There are so many striking moments in “Soldier Boy” that it would be difficult to list them all. Lee’s whistle as he walks through the book depository. Doctor Al’s bloody cough into his pristine handkerchief. Sadie seeming to appear in the car out of nowhere. The Yellow Card Man actually appearing in the car out of nowhere. A smear of red on a car’s hood. A wrinkled report card. The briefest spasm of grief that crosses Deke’s face. That’s just scratching the surface.
What makes the penultimate episode of 11.22.63 such a frustrating viewing experience is that all those moments don’t seem to add up the way they should. It all works on an intellectual level, following Lee and Jake as they deal with the things they need but can’t remember, lack but feel they’re owed, want but can’t have, and need but won’t get. And in terms of structure, that’s all fine, too: Jake can’t remember, remembers, can’t get out of his slump, gets out of the slump, and tries to but can’t leave Sadie behind, while all the while Lee marches slowly toward that titular date. So why does the whole feel like so much less than its individual parts?
11.22.63 has so far seen its greatest successes when it slows down and focuses on the details—in a way, it’s not that different from the Harry Dunning story that opens the series, in terms of its methods and effects. When Bridget Carpenter and company keep things simple, when they let a man quietly tell a war story or a kid zone out in the mud, that’s when things begin to soar. And such sequences can be suspenseful, too—see just about all of “The Kill Floor” as an example—but in “Soldier Boy,” it’s the moments that focus on plot, rather than character, that suck the energy out of the episode.
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Take Jake’s recovery as an example. The episode opens with Jake still swimming somewhere between the past and the present in a hallucinatory, frightening sequence that tells us more about Jake’s state of mind than nearly anything else in the episode. After that, the story’s got to advance, as the title cards keep telling us. So Jake can’t remember anything, and then some things, and then more things. He’s being a pill, and Deke tells Sadie to give him time. Then she yells at him and he’s better. He seems to be addicted to pain meds, then he’s dropping them down the sink. Obstacle, resolution. What could thrill and terrify —the idea that Jake’s whole mission is inching closer and he can’t remember what he’s doing and is growing slowly unhinged, all while the woman he loves tries to help him—instead falls flat. It isn’t simply too fast, though it’s that, or too easy, though it’s that, too. It’s that this show can tell us so much in 30 seconds about a character’s emotional life, but can’t seem to add any of that emotion when it comes to getting from point A to point B.
In contrast, look at Lee’s scene with his mother. What impact does that have on the plot? That’s debatable, though to me it feels like one of several sequences in which an angry young man receives love in some form from a woman and takes it as criticism, and as a challenge to be more important. But regardless as to its necessity, in mere moments, the show tells us a great deal about Lee’s relationship with his mother, about his past, about his emotional state, about what his mother seems to know instinctively about the boy she raised. More gets said when Cherry Jones turns away from Daniel Webber than all of Sadie and Jake’s early scenes combined. In that stillness, one can see resignation, fear, annoyance, love, and disappointment. She doesn’t know what’s about to happen, but she knows bad news when she sees it.
It’s not unusual for a show’s greatest strength to become a weakness. Scandal, a completely different show that’s only marginally about the President, has hit the epic-talky-over-the-top-monologue button so many times that it’s a miracle it still functions, and no matter how good the actor, those speeches are typically a great time to get up and grab a snack. The implausible missions and many wig-changes of Alias eventually stopped thrilling the audience and felt simply copy-and-pasted instead. What’s unusual here is that the show has worked so hard to show us that Kennedy’s just a red herring, but of course, he isn’t, and now it’s time to pay the piper. We’re supposed to care about the people, not the plot, but here’s the plot, knocking at the door.
If that sounds harsh, it is, but it’s the worst thing one can say about an episode that’s otherwise pretty stellar. Sure, Franco falters a little bit when asked to deal with memory loss and panic and hallucinations—this week’s Jake didn’t seem all that different from last week’s Jake, and it’s Sarah Gadon whose performance packs the punch Bill’s death scene, not Franco—but for the most part, “Soldier Boy” does exactly what it needs to do. That trippy, otherworldly feel spikes the whole episode with dread, with the feeling that what comes next will be very bad, indeed. It’s there when Sadie’s dresses tie her to her surroundings, and Jake’s suits do not. It’s there when the image of Bill sprawled on the concrete would be beautiful, if the growing pool of blood didn’t make it so grotesque. It’s there when Sadie and Jake run past what seems like a dozen cars, and all but one of them are green. Why should I care so much that they didn’t take the black car? I have no idea, but I do. Something is wrong, and that’s exactly right. There’s only one episode left, and you don’t need a traumatic head injury to see that things are about to go very badly.
- A great look at the show’s changing credits sequence, via Deadline.
- Book stuff: I don’t know how I feel about the Yellow Card Man. I figured we wouldn’t be following the book trajectory, although if the YCM’s replacement shows up in the next episode I will gladly eat my hat, whatever color card it contains. That said, that was a hell of a monologue.
- I was going to save this for next week, but given the episode’s focus on Lee and what he’s owed by the world, here’s the Lee Harvey Oswald scene from Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. It’s a scene so good they put the whole thing on the original cast recording, even though it’s 95% dialogue.
- Anderson Cooper has never been so creepy. That opening sequence freaked me the hell out.
- The Yellow Card Man’s monologue about his daughter reminded me of nothing so much as this monologue from Minority Report (the movie, not the TV show).
- Last week Lee seemed like a cipher, but this week, not so much. Cheers to the writers and Daniel Webber, who never seem to spell anything out, but still offered an unsettling glimpse into this show’s take on Oswald. That shot of him looking at the little boy and girl? Amazing. And this shot spoke volumes, too: