Timeless is back, and for the most part, it’s business as usual. There’s one small change, however, and it’s one that could mean big (and positive) things for the show in the weeks to come. Thanks to Lucy’s interference, Flynn’s goal is now to take down Rittenhouse, one member at a time—a simplification that will beautifully serve the history-of-the-week format while freeing time up to deal with the bigger, badder mysteries (and big bads). Now Flynn’s got a list, and he’s checking names off one by one. In this case, it’s actually three by three, as the list begins with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and J.P. Morgan
That seems like more than enough for one episode, no? Not on Timeless. This series isn’t wanting for areas where it could step things up a bit, but you can’t say they don’t go for broke. As it turns out, episode writer Lana Cho doesn’t bother much with those three titans. Instead, she zeroes in on the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, an event that started turning up in fiction and pop culture a lot more after 2003, when Erik Larson’s hugely successful The Devil in the White City became one of those books that everyone on public transit seems to be reading simultaneously. The book looks at the creation and experience of the fair, and at those who built and visited it, but the figure that has loomed largest since its publication is that of serial killer H.H. Holmes. Timeless picked a hell of a monster for its heroes to face down, yet another villain in the show’s steadily expanding stable.
The idea that Timeless would pay a visit to the Fair and not swing by the murder hotel is a ludicrous one, so it’s no surprise that he turns up. What is surprising is how little time we spend with him. Cho’s enthusiasm pays dividends—this is an entertaining, hour, to be sure—but it also wounds “The World’s Columbian Exposition,” because there’s so much going on that we don’t spend much time with anyone. At first, the story ricochets between Flynn/Lucy and Wyatt/Rufus, but even once they’re all ostensibly in the same place, there’s precious little time to get invested in anything. With one notable exception, the scenes are quick and to the point. Een that’s not what really hurts this episode’s momentum and ability to compel. No, what really hobbles this thing is its single most inspired inclusion: Harry Houdini.
Who can upstage H.H. Holmes? Harry freakin’ Houdini, that’s who. Nearly all of the momentum in “The World’s Columbian Exposition” come courtesy of Houdini and actor Michael Drayer (Mr. Robot), which is what you expect when you take a compelling historical figure on the level of this one and put him in the hands of an actor who knows the value of underplaying things. Drayer’s Houdini is mild-mannered with just a hint of the showboat about him, and his scenes, particularly those with Abigail Spencer’s Lucy, sparkle in a way that others in this episode don’t. That’s no fault of the cast—this remains a sorely underrated ensemble—but instead one of biting off more than one can chew, of packing in so much that almost nothing can be appreciated on its own. There’s almost no room to savor. One of the world’s first modern serial killers, a murder castle, a renowned female architect, a time-traveling trio and the psychopath chasting them, and oh, yes, Rittenhouse. That’s more than enough before you add on the world’s foremost escape artist and magician. Houdini, wonderful as he is to watch here, is the straw that broke the time-travel show’s back.
The net result is an episode that’s enjoyable enough, but which simply doesn’t linger. Drayer’s great as Houdini. If we spent more time with him, Joel Johnstone (Holmes and fake prisoner “George”) might be, too. Matt Lanter continues to get more interesting, Malcolm Barrett remains both funny and moving, and the overall conceit is every bit as odd, formulaic, and fun as it was at the beginning. There are a few fun one-liners, a nice moment for Rufus as he finally picks a side, and a cliffhanger that’s a lot more interesting than “Lucy got kidnapped,” a development that was always going to get wrapped up in a hurry. It’s all fine, occasionally better, but mostly just fine.
So what, then, elevates this past some of Timeless’s less dynamic but better composed entries? The answer, of course, is Abigail Spencer. All three of the show’s leads have their moments, and Barrett in particular is a joy every week, but Cho and her writers did a wise thing. They let a character played by one of television’s most reliable performers get kidnapped, and then they let her do her own damn rescuing.
The double-crossing of Flynn, recruitment of Houdini, and journey to the World’s Fair Hotel are all very well and good. It’s a treat to watch Lucy think things through, then act, and it’s just as fun to see her wing it from time to time. Still, the episode’s highlight is one in which the writers finally, finally stop to let some air creep into the proceedings. Trapping Lucy in a crematorium, they have her revisit some advice Houdini gives early on: ”Fear isn’t real.” Knowing full well what may be about to happen, this historian turned time-traveler masters her fear and calls on her only weapon, her only tool for escape.
It’s her intellect. Her intellect! How wonderful to see a female character arm herself with her mind and use her knowledge and wisdom and skill to defend herself when she seems most defenseless. There’s a parallel here, in a way, to the show itself. When it falters, Timeless arms itself with its greatest strength, too: the skill of its tremendous performers, and this one in particular.
There’s no doubt that Timeless has become more polished since its charming, messy pilot. The failings here are largely of ambition and enthusiasm, and those are about the best faults one can ask for in a series (right up there with “too many good actors” and “too much money”). This feels like a bit of a fumble, but it’s an entertaining fumble that fails for the best of reasons. That they leave room for Lucy to figure out how to save her own life is to the show’s credit, and it’s the kind of promising moment that makes it easy to root for more time with Timeless.
- “I’m the other black guy.”
- If you haven’t read The Devil in the White City, it really is worth a read, for reasons well beyond Holmes.
- Speaking of Holmes, this is the second time in a week and a half that I’ve had to write about old H.H. That other time, there was another Holmes involved, and coincidentally, that episode was also seriously overcrowded.
- Welcome back to Timeless coverage! I’m sort of done trying to nitpick the time-travel on this show, but if you’ve got ‘em, let ‘em fly.