11.22.63 Recap: The Past Messes Back

James Franco as Jake, Chris Cooper as Al. Photo: Ben Mark Holzberg/Warner Bros. Entertainment
Episode Title
Happy Birthday, Lee Harvey Oswald
Editor’s Rating

Is 11.22.63 actually a heartfelt show? It certainly seems like it, especially since Sadie and Jake's romance is treated with more care than the central conspiracy. As each episode passes, I'm surprised by how the show treats personal history with such earnest tenderness, even as Jake's quest to stop Kennedy's assassination fails to gain narrative heft. With only a couple episodes left, however, the show has yet to find stable footing.

That's partially because one character has grown from a mild annoyance into an outright problem: Bill Turcotte. He isn't just insipid, juvenile, and selfish — he's also boring. The qualities that define Bill also make him a liability to Jake, whose been so caught up in his relationship with Sadie, the aftermath of her ex-husband's brutality, and protecting his cover that he hasn't noticed what Bill has been doing.

At first, "Happy Birthday, Lee Harvey Oswald" seems like it will focus on Kennedy's would-be killer. We pick up six months after the previous episode. It's October 16, 1963 — a little over a month before Kennedy's assassination. Oswald's life has changed since we last saw him. He's found a new job at the Texas Book Depository. The FBI seems to be following him. He's separated from a very pregnant Marina, who is, thanks to the charity of a friend, no longer living with him. She's finally disentangled herself from his abuse. We even get a pivotal scene involving his birthday party. Despite all these opportunities, 11.22.63 still hasn't created much depth or nuance for Oswald. Perhaps that's why the episode quickly turns back to Jake's relationships with Sadie and Bill.

It's apparent pretty early on that Bill isn't invested in the mission anymore. He seems more interested in sleeping than eavesdropping on a jokey conversation between George and Oswald, wherein the latter seems to play dumb about General Walker's assassination attempt. Bill needles Jake about killing Oswald, something Jake doesn't want to do unless he's truly certain about his involvement in the Kennedy assassination. But thanks to Bill's bungled job monitoring General Walker in the last episode, Jake isn't so sure about what the truth really is.

Things take an ugly turn when Jake listens in on Oswald's birthday party, only to hear Bill sweet-talking Marina. It's clear Bill has gotten romantically close with her, and also ingratiated himself in the lives of everyone around her — including Oswald himself. But because Bill is an idiot, he can't see how he's put himself in a dangerous scenario.

When Jake makes his way upstairs to get Bill, it's clear that whatever influence he once had over him is completely gone. Their relationship is purely antagonistic despite Jake's best efforts. Bill taunts him and refuses to go downstairs. "You mess with the past it messes back," Jake seethes. When Marina experiences a contraction moments after that line, I thought she would be time's collateral damage, but the show isn't leaning into that weird premise much anymore. Still, it's a warning Bill doesn't bother listening to. Honestly, I was hoping time would just kill off Bill because I find him utterly infuriating. He's essentially been dead weight since he was introduced. After George shows up to the party, things only get worse; Bill accidentally knocks over Oswald's lamp, which reveals one of Jake's bug. This sends Oswald on a fanatical rampage, complete with a rant about the FBI following him.

Jake leaves the party on his own, then sees Bill and Marina secretly kiss. Bill, you fool. What will happen when Oswald finds out? When Bill comes inside, Jake says something to him I've been thinking for weeks: "You're so fucking dumb."

Bill makes it clear he doesn't care anymore — not about saving Kennedy, nor the kindness Jake has shown him, nor how he nearly ruined the mission. He only cares about himself. Jake doesn't adhere to Bill's warning to never come back to the apartment, which ends up being a good thing. When he sees Bill with Oswald and a rifle he realizes another piece of the puzzle: Bill will be the second shooter. Time has a sick sense of humor, it seems.

With this new revelation in mind, Jake is forced to do something he almost immediately regrets, but it's the smartest thing he's done in a long time: He tricks Bill into coming to the hospital saying Marina is in labor. When he gets there, Jake has him committed to the mental hospital. Bill screams that Jake is a murderer from the future, which only makes Bill's apparent mental illness seem all the more true to the doctors. He won't be able to leave under his own volition, solving at least one of Jake's problems temporarily.

Free of Bill's drama, Jake is once again able to focus on his mission. He threatens George to learn more information, but it isn't what Jake was expecting. Sure, George admits to winding Oswald up about General Walker — but he doesn't know anything about a plot to kill Kennedy. He's mostly just concerned with keeping Marina safe. That leaves Jake to make a queasy decision: Is it finally time to kill Oswald?

While Jake deals with all of that, he also juggles his relationship with Sadie. In the wake of telling her the truth about his origins, the two have grown even closer. He's even been able to reestablish ties with Principal Deke. Sadie asks about the future, both about 2016 and about her place in Jake's life. However, he's apprehensive about marrying Sadie; as much as they love each other, their relationship isn't exactly on solid ground.

After he spends time with Miss Mimi, who reveals she's dying from cancer, he reassesses this decision. Mimi confesses that she and Deke love each other but haven't been able to live together; they can only work side by side. The dedication they have for each other has definitely been clear, but I never got the inkling that were in love. It's an odd, sharp development. Perhaps it feels that way because of the show's jump in time. Skipping ahead six months is an understandable move for plot reasons, but it makes all these shifting relationships seem hard to believe.

Although time has not pushed back on Bill — an odd oversight, considering how much he's wrecked things — it does target Jake by going through Sadie. She has scheduled another surgery to alleviate the appearance of her scar, but when Jake sees the Yellow Card Man hobbling through the hospital and gets trapped on the other side, he rightly freaks out. Deke doesn't understand, of course. Terrified about what might happen, Jake breaks the hospital door with a fire extinguisher to get into Sadie's operating room. The doctors are pissed, but it's clear that Jake wasn't hallucinating: One of the doctors notices a malfunction with the oxygen and nitrous oxide levels that would have killed Sadie.

At the end of the episode, Jake asks Sadie to marry him over the phone after revealing he's finally decided to kill Oswald. He wants to marry her and bring her back to 2016 with him. He smiles under the sickly light of the phone booth, too happy to notice when a car ominously pulls up behind him. Earlier, he had made a high bet to cover the cost of Sadie's surgery. That bet has caught up to him; the bookie gets out of the car and orders several goons to chase down Jake. Turns Bill also made the same bet in three different places. Again: Bill is an idiot. Jake is brutally beaten, once again left to suffer because of Bill's poor choices.

Cut to the hospital. The bright lights blink above him. He sees Sadie and his ex-wife Christy's face fading in and out of focus — it's a dazed hallucination. He's not fully conscious. We see Sadie talk to the doctor, and their conversation ends on an ominous note: "He's been like this for so long." But how long? Has Jake missed his chance to stop the assassination?

We don't know just yet, but with only two episodes remaining, he's running out of time. That's why it's disappointing to say "Happy Birthday, Lee Harvey Oswald" doesn't work as a whole. Between Bill and the duller aspects of Jake's mission, the episode just carries too much dead weight. There are other bright spots, to be sure. It's handsome and has some exciting tension, plus a much-needed sprinkle of the weirdness that made the pilot so interesting. I've been really impressed by James Franco's performance as Jake; it doesn't have a whiff of the pretension or ironic distance I've come to expect from him. Sarah Gadon has crafted a quiet strength in Sadie, which I'm definitely enjoying. Their chemistry together is great. But given the stakes of this story, chemistry isn't enough. 11.22.63 is an ambitious show, and it's time for it to start making ambitious moves.