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12 Monkeys: “Paradox”

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“Paradox” is aptly named. One conversation sums up the contradiction at the heart of the episode, and maybe at the heart of 12 Monkeys. Cassie tracks down young Katarina Jones in 2015, hoping she can save Cole’s life, but Cole objects. “You shouldn’t have brought her here,” he tells her, mumbling about a “risk to the timeline.” Seconds later, he says, “Jones is here because she’s always come here. It’s fate.”


It seems simple, a question of one or the other. Either Jones has always come to their hideaway in the old bookstore or bringing Jones there is a violation of her timeline. Either the Jones of 2041 recognized Cole or she didn’t. Either Cassie has disrupted Jones’ future and Cole’s past or she hasn’t.

More and more, 12 Monkeys suggests there is no either/or. There is no always. History isn’t a fixed text; it’s a palimpsest of events written, wiped away, and rewritten, with the fresh words shadowed by those that came before. There is the history that was, and the history that will be. Maybe history can be changed, but powerful factions work in the shadows to construct the past, present, and future—the always—they desire, so that all Cole’s striving and sacrifice to unmake events brings about those very events.


Or maybe it’s fate. James Cole has always been foster brother to José Ramse, whom he meets for the first time in “Paradox.” Cole always grew up in foster care, though The Army Of The 12 Monkeys only orphan him because Cole traveled back in time and sparked this chain of events. Maybe The Army always murdered Matthew Cole, no matter where or how. Or maybe Cole’s father would always die during Cole’s childhood, and the murder cut his short life shorter. Maybe discrete events can be altered, but larger patterns persist.

“Maybe your always and my always are not the same,” young Dr. Jones suggests when she meets Cole in 2015, and in 2043, her always is changing. Ramse’s torching of the facility’s research room leads to tonight’s scene of Jones’ team rebuilding their big board from their archives, putting together a new history of the plague, though it’s hard to know what they hope to do with it. Adler calls it madness to blunder blindly forward, and Jones reminds him, “Forward is the only direction available at the moment.”

That’s a game-changing fact: The injection made from young James Cole’s blood saves Cole’s life, but it tethers him to 2015, freeing the show from a device that was about to wear threadbare—and freeing Cole from the moral obligation to keep time-traveling until it kills him, giving his life to save seven billion. It’s a smart ploy, both within the show’s universe and outside it.

The paradox effect of the injection transforms Cole’s body into a disruptive anomaly, like the watch from “Splinter.” It could be cheesy—it is a little cheesy—to see Cole hover in mid-air, light streaming from him as nature abhors a paradox all over the place, but it’s weirdly mesmerizing, too. The scene even makes the most of the bookstore’s glass storefront, which always seemed an untenable vulnerability. I’ve spent several episodes waiting to see them blown in by a hail of bullets; seeing them explode outward from the force of Cole’s paradox effect instead is surprisingly satisfying.


The same is true of young Katarina. The juxtaposition of her jaded post-plague self with the wry, stylish researcher of 2015 could be a little silly, but instead it’s just plain fun to watch. Barbara Sukowa endows her both with Jones’ familiar wry aplomb and with a glimmer of something fresher, younger, less weary. She brushes off Cassie’s attempted kidnapping, takes in stride the news that her time-travel prototype will work, and goes on a roadtrip with Cassie, filling the car, the bookstore, and the air around her with cigarette smoke the whole time.

“Paradox” does a nice job tidying up the messy broad strokes of previous episodes. The Red Forest of Cassie’s visions (and the red foliage produced outside Olivia’s mansion) recur, as someone—or something—delivers tendrils of red English ivy to Jones in 2043, hinting at big revelations to come. For several episodes now, Cole’s mind has been in turmoil as new histories overlay old ones. Tonight, we see one of those touchstone moments play out. As The Army Of The 12 Monkeys descend on the storefront, young James’ glass of milk slips from his hand and shatters. It’s one of Cole’s earliest—and most recently formed—memories, crafted here from an impossible collision of events.


This season’s West Seven stories sometimes felt longwinded, but Deacon’s vendetta against Cole gives depth to his enthusiasm for assisting the spooky band he’s working for, and the previous attack establishes his familiarity with the compound. Even his clichéd swagger could get entertaining if he has to face off against the usurpers’ quiet menace.

Aaron’s swagger has deserted him, and he desperately wants it back. His desire to keep Cassie for himself, as much as his desire to keep her safe, drives him to sell out their plans to The Army Of The 12 Monkeys. He’s not just a traitor, but a pathetically malleable one. Though he tells Olivia he’s “a pragmatist, a realist,” he succumbs to nothing more than vague promises and blandishments. Instead of delivering details, she strokes his ego, and he laps it up. “You’re a lion protecting your pride, a Roman centurion keeping the savage horde at bay, ensuring your seed continues.” Taking Cassie’s choice from her hands and dooming a whole world to death is not treachery, she reassures him, “it’s primal, elemental, magnificent.”


Nobody swaggers like Jennifer Goines swaggers. Her commandeering of Markridge is no O-Ren Ishii strike, but barring violence, her takeover of her father’s corporation could hardly be more hostile. Even before she enters the boardroom, she cuts into the CEO’s presentation with secret footage of his dalliance with a partner. She bursts in, wearing a dress emblazoned with a handgun print, and climbs onto the conference table, striding around on red-soled shoes, towering above the assembly. The now-former CEO calls for security; laughing, she reminds him, “Security works for me now—crazy ironic!” As he’s hauled off in disgrace, Jennifer closes the meeting by leaning over the table and roaring.


The assault on Whitley and his men shows what a truly hostile takeover looks like. Found on his knees in the airlock, knives through his hands skewering the head of a fellow soldier into his grasp, Whitley can only gasp, “They’re coming. They’re coming.” Those gray-faced hooded figures are known to the team at the facility, and whoever they are, they’re more terrifying than The West Seven.

They’re coming, and so is the season finale. Over the 12 episodes broadcast to date, 12 Monkeys has transformed itself from a routine sci-fi story to a playful, assured adventure in a big, broad world inhabited by fascinating (if occasionally facile) characters. Sometimes its confidence outstrips its storytelling abilities, but I can forgive that, because I’ve come to enjoy its swagger.


Stray observations:

  • Jones proves that sometimes it does pay to bring a knife to a gunfight.
  • That’s Mark Margolis (Tio Salamanca) as Jones’ father, reminding her that love is never a mistake. Except when it is, as Aaron has allowed it to be.
  • After enjoying tonight’s episode so much, including its repetition of the paradox effect, I revisited “Splinter,” thinking the watch scene might improve in retrospect as so much of the show has. But no, it still feels slack and slow, and paradoxically both poorly conveyed and over-explained. Since then, 12 Monkeys has developed its knack for showing, not telling.
  • The transience of time, and of love, is underscored tonight by two memories of fleeting romances, one sweet, one sour. Matthew Cole says his romance with Cole’s mother, Marion, was “a short thing” though he “loved her like crazy”; Katarina Helmer was married to Eliot Jones for six days before her husband left her, pregnant and alone.
  • After ousting Markridge’s CEO, Jennifer says, “Raise your hand if you want to be the new him!”… and a couple of suits actually do. I can’t decide whether to admire their chutzpah or scorn their inability to read the room.
  • Chekhov’s monkey: As Jennifer Goines loves to point out, 12 isn’t prime. But 13 is, and so is 11. Tonight I noticed that the Markridge logo, prominently featured in the photograph above and in Jones’ newspaper clipping, looks very much like a stylized 11.