TIMELESS, Episode 10 (“The Capture of Benedict Arnold”). A Review for Time-Travel Fans (SPOILERS!!)
Last week I lectured the creators of Timeless, giving them a stern warning. This week, they are getting gold stars and seats at the head of the class. With only a few minor issues to discuss, this was by far the best episode of the show yet. I watched it twice. I’m genuinely excited for upcoming episodes. This is what network shows do, of course, putting all their effort into the last episode before the mid-season break, so I’m aware that I’m being manipulated a bit. But damn, Timeless did such a good job of it. I have no complaints. (Well, maybe just one.)
Right off the bat, we’re treated to one of the show’s most inventive moments, especially as relates to time travel. Agent Denise Christopher has invited Lucy over to have dinner with her (!) and her wife Michelle (!!), something that Michelle wants to make clear is unprecedented. Seems Denise is mum about her job, and Michelle asks no questions, and in 17 years Denise has never invited a work colleague for dinner. Sure enough, Denise has ulterior motives for a private meeting with Lucy. She is a mother of two, and her understanding of how the past has been (irrevocably?) altered has made her particularly sympathetic to, and horrified by, the condition in which Lucy’s mother now lives: bereft of a daughter, and unaware that daughter ever even existed.
So Denise gives Lucy a flash drive loaded with photos of her wife and kids, and gives them to Lucy to take aboard the Lifeboat. Because she is terrified that she might wind up in a timeline in which she has no wife or kids, and doesn’t remember them. If she doesn’t remember them, how could she even fight for them?
A couple of things about this: Denise is now officially the smartest person on the show, smarter than Jiya, smarter than Rufus, or Connor, or Anthony. She understands what’s at stake. She’s way more afraid of the effects of TT than of Rittenhouse, which is more than smart. It’s wise. And she’s inoculating herself to a small degree against one of the most terrifying side-effects of TT. Denise has a chance to become my favorite character on the show, when just three episodes ago I thought she was completely replaceable.
Meanwhile, Connor shows up at Jiya’s place, looking for Rufus and knowing he’ll be there. He notes briefly that he’s glad they have hooked up, then asks to speak privately to Rufus. Monologuing for a while about how hard his mother worked and how he grew up just wanting to invent stuff that could make her life and her job easier, he eventually gets to the point: He never wanted to get mixed up with Rittenhouse. He doesn’t want to be a bad guy. But Rufus had better keep making recordings and stop tampering with them, or else Connor won’t be able to protect him anymore. Rufus, no doubt thinking of his family, and probably of Jiya, too, takes the recorder from Connor. Before Jiya can ask what Connor wanted, the call comes from TTHQ.
It seems Flynn has taken the Mothership to 1780, which Lucy recognizes as a critical date for the American Revolution: the year when Benedict Arnold plotted to surrender West Point to the British. No one is sure what Flynn might be doing there, but they’d better hurry! (Yes, it still bugs me that they have a time machine and still talk about the need to hurry. Anyway…) Our heroes arrive at the Arnold’s gorgeous Tudor-style manse, are taken hostage by His Excellency General George Washington, escorted inside for questioning, and almost immediately confronted by Flynn.
This is where shit gets really interesting. Logan and Flynn both draw weapons, but Flynn urges calm, telling them he needs their help. He tells them that one of his men out in the hall will kill Washington if he should hear gunshots, and when Logan suggests that Flynn is bluffing, his response is priceless: “You’re talking to the man who shot Lincoln. You really want to take that chance?” GOOD POINT. Logan puts away his weapon just as Washington enters, and Flynn explains that the three are his fellow spies, there to help him catch the traitorous Benedict Arnold. Spies? Yes, spies. Flynn is impersonating the legendary Prussian spy Austin Roe, whom Washington trusted even though they never actually met in person, historically speaking. Lucy backs up Flynn’s story, with what amounts to a half-hearted “yup, that’s him, the legendary spy.”
Once the foursome is left alone, the plot thickens. Flynn reveals the contents of the scroll from the clock (!!!) which turns out to be a letter written in Arnold’s hand, in which he mentions Rittenhouse by name, referring to them as a group with a “great vision for America.” Flynn believes that Arnold is a founding member of Rittenhouse, and that they have arrived at a moment in history when the secret group could potentially be suffocated in the cradle. American history might be different without the super-secret group and its machinations, maybe awesomer. What do you say, gang? Join me? The guy you’ve been chasing through time, and trying to shoot? Your enemy? Rufus and Lucy are tempted, especially Rufus who is literally terrorized by Rittenhouse—so much so that he tries to put a stop to the conversation completely until Flynn reveals that he knows all about the handy-dandy spy recorder, and doesn’t care.
