11.22.63 Recap: Allies and Madmen

James Franco as Jake, George MacKay as Bill. Photo: Hulu
Episode Title
Other Voices, Other Rooms
Editor’s Rating

This episode of 11.22.63 takes its name from Truman Capote's first published novel. Other Voices, Other Rooms deals with themes of loneliness and Southern decay, which makes it an interesting reference for the show, especially as Jake gets closer to people from the past.

"Other Voices, Other Rooms" develops several of Jake's relationships, all of which will become very important. The first: his friendship with bartender Bill, who surprised Jake at the end of the previous episode with a pointed gun in one hand and a future newspaper clipping about Kennedy's assassination in the other. Jake doesn't even try to come up with an explanation for the clippings and the charred notebook with future sports predictions. Instead, he spills the entire truth to Bill, who's skeptical at first, but decides he wants in on the cause after dropping Jake off in Dallas. And for some nonsensical reason, Jake feels sorry enough to let Bill join him.

The dynamic between Jake and Bill soon takes on a younger-older-brother vibe (which is actually the cover story, too). More important, it also proves how terrible Jake is at following the Al's rules for time travel. It may not happen immediately, but time is going to push back over this. I expect Bill to have a grisly end, if only because he proves himself to be such a liability. After Jake gets a job as an English teacher in the small town of Jodie, Texas, Bill celebrate this good news in a low-lit burlesque joint in nearby Dallas. He gets sloppy drunk and nearly spills everything to the nightclub's owner — none other than Jack Ruby (Antoni Corone), the man who will fatally shoot Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber) in November 1963. This is only the first of Bill's many mistakes, and it suggests that Jake's sympathy for him will lead to terrible things.

We flash forward to 1962. Jake is a beloved teacher, and he has found his rhythm in Jodie. He's become favored by Principal "Deke" Simmons (Nick Searcy), the black secretary Miss Mimi (Tonya Pinkins), and his students. Meanwhile, Bill has established a home base in a Fort Worth apartment conveniently located across the street from where Oswald will reside. Oddly enough, time only pushes back against Bill in big ways twice. First, when Bill and Jake go to bug Oswald's apartment. Oswald is supposed to be visiting his mother, Marguerite (Cherry Jones). But instead, he interrupts their plans by arriving home with his Russian wife, Marina (Lucy Fry), forcing Bill and Jake to hide in a closet. While Jake is trying to find an escape route, Bill is more interested in watching the couple's foreplay. Jake quietly pulls down a staircase that leads into the dusty crawl space, but when Bill is overrun by insistent spiders, the two men attract Oswald's attention before narrowly escaping. Time pushes back a second way when Bill is left home alone with the recording equipment. Most of what they have heard from Oswald's conversations refer to his tense relationship with Marina — until George de Mohrenschildt and his wife show up (unfortunately for the plan, they're speaking Russian). A neighbor forces his way into the apartment, beats Bill up, and steals the hulking recording devices. When Jake finds Bill unconscious on the floor, I expected him to be dead. They're able to get the devices back, but the tape has been ruined.

The writing of Bill is the episode's biggest stumbling block. I know he's supposed to be sympathetic: A young man with no real emotional ties, the scars on his back from an abusive father, the death of a sister looming over his every step. But George MacKay plays the character without much depth; he comes across as annoying and intrusive rather than sympathetic. MacKay, an English actor, also struggles with an inauthentic accent.

Considering how vindictive time has been in earlier episodes, I don't understand why we haven't seen more violent pushback yet. It's not easy for Jake to keep a low profile, and Bill is even more ostentatious. He picks fights, drunkenly tells Jack Ruby that Jake is from the future, and generally lacks any shred of common sense. But even worse, Bill just isn't that engaging of a character. Given how heavily he now figures into the main story, this is a big problem.

Bill isn't the only issue I'm having with the main plot. The other is Lee Harvey Oswald himself. Jake and Bill are able to follow Oswald and George to a rally, where General Walker (Gregory North) speaks in front of a Confederate flag to a group known as the Sisters of Southern Heritage. They watch as Oswald causes a scene, screaming that General Walker is a racist and fascist. If the people don't wake up, he screams, "I'll kill you." This definitely adds fuel to Al's belief about Oswald's attempt to kill General Walker — a belief that Jake is trying to verify. Unfortunately, Daniel Webber's Oswald is all broad strokes with little nuance. This is the first episode we get to really spend time with his character, so I am hoping that he becomes more dynamic as the show progresses. Ditto for Bill.

The rest of "Other Voices, Other Rooms," particularly the quieter moments, make it worth watching. A familiar face joins the high school as Jodie's new librarian: Sadie (Sarah Gadon), whom we briefly met in the first episode. She's divorced now and trying to regain her footing. Gadon and Franco definitely have some chemistry, but their interactions makes me wish we saw a bit more of Jake's ex-wife, Christy (Brooklyn Sudano). Christy is only mentioned in passing when Jake says he is also divorced. Knowing more about her and their relationship would provide a good comparison to this new pairing.

Jake's growing fondness for Sadie seems like another mistake. One of the most important rules Al bestowed on him was to not get involved with other people. A desire for connection would be too dangerous. Jake's involvement with Sadie and Bill can only lead to ruin. But for all his high-minded ideas about saving Kennedy, Jake proves himself to be selfish by choosing to get involved with her. What will he do when time pushes back, wreaking violence on Sadie's life? As they grow closer, how will he explain away inconsistencies? He's already on her bad side: He leaves her alone to chaperone the dance so he can attend to business with Bill. Her anger proves to be short-lived, however; as he tried to apologize a second time, she pushes him into a secluded room to kiss him. Sadie proves herself to be very forthright, too: She asks him out, and he happily agrees to a date. But how long can happiness really last for these two?

"Other Voices, Other Rooms" truly becomes fascinating when it focuses on the cruelty of racism. The episode depicts the overt and minute manifestations of racism in smart ways. Bill isn't comfortable living in a "mixed-race" neighborhood. The man who gives them equipment to bug Oswald's apartment speaks derogatorily about Japanese people. Their landlord says proudly, "I ain't got a thing in the world against niggers. It's God who cursed them of their position, not me." 11.22.63 positions Jake as more enlightened on race relations than the Texans surrounding him because of where he's from, in both time and place. He treats black people as his equals, often in ways that call attention to him.

What's most interesting is the dynamic between Jake and Miss Mimi. There's that ugly, hard-to-watch moment when she appears at the gas station. She looks a bit worn, her hair not as finely kept. Her car needs gas and she's been walking from gas station to gas station, but no one will let her pay for any. Jake takes it upon himself to rough up the gas attendant — a man who says "nigger" with ease — and get Miss Mimi some gas. He throws the money on the ground, his disgust about racism palpable.

Miss Mimi's reaction is a mix of gratitude, surprise, and curiosity. Jake's treatment of her is not something she'd expect from a white man. But the most telling incident comes in the place you'd expect Miss Mimi to feel comfortable: the high school. She's dealing with some secretarial duties when Jake offers to pour her a cup of coffee. It makes everyone else in the room (all of whom are white) uncomfortable; the bustling background conversation drops down to a whisper. He's crossed some unspoken line just by acting with kindness. Just by offering to do something for Miss Mimi.

Unsurprisingly, Miss Mimi doesn't accept. And Jake realizes what he's done too late. But in this moment, 11.22.63 finds surprising depth and poignancy. We haven't seen those two traits in Jake's quest to stop Kennedy's assassination, but the miniseries desperately needs more of both.