Continuum: “Second Time”
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Continuum: “Second Time”

“When are you going to wake up? You’re the villain in this tale!” That line, spoken towards the end of tonight’s season finale, encapsulates what most viewers have likely thought at one time or another about Kiera Cameron, Continuum’s theoretical hero who—two full seasons in—has still never really suggested she disapproves of the corporation-ruled police state that created her. While the second season has done a frequently impressive job illustrating just how the seeds of the show’s fascist future are being sown in the present day, Continuum has never really seen fit to challenge Kiera on her views. Based on how the creative team writes the character’s personality and how Rachel Nichols plays her, there’s little question that Kiera should be seen as an essentially moral, upstanding person. And yet there’s so often a disconnect between her apparently good nature and the things she actually does. In an episode earlier this season, she gladly participated in the police-sanctioned torture of Julian Randol, and she was entirely ready to kill in cold blood the man she believes will one day be known as the Butcher of New Pemberton.

Besides, it’s hard to view that aforementioned line as a sign of Continuum’s emerging moral compass when the person who says it is Travis Verta, the Liber8 terrorist who, at that particular point in the story, just gunned down an entire floor’s worth of security guards before proceeding to beat the crap out of Kiera as violently as possible. There’s a handful of characters on Continuum with the moral standing—or even just the essential honesty about their own compromised position—who would be able to criticize Kiera’s support for her transparently corrupt regime, but Travis is most definitely not one of them. Kiera’s position is an issue the Continuum creative team needed to broach long ago, but their decision to place those lines in that particular character’s mouth carries with it a tacit dismissal. In fairness, there’s potentially some room for ambiguity; after all, Travis’ psychotic aggression is at least partially the result of experiments performed by Kiera’s future government. But again, the show has never depicted Travis questioning his own violent nature or seeking a better path, so while that complication might be valid in the abstract, but it doesn’t really correspond with what’s been seen onscreen.

Continuum has made some significant strides in its two seasons, and this second year has recovered nicely from its painfully lackluster première. While the show still prefers to not so much answer questions as supplant them with new, even bigger questions, it has made a few bold, decisive creative choices both in episodic storytelling and the larger narrative. On a character level, the most crucial of these is Kiera’s decision to stop lying and tell Carlos the truth about when she comes from. While Carlos’ ignorance was probably an unavoidable part of the initial setup, it did leave him isolated from the show’s main narrative, and that compromised his position as the show’s most straightforwardly decent character. Kiera telling Carlos the truth instantly revitalized him, as he proved her most unshakeable ally—something Kiera acknowledges tonight in her tearful goodbye to him—and fully emerged as the show’s moral center. In the back half of the season, he’s the character who most clearly recognized the dangers of Escher and Inspector Dillon’s plans to privatize, even militarize the police force. It’s telling just how corrupted the supposed good guys have become when Carlos’ final move of the season is to shake hands with a smirking Julian; it’s hard to imagine Carlos is happy about any of this, but his decision would seem to recast Julian as the least of several evils, the Vancouver police included.

Indeed, it really can’t be understated just how many different factions Continuum has attempted to juggle over the course of this season. The four surviving Liber8 members—Sonya Valentine, Travis, Lucas Ingram, and Jasmine Garza—have all pursued independent agendas at various points this season, and Sonya and Travis have veered from deadly enemies to reunited lovers. Julian has emerged as the leader of a more anarchic Liber8 faction, and it remains up in the air whether he is still on the path to becoming a mass murderer (assuming what he did at New Pemberton can really be considered murder, something called into question by an earlier flashforward). Matthew Kellog and even Tahmoh Penikett’s newly elected Mayor Jim Martin remain consummate wild cards, ready to betray whoever they are working with at that particular moment whenever it suits them. Mr. Escher remains a difficult character to pin down, as, like just about everyone else on Continuum, he keeps his real goals and motivations to himself. His most concrete action this season—and, not coincidentally, one of the show’s strongest narrative threads—was to start funding the Vancouver police and reinstall a damaged Inspector Dillon as its increasingly fascist commander. One of the final shots of the season leaves no doubt that Dillon is presiding over the birth of what will become Kiera’s authoritarian CPS, although this reveal merely confirms what the show has impressively built up over the course of the season.

Escher’s goals with respect to Alec remain murkier, and a lot of it turns on whether the audience is really meant to believe his claim that he’s Alec’s father; the finale does eliminate Jason as a candidate by revealing he’s actually the future-Alec’s son, but it’s still possible this is all part of some longer game, with Escher working either with or against the Freelancers. Admittedly, the finale very much tips the scale towards the latter possibility, but Continuum’s penchant for piling mysteries on top of mysteries leaves the audience with precious little it can take for granted. The show excels at keeping its characters busy, at always giving them immediate problems to solve, but it still hasn’t really bothered to clarify what the various characters’ long-term aims truly are. This is a show defined by constant activity and constant plots and counterplots, and, to be fair, the second season has done a good job of making these entertaining, occasionally, even thrilling, in the moment.

