We’re in a place now, in our culture, where we’re talking about time travel a lot.
Those of us that aren’t talking about killer robots and how to screw them are talking about time travel. For a while we were talking about World War I a lot, which was understandable given the unwinnable, inexplicable wars grinding trenches through our public life. Then the trenches gave up their dead, and we talked about zombies for what seemed like forever.
Now we’re building time machines, trying to fill in the trenches before they’re dug. Trying to figure out if there is any way forward that doesn’t end up here. Can you blame us? Have you SEEN the world? David Bowie’s dead and Mitch Albom is alive and Coldplay is still making music; things are emphatically Not Good.
The destruction stories have gotten seriously tiresome, too. A few years ago maybe it seemed like fun, to burn it all down. In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis and the seeming paralysis of anyone to do anything reasonable about it, it seemed prudent to read a lot of post-apocalyptic literature and stockpile dry goods for the siege.
All those stories, though, are about the people who magically survive and Become King in the new, desolated world. Let’s face it, the chances of that happening to you or me is pretty slim. And it’s always such a mean, small story: millions of people died, but let’s get invested in the five guys who could finally put their archery skills to good use!
So instead, we’re talking about a re-set. We’re talking about time travel. Which means I’m going to talk to you about 12 Monkeys.
Time traveler James Cole travels from the year 2043 to the present day to stop the release of a deadly virus by the enigmatic organization known as “The Army of the Twelve Monkeys”. That virus, in Cole’s future, caused the death of most of the world’s population. Led by a cryptic message from the past, Cole makes contact with the brilliant virologist Cassandra Railly, who he believes is the key to stopping the virus. Cole also enlists the help of Jennifer Goines (the insane daughter of the virus’ creator), and his best friend Ramse to stop the initial outbreak. As Cole journeys through time in an effort to stop the virus, he realizes the Army of the 12 Monkeys have a larger, more mysterious agenda.
Are you already bored? I was, too. I don’t blame you. Time travel shows make me exhausted in the way arguments about most trivia make me exhausted, like don’t make me do homework to enjoy something. If I have to build a conspiracy wall to figure out your story, generally, that’s too much work for me to do after a day of work, and getting all up in a fanboy argument about if you can kill yourself from the past or whatever is similarly not my idea of a party.
12 Monkeys isn’t about time travel, though. It’s about time.
The woman who invented time travel, who enlists Cole in this mission to undo the worst of humanity’s atrocities, is called Jones. Jones opens a box, midway through Season One. She takes out a blanket, embroidered with her daughter’s name. Hannah.
Hannah choked to death on the sickness, while Jones sang her a lullaby.
All Jones wanted was to make a timeline where her daughter didn’t have to suffer. All she wanted was for her child to be safe, and for that, she needed a clean slate. Cassie was trying to cure the plague, but Hannah was dead, and a cure wouldn’t change that. Jones needed to undo it.
Everything she did came from that impulse. She built a machine that ripped time apart. She killed dozens, maybe hundreds, chasing the moment when her daughter might have lived. She splintered men and women, sons and daughters, over and over and over again.
Wouldn’t you, in her place?
If you thought you could stop a war? If you thought you could save your child? If you thought you could save everybody’s children, in the few minutes a day that your breathless pain let you consider someone besides yourself, if you thought you could save everybody? I mean it, what wouldn’t you do?
You’d become a monster. You’d become a thousand monsters, and she did, Jones, only to find that timeline after timeline, splinter after splinter, the plague still came. She sent boys and girls back and forth until they literally exploded: Someone’s daughters, someone’s sons. She killed and killed and killed, and still it followed her, covering her footprints.
So she learned to live with Hannah’s ashes, finally, in Season Two. She learned to love and trust again. She found people she couldn’t sacrifice, not even for her blighted goals, not even for Hannah. Jones burned the world down and found nothing, and at that exact moment, when she’d exhausted every resource and spent every inch of herself, then Hannah stepped out of the darkness and into her arms.
The reason for everything, alive all along.
A lot of people thought it was a cheat, or that Jones should be shattered or angry or feel that she’d wasted something. That’s absurd. Nothing was wasted. A cure won’t save the dead and that’s still true. Hannah lived. So many others didn’t. What of them?
Do they not deserve every inch of Jones? Did someone else love her child any less? You don’t heal the world by loving you and yours. You heal the world by loving beyond family, beyond obligations of blood and bone.
This show is about time. There are so many other daughters.
