In the end, the most important question ends up being the choice between grand gestures and quiet heroism.
Cast: James Franco, Chris Cooper, Sarah Gadon, Cherry Jones, T. R. Knight
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 8 - "The Day in Question"
Air date: 2016-04-04
"You don’t know me; nobody knows me."
We've finally reached the end of the journey, and Oswald's words, his last words to Jake (James Franco), remain true. So many books (fiction and non-fiction), films, documentaries, etc, have examined the Kennedy assassination, but Oswald's motives still remain mysterious. One of the smartest things the series did is to never definitively answer that question. It understood that, like time travel, there are too many variables to account for. The episode could have just as easily been titled "The Man (or Woman) in Question"; it builds on the groundwork of the previous episode's questions of identity and motivation, and ends with two individuals understanding a connection they shared in "another life".
Yet Oswald's assertion has another side, one that the episode very effectively illustrates, building on the first appearance of Oswald in "Other Voices, Other Rooms". As Oswald enters the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, he's upset and disappointed that there's no press around to document the "first Marine to defect". Whatever other motivations he might have had to assassinate Kennedy, the idea that he might be an early fame-seeking mass shooter is an interesting take that ties the narrative into contemporary, real-world parallels.
Contrast that with Jake, who, following the events in the book depository, wants only to disappear: no more questions, no press, no fame. It's curious to consider whether, had everything gone smoothly in stopping Oswald, Jake and Sadie (Sarah Gadon) would've been just as attention-seeking as Oswald.
Yet the episode plunges deeper into the query than that. The biggest question, which stays intact in the transition from page to screen (as much doesn’t in this adaptation): Does trying to do "good" -- at least in the grand gestures kind of way that Jake attempts -- end up causing greater harm? Jake’s return to 2016 seems to answer that with a resounding yes. It's a rather nihilistic outcome; so much loss, and still everything changes for the worst.
If I had a complaint, it was that the episode could have actually been longer; by trying to fit the large revelations of the final part of the book into an hour, the finalé ending up raising more questions than it answered. The more metaphysical explanations for the radically altered present, the planet-wide (and possibly world-ending) ramifications of Jake’s actions, and the purpose of the Yellow Card Man (Kevin J. O'Connor), was completely excised or changed in favor of a more personal and intimate loss.
In theory, this should make the losses more intimate as well, but in that sense, it doesn’t quite work. I've been careful, throughout my reviews, not to fall into the trap of comparing the book and the series; what works in a novel doesn't always work as well on screen. Yet, the absence of what Jake refers to as "harmonies" (moments that resonate across time) is a loss.
In the novel, these harmonies and alternate timelines are literally cracking the earth, as well as driving the Yellow Card Men (humans who guard the "rabbit holes") insane. They're required, you see, to hold both the original reality and the shifted realities in their minds; Jake and Al (Chris Cooper) make so many changes it kills the original guardian.
In the series, the reasons for the post-apocalyptic 2016 are never adequately explained, so the bittersweet final scene has a little less resonance than it should have. The idea that Jake would be stuck in a loop if he didn't reset the timeline just isn't as risky.
Then again, maybe that was never the point. Near the end of the episode, when Jake's feeling lost and sad for all the sacrifices of the previous three years that ultimately came to nothing, Harry, who's story started the quest, finds Jake to thank him for writing a recommendation, even if he didn't get the job. "I’m sorry I didn't help you," Jake tells him, breaking down as Harry hugs him and tells him he's a good man. Maybe the point wasn't the grand gestures, but the quiet small ways we help one another.
After all, Oswald believed in grand gestures; definitely not the model anyone should follow.
I knew the Yellow Card Man's voice sounded familiar, but it was only in this episode that I realized Kevin J. O'Connor played Michael Fitzsimmons in Peggy Sue Got Married, which, for those who don't remember, was a film about a woman who travels back to 1960 to rectify her past. Clever move!
Speaking of familiar faces, Gil Bellows, who plays Agent Hosty -- the man tasked with keeping an eye on Oswald -- also had a role in what's considered one the best adaptation of King's work: The Shawshank Redemption.
Speaking of King-related Easter eggs: "Redrum" is one of the pieces of graffiti written in the stairwell as Jake and Sadie make their mad dash to the sixth floor.