But it’s Logan who needs the most convincing, so Flynn tosses in a chip to “sweeten the pot”: help him snuff Rittenhouse, and he’ll reveal the name of Logan’s wife’s killer. It turns out that’s enough to make allies of enemies. The four then embark on a half-assed plan to pretend to be royalists in order to get access to Arnold, a plan which involves them running through the woods toward British-held territory while American soldiers pretend to shoot at them.
Another great moment follows soon after, as the four are introduced to Arnold and the British General Cornwallis. As Lucy is busy convincing Arnold that Logan once fought under him and is therefore trustworthy (and Arnold is busy being convinced) Flynn gets super-annoyed with playing let’s-pretend, whips out his pistol and commences to killing. You shot Cornwallis! yells a sobbing Lucy. Who will surrender at Yorktown now? Flynn is out of fucks. Someone else, he replies. Now let’s interrogate Arnold about Rittenhouse.
I believe I’ve mentioned this before, but I love this show the most when Flynn pulls this shit. He not only left the real Austin Roe “dead in a ditch,” but kills on a whim the only general of the British army that I could have named without going to Wikipedia (which means he’s famous, and probably important). History will be irrevocably altered, but too bad, no time to mourn or wonder, gotta keep moving. I still wish the writers would consider a little bit more how these types of changes might impact the present, show us a little more than just Lucy’s altered family. But the fact of a man so obsessed with his purpose that he just doesn’t give a fuck about Cornwallis, or Lincoln, or the Alamo, or whatever— and you know that he would definitely kill Washington, if he thought it needed to be done—well, that’s fun. Hey, it’s fiction, folks! Let’s fuck around with history, why not? We don’t need to take history seriously, right? Only time-travel. That’s what’s really important.
Arnold does his best to resist his inquisitors, but no historical figure can resist Lucy’s superpower: deep understanding of historical figures. She brings him to tears as she empathizes with him, recounting his great military successes, his close friendship with Washington, his being passed over for promotion, and Washington’s failure to speak up for him. Yes, Benedict Arnold betrayed his country because he thought his country and his friend had betrayed him. If his decision to plot with the British weren’t so petty and personal, one could almost feel bad for him. But Arnold is not sorry. And he is especially glad for aligning himself with Rittenhouse: “He’s going to give me the future I deserve.”
Record scratch—wait, wha’…?
All four time-travelers are astonished at this revelation. Even Flynn didn’t know. Rittenhouse is not a they, it’s a he. Just some dude. Now Rufus is fully on board, and so is Logan: if they only have to kill one guy? To nip Rittenhouse in the bud? To find out the name of Logan’s wife’s murderer? Take us to Rittenhouse, they tell Arnold. He replies, Why should I? Flynn reminds the traitor that Mrs. Arnold and their child are with General Washington, who will surely hang Arnold’s wife for treason if they don’t return with him in three days’ time. Okay, says Arnold, who is out of options. He agrees to take them to meet Rittenhouse.
There’s a scene or two of traveling to Rittenhouse. Not much of import happens, except that Flynn tells Lucy that once he knows his wife and child are alive again in a Rittenhouse-free timeline, he plans to leave them forever. He is afraid that he has done too many terrible things to ever be a husband and father again. (I’m still loving Denise, and Rufus of course, but Flynn is the show’s most interesting character. It took a while to figure him out, but this episode especially gives him new depth and humanity. He’s no mere Time Smasher, this guy.) Oh, and also, they decide to leave Rufus behind when they arrive at the Rittenhouse, er, house. Because apparently this guy David Rittenhouse is a racist. Oh, and a misogynist, too. They insist to Arnold that Lucy must be with them to meet Rittenhouse, but Rufus would be a bridge too far.
The first Rittenhouse we meet is not David, but his son John. The boy is learning his father’s trade, clockmaking, and is only too happy to share his father’s world views as well. Seems Rittenhouse Senior has been teaching the young fella that “peasants” can’t be trusted to govern themselves, and that an illusion of democracy is all that they can really handle. The real power must be wielded by “clockmakers,” i.e. elite intellectual white men, i.e. Rittenhouse himself and the group of followers he’s amassing. Lucy calls it “tyranny disguised as democracy,” but Young John is unfazed. He believes what his father tells him, unquestioningly, though when Lucy does put him to a question—“What do you believe?”—John has a moment to consider, perhaps for the first time. “No one’s ever asked me that before.”
