Josh Duhamel, James Franco (Hulu/Sven Frenzel)

In “The Kill Floor,” the excellent second entry of 11.22.63, a lot more than the past fucks with Jake—although the past gets a few shots in, too. Moreover, Jake’s not the only one being dealt a bad hand, and the entire episode’s a reminder that terrible, violent things happen, no matter who’s the President.

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Losing your pants, one shoe, and the will to fight back might not seem like much compared to facing down your own drunken, murderous father, but there are different kinds of awful. Writer Bridget Carpenter and director Fred Toye kick off a horror-filled hour with a very human, day-to-day kind of horror: a kid racing through the woods with bullies in tow. The chase itself is frightening, chaotically shot and scored like any horror film, but it doesn’t compare with the awful sight of young Harry Dunning staring blankly up at the sky.

This sequence, coupled with that which follows—a pantsless, one-shoed Harry walking through town while grown-ups just look on bemused—sets the tone for an hour in which nearly every scene is rank with violence. There are moments of levity here and there, but even the jokes contain a hidden darkness, from the woman who’ll sell Jake “five guns” to the comically overt sourness and suspicion of Edna Price (Annette O’Toole). Hell, even the food poisoning’s an act of violence, at least as Jake sees it—an instance of the past taking a swipe at him. 11.22.63 will give you a poop joke, but dammit, even that poop joke’s going to be just a little bit horrific.

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Harry’s race through the woods is the first of four sequences that make it clear the cost Jake will have to pay to change the night that changed Harry Dunning’s life. After Harry’s blank acceptance of his abuse at the hands of the boys comes a trip to the titular kill floor, where Harry’s put through his terrifying macho paces by a much older pack of bullies (led by Harry’s father, played with sweaty menace by a terrific Josh Duhamel). It’s obvious that the elder Dunning smells a rat, but at the very least, he and his friends plainly don’t like this smug, Agee-quoting smart guy. From the moment Dunning sends the night guard off with a whole pack of cigarettes, it’s obvious that this won’t end well, and the cow’s panicked breathing escalates the tension as effectively as Dunning’s friends whooping it up with the cattle prod. But it’s when Dunning puts the hammer—his soon-to-be murder weapon—in Jake’s hands that the scene really hits its mark.

“We wanted to see if you were one of us,” Dunning tells Jake. “You know, struggling. In the dirt.” Throwing Epping’s words back at him, this isn’t merely one alpha dog taking the measure of another. Dunning’s got Jake’s measure already. It’s about proving that to them both, and whatever it might mean to Dunning, it means something else completely to the man who drops the hammer. Dunning wants to see if he can kill the cow, if he’s got that kind of violence in him. He wants to see if Jake’s got the stomach. And as he looks at the man he’s already decided he needs to stop from committing a triple homicide, Jake finds that he doesn’t.

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“I guess some men just don’t have what it takes, do they, boys?” Dunning sneers, just after beating the shit out of that cow. What is it that it takes? It’s not blood-lust, because that scene shows us that, no matter the objective, Jake doesn’t have it in him to be a brute. Nor is it without a cost, or Epping would have skipped the Halloween Festival scheme and proceeded directly to murdering Dunning before he could ever swing that hammer. And it’s not bravery, either, which we learn through the second jaw-dropping monologue of the series thus far.

As Arliss Price (Michael O’Neill) tells the story of his bronze star, both the audience and Jake get a sense of what that cost might be. Perhaps the script hits the nail a bit too neatly on the head here and there, but when the acting and writing are this good, one can forgive a little obviousness. Price, haunted by his killing of a sleeping German soldier (“he was so sleepy,” “his face the color of a fish’s belly,” “I don’t speak kraut”), unknowingly gives Jake some advice. “After the fact you always tell yourself there was a good reason,” he says, then later, “Last thing you can say about killing a man is that it’s brave.”

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It is? The episode doesn’t really seem to say, and Jake seems to know only one thing: Frank Dunning is a horror, and he can’t be permitted to murder that family. The past can’t stop Jake from saving Harry, and Frank can’t stop him, and odd little Bill (George MacKay, who we’ll be seeing a lot of) certainly can’t stop him. He’ll manage the incontinence and he’ll recite the story, over and over again, and he’ll walk into that horror of a house armed with a gun he doesn’t seem to know how to shoot—Franco’s great in that moment, look at his startled flinch when that first shot goes off—and whatever else it takes to save that kid.

This isn’t a country, or the world, it’s just one family. Three kids and a mom. He may not want to visit the kill floor, but Jake believes it to be necessary. “No matter what this looks like, I didn’t do a bad thing,” he tells Edna as he prepares to leave town. But as he drives through the storm, wiping the blood from his knuckles, it sure doesn’t look like he feels that way.

“Doris. Ellen. Tugga,” he repeats, standing in the rain. It’s a kind of reverse Shawshank, if you will, because Jake doesn’t look free. The downpour can’t even get the blood off his face. It is brave? Maybe. But it isn’t cheap.

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Stray observations

  • This may sound trivial, but that was a great little ‘previously on,’and (something I should have said last week) the opening titles are gorgeous. All the red string looks a bit like laser sights, but the texture and slight trembling really makes it.
  • Also great: Alex Heffe’s music. The terrifying wobble that accompanies all of Dunning’s appearances really got me.
  • “Great! Love Christians.”
  • “Hell, son! Can’t you take a joke? I’ll sell you five guns.”
  • “What unit?” “M.A.S.H., 4077th.”
  • Oh, Jake. Never go with a violent asshole (or a hippie) to a second location.
  • Lots of scary visuals in this one, but nothing creeped me out as much as this:
  • Cute, old-timey thing of the week: “well, I suggest a diet of white foods.”
  • Hey-it’s-that-guy watch: Michael O’Neill has been in just about everything, but to me, he’ll always be Agent Ron Butterfield.
  • Book stuff: Jake standing and watching the river seemed to me to be a reference to the “watershed moment” stuff early in the book. Also, because the internet is a wonderful place, look who found me on Twitter!:

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