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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Timeless returns in damn fine form

Abigail Spencer
Abigail Spencer
Photo: Justin Lubin (NBC)
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Timeless was cancelled for three days, and then NBC brought it back from the dead. Perhaps it was the fan outcry that did it, or maybe Rittenhouse just sent somebody back to correct that situation. Regardless, more than a year later, here it is. It’s not just back. It’s here with more spirit and energy and focus, displaying a willingness to reset the status quo without leaving the events of the first season in the dust. If this episode succeeded in nothing more than being an entertaining, smart, and occasionally thrilling hour, that would be a victory all on its own. That sounds like a great premiere. But Eric Kripke, Shawn Ryan and company had a higher bar to clear. This show has a new reality — new season length, new stakes, presumably new financial demands — and Timeless chose to hit the ground running. That fact alone takes a good, fun premiere, and elevates it to great.

Not that Timeless didn’t always have great moments. Sure, there were stumbles — some flimsy plotting, some broad strokes, and a tendency for the Time-Team-meets-famous-historical-figures episodes to land somewhere between Doctor Who and Wishbone — but the cast, particularly the central trio, were always great when given the opportunity to be. They’re given that opportunity in “The War To End All Wars,” a premiere that nimbly establishes the new (and frankly, more compelling) status quo while acing the earnest but slightly sardonic tone that helped make the show so endearing, even when it wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders. That’s thanks in no small part to this cast, whose chemistry remains fully intact, year off be damned.


There’s plenty to say about the savvy, exciting narrative choices made in “The War To End All Wars,” and we’ll get to those. But first, let’s stay with the actors, because it’s Abigail Spencer, Malcolm Barrett, Matt Lanter, and company who make it so easy to fall right back into step with Timeless. As Wyatt, Lanter’s role here is to set the tempo. Wyatt’s worried about Lucy when he spots the bomb at Mason Industries; six weeks later he’s worried, and impatient, and angry, and Lanter’s performance lends these early scenes their urgency while reminding the audience, without a single line, that Lucy can’t be dead because there’s no way he’s going to lose two women he loves in this short span of time. Malcolm Barrett has a big job, as well; as Rufus, wonderful Rufus, he’s here to set the tone. Rufus is more than a little frayed around the edges, his fear and exhaustion and concern for Jiya stretching him a bit thin so that when something relatively minor, like Wyatt’s refusal to acknowledge that he loves Lucy, can set him off. He’s responsible, too, for much of the hour’s humor, barbed and bitter though it may be. Both are great, and I’m glad to see them back on my television.

But it’s Abigail Spencer’s Lucy that gives the hour its beating heart. It’s unlikely that anyone who watched the first season could be tricked into believing that Lucy’s allegiance had flipped, but that’s not a mark of failure. Instead, we have to wonder why skittish Lucy, who was not always the best liar and who loses her absolute shit when she meets Marie Curie, can be lying and deceiving with such ease, how she can project such calm in such a terrifying, high-stakes situation, and how she can shoot a guy who’s done nothing but help his friend survive. The answer is that she’s calm, collected, and lying with ease because she’s prepared to die. She believes she’s the last person left fighting, and as such, she can’t make any false moves. She has to be decisive and direct. She has to blow up the Mothership — while she’s inside it, if necessary.

It’s the best, and most upsetting, example of people struggling to be effectual in this episode. Those who struggle the least have decisiveness and clarity in common. Emma’s (Annie Wersching) commitment to Rittenhouse is absolute, and she’s never anything but suspicious of Lucy; prior to stumbling into Wyatt and Rufus, Lucy’s plan is straightforward and her motivations uncomplicated and clear, even if she finds her own actions unforgivable; and the Curies just want to save lives and keep the Petite Curie working. Every other major character struggles mightily, particularly Carol Preston (Susanna Thompson) and Connor Mason (Paterson Joseph), both of whom need to confront new realities, and Jiya (Claudia Doumit), who just wants to do her job, time-strokes or no.

That kind of thoughtful writing is promising. More promising are the narrative choices the Timeless writers have made at the outset of this second season. The most promising of these is the decision to have Rittenhouse place “sleeper cells” throughout history. These agents will be able to establish lives in the past, making them almost impossible to detect, but as Emma and company continue to wreak havoc on the past, they’ll have plenty of time to warn these sleeper agents of who might come calling. This makes every mission more dangerous, and also sets up a whole world of story possibilities. What if a sleeper agent falls in love and wants to go native? What if a sleeper agent accidentally hits a significant historical figure, or even a relative of such a figure, with a car? With this one choice, Timeless has thoroughly disrupted a formula that, in the first season, began to feel a bit stale.


Also exciting: Flynn in custody! A new, grievously wounded bad guy! Agent Christopher’s lack of trust in her team! Mason having to start from square one! And perhaps most interestingly, Emma’s claim that she’s made it impossible for Lucy to recover her sister, and that she made those trips on the order of Carol Preston.

There’s one last point to make, and this one’s far from scientific. I could break down this episode scene by scene and tell you what worked about it, but some things aren’t as easy to explain. Timeless just feels better, plain and simple. I can’t speak to what the financial situation was for this episode, but it looks like it was less expensive, and yet it also looks a hundred times better, shot beautifully but more simply. Everything’s made more complicated, and yet the hour feels more focused and specific than most of last season. It’s more confident and assured, more stylish, more inventive, and more fun. Those intangibles matter, and they’re the biggest reason we have to be optimistic about what’s to come. That break did Timeless some good, and I’m glad as hell to see it back.


Stray observations

  • Timeless is back, but sadly, weekly coverage of Timeless is not. I’ll likely be back to check in on the season finale, and perhaps one or two other episodes, if things get really good.
  • Annie Wersching and Sakina Jaffrey are so good as these twin pillars of impatience and common sense. One’s evil, the other is a gem. Both are very entertaining.
  • I’m pretty sure Rufus said “Clockblockers” when he was swearing in the Lifeboat after that first failed attempt (which for those who don’t know, is the name for the Timeless fandom.)
  • Kim Bubbs, who plays Marie Curie, looks startlingly like her. Cheers to the hair, makeup, and casting teams, because that is uncanny.
  • “Your English is excellent.” “Your French is terrible.”

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!

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