12 Monkeys Full Season One Commentary
Episodes: Pilot, Mentally Divergent, Cassandra Complex, and Atari.
There’s much ado about TIME in the television series 12 Monkeys.
Every good story has three essential elements. There’s a beginning, there’s a middle, and there’s an end. On 12 Monkeys, a show about Time, or more accurately, about Time Travel, the story “starts at the end and ends at the beginning.” As Jennifer says many times, “there are no straight lines,” and so it is with the story of this exceptional science fiction show.
As 12 Monkeys progressed through the years, vision, mythology, and the story that drives this SYFY channel original show have proven to be so much more than your typical “mission of the week” time travel adventure.
Instead of time travel merely being the vehicle to tell unique episodic stories, (You know the kind: travel through time, get in trouble, get out of trouble, travel back home) 5- the creators and writers of 12 Monkeys (collectively some of the best in the industry) deploy time as both a weapon to destroy the world and a tool to fix and save it.
This fundamental question drives the entire series of 12 Monkeys. If you have a time machine and the ability to travel throughout time, what should you do with it? How do you use the power to change reality, change your world, or change your life? And should you? Of course, many questions follow this single query. Such as what will happen if you change time? What are the repercussions, the inevitable fallout of changing reality? What is a paradox? Perhaps Dr. Jones said it best, “Mother Nature doesn’t like it when you rearrange her furniture.”
As the multiseason narrative unfolds, many philosophical questions along the way. Many of these answered and dismissed within the confines of a single episode. Instead, the characters struggle to find their answers to these great questions. They grapple with moral, scientific, many between life and death, throughout the entire series. In the end, as we watch 12 Monkeys, we have our own choice to make based on what we’ve witnessed along the way.
Numerous of these questions surrounding time travel, good and evil, right and wrong, are not exclusive to the subject of time travel. The time machine is the vehicle with which talented writers have focused on the human condition. Through these stories, we see ourselves reflected in the drama and comedy of life, finding love and family, fighting for what we love, and what happens when we lose it. How these questions are raised and addressed, are what set 12 Monkeys apart from most other time travel series and films.
With a story that spans centuries, 12 Monkeys deploy innovative storylines, standout genre-bending episode,s and a tachyon-beam-focused overarching narrative spanning the entire series.
That was not a throw-away sentence, over a total of four seasons and 47 episodes, 12 Monkeys has given us an intricate cohesive narrative with little to no filler. Television shows often have episodes that padding to fill out a 22+ episode season.
This is not the case with 12 Monkeys, as every episode aims to advance the series’ story, a season’s theme, a character’s development, and often all of these at the same time.
This is not the case with 12 Monkeys, as every episode aims to advance the series’ story, a season’s theme, a character’s development, and often all of these at the same time.
The subject of “Time” is spliced into the DNA of 12 Monkeys, where every strand is explored and examined. It is common sense that the issue of time is the catalyst for a show about time travel.
On 12 Monkeys, “time” is the engine that drives itself, the prime mover and ever-present “being” that shapes the story, motivates the characters and changes places and events, well, everything along the way. “Time” is itself a character, which takes its place among the rest of the cast.
12 Monkeys teach us that time can be relentless, an unstoppable force, and a constant advisory. Time is the epicenter of a war between two “armies” of time travelers, both fighting over time while traveling through time.
Like the virus that kills the world in the pilot episode of season one, 12 Monkeys television show also has an origin. The series is based on the 1995 film “12 Monkeys”, directed by Terry Gilliam.
It starred Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, and Madeleine Stowe. Janet and David Peoples penned the screenplay for the motion picture. (JD Peoples – sound familiar?) However, before that, there was a 1962 short film called La Jetee by Chris Marker. (Last name: Marker – sound familiar?)
The original idea of a prisoner, James Cole, traveling back in time to save the future and a few other themes were carried forward to the adaptation and development of 12 Monkeys by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett. However, the show that has evolved, dare say mutated, from this origin story, is much more grand and elaborate than the film versions ever were.
