Episode 8, “The Day in Question”
by Adam Sullivan
I took a little extra time before writing this, the last in our series of time-travel-oriented episode recap/reviews of Hulu’s 11.22.63. I needed some time to sort out my thoughts. Ultimately, this finale perfectly encapsulates how I feel about the entire mini-series: it contains all the elements that have allowed the series soar, and multiple instances of the stuff that cause it to fall down, gracelessly, where time travel is concerned.
Some of you have read my posts from last year on the subject of time-travel (TT) movies, what makes them work and why some of them don’t. If you have, you’ll recall that the errors that bug me the most are the ones that are both intentional and unnecessary. The most notable example, perhaps, is the race-against-the-clock device in Back to the Future, illustrated with a photograph from which Marty McFly’s brother, sister and self are slowly fading away. As I stated then, this device is unnecessary: there is already a race-against-the-clock element with respect to the lightning strike that is Marty’s only ticket home. (Isn’t it high-stakes enough that missing that deadline means he’ll be stuck in the past forever?)
You’ll also remember, perhaps, that I still love BttF, because of what it accomplished in spite of this rather glaring time-travel bungle. I recognize that the movie is extremely well-crafted in almost every other respect, and that it did get TT right in other (some might argue more important) ways.
That’s where I am with 11.22.63. The series is so good in so many ways—as a sci-fi Americana thriller, as proof that King’s novels can be adapted successfully into episodic formats, etc.—that perhaps I should consider overlooking the few places where it stumbles. But I can’t. Dear readers, I just can’t. And it’s my own damn fault, I suppose, because I have high standards, or maybe just very specific tastes for the use of TT as a narrative device.
No. Wait a minute, no.
It’s not my fault. It’s the fault of the show creators, damnit. Because they made choices about the Yellow Card Man that were unnecessary, even arbitrary. Looking back, they could have eliminated Yellow Card completely from the story—along with all the other “the past is haunted” shite—and the series would still have been action-packed, suspenseful, touching, and everything else. Ultimately, the “rabbit hole” does not need explanation or elucidation. King chose to explain and elucidate in his book, but this adaptation did not require it.
But it’s not the decision to do so that mars the adaptation and its otherwise potent use of TT. It’s the attempt at blending supernatural elements with my beloved sci-fi trope that, in a word, sucks. It’s as though Abrams thought that there would have to be scary-boo ghosts in the show, because that’s what people expect from Stephen King. Well, if you’ve read the book, you might argue to me that King’s explanation sucked, too (it’s an argument I’ve heard before), but without going into details, I can at least state confidently that King’s explanation sits comfortably within the bounds of TT narrative. There is horror in the source novel, but no ghosts, damnit.
In the end, the major failings of the series arise from the places where it diverges from King’s notions of time travel. The series creators made other choices in adapting the novel that worked very well—expanding Bill’s role in the narrative, for example—but the TT elements they added or substituted just stink.
Anyway, here come the spoilers.
I’ll say this for the finale, it mostly follows the thread of the ending of King’s book, and that is to the good. Jake and Sadie race to the book depository, struggling against a seemingly unending series of obstacles the past is using to push back against their efforts. They manage to reach Oswald just in time to prevent him from assassinating the president. In the struggle to subdue him, Sadie is shot. Jake, in shock and mourning, manages to keep his wits about him as he is interrogated and debriefed. (It’s great fun to watch him baffle FBI agent Hosty with his intimate knowledge of all the scenario’s major players, including Hosty himself.) Jake is rewarded with a phone call of thanks from President Kennedy and the First Lady, and released from custody. All of this is in the book.
Jake then returns to Maine, with the intention of returning to the present only long enough to reset: he plans to go back again to 1960 so he can be with Sadie, even if that means saving Kennedy (and Harry’s family, I suppose) all over again. But the “present” that Jake finds is a world scarred by war. Harry fills him in on some of the details, enough for Jake to realize that a reset is absolutely necessary. It was during JFK’s second term as president in this alternate timeline that disaster occurred, you see. Saving JFK, Jake damned the world. (Again, all of this happens in the book, more or less, though I seem to recall a little less of JFK turning out to be a complete bastard with the concentration camps and such. But maybe I’m not remembering the book clearly enough.)
So Jake heads back to 1960 one more time, hitting the reset button. His brief visit is enough to convince him that he can’t stay, that resetting the timeline and sparing the world (and Sadie) the consequences of his meddling will be his only accomplishment. Years of his life wasted, and now he has a broken heart to boot. But in the present, Jake is able to find Sadie, now a gorgeous elderly woman who appears to have lived the rest of her life unmarried but completely fulfilled by her career and devotion to her students. Jake travels to see her as she’s receiving some kind of state or regional community “Woman of the Year” award, and they share a dance. She almost seems to recognize him. It’s quite a touching final note.
