The Kennedy Curse
They say those who don’t learn from history are supposedly doomed to repeat it, but here’s the thing: What if repetition works? Like the way Timeless just double-dipped on JFK by bringing him back as a boarding-school teen for “The Kennedy Curse” after he made a presidential cameo in the first-season episode “Atomic City”? (Click over to that old recap and you’ll see I’ve also double-dipped on my lede. I can’t help it, I love meta!)
Back then, I wrote, “Timeless remains undecided when it comes to the delicate issue of how to present historical figures … How Timeless showcases famous faces like JFK or Honest Abe is … kind of a big deal? Because it will determine the show’s overall cheese factor? All I know is that Lincoln arrived last week as an animatronic figure from Disney World’s Hall of Presidents, this week they just give us glimpses of JFK from afar or from the back, and both are snort-worthy moments.”
“The Kennedy Curse” proves that in its top-notch second season, Timeless has learned from its history. If you’re, say, Steven Spielberg making a film like, say, Lincoln, you can create a cinematic aura so lofty and commanding that moviegoers will have no problem buying into all of it, up to and including Sally Field as Mary Todd. But try something similar on the small screen, with all its shortcomings and distractions (like, say, the fact that toothpaste commercials interrupt you every few minutes), and your historical re-creations come off looking and feeling more like middle-school dioramas.
All of this is to say that Timeless’s decision to build an episode around an adolescent JFK is a pretty damn clever one, resulting in a nimble and slyly funny hour of entertainment. It begins in Wallingford, Connecticut, in 1934. I’m guessing that, like me, you reacted to this bit of information by combing through your memories of high-school history to get the jump on the story. And then once that signature Kennedy accent gave it away, your mind grapes couldn’t help but play “Spot the Sleeper Agent.” See what I mean by clever and sly? I love the way the show has built a symbiotic relationship with its fans — ask not what your Timeless episode can do for you; ask what you can do for your Timeless episode! — by dropping bread crumbs for us to gobble up and have fun with.
So: Kennedy is called into the Dean Sleeper Agent’s office, the dean draws a gun on him, Flynn barges through the door in the nick of time, and, ding-dong, the dean is dead. With Lucy riding pine due to the “17th-century germs” she acquired via stab wound in last week’s episode, the boys somehow botch this mission after offing the dean and have to take teenage (and temporarily unconscious) Jack back to the future with them. “It’s not who you think it is,” Rufus deadpans to Lucy in his perfectly Rufus way. “Unless you think it’s a young JFK – then it’s definitely who you think it is.” Soon after he comes to, a freaked out JFK escapes, and in the time it takes to pahk ya cah in Hah-vard Yahd, this week’s plot is set in motion: Find Kennedy and get him home.
If the idea of a cute teenage boy living by his wits as he’s stuck out of time makes you think of Back to the Future, you’re not alone, obvs. “The Kennedy Curse” plays with that sci-fi classic’s tropes in ways both overt and subtle. Kennedy’s scene in the gas station after he escapes from the Scooby Gang’s bunker is practically a shot-for-shot remake of Marty McFly’s first scene in the coffee shop: asking to use the phone, dumbfounded by the guy behind the counter, cracks about the clothes he’s wearing, and so on. Later, Lucy tells Jessica about the time (as seen in the “Atomic City” episode!) when Wyatt tried to prevent her death by sending her a telegram and Jessica replies incredulously, “Like in Back to the Future?” And after Kennedy winds up at a house party with the Gen-Zers he met at the gas station, the half-dollar Kayla gives him with his face on it turns into Nixon’s face, just like when the McFly siblings start to disappear from Marty’s photo.
(One more rando movie reference I need to throw in here: Kayla’s pants are the same yellow tartan pattern as Cher’s iconic school outfit in Clueless, and given the vibe of the party Kayla takes Kennedy to, I can’t believe that’s just a coincidence.)
Meanwhile in #LyattTown, there’s some passive-aggressive sniping going on. After Wyatt jokes near the top of the hour, “It’s hard to believe that skinny kid grows up to bang Marilyn Monroe,” Lucy remarks all serious-like that JFK “had a way of making a woman feel like she was the only one that mattered, even when he was married to someone else,” and even a lunkhead like Wyatt knows what she’s talking about. I started to worry that Jessica and Lucy were bound to be pitted against each other — which, for reasons I can’t entirely explain, I’m just not into. But by the end of the hour, their adversarial rapport has evolved into something more like mutual admiration. It is lovely to see both of them rise to the occasion rather than sink to low blows against each other. I loved the moment when Jessica suggests finding Kayla’s house party via Instagram and Lucy makes a concerted show of endorsing that idea. There is something super-relatable about that moment, when you’re trying to act on your nobler instincts despite being hangdog, head-over-heels in love with another woman’s dude.
With the JFK story line taking up a lot of this episode’s bandwidth, tiny moments like that stood out to me all the more. I also loved when Lucy slipped a paper clip to the handcuffed Wyatt after he’d been taken into custody following his showdown with Emma in JFK’s hospital room. It was such a perfect way of demonstrating that, despite Wyatt’s understandable loyalty to Jessica, it’s Lucy he’s meant to be with, dammit! Even Flynn, known for literally blowing up the scenery this season, manages his own quiet, intimate beat back in the bunk after he overhears Wyatt gently letting Lucy down (“I have no regrets”) and silently sympathizes by bringing her a beer as she watches It Happened One Night.
It’s the most serene ending to a Timeless episode this season, but still, I am stuck with some nagging questions I’d like to get y’all’s feedback on. Like, is there anything to read into the choice of It Happened One Night (I haven’t seen it in forever). Also, Flynn wanted to assassinate JFK in season one, but now, he just killed JFK’s would-be assassin. Can you make heads or tails of that? Should I bother trying to solve the narrative math that would make all that perfectly plausible? Speaking of plausible heads or tails, what’s up with this JFK-disappearing-on-the-coin thing? Does that just mean that Kennedy wasn’t commemorated on the half-dollar because, in the new timeline, he got killed even sooner than 1963? Even if that’s so, why would Nixon wind up on the coin? Wouldn’t LBJ be just as likely? And wouldn’t Nixon have still committed Watergate and thus still not wind up on any coins? And speaking of Nixon, Keynes says that Rittenhouse needs “someone [like him] in the Oval Office we can control,” whereas Kennedy “galvanized this nation in a direction that runs counter to our goals.” We still don’t know exactly what Rittenhouse is, but is there any way it’s anything besides a tea party Illuminati?
I realize I am overthinking this. I need to chill with a beer and a Clark Gable movie. I will talk to you again back in the future, which is to say, after next week’s episode.