James Cole was supposed to be a sort of Christ figure in the original, and this is eluded to in the “Paradox” episode, as Cole was essentially reborn after levitating in a crucifixion type pose.
In this scene, James Cole witnesses his death as a boy, sees himself shot dead as an adult in an airport terminal. In 12 Monkeys, young Cole sees his father shot down in a back alley while his adult self is reborn twenty feet away.
This theme of “witnessing” is a common thread through each of the incarnations of La Jetee and 12 Monkeys. However, it’s a masterful stroke to morph this concept into an actual character who has witnessed time.
12 Monkeys paint an image of endless loops within loops, time and time again—a repeating and changing infinite set of variables, possibilities, and choices. But the choices we must make along the way will determine the end of the story if there is one. The purpose of the story may well bring us right back to the very beginning again. The snake eats its tail.
Perhaps when it comes to time, all you CAN do in the end is witness the story that time chronicles for us. Maybe all you SHOULD do in the end is play your part in the story that time chronicles for us. That brings us back around again to the beginning if you could travel through time, should you?
The Cast of 12 Monkeys Season One
James Cole, known as Cole to his friends and occasionally as James by Dr. Jones, is the first successful time traveler for most of season one. His time-traveling mission to stop the virus from killing 7+ billion people. Dr. Jones tells Cole that his entire life has to lead to this one moment, that he alone must travel through time and save the world! No pressure.
Cole’s mother feared that the Army of the 12 Monkeys might someday find him. Cole’s father died fighting against them and gave his own life so that Cole might live. Cole is a child of the apocalypse, a scavenger, or scav, who wandered and pillaged his way through the wastelands since he was orphaned. Cole’s years spent as a scav, helped to mold, prepare, and train him for what was to come.
Thankfully James Cole isn’t a stereotypical action hero, and Aaron Stanford is not a run of the mill action star. This statement is the highest praise I can give. Aaron Stanford is our PRIMARY lifeline to the story of 12 Monkeys. Time travel stories can be complicated, and through the eyes of a down to earth and relatable character like Cole, we can see the scope and breadth of the world. As Jones explains the complex science behind Godel’s continuum hypothesis and metric closed timelike curves to Cole, she’s teaching them to us. As Cole receives and understands another piece to the puzzle, so do we.
Cole is the proverbial fish out of water. As he learns his new world, how to cope, survive, live, love grow, and become something new, we go along for the entire adventure.
Dr. Cassandra Railly, or Cassie, is an infectious disease specialist working for the CDC in the year 2015. Cassie had a healthy life before Cole took her hostage in 2013. But when Cassie saw Cole splintered away and then returned two years later, her life would be forever changed. Cassie remains in 2015 for the entire first season of 12 Monkeys. From this time, she assists Cole with his mission, working tirelessly to piece together clues and leads to help him as he comes and goes, to and from the future. Cassie finally becomes a time traveler in the final moments of the first season, when Cole sends her to the future and Dr. Jones, to save her life.
Amanda Schull pulls off the perfect balancing act between super intelligent and super strong. It’s no wonder she was a professional ballet performer before she pursued a career in acting. Before the pilot episode, Cassie did not know that time travel was possible, and by the end of the season, she became a time traveler. Cassie changed the most and had to adapt to changes and challenges personally, professionally and scientifically, Schull made us believe in Cassie, and we all had a blast along the way.
Dr. Katarina Jones is the woman who perfected the science of time travel. In the year 2043, Jones oversees the facility, a team of dedicated scientists, and the time machine. Brash, brilliant and outspoken, Jones will do anything to reset time and make it, so the plague never happened. While she sucks down cigarettes, Jones will tell you that in a thousand generations, we will never regain the art, music, literature, and people lost when the world fell. Secretly one needs only to see the white baby blanket with the name “Hannah” crocheted by her father to know her real motivation.
