It’s hard to think of another sub-genre that presents more delightfully convoluted, brain-melting storytelling possibilities than time travel. The paradoxical nature of the narrative device central to these stories is, in part, what’s so appealing about them, as characters try and fail time and again to break a never ending circle of actions and consequences, or learn too late how one small deviation in the past can upend the future in dramatic fashion. But whatever the approach, tales traversing time tend to always find a way to capture the imagination, and at the start of its final season, SYFY’s 12 Monkeys demonstrates why it’s not just a great example of a time travel story told very well, but one of the best science fiction series on TV at the moment.
For three seasons, 12 Monkeys has taken full advantage of the narrative possibilities of time travel, expanding its story of the army of the 12 Monkeys beyond a group of radicals hell bent on releasing a human-killing plague to that of a clandestine organization determined to end time itself. Those three seasons have seemingly packed five lifetime’s worth of living into the story of its two leads, James Cole (Aaron Stanford) and Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), as they have bounced back and forth throughout time in an effort to first stop the plague from happening and then to prevent the coming of the end of time. Through it all, they’ve fallen in love, had a child, Athlan, met the adult version of said child (James Callis), and watched him vanish before their eyes. They’ve also jumped forward and backward in time so often that, as is made clear in a last-ditch effort to avoid Olivia (Alisen Down) and the time-traveling fortress called Titan, they are inevitably going to wind up chasing themselves, a not too subtle nod to the image of the ouroboros, or the snake devouring its own tail, which takes on increasing significance this season.
As is so often the case with most series, the biggest question is whether or not the show has an ending in mind or if the series was one intended to run in perpetuity. 12 Monkeys could easily be the latter, but its plot machinations over the past three seasons are such that it clearly favors the former. That is: When it comes time to deliver an ending to 12 Monkeys it’s reasonable to be confident that the show knows what it’s doing. And from the season 4 premiere, cleverly titled ‘The End,’ 12 Monkeys sets it cast of characters on a number of divergent paths that, in some cases, mirror where they were at the beginning of the series, while also acknowledging all they have experienced between then and now.
Because SYFY has spent the last two seasons tweaking the delivery method of 12 Monkeys, the final season is another marathon, albeit one that runs for four weeks rather than a single weekend. Still, the season begins with a three-hour premiere, consisting of ‘The End,’ ‘Ouroboros,’ and ’45 RPM.’ That’s a little easier to handle than last year’s four-episode per-night, three-day binge, and it definitely encourages a greater conversation around these final episodes (batches or otherwise). The first batch, then, is more or less a primer on the beginning of the end, starting with… well, ‘The End.’
The opener ostensibly boils down to one of the things 12 Monkeys does very well, which is pit its protagonists against unbeatable odds, only to have them escape by the skin of their teeth. In the final season that tried-and-true formula does more than generate high stakes from the get-go; it repositions the characters throughout time, giving James, Cassandra, Katarina (Barbara Sukowa), Jennifer (Emily Hampshire), and Deacon (Todd Stashwick) a variety of potential storylines that, divergent as they appear, can only be headed toward the same end point. What that end point will eventually turn out to be is anyone’s guess, but it’s made clear fairly early on that it is James’s destiny to save the world, as evidenced by Conleth Hill’s (Game of Thrones) appearance as a member of a secret organization meant to deliver a device to James that’s — you guessed it — an ouroboros.
That the series would find itself careening toward the fulfillment James's destiny isn’t really all that surprising, though it raises a lot of questions that hopefully the next three weeks worth of episodes will find satisfactory answers to. What’s more surprising is the way in which the first three episodes put Cassie and James on such different paths, and how those paths speak to the emotional response each has to meeting their child and watching him vanish into thin air. Cassie’s brief turn as a vengeful mother hell bent on assassinating Olivia makes for an exciting hour of television that demonstrates the degree to which the series has changed her from the woman she was in season 1. The same goes for James, as his once robotic “finish the mission” ethos has become entangled in that tricky thing called compassion, as he ventures to find Jennifer, and in doing so discovers the ouroboros and his “destiny.”
Whether in its efforts to break the twisty narrative loop it has created for itself or find the beginning of the end by going all the way back to the beginning of the story, 12 Monkeys season 4 manages to deliver enough surprises (and a surprising amount of laughs) early on in its run that, even though the end is just three weeks away, the end feels as though it may be one no one saw coming.
12 Monkeys continues next Friday with ‘Legacy’, ‘Die Glocke,’ and ‘After’ starting @8pm on SYFY.