The Murder of Jesse James
Abigail Spencer as Lucy Preston.
Show of hands: When this episode of Timeless opened with a close-up of Wyatt, who immediately thought we were about to jump into a story line about Jessica’s killer?
If you got it from the get-go, good for you! It took me an extra beat to realize what was happening, which points to what may be the show’s only problem: There are a lot of damn narrative threads on this show.
Case in point: After Wyatt and Jessica’s killer engage in a pretty predictable conversation filled with go-nowhere platitudes (“I need to know that it haunts you!” “If I could change things I would, but I can’t!”), we see a dream sequence in which Lucy imagines her sister in the flesh. Hey kids, remember Amy? That story line got dropped for … what, six episodes? I don’t expect all these plot points to weave in and out of the foreground every week, but it can take a moment to catch up. Each time a blast from the past resurfaces, it’s a reminder that Timeless may have bitten off more than it can chew.
“I hope you’re enjoying your little trips, because I’m still lost,” Amy snarls at Lucy, clearly enjoying her own little guilt trip. “And worst of all, you don’t care.” Woah, super-aggro! Good thing you’re just a once-in-every-six-episodes figment of Lucy’s imagination.
While Wyatt and Lucy are having their own personal issues, Rufus involves new girlfriend, Jiya, who’s just been picked by Mason to become his new prototype pilot. She thinks Rufus recommended her for the gig, but he and we know Mason is just trying to cut Rufus out of the equation for refusing to record their time-traveling trips for Rittenhouse. “You deserve it,” Rufus tells Jiya with a weak smile before he confronts Mason. “You asked me to pick a side, so I did,” Mason says in reference to their standoff from last week’s episode. Dayum. This turn of events certainly adds a few wrinkles of complexity to Mason, who’s shiny chrome exterior has irked me. Of course, teaching Jiya to fly means throwing yet another story arc atop the heap — especially since training takes about six months — but let’s consider that later. Flynn just jumped!
This time, Flynn’s taking us to April 3, 1882 — a.k.a. the day Jesse James died. When Lucy mentions that the notorious outlaw was shot in the back while dusting a painting and that she has “always remembered that detail,” I thought we were gonna have a Chekhovian situation; you know, a gun introduced in the first act must go off in the third. Instead, I was genuinely surprised when Flynn showed up in the nick of time to save James. He then makes him an offer he can’t refuse, accompanying him through Native American territory to go retrieve a mysterious … something. (Of course, since this is Jesse James we’re talking about, first he’s gotta shoot a couple sheriffs dead for no good reason.)
Hot on Flynn’s trail, the Scooby Gang tracks down the guys he killed (with Lucy making a quick reference to the fact that one of them is Robert Ford, because Timeless loves any connection to a movie we all may have seen). Lucy, who’s been distracted by that sister dream, snaps out of her funk when she realizes that the best person to help them track down Flynn and James is none other than Bass Reeves, the first black deputy marshal west of the Mississippi and the ostensible inspiration for the Lone Ranger. “That’s … awesome,” Rufus giggles, blown away that he’d never heard about this guy before. “Dude, we’re in a posse with the Lone Ranger,” he adds once things get underway.
Just like Lucy, Wyatt is distracted too, because he really, really, really wants to kill Jesse James. Naturally, Reeves insists on taking him in alive. “It’s stopping a bad guy from hurting people,” Wyatt insists — or rather, he reiterates, because he’s been on this moral-high-ground kick for a while now. He’s not the only one: When the Scooby Gang later discusses their various personal dilemmas around the campfire, it feels like entire chunks of dialogue were repurposed from earlier episodes that likewise dwelled in the hazy ethics of their time-traveling missions. “How far are we willing to go?” “What we’re doing is right,” “What’s to say what’s right and wrong anymore,” and on and on. I found all this pretty boring.
Thankfully, things got much more exciting once we found out what — or rather, who — Flynn was venturing into the woods to find: a woman! A woman named Emma Witmore, who lives in a log cabin with computers and piloted the Mothership for Mason Industries until she decided the only way to escape the omnipotent Rittenhouse was to fake her own death and stay behind in the olden days! For those Timeless fans who can’t shake the Lost comparisons, the arrival of Emma might as well be a big old shout-out to the Others. It opens up a whole can of narrative worms: If Emma’s trapped in another era, is anybody else? What does she know that we don’t? As Flynn tells her, “I need to know what you know to stop them.”
What I loved most about the Emma introduction was the way it played out with Jiya secretly accessing the “lost” pilot footage that shows Emma back when she was a wide-eyed time traveler in training. It was an unexpected and thrilling visual conceit that beautifully tied Jiya’s and Flynn’s story lines together, reinforcing one of the show’s main themes: that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.
So Flynn and Emma skedaddle to parts unknown (I guess they’re going to the Mothership?), and when the Scooby Gang shows up a little later, they wind up being ambushed by a machine-gun-toting Jesse James. Then he, Wyatt, and Reeves end up in a clichéd but truly nail-biting three-way standoff, with Reeves holding one gun at Wyatt and another at James. This moment goes nowhere until Lucy ends up being the one to shoot James dead, and in the back no less.
Unfortunately, Lucy’s decision feels more like a choice for the sake of story line than character. I really don’t think Lucy would have done this, no matter how messed up she may have been feeling about her sister. Maybe since James was already supposed to be dead, she figured she’d just kill him anyway, but the look on her face made it seem like her decision stemmed more from a weariness about the bad guys always winning in the end. It struck me as a bit disingenuous. After all, it’s not her but Wyatt who later tells Reeves, “We did something good. You should be thanking us.” (Which, by the way, struck me as another inauthentic moment. Wyatt is whining that a legendary U.S. Marshal ain’t givin’ him no respect?)
Wyatt carries his aggrieved good-guy routine into the final scene of the night, summoning Rufus to a bar to ask for help. He wants to kill his wife’s killer without, for once, just shooting him dead. “I’m trying to stop a bad man from hurting good people,” Wyatt insists, sounding like a very broken record. As cliffhangers go, this one wasn’t my favorite, and again, it plays into the show’s eagerness to introduce even more story lines into its busy goings-on.
Of course, the good news is that I’m in love with each of these individual threads. I can’t wait to see what Rufus might come up with to help Wyatt; I’m dying to find out where Flynn has taken Emma. To (badly) paraphrase Reeves, maybe Timeless ain’t perfect, but it’s the only one we got, and without it we got nothing.