When I first found this show, it was dark and cold, and I had a baby barely a year old, was working two jobs, and felt good about almost no part of my life at all. Insomnia addled the senses not already in a tailspin from the work schedule and the kid’s sleep strike, stress drinking got old pretty quick and so I wound up binging Jennifer Goines at 3 a.m., which is precisely NOT the time you really want to be hanging with this chick.
Jennifer is a very real person to me, almost as real as Starbuck. She’s been running forever. From her rich dad, from her doctors, from the voices she hears, from Cole, to Cole, time roaring in her mind like the ocean going in, coming out.
Her mother tried to kill her. Her father locked her up. She kept all his secrets and she never told a soul, and he left her in a cell to rot. She saw her co-workers die all around her, and she wept and raged, and she opened the door that ended the world.
The eye of the hurricane, where the winds go still and the light pierces through, the speck of earth the tornado touches. Primary.
She’s used by the others, uses them, fights them, fights with them, and in the end she comes face to face with herself. Literally; Jennifer young meets Jennifer, old, and they stare at each other across the room. They’ll explode if they touch, if they get too close. It’ll cause a paradox.
If you met the you you’re going to be, 50 years from now, and the one you were, 50 years ago? If you met the person you needed to be to live in the world as it will be then, could you embrace that woman, that daughter, and sing her a lullaby?
Could you say to her, as Jennifer Goines did to her younger self, I know everything about you, every mistake you are ever going to make, every awful stupid cruel thing you’re ever going to do, and I don’t need to forgive you because there’s nothing to forgive?
Jennifer, in that room, owned up to how long she’d been running. How many times she’d stuck her fingers in the pages of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, trying to game the endings out, trying to get it right. And Jennifer said to her, there are many endings, and the right one is the one you choose.
You’ve got to pick, and if you let yourself go back over it and over it and over it trying to find a way out, you’ll scorch the ground you stand on. Jennifer’s been running so long. She’s been running in her head long before the world burned down. They put her in a cage and she built herself a wheel, turning and turning. The second season was Jennifer letting herself off, letting herself out.
We say you have to forgive yourself, and it always sounded like such a cop-out. Like sure, just tell yourself all your horrible things are okay, let yourself off the hook, how convenient. I never knew what that looked like until this show made it literal.
Forget the costumes and the clocks. This show is about time, and what it does to you, and what you do back.
Season Three starts with Cassandra Railly (separate from the entire character that is Her Hair) pregnant, frightened, cradling her belly. The beginning of anything is terrifying, and there is more ambivalence and fear than we admit, in childbearing. A child is optimism in its purest form, is hope embodied: Their world will be better than ours. But hope is helpless where we live now.
In Cassie’s world, everything’s on fire. Time is tearing itself apart. In ours, same, but so much more mundane: A small group of nasty people is destroying American government, has been for a while now, and has finally done enough damage to be noticed by those not directly targeted. Every damn day is a fight, about who we are and what we stand for, about things that shouldn’t even be a fight, like everybody’s full humanity, and if we can afford to teach people to read. The key attraction of the end of the world is its clarity: we dream of a single moment in which we could rise up heroes, instead of a thousand moments, every single day, which pass us by unnoticed.
My own daughter wants to right every wrong. Hearing a crying child in the store, she asks, “What’s the matter with that baby?” Seeing a schoolmate hurt she asks, “Are you okay?” We took her to the Women’s March in January, and she rode on her father’s shoulders, waving a sign that said, “Future President.” All I could think was that this would be the first world she would know, and if she would know that it was dumb and small and mean, then she’d also know that some of us fought back.
How do we raise our children, knowing the cruelty of the world? Knowing the plague is coming? They roll and twist inside us and we think we can protect them from their fate. Burn every spinning wheel in the kingdom and the princess still pricks her finger; build a wall of thorns a thousand feet high and someone will hack his way through. Save every penny and hide behind your bank account, hoard food in the cellar, weapons in the attic, ammunition in the coffee can under the bed.
You can flash card them in Mandarin and drive them to piano lessons and teach them to swim and hunt and start a fire, but all you’re doing is arming them for the fight. You still have to trust their strength is greater than your own. You can’t protect your children. You can’t stand guard against the world. You can’t choose their endings for them; if you’re very very lucky you won’t even witness them. The unimaginable courage, in Cassie’s hands, to know everything about what her baby will become, and still hold him, and sing him a lullaby.
This is a story about time, and mercy, time and hope, time and fear. There are no clean slates. There is always forgiveness. And however long you have with your darling daughters, it’s never going to be enough.
Season Three of 12 Monkeys drops Friday. We may have more threads. Stay tuned.