Compared to the premiere episode, “The Kill Floor” moves at an almost leisurely pace, bypassing flashier operatics to suggest several unsettling ideas about time. There is definitely violence — some of it particularly gruesome — but that is not the main interest. Instead, we focus on the weight of history, the ripple effects of domestic violence, and the hollowness of heroics when death hangs in the balance.
This hard shift is illustrated by one particular absence. We don’t see the Yellow Card Man, who seemed to haunt Jake at every corner in “The Rabbit Hole.” No one quietly whispers to Jake that he doesn’t belong. If it wasn’t for the ending and a few stray moments, you’d almost forget that 11.22.63 had much to do with time travel. “The Kill Floor” simply feels more interested in human tragedy than the show’s weird premise.
The episode opens with a cruel group of children bullying a young Harry Dunning. When we see he doesn’t even fight back, even when he’s held down, we can tell this harassment happens a lot. Sans pants and pride, Harry makes his way through town to a small shop. (Jake happens to be sitting at the counter.) The shop owner keeps a pair of shorts stashed for him so he can make his way to school. It’s October 29, 1960. Mere days from now, Harry’s family will be killed by his abusive father, Frank. Jake has decided to stay in Harry’s hometown of Holden, Kentucky, to rewrite this bit of history, but the longer he stays, the more I question his mission.
There is something uneasy about Holden. Perhaps all small towns have their oddities, but Holden seems weighted by sadness.
After a suggestion from the shopkeeper, Jake rents a room in the home of Edna and Arliss Price. Edna veers close to caricature. Edna (Annette O’Toole) is an uppity, self-righteous Christian with strict rules and stricter composure. Arliss (Michael O’Neill) proves to be fascinating; in a later conversation with Jake, he delivers an impeccable monologue that hits the episode’s true target: the cost of heroism.
In World War II, Arliss garnered a Bronze Star for his bravery. Edna doesn’t understand why he won’t have it framed and put on display in their home. When she’s out of earshot, Arliss explains to Jake the circumstances that led him to getting the medal. While he was carrying an injured comrade, he found a teenaged German soldier sleeping idly by a riverbank. In excruciating detail, Arliss explains how he kills the soldier by holding his head underwater: the look in his eyes, the color of his skin after death, and how the boy said something in German that Arliss never translated. “Last thing you can say about killing a man is that it’s brave,” he tells Jake.
Jake doesn’t understand the weight of this statement until the very end of the episode, when he is able to kill Frank. I expected time to push back harder. Sure, Jake gets sick before he’s able to complete this mission, but that pales in comparison to the twisted humor displayed by time in the first episode. I’m honestly surprised Jake pulled this off, especially considering how things first play out between him and Frank.
Throughout the episode, Jake repeats the story that a grown-up Harry read to the class in 2016. It gives him crucial details about the fateful night, and enough information to point him in the right direction. So Jake winds up at a Holden bar as the nearby plant lets out. He asks the bartender, Bill Turcotte, a few vague questions about Frank, and then a group of men stream inside. Frank is among them, with his pals Calvin and Dickie.
Calvin and Dickie are mean, but Frank is another matter. There is something slickly charismatic about him — beneath that practiced smile is something dark and awful. He’s also the kind of man with whom you should never be alone. So Jake’s attempts to just wing this plan seem disastrous.
After drunkenly quoting James Agee, Jake finds himself in the car with Frank and his friends. Frank quickly but casually asks Jake how he knows about him. Jake lists off vague details, seemingly enough that Frank can fill in the blanks, but I wasn’t quite sure he bought it. Why would Frank trust Jake’s word? He doesn’t just stand out because he’s a writer and an outsider. He carries himself differently than everyone else. James Franco feels a bit more listless in this episode, pinging between somber determination and naïve courage. I don’t think he’s the strongest or most compelling actor here. His most interesting moments come when he is a mirror for another character, like Arliss.
