oswald to the Walker assassination attempt.

George MacKay has proven to be a standout member of the 11.22.63 cast, saddled with the task of playing a role greatly changed and expanded from his literary equivalent. In “The Truth,” he gets his biggest moments thus far, none bigger than the moment in which he thinks he sees his sister. Like Jake, he’s forced to choose between a) someone he loves, and b) a task he believes could change the world for the better. Like Jake, he takes off running, and also like Jake, that choice forces him to confront his feelings about a significant loss. The dynamic between these two friends is compelling for reasons that go beyond the fact that it doesn’t have a parallel in King’s novel: it’s not simply that it’s new, but that it raises new tensions and complicated dynamics.

Jake reaches out (against Al’s advice) and makes connections in the past, with both Sadie and Bill. Bill already has a connection, even if the person to whom he’s connected is gone, and a need for his life to keep going. So of course he can’t resist connecting with the lonely, abused woman upstairs, even at the risk of attracting Oswald’s attention. And of course he wants to know what will happen when they’ve accomplished their goal, a question he asks in a brief but engrossing scene that seems a harbinger of conflict to come. Sadie isn’t the only person tying Jake to the past, and MacKay’s openness and simplicity goes a long way toward engaging the audience in his half of the story.

Advertisement

Still, positives aside, “The Truth” doesn’t hit home like one might expect. Part of it may be the dip in visual beauty, as previous installments have had an almost cinematic quality. Part of it may be that, while largely plot-driven, the episode leaves things about where they were before: Jake’s in love, Bill’s quietly tormented, and they don’t know much of anything about Oswald. But mostly, it feels simply stuck, like a car spinning its wheels in the mud. There’s a lot of splashing, and a lot of tension, but for once, 11.22.63 doesn’t really seem to go anywhere.

Stray observations

  • The brief flash to the future, with Jake teaching the Odyssey, seems intended to illustrate the difference between Jake the teacher then and Jake the teacher now, but it mostly came across as a chance to chide audiences who get hung up on the rules of time travel. Uhhh, sorry?
  • I know your heart was broken, Jake, but that’s no excuse to throw out perfectly good enchiladas, to say nothing of the dish they came in.
  • “Is it bad I’m rootin’ for Lee to hit the guy?”
  • Bill on cigarettes: “Take it, it’s not gonna kill you.” How very Mad Men of you, 11.22.63.
  • Hey-it’s-that-guy watch: Kristian Bruun of Orphan Black! Sure did yell “Donnie!” at the screen.

Advertisement