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The present trumps the past on a solid episode of 11.22.63

James Franco, George MacKay (Hulu/Sven Frenzel)
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For all the talk about the past pushing back on 11.22.63 (both the book and the series), when things get really complicated, it’s always the present that interferes. “Happy Birthday, Lee Harvey Oswald” calls back to that advice Jake got from Al, way back at the beginning: don’t get involved, don’t get personal, don’t take risks. Sure, the past may not want to be changed, but as is true in any life, it’s the day-to-day things that really get in the way. That’s a long way of saying that things get complicated well before the Yellow Card Man shows up.

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That’s true for nearly all of 11.22.63’s major characters, in big ways and small. But appropriately, it’s Jake who gets the lion’s share of trouble. “Happy Birthday, Lee Harvey Oswald” sees the troubled protagonist encountering road block after road block, and nearly all the complications are of his own making. Why did he miss the Walker shooting? His own choices. Why did Bill miss it? Because this isn’t his mission, and perhaps one shouldn’t delegate their time-traveling responsibilities. Why does the situation with the Oswalds get so complicated so quickly? Because Jake overlooks things, neglects things, and fundamentally misinterprets things. Bill may have been the one to start most of these fires, but Jake handed him the matches, and the fuel can, and then turned his back. Turns out that’s not such a good idea.

If 11.22.63 was simply a story about a guy who’s really bad at time-travel, it would still be interesting (especially given the quality of Franco’s performance, which grows more thoughtful by the week). But neither Steven King nor showrunner Bridget Carpenter spends all that much time dwelling on the details of Jake’s mission. Instead, the story looks at the everyday world in which Jake finds himself entangled, the people he comes to care for, and the events that occupy him—as well as those that don’t. Jake, like so many others, falls in love and finds himself consumed by that love, letting it occupy all the prime real estate in his mind. As a result, it’s not just the attempt on General Walker‘s life that he misses, and for reasons not as flashy as Johnny Clayton’s attack. He misses the impact Oswald’s abuse of Marina has on the people in their lives. He misses the rising discontent even the most casual viewer can spot in Bill. He lets life get in the way, and time-travel or not, there’s nothing more human than that.

Does the fact that Jake’s distraction seems so obvious from the outside make for a slightly sleepy episode? Yes. We’re about a month out from the titular date, and Jake’s mission is starting to feel a bit like an essay one of his students might start the night before it’s due. But look at it as a story about a guy who finds himself pulled away from something he thought mattered by something else that he finds matters more, and that lack of time-travel tension seems a lot less important. Instead, it’s just about a guy who’s neglecting his (fake) brother, a guy who’s in love but still holding back, and a guy who makes some risky bets and gets the ever-loving crap kicked out of him.

It feels a bit repetitive to keep saying, week after week, how nice it is to see Franco settle so comfortably into a role, but that’s the trouble with reviewing a show weekly: it’s still true. He’s joined each week by a top-notch supporting cast, and in “Happy Birthday, Lee Harvey Oswald,” several of them get some great material—most of which ties into the episode’s theme of waiting or not waiting, reaching out or hiding, keeping your eyes open or forcing them shut. George MacKay turns in a tremendous performance, giving Bill the feeling of both a petulant toddler acting out for attention and a sorely-neglected friend who has finally reached his limit. The same is true of Daniel Webber’s Oswald, who keeps his eyes peeled for injustices, slights, and strangers, but can’t see what’s really going on in his relationship. And in contrast, the terrific Tonya Pinkins (Miz Mimi) absolutely annihilates her lone scene this week, offering the perspective of someone who’s confronted her own mortality and come away with a lot of clarity. It doesn’t have much to do with time-travel, and that doesn’t matter. Some things are true in every decade.

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Here’s the thing, though: Kennedy might be a bit of a red herring, but Oswald isn’t, and despite Webber’s unsettling performance, he remains a cipher. That’s mostly OK—how much can the show imagine about Lee, and how much would we really want to know?—but we sure do spend a lot of time with him, and learn frustratingly little. Effective though they may be, his scenes don’t tell us much about the character and even less about the story. The shooting range doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already get from the Book Depository. The party doesn’t show much (bugs aside) that’s not established by the scene in the backyard. It’s one thing to give over to the present entirely when it’s Jake’s 1963 we’re seeing, but when Lee is the one spinning his wheels, it feels a lot less satisfying.

Stray observations

  • “Lee likes me! I’m his best friend. Now how dumb am I?” Well, given that you’re having an affair with his wife, know that he’s mentally unstable, violent, and potentially an assassin, and live downstairs from him… pretty dumb, Bill.
  • Book stuff: I sort of figured we’d skip the Cuban Missile Crisis stuff, but still, bummer.
  • Note to self: when time-traveling, always make sure to know the name and number of the nearest mental institution. “I saw Jake Amberson kill a man with an electrical cord!” sounds totally insane and is totally true.
  • I thought nearly all of this episode was great, but two moments really stuck out: the first time Miz Mimi said “Deke,” and the terrified, thrilled look on Bill’s face when Jake showed up at the party.
  • “Everybody knows Bill!”
  • Sorry about the delay on this episode! Publish error (my fault entirely).
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