Barbara Sukowa brings her strength and gravitas to the world of 12 Monkeys. She’ll bravely face down anyone who gets in her way and then makes us cry at the sight of her softly shedding tears over Hannah’s baby blanket. Perfectly cast, beautifully acted.
Ramse is Cole’s best friend and fellow scav. Like Cole, Ramse is a child of the post-plague world. His friendship with Cole has motivated him to keep surviving and to keep fighting for just one more day. While he wasn’t destined like Cole, to become the man who might save the world, Ramse always had another path waiting for him. After finding and then losing his son, Ramse was devastated and lost.
Ever the first to snap and make hasty, emotional, and dangerous decisions, Ramse became trapped in the past. Since the year 1987, Ramse spent time in prison, received love letters from Olivia, and soaked up ancient teachings, like The Art of War. During this transformative time, Ramse became the storied “Traveler” to the Army of the 12 Monkeys.
Helped by Jones’s time travel injections, Ramse lived for many years, barely aging, and was able to help steer the Monkeys with his memories of tomorrow. His funding helped to build the time machine that would someday send him and Cole back in time to 1987.
Seasoned actor Kirk Acevedo effortlessly portrays the wounded, the angry, and icy persona of Ramse. You need time travel to invent time travel.
Jennifer Goines, everyone calls her Jennifer. Unfortunately, Jennifer’s character is not one of the main cast in season one. Emily Hampshire joined the main cast in season two and was a powerhouse throughout the rest of the series.
Look for an especially masterful performance in season 2, episode 11, Resurrection. Her performance, with herself, is one of the best moments of the entire series!
Jennifer’s ability to see more than everyone else in the room is developed and played with exponentially through the rest of the series. Being Primary is beautiful, although we don’t officially know she’s primary in season one, we do know that there’s much more under the mask of insanity that she initially shows the world. Jennifer is easily one of the most fun characters on 12 Monkeys.
Emily Hampshire’s scene-stealing portrayal is dense with layers, simple and sophisticated at the same time. Throughout the series, Jennifer’s part in the mythology, her place in time’s great story and a higher density than even a primary can imagine, have come to use like a vision from a third eye. By the end, Jennifer may well be the MVP of the entire series, taking her rightful place next to Cole, Cassie, and Katerina.
Deacon is the leader of the West 7, which is a formidable group of survivors/scavengers that roam the wasteland preying on the weak to make themselves stronger. Deacon, and the West 7 as a whole, are the classic bully types. We find out in season 2 and even more in 3, why Deacon is the way he is.
Bullied himself as a boy, witnessing the abuse of his mother at the hand of his father and then living through the world’s end, had a negative and formative effect on Deacon as a man. He fronts strength and fearlessness to hide other layers hidden deep behind his bombastic persona. Only from an example set by Cassie, Jennifer, Katerina, and the mission to save the world, can Deacon have a chance at becoming something more than a sociopathic murderer.
Yet from the very beginning, Deacon is brilliantly written and given enough nuance by Todd Stashwick to let us cheer for his eventual redemption.
Oliva is one of the faithful in and a leader of the meta-cult, The Army of the 12 Monkeys. Her passion for red tea and brass bowls is all we see, at first. However, when stuff needs to get done around Monkey mansion, you can count on Olivia being front and square. She’s there to make sure Jennifer receives a bath and brainwashing, and Olivia is there with Ramse as he helps the Monkeys spend and make money through the years. From season one alone, we all have a feeling that Olivia will be going places!
Watching Alisen Down’s portrayal of her character Oliva over the entirety of the 12 Monkey’s series is like listening to a world-class orchestra play the final crescendo of Mozart’s Requiem! (Can any better praise be given to all involved? Nope.)