But it’s still far too difficult to tease out just where any of this is heading, and that presents a couple significant issues. The creative team certainly appears to be making all this up as they go—creator Simon Barry has said there are predetermined rules for how time travel works, but I doubt he and his fellow writers are following a similar master plan in plotting out all the activity in the present day—which makes me nervous about how any of this is going to resolve. The finale does at least explain just how Jason fits into the story, and the final scenes appears to simplify the various conflicts so that next season is just about all the time travelers working together—however reluctantly—against the Freelancers. But there’s precious little closure for Carlos as he abandons the police to throw in with Julian, and there’s even less for the now imprisoned Kiera and for Alec, who disappears into time in an effort to save his beloved, albeit treacherous, girlfriend Emily. Alec’s big decision illuminates another potential problem with Continuum’s storytelling approach; while Alec’s relationship with Emily has been one of the season’s storylines with the clearest emotional stakes, his decision to abandon Kiera and save Emily feels a little too sudden. It’s not that it’s poorly motivated, but that moment should feel like a major emotional and character climax of the season, if not the show, but it gets lost amid all the other agendas and subplots. It’s all just a bit too messy for the show’s own good.

This speaks to what may just be an essential limitation of trying to marry such a heady sci-fi concept to a police procedural format. Procedurals are brilliant for providing characters with things to do, as there’s always a new mystery to solve, a new technical problem to overcome, and a new scheme to hatch. Standard procedurals—whether they are about cops, lawyers, doctors, or, however rarely, some other profession entirely—typically define the main characters in terms of their work, with their private lives and outside interests kept primarily on the fringes. That’s because, as far as these shows are concerned, there is nothing more important than catching the criminal, winning the case, or saving the patient, and while many procedurals leave room for the occasional bit of soul-searching, however perfunctory, it’s not really in question that the characters are still going to be doing their job come next week, because their job is the most important thing in a fictional universe of that type. The procedural format is not especially well-suited to asking deeper questions about why things are the way they are, and yet so much of what happens on Continuum demands more thoughtful consideration than the characters are willing to provide.  

After two seasons, Continuum has made it clear it’s a show interested in how things happen, but not why; even the questions about why certain things happen are really more about how they fit into the older Alec’s grand scheme. On that score, we’re still no closer to really understanding why the aged Alec wants to change the future beyond the most superficial of reasons; no further introspection is apparently required beyond the vague sense that this future is wrong. None of the characters are naturally deep thinkers—young Alec may be a genius, but shows far too much of an amoral streak in his pursuit of knowledge to be a philosopher—and since there’s always something to do, there’s never any time for the characters to stop, think, and discuss the deeper implications of what is unfolding around them. To its credit, the show has gotten closer to that with its handling of Carlos and his alienation from the police department, but that’s just one of several core issues Continuum could stand to address.

And, to be sure, it doesn’t have to address any of these concerns. Although science fiction is a genre so beautifully designed for asking big, philosophical questions about how people interact with incomprehensible concepts such as time travel, such deep inquiry isn’t a requirement. But Continuum hasn’t really engaged with its own big ideas beyond simply using them as a storytelling engine for discrete, action-driven procedural stories, along with an overarching narrative that’s contours still remain frustratingly elusive. On an episodic basis, Continuum is a fun show, and this season finale does work well as an individual hour of television, with character and action beats that work fine within the context of this particular slice of story. But without any clear sense of where this is all heading or why these characters are on their way there—wherever there might be—Continuum retains a frustratingly airless quality. This show’s core ideas include such huge concepts as the nature of time, the dangers of corporatism, and the death of liberty. As such, it really shouldn’t be so difficult to explain why all of this matters.

Stray observations:

  • For all my concerns about the show’s long-term future—and since I don’t get many chances to talk about this show, I wanted to take the opportunity to really get into them—I still think this season works on its own merits. I’d give both it and the finale something between a B and a B+, although I do worry this is all going to collapse in on itself between now and the series finale.
  • Credit where it’s due: I did enjoy how quickly and economically Carlos (and, by extension, the writers) wrapped up that whole loose end about Betty being a Liber8 mole.
  • Not to be too churlish, but it’s always fascinating to see what the show’s limited budget can pull off and what it can’t. The glimpses we get of 2077 do tend to look impressive, if only because they are so strategically deployed. The fight atop a speeding Prion elevator, however, didn’t work nearly as well.

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