Before John has time to answer, the man himself arrives. David Rittenhouse is shrewd, which is interesting, and cartoonishly evil, which is not. I appreciated that he could gather from the body language of his visitors combined with the fact that Arnold had never before brought “recruits” to him that in fact some of them were there to kill him. Logan and Flynn are immediately seized, and Rittenhouse uses Flynn’s gun to shoot Arnold multiple times. (How did he know that the gun held more than one shot? Never mind…)
Rittenhouse then sentences Flynn and Logan to death, and insists to John that he must watch the executions, even though it’s clear that his son would rather be somewhere else, maybe building a clock that doesn’t work well. Rittenhouse also tells Lucy that she will not be killed but instead brought to his bedchamber, which he says in a way that makes it clear he knows she won’t enjoy it. He apparently likes threatening rape and violence as much as he likes the rape and violence themselves. I said “cartoonishly evil” already, right? Okay, but did I mention the part where he checked out Lucy’s teeth, like she was a horse or purebred dog he was considering buying? Or a slave?
Yes, Rittenhouse has slaves. Quite a few of them, which would have been unusual but not unheard of in New York State at that time. Happily, Rufus is there and he is having none of it. He pretends to be a slave himself and doubles over as if sick, using the ruse to disarm and knock out a guard. He shows up at the door of Rittenhouse’s parlor in the nick of time, firing a shot that saves Logan and Flynn who then fight together (fun!) with Rufus to make short work of Rittenhouse’s men. Rittenhouse the Elder then monologues for a bit about how it doesn’t matter, they can kill him but there are others who follow his example, etc., before Flynn gets impatient and puts the well-earned bullet into the body of his nemesis. So much for Rittenhouse.
Or is it? Just as they are about to pat themselves on the back and raise a “mission accomplished” banner, Flynn makes note that the son, John, is not accounted for. He runs off to find and kill the Heir-Apparent of Evil. Rufus and Logan set off to chase after Flynn while Lucy’s job is to find John, but splitting up was a dumb move. Lucy finds John just as Flynn is wrestling with whether to kill him or take pity on the hapless Rittenhouse progeny. Lucy tries to convince Flynn to let the boy live, that John might not want to uphold his father’s beliefs, that Flynn can still be a husband and father if he chooses. Flynn is unconvinced, and would have killed John except that the boy had escaped while Lucy was shielding him.
Flynn is furious. In his fury he decides that Lucy has meddled too many times, and cannot be allowed to do so again. So he grabs her and forces her on board the Mothership, which appears out of nowhere right where he needs it—neat trick! Logan and Rufus are too late to stop him. Lucy is gone.
The TT analysis:
TT Integrity: We’re creeping closer to a fixed idea about time-travel in Timeless, which is all to the good. Our time-travelers have the ability to change the past, though the past may be self-healing or self-regulating to some degree. Changes in the timeline are only noticeable to the time-travelers themselves. All of this works well enough. But there are still some annoying “rules” that seem arbitrary. The two that bug me the most are (1) that time-travelers cannot travel to a time period in which they already exist, and (2) that our heroes are somehow unable to arrive in the past just slightly ahead of Flynn, even though they know exactly where and when he lands. However, no restrictions were particularly evident in this episode. Nothing too annoying. Deducting one-half of a wormhole for not telling us how Flynn can have the Mothership appear wherever and whenever he needs it.
Determination: 7.5 wormholes on my 10-wormhole scale.
TT Narrative: Very high scoring this week. Denise’s perspicacity about the possibility of losing both her family and any memories of them should be a warning to anyone out there working on their own time-travel technology. While it was annoying last week to see the scroll read but not revealed, at least the contents were revealed in this episode, and almost immediately. The contents then give our heroes a reason to make an alliance with the villain against a much worse villain—and that alliance made for some of the most fun scenes in the show to date. But best of all is the continuation of the theme that time-travel and its effects and side effects are changing all of them: Rufus is becoming a badass, Flynn’s complex motivations have rendered him nearly nihilistic but with some lingering sense of morality, Logan’s obsession with the loss of his wife is arguably compromising his judgment, and so on.
And, and, this episode finally told us some things about Rittenhouse. While I find it all to be a little bit pat in terms of its one-sidedness (all EVIL), at least we now know. The organization is determined to wield power from the shadows, leaving us peasants with the illusion of having a voice. And I have no problem with this cliffhanger. While it may be annoying to have to wait a month to find out whether killing David Rittenhouse changed anything and what Flynn plans to do with Lucy, this time at least it is fun to wonder. My most pressing question: Did Lucy make a difference by asking John to consider what he believes?
Deducting a bit for this, which annoys me: the letter from the clock. It’s great that the contents of that letter brought us to this point in the story: the founding days of Rittenhouse and the alliance of our heroes with Flynn. But why on Earth would anyone have taken that letter—whether or not they knew it’s contents—and hide it in a super-cool mantel clock with a secret key? This is not clear at all. Since it was hidden in a clock, we must assume that a Rittenhouse family member or follower put it there. If the letter had been read previously, a Rittenhouse–allied reader would surely have burned it after reading. And if it had never been read, why hide it in a fancy clock with a special key?
Determination: 9.0 wormholes on my 10-wormhole scale.