The Pallid Man, or The Tall Man, depending on who you ask, is another faithful Lieutenant of the Monkey Army. He’s a significant advisory of Cole, Cassie, and Jennifer in 2015. The Pallid Man kills Cassie’s family friend Jeremy, who was instrumental in finding Leland Goines. He loves lavender and jasmine, whistling old-timey tunes, dressing in black, and wearing his mark of the Witness pendant. He also shows up at the right place and the wrong time to kidnap or kill some poor soul, just after he shows off his latest facial scar, usually from an injury Cole gave him in his past, but Cole’s future. Time travel can be confusing.
Tom Noonan has a serial killer’s smile. It’s one thing to look fierce and angry as you go about your evil ways, but the Pallid Man smiles. While Noonan stands over Jeremy’s pedal-covered corpse and threatens the same fate to a frightened Cassie, he continuously grins, smiling as he wipes the blood from his knife. His menacing smile, his whistle while you kill sing-along tune, and generally peppy demeanor, are all scarier than their upside-down counterparts.
It is incredible how much happens throughout season one of 12 Monkeys. In the pilot episode, we learn that over 93% of the world’s population has been infected and killed by a devastating virus.
The CDC and WHO tried to find a cure, burned bodies, and setup quarantine zones, but eventually, society fell, and the world mostly died. Fast forward to “present-day” (does present-day exist on a time travel show? If so, who’s present-day?)
The year is 2043, for now, we’ll call this the future, James Cole is sent back to the year 2013 on a suicide mission to kill a man named “Frost” to save the world. Dr. Katerina Jones, the co-inventor of time travel, sends Cole back to the past because she believes that if they stop the virus by any means necessary, they will save 7 billion lives. In season one, there is much ado about trading one life for 7 billion. Which poses a huge ethical and moral question, could you, should you and would you kill one person to save over 7 billion people? Dr. Jones and Cole say yes.
In 2043, Dr. Jones and her team have researched the historical records and evidence from the past to find clues and ways to stop the pandemic before it occurs. The critical piece of evidence is an audio recording of Dr. Cassandra Railly of the CDC.
Dr. Railly’s message mentions two names, a man by the name of “Frost” who’s responsible for the virus, and then she says, “please Cole.” Now Armed with this information, Cole is “splintered” back in time to 2013 to find Cassie.
In the year 2013, Dr. Railly, or Cassie, has a happy and satisfying life. She has a successful medical practice and a healthy relationship with a man named Aaron Marker. Cassie is a specialist in infectious medicine.
When we first meet her, Cassie is giving a speech to a room full of doctors, using history as an example to prepare for the next worldwide contagious disease pandemic. From this, we know that she is an expert in her field, and her foresight and expertise will someday save lives when the future viral outbreak occurs. A significant theme of 12 Monkey deals with where you’re from, or better put when you are from.
The time Cassie and Cole meet in 2013 goes spectacularly awful. In hindsight, waiting for a woman in her backseat at night isn’t the best way to introduce one’s self. Cole was all leap and no look back then. Cassie did not know who Frost was, and Cole was shot by local police just before he splintered away before her eyes.
However, Cole shows Cassie a paradox with her wristwatch. By doing this, Cole proves to Cassie that he is not insane. He shows how the future follows the past. Cole shows Cassie her watch, taken from her wrist in the future. This event may be a metaphor, illustrating how Dr. Jones’s creation of time travel and Cole’s traveling through time has damaged time itself.
Cole’s visit was enough to change Cassie’s life forever. Though at the time, she could never imagine just how big and insane her world had become at that very moment.
Two years later, it’s now 2015, and Cassie waits for Cole at the John Adams Hotel in Philadelphia. When he finally shows up, it has been two difficult years for her, but only moments for Cole, who’s still shot in the stomach from the gunshot in 2013.
The use of a full black screen with “The Year 2015” or “The Year 2043” is a simple, effective and smart way to acclimate us to when we’re going next. So good.
Back in 2015, the theme of loss continues. Cole is from a time when people will soon become nearly extinct, and every day the few survivors will is spend every moment in a bitter struggle to survive.
Cole knows that if he can stop the virus, he may be erased from time. Cassie has lost her medical practice, her reputation, and even her relationship between the years 2013 and 2015.
