[This is a review of the 11.22.63 finale. There will be SPOILERS.]
Watching the closing minutes of Hulu’s eight-episode adaptation of Stephen King’s (mostly) ’60s-set time-travel story 11.22.63, it’s clear just how much the success of the miniseries hinged on the quality of its casting. While the series as a whole was filled with top-notch performances from the likes of Justified‘s Nick Searcy and an all-too-brief set of appearances from Cherry Jones as Lee Harvey Oswald’s doting mother, it boiled down to (as many shows often do) the chemistry of its two leads, James Franco and, especially with respect to the series’ parting shot, Sarah Gadon.
The final hour, ‘The Day in Question’ is tonally and structurally the most varied chapter in the series, not simply because it must deliver a payoff to the story’s main conceit before shifting the weight of the plot from Jake Epping’s years-long mission to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the lingering effects of his relationship with Gadon’s Sadie Dunhill. Looking past the finale’s admittedly uncomplicated approach as it hustles through a series of vague consequences (that owe a tremendous debt to Ray Bradbury’s ‘A Sound of Thunder’) to averting a national tragedy, the lack of sophistication works to the finale’s advantage, granting the narrative easy access to a specific and familiar emotional tenor the story is looking for. It is surface-level stuff to be sure, but because the series is so guileless in its appointing a rote love story significance over what had been the fulcrum on which the entire plot turned, it carries with it a sort of candy bar-like satisfaction in which the viewers’ most basic cravings are addressed, smartly leaving the concern of nutritional value for another time.
The approach works mainly because Gadon’s presence and her performance stealthily fills in the miniseries’ otherwise prominent gaps, while also complimenting Franco’s presence so that the immediate takeaway is fixated primarily on the unaffected charm she radiates as the sweet-natured Sadie. It’s an aspect of her ability as an actor that is seen again and again in things like Enemy opposite Jake Gyllenhaal or when she appeared opposite Jay Baruchel earlier this year in Man Seeking Woman. Here, Gadon gives the audience everything they need to just sit back and grant themselves permission to buy into not only the premise of 11.22.63, but also to overlook the sometimes-uneven execution of the miniseries itself.
By tapping into the emotional reserves of the doomed, bittersweet love story of Jake and Sadie, the miniseries effectively sidesteps the time-travel hokum of the finale that nearly unravels the entirety of the story. For the past seven episodes, 11.22.63 worked (circuitously at times) to build a convincing sense of tension in relation to Jake’s efforts to thwart Oswald (Daniel Webber) and to uncover the conspiracy behind JFK’s assassination. The twist – that Jake would have to spend several years in the past before he could accomplish his task – offered the narrative time to develop secondary plot threads and the opportunity to explore Jake on a character level, one that extended beyond his function as the protagonist and his role in delivering or not delivering upon the question posed by the plot.
The problem with asking such a specific question, like “Can the past be changed?” is that it inevitably tells the audience they have to wait a prescribed amount of time before the answer is made available to them. Structurally, this helps makes the final episode incredibly tense – as was the case here when Jake and Sadie raced to confront Oswald in the book depository – but that level of tension can only be sustained for so long before it is either relieved or it slackens as a result of being held too long. There is evidence of both in the finale, as the lingering effects of Jake overcoming obstacle after obstacle in order to reach his objective have an enough-already quality to them, while at the same time the reason most viewers likely signed up for the series in the first place is finally front and center. But because of the hastiness in which the last hour unfolds, and the obstacles it has yet to introduce, let alone tackle parts of, the finale has a tendency to feel as though it’s spread too thin.
To its credit, though, ‘The Day in Question’ delivers a workmanlike effort to stretch the tension beyond an answer to the series’ central question by quickly shifting to the follow-up inquiry of: What are the unintended consequences of Jake’s actions? Oswald is dispatched with his own gun, President Kennedy is saved, but Sadie pays the price. The ensuing bridge connecting the completion of his task with the discovery that it will all have to be undone flirts too briefly with the threat of the Dallas police or Gil Bellows’ FBI Agent Hosty pinning the crime on Jake, before a call from the president puts those fears to rest. And the rest is essentially a series of snapshots that boil 11.22.63 down to a familiar tale of best intentions gone horribly wrong, but without spending enough time on any of them to feel like they could possibly matter.
The series implies that undoing terrible things will inevitably bring about something worse. At best there is an implication that, as bad as things may seem now, the present state of affairs is the best possible outcome of one awful event in history. At the same time, though, there is an underlying cynicism in the suggestion that the scales of cosmic justice will always tip to a more negative outcome, in response to the amount of “greater good” that has been done. Save a family, leave a man conscious of all that he’s lost. Save the president, cause a massive war and the apparent destruction of the United States. The dystopian present Jake arrives in after saving Kennedy is the ultimate “be careful what you wish for scenario” that doesn’t quite resonate due to the brevity of his time there – and the obvious question of: What’s keeping anyone from walking through the time portal sitting exposed in the ruins of Al’s diner?
Perhaps the possibility of such questions and the desire to discourage too much critical examination of the outcome of Jake’s unlikely success leads to the hard shift in focus from Kennedy and the bombed-out present to Sadie. It is difficult to say Jake and Sadie’s relationship is really what 11.22.63 was about, since, like everything not directly involved with the main plot, it felt underdeveloped at times or the importance and permanence of their affection for one another was an assumption the series merely hoped the audience would make. Luckily for those involved, such and assumption is made easy by virtue of two attractive people starring opposite one another.
In the end, 11.22.63 put a lot of faith in the assumptions of importance the audience might make, which may have resulted in a less-weighty story than its premise would suggest. Still, give credit to series for recognizing that may be the case, and for ending things on a bittersweet moment that, although it may have lacked true substance, lingers nonetheless.
11.22.63 can be seen in its entirety on Hulu.