Four score and seventy-one years ago, there was an actor named John Wilkes Booth. If Timeless is to be believed, John was a sad hipster and a Sam Rockwell look-alike who talked in the same affectation-less accent as myriad struggling thespians in modern-day Los Angeles. Before assassinating President Abraham Lincoln, John decided to steady his nerves with a glass of spirits at the ol’ public house. He was one of those guys who made creepy-dude proclamations when he drank. Like, if you happened to casually ask him when we’d be seeing him again onstage, he’d look right through you with those piercing Rockwellian peepers and intone, “Soon,” then skulk off into the night while sinister, non-diegetic music swelled to a crescendo.
Now, in an insane co-winky-dink, it turns out that Booth procured his pre-homicidal libation while standing next to one of Honest Abe’s bodyguards! As one does when tasked with preserving the life of the commander-in-chief, this particular bodyguard enjoyed spouting esoteric presidential trivia (“He was a wrestler, for one”) while not actually guarding the president’s body. Hey, what’s the worst that could happen?
I really wish there was some way we could watch Timeless with a Pop-Up Video filter. How much fun would it be to instantly know which historical details the show is making up and which ones are legit? Then I wouldn’t have to look up things like the fact that Lincoln’s bodyguard actually did skip out on the play at Ford’s Theatre (which then led to my discovery that Lincoln signed off on the authorization of the Secret Service on the day he was killed; talk about a co-winky dink!) I’d also appreciate some sort of “for further reading” list that automatically downloads to Goodreads, because if Timeless serves no other purpose, it’s already ginned up more enthusiasm within me to read up on important moments in American history than any of my teachers in high school ever did.
Here’s the point I am trying to make with my low-key trolling of the opening scene: We’re only on the second episode, but I’m already a firm believer that Timeless will be good even when it’s bad. There’s an undeniably and unavoidably cheesy sheen to the series, with its pat historical reenactments reminiscent of school plays and Disney World’s Hall of Presidents. And like school plays and the Hall of Presidents, Timeless is fun not in spite of the eye rolling it occasionally induces, but because of it.
To really sink its hooks into me, however, Timeless has to feel more engrossing than amusing, with the series’ longer narrative arcs and deeper philosophical questions counterbalancing the inherent silliness of its diorama set pieces come to life. There’s a hint of this when Lucy makes another hasty exit from home at the start of this episode, returning to the lab desperate to find out what’s changed in Wyatt’s and Rufus’s lives now that she’s been made sisterless by their first excursion to the Hindenburg. Vanishing Amy in the premiere was a savvy move, because we’re left with a constant, simmering tension regarding if and when she’ll ever return. And while Rufus’s retort to Lucy’s question is a laugh-getter (“I just had an unsuccessful evening with a girl, so, nothing”), the quip left me wondering about his flirtation in last week’s episode with his co-worker, Jiya. I want to invest in that relationship, not see it tossed aside to make room a non sequitur punch line.
After some hand-holdy exposition from Agent Christopher and Connor Mason, including the preposterous question, “Wait, what’s April 14th, 1865?” we’re off to April 14th, 1865! Lucy deduces that Garcia Flynn wants to carry out Booth’s original plan to kill not just Lincoln, but also Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and General Ulysses S. Grant. Much screen time is then devoted to the cat-and-mouse machinations necessary to thwart Flynn’s plan, which makes for some cute decorative touches (old-timey pistols, hoop dresses, and locomotives!) and chucklesome one-liners, such as Wyatt’s observation that Booth, with his even-more-famous actor brother, is “like a Donnie Wahlberg assassinating the president.” Meanwhile, Rufus is left outside to literally do nothing but stand there, just as he did in the pilot, which produces a worthy joke when he tells a fellow black soldier that his name is Denzel Washington. (Glory shout-out!) Funny stuff aside, though, how long will it take our Scooby Gang to realize that consigning Rufus to public loitering is a terrible idea? And how many more times does Timeless think it can get away with this plot device as a means of churning up conflict?
While Rufus is outed as a fraud by his fellow black soldiers, Lucy conjures up a courtship with Lincoln’s son, Robert. Like Timeless as a whole, this two-hander story line strikes a clumsy if enjoyable balance between slapstick (Lucy calls herself “Juliet Shakes … man”) and portentousness (Robert: “The Lincolns owe the Booths a great debt.”)
After the Scooby Gang engages in a shoot-out with Flynn, there’s a big debate as to whether it’s important to protect history that’s only “rich white guys’ history.” The historical ground covered in this episode is immense and I wish I could compliment all the fast-paced action. Unfortunately, “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” demonstrates how action can sometimes move too fast. No one moment resonates, and because there’s no opportunity to sit with a scene and explore it from the inside out, nothing lands. It’s as if the Hall of Presidents hitched a ride aboard Space Mountain.
Lincoln’s assassination finally takes place, with Lucy acting out more slapstick (“accidentally” spilling water on someone? Really?) and Flynn pulling the trigger after he fails to convince Booth to do the deed his way. (“The Derringer is more dramatic,” Booth protests when Flynn tries to get him to swap out his gun for a more newfangled version. Look at this fucking hipster!) Rufus’s bad blood with the black soldier, which was about to spill over into a physical fight, is promptly resolved when he saves Vice President Johnson. Wyatt also helps by … doing something? Wyatt was woefully underused in this episode, which may just mean the writers haven’t figured him out yet, or it may mean that, comparatively speaking, it’s not all that interesting to watch a white hetero cis male hurtle unchallenged through history.
Speaking of hurtling unchallenged through history, Timeless better start coughing up some deets about this Rittenhouse thing pretty soon. What the heck is it? Two episodes in, I’m nearing my limit on vague hints, like Flynn telling Lucy, “It’s war … Rittenhouse isn’t a him; it’s a they.” It’s time to stop dangling Rittenhouse like a carrot on a stick and pony up some concrete information. As Lincoln himself once wrote, “Leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done today.”