All of that is in the book. All of that works quite well. Here’s the stuff that wasn’t, and doesn’t:
As Sadie and Jake rush to Dealey Plaza, they encounter ghosts. Maybe it’s just their minds playing tricks, but it amounts to the same. Jake sees Frank Dunning, Sadie bumps into Johnny, Bill sits on a bench and Jake literally trips over him.
Folks, why? For someone who never read the book, maybe this is intriguing or chilling, but I can report that my wife Lori just found it a bit confusing. And for me, the TT aficionado, it’s just so much spectral clutter. In a competent director’s hands, a series of the most banal obstacles would make this scene a nail-biter. As with BttF, the stakes are already high enough. We don’t need ghosts.
Then, when the pair arrive at the sixth floor of the book depository, an invisible hand/force/whatever closes the industrial sliding door behind them, trapping them inside with Lee.
Damnit, why? If the show creators felt the need for an extended standoff with Lee, couldn’t the door just get stuck closed? Why the supernatural goofiness? I mean, why not add cobwebs and pipe organ music while they’re at it? Or maybe have the roaches swarm again for no good reason at all?
Then, as Jake waits for a bus to take him up North, he sees Sadie. She’s reading a book, her hair pinned up, like the first time he saw her in Dallas three years ago. She smiles, then vanishes.
After Jake’s visit to the post-apocalyptic timeline, Jake encounters Sadie again in Lisbon. Yes, really.
Sorry, didn’t I mention that the creators set this up several episodes ago? That Sadie has cousins there? And she happens to be the blonde in the back seat of the pink convertible cruising by the rabbit hole at that exact time on that exact day in 1960? This one really strains credulity, although it does serve to demonstrate that it would be next to impossible for Jake to ever rekindle with Sadie. After all, he’s a different man now. He’s carrying the baggage of having already fallen for her, won her, saved her life (twice at least), proposed marriage, enlisted her in his effort to save the president’s life, and watched her die as a result. She no longer knows about any of that, and the way Jake looks at her…if I were her I’d be a little creeped out. I might never be able to trust him. So that’s an interesting TT wrinkle, courtesy of the timeline reset, but there was probably a better way to get there than this contrived coincidence.
Oh, and did I mention Yellow Card is there? Trying to warn Jake one last time that every time he resets he’ll watch Sadie die all over again? It’s good that this sinks in, at least. I’m glad Jake is convinced, because I wouldn’t be.
And I’m still confused about what Yellow Card is, in the conception of this adaptation. (And so is Lori.) Is he a ghost? A frustrated time-traveler? A Doctor Who-ish humanoid alien? All three? And which one of these explains how he seems to be both victim of Time’s resistance to change and at times the source and driver of that resistance? This is very muddy, and unsatisfying. The explanation is arbitrary (or arguably nonexistent) and its use as a driver and touchstone for the main story line—Jake’s—is surface at best.
One last complaint, this one only marginally related to TT: how many times does Jake need to get closure with Sadie? Four, apparently. In the book, it’s really just the one—the dance with elder Sadie. But in this episode he has a conversation with her as she lays dying, then has a moment with her ghost at the bus station, then encounters 1960 Sadie in Lisbon, THEN finally goes to meet elder Sadie for a dance. There’s really nothing wrong with any of these scenes individually, but they add up to overkill.
So, there we are, dear readers and, I assume by now, fellow time-travel entertainment devotees. We have a very good TT series that is a very good adaptation of a Stephen King novel, with the exception of some unnecessary and unproductive changes to the source material’s conception of time travel. This is perhaps especially disappointing because so many of the series creators’ other efforts at adapting the novel were very clever and intriguing. Expanding Bill Turcotte’s role, weaving his story and Jake’s even more deeply into the lives of the Oswalds, Jake’s confrontations with Frank Dunning, with Johnny, with George…really, all of that was pretty damn good stuff.
But I’m left feeling like they just didn’t respect time travel enough as a storytelling device to just leave it alone, so they added some ghosts.
It’s a bummer, really.
Episode Eight ratings:
TT Integrity: 6.0 wormholes out of 10
Narrative use of TT: 7.0 out of 10
Series (overall) ratings*:
TT Integrity: 6.0 wormholes out of 10
Narrative use of TT: 7.5 out of 10
*calculated as averages of ratings for individual episodes
Adam Sullivan is a marketing professional and a recovering actor. Find him on Twitter @adamsull. Be nice. He’s sensitive.
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