Our heroes begin this journey at the bottom, and we go on this adventure with the hope that they can fight for a better future. Cassie is now a true believer and wants to help Cole on his mission, and then there were two.
Now unified in purpose, Cassie can Cole find out that “Frost” is a code name for a man named Leland Goines, the CEO of the Markridge Group. They may be allied, but Cole soon finds out that Cassie, who’s a doctor, is not ok with the 1 or 7 billion math, saying that you can’t just kill somebody. They head to a party to find Goines, and when he sees Cole, he gives him a look like “what the?” Cole tries to kill Goines at this crowded party anyway.
After this fails, we find out how powerful Goines and Markridge are. The police hand Cassie and Cole over to Goines and his men, and they end up at a Markridge black site. Goines then has his “rockstar” scientist, Oliver, run a full panel on Cole’s blood. When Oliver describes Cole’s unusual neural activity and physiology, that he’s “a flesh and blood molecular computer,” we all learn more about what Dr. Jones’s injections do to facilitate time travel, which is a cool way to show exposition.
The next scene is even more critical, probably the most important of the entire pilot. Leland Goines, beautifully played with ice in his veins by Zeljko Ivanek, gives a long monologue. In it, he describes how he’s seen Cole before, back in 1987 in Tokyo. From this and his flesh and blood molecular computer, Goines figures out that Cole is a time traveler. Goines can’t believe that, for some reason, the laws of physics have been because Cole views him as an adversary.
Cole doesn’t remember this, because it hasn’t happened for him yet. This is the first of many times that 12 Monkeys mentions an event that will occur in a later episode. This tight integration of the episodes and events, referencing future and past ahead of time, is one of the best things about this show.
Goines also remembers how Cole told him about “The Army of The 12 Monkeys” when they met in 1987. This is the first time that Cole, Cassie, and us, hear the name “12 Monkeys” mentioned in the series. Until that point, Cole and Dr. Jones did not know about The Army of The 12 Monkeys. As Cole learns, we learn.
Just as Goines believes he has the final word and orders their execution, Cole has a plan of escape. Cole askes Goines if he wants to see a paradox, and then he takes out Cassie’s watch from 2043. Cole then places the timepiece from the past next to the one from the future. When they touch, time slows down, and a paradox ensues.
Cole escapes, carrying Cassie, because of the injections he received from Jones. Because of this, time moves around him, and he eluded the temporal calamity of the paradox, and subsequent exploding room, and all of the gun-wielding goons.
Cole finally kills Goines, but time is not reset; he has not erased. He splinters back to the future and tells Dr. Jones about The Army of The 12 Monkeys.
Episode 2 – Mentally Divergent
In the second episode, Mentally Divergent, we get to meet some more of the cast. Ramse jokes around about getting some vintage, and Dr. Laske is in the mix in 2043. Now that they know The Army of The 12 Monkeys is the architects of the viral plague, Dr. Jones wants to send Cole back to find a patient in JD Peoples. However, he accidentally splintered to North Korea in 2006. This gives 12 Monkeys the chance to show us some new things. We learn about a “tracer signal,” a “slingshot” splinter, and how Dr. Jones believes that Cole’s fate is preordained, he has a destiny, and she tells Ramse that he does not.
Cole is slingshot to J.D. Peoples Mental Hospital – 2015, where he runs into a little bit of crazy. Crazy like a fox, that is. This is where Cole meets Jennifer for the first time. Jennifer Goines is Leland’s daughter, and once Cole proves that he’s real, she tells him about the Night Room for the first time.
This is a top-secret Markridge lab, which holds the source of the virus. While Cole has been dealing with Jennifer at J.D. Peoples, Cassie has been looking for answers as well. After Aaron shows her CIA documents of Cole’s brief appearance in North Korea, she learns the address to the mental hospital and heads there to help him.
