“That little boy had a smile.”
In “Soldier Boy”, Marguerite Oswald (Cherry Jones) says these words to her son, Lee (Daniel Webber), when she shows him an old grade school report card, as she searches for the happy boy she knew in the angry and distant young man he became. If the main thrust of the series is Jake Epping (James Franco) living in the past in order to create a better future, he’s not alone. As the series — and the episode itself — count down to 22 November 1963, the date of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the way the past affects our perceptions of both the present and the future, as well as our own identities, is the focus of “Soldier Boy”.
The start of the episode pulls a neat trick on the viewer; Jake, who suffered a severe beating in the “Happy Birthday, Lee Harvey Oswald” episode and is still hovering in that middle ground between consciousness and not, sees a man holding an iPhone, his ex-wife, and Anderson Cooper on his television set. For a moment, there’s the possibility that the previous six episodes have been nothing but a head-injury induced dream. Reality reasserts itself in the form of Sadie (Sarah Gadon) and Deke (Nick Searcy), speculating on Jake’s possible recovery. Whether Jake will become the man he was is the central focus of the first half of the episode.
He isn’t the only one who’s at a loss for a firm identity. There are the overt examples: Jake trying to piece together who he is and why he’s in the past after his injury, and Bill (George Mackay) trying to figure out what’s real and what’s fantasy after Jake incarcerates him in a mental hospital, where he undergoes massive doses of shock treatment. The two men parallel one another in this episode; both are lost and struggling to distinguish fact from fiction, in a more concrete manifestation of what’s plagued them both since the beginning. What are the facts? Did Oswald act alone, or was he encouraged by George de Mohrenschildt (Jonny Coyne)? Was there a second shooter? The pair’s concrete injuries force them to break things down to their simplest components: life or death.
Then there are the less overt manifestations of the episode’s central question: “Who are you?” Deke’s spending more time with Jake and Sadie, not just for their sakes, but because he’s just lost Mimi (Tonya Pickins) to cancer. What does he do with himself now? There’s Sadie, who insists that she’s together with Jake in his mission, taking charge of helping him find his way and refusing to be shunted aside for her own good as things converge on Dallas. Jake and Sadie pretend to be friends of Lee’s in order try to abscond with his rifle.
Later, an officer shoos them away from Dealey Plaza with a claim that he’s “heard ’em all … your mama went to school with Jackie Kennedy’s brother or some such, am I right?” The Yellow Card Man (Kevin J. O’Connor) makes an appearance in a dream-like sequence, telling Jake his story of how he’s forced to return to the moment, possibly forever, of his daughter’s drowning death, and being unable to stop it. (A clue to Jake’s fate, perhaps?)
The biggest, and continuing mystery, of course, is who is Lee Harvey Oswald? His mother hopes he can become the happy boy she once knew. He goes to see Agent Hosty at the FBI branch in Dallas, to get answers as to why he’d being followed. He identifies himself as Marina’s husband, even though they’re separated. He refers to himself a “Marxist” to one of his co-workers, his rifle innocuously wrapped in cloth as the two walk into the book depository.
Perhaps the biggest clue is in the title of the episode. Throughout, Oswald hums to himself The Shirelle’s “Soldier Boy”, most notably as he sets up his nest on the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository. He may no longer be a Marine, but it’s clear he thinks of himself as a fighter against some kind of injustice, whether it be foreign intervention, capitalism, or just the cards that life has dealt him. It may be the closest we’ll get to knowing Oswald’s motivations, both within the world of 11.22.63 and in the real world.
The episode moves fast — literally counting down to the day in question — almost too quickly to process many of the twists and turns “Soldier Boy” offered. The upside to this is that more so than any previous episode (although “The Kill Floor” comes close), there’s the persistent sense of time as an active force against the mission.