What kind of show does 11.22.63 want to be? Seven episodes in, we still don’t know. It often alternates between a tender romance and a time-travel conspiracy, and although these two identities could co-exist, 11.22.63 seems too disinterested in its central mystery to attempt any coherence. Despite the many repercussions of Jake’s journey to the past, the show’s main hook — preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy — fails to carry much weight. And so, we arrive at “Soldier Boy,” an episode that’s meant to push the plot forward before next week’s finale. The ongoing problems linger, and it’s held back by a surprising character: Jake himself.
Jake is still in the hospital recuperating after his beatdown. He hallucinates, mixing the past with the present: We see Anderson Cooper on a modern-looking television screen, and a vintage-dressed nurse stands outside the door. There’s even a brief appearance by his ex-wife, Christy. Al appears as a doctor coughing up blood; he complains about what a huge failure Jake is. This hallucination of Al may be bitter, but he’s right. Jake has been remarkably selfish and shortsighted by bringing Sadie and Bill into his mission.
When Jake finally regains consciousness, it’s the beginning of November 1963 — a little more than two weeks before Kennedy will be killed. Unfortunately, Jake’s memory is shot and the episode dwells far too long on him trying to regain it. Oddly, Miss Mimi’s death is mentioned offhandedly — and she’s quickly forgotten — bringing an interesting subplot to an early end. The writers just didn’t seem to know what to do with her. Then, we see a nice role reversal: Sadie is taking care of Jake, trying to encourage him. Why didn’t this happen earlier?
All the while, title cards count down the days left until the assassination. It’s meant to be a helpful visual device, but it introduces an odd structure, often grinding any meaningful drama to a halt. Many of the scenes between title cards feel like empty vignettes; they’re not instrumental in furthering the story. Jake tries to remember, takes pain pills, then gets upset. Oswald tries to reconnect with Marina, goes to the FBI offices to see the supposed agent harassing him, and continues to be a narrative black hole, nullifying whatever could be interesting. Rinse. Repeat. The episode feels lackluster and rudderless well through its midpoint.
When Jake remembers that he had Bill committed, they find him transferred to a different part of the mental hospital. Think of the most clichéd, offensive version of mental hospital in the 1960s. That’s pretty much how these scenes play. It’s shot like a horror film with sickly lighting, as mental patients mutter to themselves, jitter across the screen, and bang against things. When Jake and Sadie are finally able to see Bill, he’s a ghost of his former self. He’s been convinced that the truth — Jake being from the future and so forth — is really just his sickness. What’s weird, though, is that Jake acts as if he didn’t put Bill in there for a reason. Yes, he should be remorseful; he didn’t intend this to happen. But what choice did he have? Bill threatened to kill him and was derailing the entire reason why he traveled back in time. The show’s memory seems to be as bad as Jake’s. Why let Bill off the hook so easily?
At least his storyline concludes soon enough. While Sadie and Jake are signing him out to take him home, Bill jumps through an open window, killing himself. His suicide was obvious from the second he stepped into the room. Why wasn’t an orderly watching him? Why were all the windows open? Bill’s death is framed as Jake’s fault, but it really isn’t that simple. Not that it’s worth a debate: The moment comes across less like an important, emotional development than a necessary plot point that needed to be wrapped up. “Soldier Boy” quickly moves on from his death, so we’re soon back to watching Jake struggle to remember things and get cranky.
Although the narrative is somewhat pointless, the sound design is nevertheless a highlight. It really helps us get into Jake’s perspective. Some sounds are muffled, much like they’d be underwater or in a dream. Others are amplified to an overwhelming extreme, like the ticking of Jake’s watch. Good sound and production design aren’t enough to save this show, but it’s still a nice touch.
While Jake deals with his memory loss — he doesn’t remember anything from Kennedy’s name to where he used to call home — Oswald is pretty much just living life and feeling unsatisfied. That’s basically where he’s at until two days before the assassination.
Jake thinks he remembers living on Madison Street. He and Sadie go door-to-door, asking around without luck until he ends up at his old apartment. It’s now inhabited by a bitter, paranoid woman, which leads to the clunkiest moment of the episode. Jake and Sadie go upstairs and come across Oswald. Only problem? Jake doesn’t even remember Oswald! After he goes inside and talks to Oswald for a bit, his memories begin to return. Once he remembers, Jake goes into the kitchen under the pretense of needing water, then grabs a knife to kill Oswald. He changes plans momentarily when he sees Oswald holding his baby daughter. He’s still determined to take down Oswald; he’s even willing to lie to Sadie. But apparently, Sadie can tell when Jake’s lying and demands to be brought into his plan. This is supposed to play as a moment in which she stands up for herself — it almost has feminist overtones to it — but considering how the past pushes back, Sadie just seems very naïve.
Still, Jake loves Sadie too much to keep her sidelined any longer. Her kind presence is useful when getting into Ruth’s home, where Marina is staying. Inside, they’re unable to find Oswald’s rifle hidden in the garage. If I seem unenthusiastic about this sequence, it’s because the scenes feel the same way. Everything lacks energy and purpose.
To its credit, there is one really dynamic scene in “Solider Boy” between Jake and the mysterious Yellow Card Man. With only 12 hours until Kennedy’s assassination, Jake and Sadie wait in their car, sitting near where the shooting is supposed to happen in Dallas. The lights overhead spark and the radio goes static, introducing a sense of dread. When Jake turns to Sadie, he sees the Yellow Card Man in her place. Rain is pouring outside in reverse, which adds to the weirdness. We don’t get many answers about the Yellow Card Man. He’s human, at least, and painfully recounts his many attempts to save his daughter from drowning. He never succeeded and refers to it as a loop he can’t escape. (Is this foreshadowing Jake’s future?) Kevin J. O’Connor strikes the right note between yearning, desperation, and oddity as the Yellow Card Man. His performance is a welcome presence, especially since James Franco tends to work best as a mirror or foil. Before he disappears, the Yellow Card Man delivers a final warning: “You can’t stop the past,” he says. “Go home, Jake.”
Jake is transported back to Sadie’s side. As the Yellow Card Man’s warning rings in Jake’s ears, it seems that he’s now willing to let history happen. Forget about Kennedy; he just wants to live a normal life. Jake isn’t all that invested in this mission, is he? Too bad Sadie is. She says they can’t just sit idly by and let Kennedy die.
They go to sleep, and when they wake up, only four hours remain until the assassination. That’s when the past finally pushes back. Their car won’t start, which forces them to hot-wire another car … and that’s pretty much it. Time as a central villain is such a fascinating idea. It’s a shame 11.22.63 has barely capitalized on it beyond the pilot.
The episode ends with Oswald assembling his rifle on the deserted floor of his workplace, overlooking downtown Dallas. It’s a moment meant to get under our skin and stay with us. Given how Oswald has come off as alternately empty and obnoxious, it falls quite short of that. “Soldier Boy” fails because it’s essentially a filler episode. It spends too much time on Jake’s memory and dramatically discounts his central mission. Perhaps it’s an instructive failure: As the series has so often done, these great ideas are perpetually underutilized.