Cassie and the tall man show up at the end of the episode. The tall man and his fellow monkeys take Jennifer hostage, and Cassie springs Cole from the hospital. Future, or past, events are alluded to in these final scenes. The scar on the tall man’s cheek, his whistle, and his contempt for Cole will be seen in later episodes. Back in 2043, it is Dr. Jones, who explains the importance of Cole’s experiences, before she chooses the next tack on their journey of discovery.
Also, in this episode: Jennifer mentions Cole’s soulful “otter eyes” for the first time. Soon, this becomes a nickname and Jennifer’s goto line for James.
When Cole mentions colors, Jennifer says that she likes Primary colors. We later learn that she is Primary.
This was the first time we heard Jennifer say, “Give me Yellow, and I’ll paint you the world.” If you’ve seen the entire series, you know how monumentally important this statement turns out to be!
When Jennifer has Cole strapped to a bed, she asks if he’s real. This question is mirrored in season two, “Memory of Tomorrow,” when Lillian asks Cole if he is “real.” – Jennifer and Lillian were both locked up in mental institutions at the time, speaking with Cole, and they are both Primary.
Episode 3 – Cassandra Complex
Now that Cole and Dr. Jones know about the Night Room, they set out to find its location in the third episode, Cassandra Complex. Most of the events of this episode take place in Haiti in 2014. Cassie is working with the CDC helping deal with a local outbreak. Cole travels back to the same time and place to confront Dr. Henri Toussaint, who worked for Markridge in the Night Room and may know its location. Cole does not learn of the Night Room’s location but does learn more about how to find it.
Episode 4 – Atari
Back in the Year 2015, Cole and Cassie look over her murder board of research as they struggle to find the location of the Night Room. Cassie is now fully invested in Cole’s mission, and she now understands the math, 1 for 7 billion. Cole is brought back to 2043 early to help deal with a potential security problem.
However, before this, we get some backstory on how Cole and Ramse joined the infamous West 7 in the Year 2032. In this episode, we learn about the roman numeral VII on Cole and Ramse’s arms. They used to be part of this ruthless group called the West 7. We meet Deacon and Max through flashbacks, both of whom will play essential roles in the episodes and seasons to come.
Max is a tough lady with a good heart and may have a past with Cole. Deacon is the murderous and witty leader of West 7. He makes no apologies for who he is and what he does because survival at any cost is his religion. As old Jennifer says in season 2, she doesn’t like what she sees, YET.
The scare over the security of the facility and the time machine reveals Dr. Jones’s total devotion to her religion, “the mission.” To Katarina, the mission is everything, and she will do anything to ensure its continuation. We find out later that if the mission is her religion, then Time is her god. This episode not only establishes an enemy through the reveal of the West 7, but it also has fun with what time travel can do.
Through this classic storm, the castle, defend the castle scenario, 12 Monkeys uses time travel to ask the question, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Or in this case, this Cole or that Cole? Was Cole the source of West Seven’s successful invasion of the facility? Early in Atari, Cole doesn’t know that he was the one who told the West 7 about the exhaust tunnels, the secret tunnels into the facility.
Because of this, the invasion that he and Ramse fight desperately to stop was made possible from the intel Cole gave to Max in the first place. The West 7 kill their way to the doors of the splinter chamber, just as Dr. Jones sends Cole to travel back to Cassie in a final attempt to reset time. Just as Cole tries to splinter away, a spray of bullets strikes the time machine, and Cole lands in a field near the facility. The Year 2043, only a couple days before the invasion.
Also, in this episode: We’re lead to believe Ramse is shot in the Core chamber on the other side of a walkie talkie. However, we find out that another Cole saves Ramse at the last second.
Max earns the right to join the facility when she helps Cole escape, saves Katerina in the splinter chamber, and then helps to send Deacon running for the wild.
Losing half of his men from the failed raid on the temporal facility leads Deacon to forge an alliance with the Messengers later in the season. Deacon’s not one to forgive or forget anything.