When an otherwise good show tinkers too often with destiny and fate, it can unravel itself. To see how this happens, look no further than 11.22.63. The Yellow Card Man keeps warning Jake about being stuck in a loop, that his life with Sadie will always end in her death, and how saving Kennedy would prove to be a terrible mistake. Meanwhile, time pushes back in a way that must bring its own set of consequences, affecting the lives of many to alter past events. Is time interested in the big picture, or the smaller moments that comprise it? We still don't know. Right up to its bitter end, 11.22.63 remains a handsome but ultimately weightless show.
The finale swerves from one plot point to another, barely giving the narrative enough time to breathe. Moments that should have landed like bombs fizzle out into whispers. Despite the Kennedy assassination plot, the past pushing back, and the dramatic events that happen throughout "The Day in Question," the finale lacks the weight of history. There are still some interesting moments sprinkled in there, but it's not enough to a significant impression.
As the episode opens, time has already pushed back in myriad ways, from minor (a traffic jam) to frightening (a car crash, changing the memory of someone who testified against Oswald). But even this isn't enough to stop Jake and Sadie's plan to save Kennedy. A mere ten minutes into the episode, they've already thwarted Oswald. What ensues is a tense cat-and-mouse game between Sadie, Oswald, and Jake (who unfortunately loses his own gun). He's able to wrestle the rifle from Oswald, killing him in the process, but Jake ends up losing the one person who matters most to him: Sadie.
Jake numbly experiences one horror after another, too focused on losing Sadie to think about much else. It initially seems he'll be framed for the assassination attempt, but he's able to outwit FBI Agent James Hosty (Gil Bellows) with his future knowledge. Agent Hosty has been lingering on the periphery for a while now; he's the one who was following Oswald. His inclusion in the first half of the finale would feel more dramatic if he had been properly used in previous episodes. The scenes in which it seems Jake is going to take the fall — he's first swarmed by press, then by aggressive cops — simply aren't used to their full dramatic potential. As quickly as it seems he is in danger, the show pivots and he's suddenly on the phone with Kennedy and Jackie, who thank him for saving their lives. And it turns out Agent Hosty isn't all that bad. The Kennedy phone call is incredibly brief and feels, at worst, like an aside. Jake doesn't seem all that affected by how he changed history, or even Kennedy's phone call. This is partially because of Sadie's death. The other reason is James Franco's performance.
Of course, Jake returns to 2016 to see what Kennedy's survival meant for the world — and it isn't pretty. Al's belief that Kennedy would make the world a better place isn't what comes to pass; the new 2016 is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It's shot like many films and TV shows of the same ilk: all desaturated ruins in shades of gray. The few signs of life Jake manages to find only further dash his hope. He stumbles across Harry Dunning, who remembers him for saving his family and killing his father. From there, he gets a brief overview of what happened in the wake of the assassination attempt: Kennedy is elected for a second term, followed by George Wallace's term as president. There was no Vietnam War, and no 9/11. However, Kennedy started up refugee camps, which is where Harry's family ended up dying.
It seems that a bombing is the cause for America's terrible state, but the exact origin of these bombs isn't clear. It doesn't make a lot of sense. Still, Jake's reaction could have sold this grim timeline — if Franco played the character as anything but affectless. It's an increasingly surface-level performance, which only works when he's a mirror for other characters' emotions. Jake's apathy only adds to the weightlessness of the finale. This makes sense, given how the character worked best in his interactions with Sadie. Their relationship proved to be the true backbone of the show — so why did the narrative drastically undercut that dynamic?
After realizing what a grave mistake he's made, Jake decides to reset the timeline. Did things turn out this way because of the past's vengeance, or was Kennedy actually not what the country needed? 11.22.63 has said a lot about heroes and fate with regard to the Kennedys, so in some ways, it made sense not to incorporate them as full-blown characters. I never felt the impact the Kennedys are said to have on American life through the other characters, though.
When Jake gets back to 1960, he immediately chases down Sadie, who is with two of her cousins at a diner. His overtures come across as absolutely creepy; she doesn't know who he is and their shared history doesn't exist anymore. The Yellow Card Man warns Jake that he'll be stuck in his own loop if they get together again. Sadie will be doomed. So Jake does the heroic thing and lets her go. When he returns to 2016, it's as if everything was pointless. The timeline is restored, but he's painfully unhappy. Jake ultimately ends up exactly where he began the series: He's a disgruntled English teacher with little direction in life. But has he learned anything?
It's hard to say. Jake decides to look Sadie up, and learns that she's being honored at the school in Texas. There's no scar on her face, so she either didn't get married to Johnny, or at least didn't stay with him. Thankfully, we don't see Sarah Gadon in old-lady makeup. Constance Towers plays the older Sadie with a quiet poise. Jake gets to share a dance with her and, for a moment, she looks like her younger self. "I can swear I do know you. Who are you?" she asks. He smiles and replies, "Someone you knew in another life."
The ending is certainly meant to be bittersweet, but I'm not sure what to make of it within the show as a whole. Should we just accept our fates? Is free will a double-edged sword? Where will Jake go from here? 11.22.63 ends as it so often was: A frustrating show, with occasional glimmers of fun and intelligence. It's a squandered premise with little emotional weight. By not providing clear answers for those questions, it's worth wondering: Was 11.22.63 ever interested in asking them in the first place?