Time travel stories can be tricky things, and when they’ve been handed the privilege of spinning their particular narrative web for a few seasons, bringing the whole thing to a close can require some fancy storytelling in order to put everything right. After all, the inherent challenge of telling a good time travel story, particularly the one being told in 12 Monkeys, is that the story in question won’t just undo the past in an attempt to save the future, but in finally reaching its conclusion, the story will be undone entirely. That’s the crux of a show like this: it’s goal is to rewrite the past in such a way that the events audiences have just spent the past few years watching and becoming invested in are changed irrevocably, or never happened in the first place.
As far as the 12 Monkeys series finale, the two part ‘The Beginning,’ is concerned, that is a major part of what’s at stake: victory for the series’ heroes effectively means resetting their timelines, rewriting their personal histories, and potentially rendering the relationships that have defined who they are in the context of the story null and void. It’s an interesting angle for the series to explore, one that puts a seemingly real and personal price on the otherwise less tangible concept of the Witness (Alisen Down) and her army collapsing all of time in on itself in order to create a never ending now. That element grants 12 Monkeys a far more human through-line as it works to deliver a compelling and emotionally satisfying end to the series.
Unlike some other shows of late, ’The Beginning’ doesn’t serve as a coda to the entire series; 12 Monkeys tells its story right up until the very end. That helps make the two-hour finale a more propulsive experience, as James (Aaron Stanford), Cassie (Amanda Schull), Jennifer (Emily Hampshire), Katarina (Barbara Sukowa), and even Deacon (Todd Stashwick) and Ramse (Kirk Acevedo) are in a fight against time itself for nearly two hours. Given all that the show has gone through this season, in order to position its characters at the sort of do-or-die moment seen throughout the finale, it feels like a solid payoff to a surprisingly expansive story — one that was, admittedly, made to feel a bit more compact as a result of the final season’s condensed scheduling.
12 Monkeys is, in and of itself, a quest narrative, and that quest has been particularly specific in season 4, with James and the others searching throughout time for a “weapon” made by the Primaries in order to potentially undo all that the Army of the 12 Monkeys has done to bring about the red forest and collapse time. The idea of a “weapon” no one seemed to have any concrete details of is about as good a MacGuffin as you can hope for in a series like this. But it’s also easy to forgive as the search for this particular MacGuffin took the characters down a winding road, revealing Hannah (Brooke Williams) was James’ mother — effectively making Katarina his grandmother — and that James, despite — or rather, because of — all his time-jumping, was the cause of and solution to all of time’s problems. By the end of the series, James Cole became the thread that, when pulled, would undo the terrifically tangled knot of 12 Monkeys’ narrative.
Armed with the knowledge that the hero has to not only die but be scrubbed from existence entirely, in order for all of humanity (and time itself) to be saved, 12 Monkeys revels in sending its characters on a series of suicide missions that effectively serve as prolonged goodbyes, delivering some emotional closure with characters like Deacon and Ramse. Deacon’s late-episode arrival, orchestrated by Jennifer in a separate timeline, came when it appeared all was lost and delivered a strong contender for one of the episode’s best moments. The move essentially reset Deacon to his default status as a charismatic rogue, the guy who makes a convincing argument as a lead character had some aspects of his story played out just a little differently. The same is true of Ramse’s involvement after he’s brought into the final mission by final Cole. After all that’s gone on with the character over the years — especially in the early part of the series — Ramse’s willingness to not only go along with James’ wild plan, but to do so knowing his reward will be a fatal bullet from his best friend, offers up a surprisingly substantial storyline for a character who hasn’t been directly involved in the series for a while.
These threads supplement the story and help mitigate the sameness of the Witness’ plan to shoot an energy beam into the sky to bring about the world’s destruction. They’re substantial ways to fill some time, but because the series didn’t wrap up its central storyline in ‘One Minute More,’ nothing — not even the red beam of death — feels too much like filler. Instead, the finale earns its two-hour status by sticking to a familiar structure that brings the foregrounded narrative to a satisfying conclusion while laying breadcrumbs for how the series is going to handle its biggest obstacle: make James’ demise emotional and meaningful and also, undo it in a way that doesn’t obliterate the work that was done just moments before.
The key to the first part of the equation is Schull’s work as Cassie. There have been times throughout the series where James and Cassie’s “meant to be” love story felt a little forced, and only served to bring the characters back to a place 12 Monkeys needed them in order to sell a element of the story the show didn’t necessarily need. There was nothing inherently wrong with James and Cassie’s never ending love story, but the series didn’t rely on it. In fact, Cassie was often far more compelling a character when her motivation wasn’t related to her feelings for James. Nevertheless, showrunner Terry Matalas (who also wrote the finale) and Schull succeed in making the Cassie-James relationship feel like the foundation on which the show was based. That, in effect, allows the finale to pivot from its frenetic stop-the-end-of-the-world plotline to that of Cassie’s hesitation at the last minute, paving the way for a satisfactory conclusion to both.
There’s a brief moment in the finale’s denouement where 12 Monkeys sells the what is ostensibly the best and worst case scenario: James Cole never existed and everything (minus one life) is as it should be. It’s a bold conclusion that, had it not been undone, would have felt like an immensely daring way for the story to end. But undoing the story that characters are experiencing is the crux of 12 Monkeys. As such, it rings true that James would be given another chance (regardless of how much sense it makes) and that it would be Katarina, spurred on by an encounter with James and Cassie’s son Athan (James Callis), who pulled the strings to make it happen. Happy endings can sometimes come too easily, but for 12 Monkeys, a happy ending rightly feels like the hardest fought victory.
12 Monkeys seasons 1-4 are available to stream on Hulu.