“Primary” begins by echoing the monologues with which James Cole opens and closes 12 Monkeys’ first season. As Cassie Railly—once a doctor devoted to the sanctity of life, now a time-traveling soldier—gears up for a bloody campaign, her voiceover asks the same question Cole did. “Where are you now?” Unlike Cole’s soliloquy, her question marks disappear quickly, giving way to cold statements:
“Somewhere you don’t belong? Wondering ‘Who have I become?’ Living a life you never thought you’d have to. Doing things—horrible things—you never thought you’d be capable of. No matter how hard you fought, you’d have to live with it. You’d adapt, transform, evolve. Metamorphosis. And sometimes you have to accept not every caterpillar becomes a butterfly.”
“What happened to you in the future?” Cole asks Cassie, but he should know. Sending her to 2043 to get patched up after a potentially fatal gunshot wound, he delivered her into the post-apocalyptic wasteland, into the hands of the team who sent him back in time to kill again and again, and into the hands of their even more ruthless captors.
In “Primary,” Cassie is the new Cole, blasting into the past ready to kill. But Amanda Schull isn’t Aaron Stanford, and she doesn’t carry Cassie’s grim determination with anything like the depth he brings to Cole. She spits out resolution and snark in undifferentiated tones. She sneers threats through clenched teeth. She parrots Deacon’s “Let ’em live, create an enemy” with blank certainty and no hint of melancholy. No adversary will ever look into Cassie’s tortured face and nickname her “otter eyes.”
Not every caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Last week, 12 Monkeys spread its wings with a taut, confident dive into season two, pithily summing up the show’s labyrinths of plot and relationships and propelling the action forward. This week, it cocoons itself in layer after layer of repetition and exposition even as it introduces exhausting new elements of mysticism and conflicting factions.
“Primary” demolishes one of the most compelling narrative challenges posed in season one. In “Paradox,” Cole’s life was saved by an injection made from his own blood—taken from the child he was in 2015. The infusion repaired the ravages of time travel at the cost of anchoring him in time. In tonight’s episode, Cassie brings a dose of Jones’ serum with her from the future, telling Cole, “It’ll tether you back to 2044.” Though she ends up dosing Ramse, not Cole, that one sentence unmakes a chunk of the show’s mythology without explanation. If it was always so easy to untether Cole, why not do it sooner? And what’s to keep time travel from destroying him, body and mind, again?
12 Monkeys might not explain how it’s untethering Cole from 2016, but why is obvious. In suite 607 of the Emerson Hotel, a room bought “in perpetuity” by James Cole in 1944 and kept in its original state, Jennifer finds proof that Cole and Cassie both travel further into the past.
Oh, boy, a new timeline! Just what this series doesn’t need. Promotional materials hinted at this development, and after the lean, nimble ingenuity of “Year Of The Monkey,” I hoped the show would bloom under the demands of the new vernacular a time shift demands. But “Primary” suggests this season is already overburdened.
This episode asserts the primacy of Cole and Cassie’s love over everything else in the series, including the salvation of billions of lives. (“Primary” is credited to Sean Tretta, who wrote the equally romantic but more coherent “The Keys.”) It undercuts 12 Monkeys’ mythology and mechanics by untethering Cole from time. It brings in The Daughters to strong-arm Jones into doing Jennifer Goines’ will, and it reveals Jennifer as not just a troubled genius with apocalyptic fixations, but a mystic tormented by visions of the past and future. 12 Monkeys was already laboring under a heavy load, one the season premiere suggested it could handle. But the muddled, overstuffed storytelling of this episode doesn’t bode well for yet another tangent.
- It’s one thing for the Project Splinter team to marvel over their major success and to debrief each other on the histories of their respective timelines; it’s another for them to need the phenomenon explained over and over by Jones. It looks a lot like the scientists and technicians striving to change the past through time travel are suddenly confused that time travel changes stuff.
- Between Cole instructing Jennifer to abandon her purpose (fair enough, since her purpose would kill billions), Cole scolding Cassie that she’s not meant to be a killer, and Dr. Eckland (Michael Hogan) teasing Dr. Jones that he’ll enjoy “tearing down [her] walls” all over again, “Primary” has an unfortunate through line of men telling women who they really are. If this show reduces the chaotic force that is Jennifer Goines to a distraught woman pining for Cole, I’ll be sorely disappointed. In this context, Cassie’s rejoinder—“What I am is because of me, nobody else”—is weirdly heartening.
- Boy oh boy, do I not care about Deacon’s daddy issues.
- Chekhov’s monkey: When Cassie and Cole set the virus alight on the runway, Jennifer squeals and jumps in delight. “The times, they are a-changin’!” she yells, and the vials shatter, showering Cassie, Cole, and Ramse in glass and sprays of virus. I was dead sure they’d contract the plague—that Cassie had unintentionally made herself patient zero, or at least a carrier— but the changing headlines in 2044 say otherwise.