There’s a lot to love about “Space Race,” from its pitch-perfect blend of drama and humor to its efficient, action-oriented plot to its unforeseeable climactic twist. What I liked best about this episode of Timeless — in fact, what I think Timeless did best this week, compared to what it’s done in previous weeks — was its choice of historical milieu. The moon landing highlights the show’s strengths (retro-cool costuming, Lucy taking on male chauvinism, Rufus simultaneously playing the geek and the hero) while papering over its main weakness of reenacting famous events. When Timeless tasks itself with offering up a believable JFK or Hitler or Honest Abe, a huge chunk of cheese is baked into the story. But to pull off a plausible Apollo 11 mission, all you need is some bona fide archival footage of Walter Cronkite. Talk about one giant leap!
The episode’s story line unfurls in a crafty, roundabout way as Flynn and Anthony question a retired NASA scientist in present-day Houston. We know they’ve gained his confidence by claiming they’re working on a book, but what exactly is their endgame? We find out when they zip back to 1969 and shoot the man dead for his NASA security badge. For a moment, I wondered if they still would’ve killed him in the past had he been able to provide them with his badge in 2016, but they still would’ve needed to prevent him from going to work on the day of the moon landing.
More important, I’m starting to chafe at the way Flynn kills people so callously. It shows the lie to this idea that he’s reluctantly going through all these time-traveling machinations for the greater good of stopping Rittenhouse. (Stopping Rittenhouse from doing what, exactly? We still don’t know, and while I appreciated the Rittenhouse knowledge-bomb that dropped a few episodes ago, I’d say we’re due for more intel on this shadowy, Matrix-like operation.) To wit: After they’ve murdered this Ellis guy from NASA, they call a plumber to Ellis’s home and murder him just for his uniform. Is that really necessary? They’re clever and principled enough to play cat-and-mouse through the fourth dimension against an all-powerful amoral entity like Rittenhouse, but they’ll just kill a plumber for the clothes off his back?
With his new plumber getup, Flynn gains access to the offices of Lockman, a defense contractor with ties to NASA. Meanwhile, the Scooby Gang scoots back to 1969 and starts snooping around NASA HQ to find out what Flynn and Anthony are up to. Rufus fanboys over the mission control crew so adorably that even stone-faced Wyatt is touched. Meanwhile, Anthony uses Ellis’s ID to enter NASA’s mainframe room, where he unleashes what Rufus will later describe as the world’s first-ever computer virus. Rufus spots Anthony on his way out, setting up an awesomely tense mano-a-mano face-off. I love the chemistry between Rufus and Anthony (and that’s only, like, 20 percent because, OMG, they are Lem and Max Headroom). These two old friends insist on honesty in the midst of all this time-traveling espionage, like when Rufus seethes at Anthony, “You are the same as Flynn if you don’t help me.” Just then, the mission-control screens flicker out, and now we’re on a six-hour countdown to restore the mainframe or the moon landing is doomed — which means, as Lucy helpfully reminds us, that the U.S. could wind up losing the Cold War. Cue Wyatt’s response, in one of the episode’s many bite-size morsels of tension-releasing humor: “Okay, so, really freaking bad.”
While Lucy and Rufus stay at NASA to de-worm the computers, Flynn takes an expected detour to a park, where he “accidentally” runs into Maria Tompkins, the Lockman secretary he encountered earlier. This whole exchange had such a creepy tone, right? I mean, Flynn is still such a blank-slate (read: underwritten) character, and we still don’t totally understand his motives against Rittenhouse. Now, on top of all that, we’re left to wonder about his objective with Maria. Is he flirting with her? Is he trying to lure her into some sort of trap? Is he going to somehow use her son Gabriel to get to her? Let me jump ahead to the aforementioned twist ending: It’s awfully unnerving that we spent the bulk of this hour assuming Flynn wanted to somehow sleep with, hurt, or murder a woman who, it turns out, is his mother. I’d say it’s all vaguely Hitchcockian, except it’s too vague to actually qualify as Hitchcockian. So I’ll say what’s best about the park sequence is the throwaway punch line that comes when Wyatt is confronted by a local cop as he’s surveilling Flynn. He simply hands over his FBI ID and the cop goes, “Sorry, Agent Mulder. Just doing my job.” The Scooby Gang assuming the names of various modern-day pop-culture figures is the joke that never quits.
Speaking of modern-day pop-culture figures, how about some Hidden Figures? In order to finally thwart this dang computer virus, Rufus suddenly remembers that “the smartest person in the building works in the basement.” It’s none other than real-life African-American physicist Katherine Johnson, who’s about to be portrayed on the silver screen by none other than Taraji P. Henson. (I love how Rufus tells Lucy in the episode’s final scene, “They made a movie about her.” You don’t say!) Rufus and Johnson enjoy some easygoing rapport as he convinces her to trust him on this whole cockamamie mainframe virus thing. Then Anthony shows up with the same henchman who offed that plumber and says, “Ms. Johnson, it’s a true honor to meet you. Smart move going to her, Rufus.” I love bits of dialogue like this. Although it’s a minor beat, it’s completely credible that Anthony would take the time to compliment both Johnson and Rufus before going about the business of ruining the world’s greatest feat of space exploration. He then provides another minor yet crucial beat when he tells Rufus about the time machine: “If Rittenhouse gets their hands on it, with what they’re planning to do with it, I just can’t live with that.” Rufus, asking for all of us, replies, “What is Rittenhouse planning to do with it?” YES, WHAT?!
Of course, the henchman immediately draws his firearm, prompting Rufus to grab Anthony and hold a gun (on loan from Wyatt) to his temple. Anthony preemptively calls his bluff and then Rufus shoots the henchman. WHOA! “You don’t know me,” he tells Anthony in a tone that’s so chilling it’s almost serpentine. Just as quickly, he’s back to being cut-and-dry Rufus, telling Lucy, “I think it’s time we go.”
Apollo 11 is saved, but there’s still the unfinished business of Flynn’s Maria obsession. Having been one step behind Flynn all episode long, Wyatt’s sitting down with Maria at her home to get to the bottom of things when Flynn suddenly appears on her deck, jamming a syringe into Gabriel’s arm. It’s a truly unsettling and strange moment — until we discover that Flynn just saved Gabriel’s life by administering a dose of epinephrine. “Every memory I have of you, you were always sad,” Flynn tells Maria afterward, which is totally normal considering he’s standing like eight feet from Wyatt right now. “I know what it’s like to lose a child. I didn’t want to let you lose yours. Not if I could change it. It was good to see you again.” This mini monologue makes a lot more sense after the Scooby Gang returns home and Agent Christopher gives them the government’s unredacted file on Flynn: Maria is his mother and Gabriel, who died of that bee sting before Flynn corrected course, is the half-brother he never knew. (Funny enough, the file also includes a detail about Maria marrying a man she met while working overseas, which I assume is meant to justify Goran Visnjic’s unusual accent.)
So basically, the whole Lockman-Maria subplot had nothing to do with her future career in aerospace engineering. It was just meant as a family reunion. That’s … fine? Cool? I’m not sure what it is, because I’m still not sure how much I even care about Flynn. The same goes for Rufus’s confession to Lucy at the very end, when he tells her he hasn’t felt anything after killing Flynn’s henchman back in 1969. “Lucy, what am I becoming?” he asks her. I hope it’s nothing, because I like Rufus just as he is. In fact, lemme just reiterate right here that I like this whole dang show just as it is. Timeless has been firing on all cylinders for a few weeks now. It has matured into the snappy, quick-witted procedural it was made to be. So what’s the rush?