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Timeless settles down and shapes up

“On the upside, we’re finally starting to gel as a team. Just saying.”

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Timeless

"Atomic City"

Season 1 , Episode 3

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Competency can be a double-edged sword, and Timeless provides a perfect example of that in “Atomic City,” its third (and mostly pretty good) episode. On the one hand, the show seems to have finally come together into something cohesive, something relatively tonally consistent with an effective structure and dramatic arc. We start with a glimpse of Lucy’s personal life, now totally unfamiliar to her, then she gets a call from ”work,” and figures out where Flynn has taken the Mothership (or, as we’ll call it here, the Big Ball of Timey-Wimey Travel). After that we get an enigmatic chat between Rufus and Connor Mason, some light banter inside the Big Ball, and we’re off to a mission that will probably include at least one major historical figure and another, more minor figure who serves as the episode’s focal point.

It works! But the other edge of that sword is this: as messy as those first two episodes were, there was a certain sense of unpredictability that made watching it a more visceral experience. Yes, some of it was still by-the-numbers, but the tone veered wildly from high camp to very-special-episode, hitting nearly everywhere in between. It was ostensibly a procedural, but it didn’t seem to have any idea what the hell it wanted to be beyond that, and it made for a watching experience that was frustrating, sure, but never boring.

With “Atomic City,” Timeless leaves most of that behind, and while it’s easy to miss that sense of, for lack of a better term, what-the-fuckery, it’s still a good sign for the life of the show as a whole. That’s not to say that “Atomic City” is a perfect episode, but it’s cohesive and coherent in a way the previous episodes haven’t been. The formula remains intact, but the whole has gelled: it’s an irreverent adventure story with moments of pathos for each of the characters, some historical jokes, and a new and empathetic historical figure each week. Predictable? Sure. But more importantly, it’s sure-footed, and that’s key for a show in its infancy.

First item in Timeless’s weekly agenda: Lucy’s mutating present. She’s flipping through some photo albums, trying to figure out who her still-unnamed mystery fiancé is, when the handsome fella in question comes up behind her to snuggle and reminisce and, presumably, to take her to bed. It’s an interesting dramatic moment—this poor dude isn’t doing a thing wrong, but it’s nevertheless totally creepy to watch a woman have to fend off the advances of a stranger who doesn’t know he’s a stranger. Right on cue, she’s called in to get in the Big Ball, engagement ring planted firmly on her finger. As it’s previously been implied that Lucy’s life is tied up directly in whatever the hell Rittenhouse is, these moments likely have a resonance beyond the simple pleasures of learning more about a character, but they work on that level alone.

Something else that works: creating something that seems like a plot hole, then returning to it three episodes later to show its anything but. That’s the focus of the next item on the Timless agenda. While Lucy tries to figure out what happened on the date to which Garcia Flynn has jumped, Rufus has his mysterious chat with Connor, and this time, it actually matters! It’s a great relief to see that Timeless didn’t simply forget that Flynn ”kidnapped” a member of the team, and the loyalty, or lack thereof, of Anthony (Matt Frewer, a.k.a. Max Headroom, a.k.a. Dr. Aldous Leekie), becomes a key part of the story. Better still, it gives Rufus something to do besides stand outside buildings and deal with racists.

With that one change, Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) becomes the show’s standout, coupling his well-timed quips and obvious discomfort with agency and investment in what’s happening. It’s a pretty great performance, grounded in the actual experience (fantastical though it may be) but not so heavy that the jokes don’t land. From a writing perspective, it also tells us more about the character than we’ve learned about anyone in the trio thus far. Sure, there’s been some backstory on Lucy’s family and personal life, and yes, we know that Wyatt lost his wife in a way that left him with lots of guilt, but what we learn about Rufus goes beyond that: he wants to see the best in people, he values human life, he doesn’t let betrayal drive those values from him, and so on. Of all the things that solidified in “Atomic City,” this particular change is the most welcome.

Next item on the agenda: land in the past, encounter famous historical figures, and deal at length with a lesser-known figure. In this case, it’s Vegas in the ‘60s, where JFK’s attending a fundraiser headlined by Sinatra while, completely coincidentally, the military is testing atomic bombs nearby. Last week, Lincoln looked like he walked right out of Disney’s Hall of Presidents. This week, Kennedy’s filmed entirely from behind (as is Sinatra). The former was bad, but the latter isn’t much better. Luckily our time with both is limited, as the real centerpiece of this episode is Judith Campbell (Elena Satine), a historical figure I admittedly know nothing about.

While it’s tough to comment on accuracy, both because of my limited knowledge and because of conflicting reports, it’s certainly an effective storyline. That’s due in no small part to Satine’s performance which, like Neal Bledsoe’s Robert Todd Lincoln and Shantel VanSanten’s Kate Drummond, is excellent. Campbell’s presence in the story allows Timeless to explore gender a bit, though in a much more subtle way than they’ve previously looked at race, and Satine imbues her character with wry humor, quiet strength, and no small amount of vulnerability. Yes, some of the dialogue is a bit on the nose, but for the most part, Campbell’s story is compelling, and she proves a worthy foil to the team.

Still, all is not well, and for all the positive developments in this episode, there’s one element of the show that remains frustratingly undefined. Goran Visnjic has a great face, and he’s one of those actors that’s interesting to watch regardless of the action. Garcia Flynn, however, is another story. There’s a fine line between creating an enigmatic villain and leaving a black hole in the middle of a series, and Flynn’s in the deep darks right now.

Still, overall, this is a step in the right direction. While the episode may lack some of the spark of the previous two installments, it comes together as a whole in a way we’ve not yet seen. Let’s hope that in weeks to come, Timeless will be able to regain that feeling of unpredictability while maintaining that coherence. It might not be sexy, but competence matters.

Stray observations

  • Wyatt sending the telegram was the first time his subplot resonated with me on an emotional level at all, and I think it’s in part because they followed it up with a little moment of humor (“It worked in Back to the Future II.”)
  • That hallway fight scene was solid.
  • Kennedy impressions are a plague. See also: 11.22.63.
  • “There’s like 54 years worth of baseball games we could bet on in here. What, you don’t like money?”
  • “Despite the unrelenting fear, this job does have its moments.”
  • Not only did I learn about Judith Campbell, I’d also never heard of the Christy pit. Thanks for the education, Timeless!
  • Another Rufus highlight: pretending to be cops.
  • Time-travel killjoy observation of the week: the theft of a nuclear warhead wouldn’t change the timeline? Moreover, is there any universe in which they wouldn’t have traced the loss of the keys to Campbell, and in that case, wouldn’t that have totally fucked things?