Eventually, Frank drives Jake to the slaughterhouse where he and his father once worked. The deeper they go inside, the worse I imagined Jake’s fate. When they get to the titular kill floor, one of Frank’s buddies brings in a calf. Frank’s goal then becomes comes clear: He’s testing Jake. He wants to see what kind of man he is. “Maybe it would help to think of that bitch ex-wife of yours,” Frank says to Jake, after noticing his reticence to kill the animal. Is it any surprise that ex-wives can only be bitches to Frank? He probably feels that way about all women.
Unsurprisingly, Jake isn’t the kind of man Frank admires. He doesn’t kill the animal, then winces at Frank’s ease in doing so.
Hand in hand with heroism, “The Kill Floor” asks questions around masculinity. How do we calculate the measure of a man? Does Jake’s single-minded pursuit to save Harry’s family make him good, even though he kills Frank? How do you weigh the value of heroism against the deaths of others?
Jake goes to Doris Dunning’s doorstep under the guise of saying she won an all-expense trip that would take her and her kids out of town. When Jake says to Doris, “Sometimes just fate steps in and deals you a good hand,” I figured he hadn’t still learned much. Fate, of all things, doesn’t usually care about women like Doris Dunning. How many other women like Doris has Jake known without realizing their plight?
Narrative-wise, this is a big turn away from the X-Files–esque weirdness we saw in the first episode. If you’re looking for more of that, you’ll be disappointed with “The Kill Floor.” There’s really none of it here. But this episode poses difficult questions of heroism, history, and masculinity — and offers uneasy answers. It’s a great piece of TV because of its humanity, and its sincere interest in the characters who orbit Jake.
Jake’s all-expense paid trip ploy doesn’t work. Frank takes him to his butcher shop, yammering on about rules and setting things right, so it’s not much of a surprise when Doris comes out with a black eye. Frank, of course, interprets Jake’s trip ploy as a way to seduce Doris. After he’s beat by Frank, Jake buys a gun; he’s committed to save the Dunning family. Though his initial failure was predictable enough, I certainly didn’t expect Bill to watch things go down from afar. Why is Bill so keen to see what happens? Apparently, Frank’s violence is more established than even Jake knew.
When Halloween finally arrives, Jake waits outside the Dunning home. He’s confronted by knife-wielding Bill, who reveals that Frank was married to his older sister and killed her. Bill was a young boy, though, so no one believed him. Jake tries to get out from under Bill’s knife by revealing he’s from the future — good luck with that explanation — and then by whipping out his gun. Now free, Jake tentatively goes inside when he realizes Frank slipped inside through the back door. We’ve seen a lot of violence enacted upon or around Jake, but in this scene, he is a contributor.
As he goes inside, Frank is already beating Doris. Shooting him to death would have been easy, but Jake’s only able to hit him in the shoulder. Ultimately, Jake kills Frank with a stray cord before he crawls down the stairs. The camera doesn’t leave the violence of this act; instead, it sticks on Frank’s face, blood dripping down his lips as Jake puts every ounce of strength into strangling him. This is a far more intimate way to kill someone than a gun, which explains Jake’s shell-shocked reaction when the deed is done.
Jake stumbles from the home in a bloody daze. Neighbors crowd around him; they all came outside hearing the gunshot. As he heads out of town, presumably to go back to his own time, he reminds himself again and again that the Dunnings are alive because of what he did. He stands in the rain, blood washing off his brow, and it isn’t an uplifting moment. Jake is trying to convince himself that his violence was worth it, and I don’t think he believes it.
In an earlier flashback, Al discusses how time pushes back. He explains how time gave him cancer, not long after a doctor’s check-up showed no signs of illness. Time is sick and cruel and protects what should come to pass. And that’s why Jake’s comment to Doris feels so empty: Fate doesn’t deal anyone a good hand. That’s a lie people tell themselves to feel better. Jake was able to change the hand dealt to Doris, but what will her new lease on life lead to?
Before Jake gets back in his car, he finds himself on the wrong end of the gun. It’s Bill, and he’s holding a newspaper story about John F. Kennedy’s assassination. How will he get out of this?