12 Monkeys Review: 'Atari'
12 Monkeys channeled The Walking Dead as it fleshed out its post-apocalyptic future world, with varying degrees of success. The time travel shenanigans were tightly written and sufficiently mind-bending, although the character development, dialogue, and world-building often left something to be desired.
Just like last week, Cole found himself creating the present he had already seen, as opposed to changing it, by going back in time. This time, it was even more playful, classical time travel fun, with Cole accidentally causing the raid that we see in the beginning by splintering to the wrong time and place. He gave the West 7 the information they needed for the raid, and then he was responsible for the gunfire that he originally thought was indicative of Ramse's death, but was actually what saved his life.
I personally like the satisfyingly circular nature of this type of time travel narrative, and it was perfectly consistent in the last couple of episodes, but I keep thinking back to that damn watch in the pilot (and I'm sure there are other examples that I'm forgetting about). Cole scratched the watch from the past, and it became scratched in the present before our eyes. As I said last week, that should mean that they change the future every time they mess with the timeline; indeed, they keep talking about being afraid of preventing Cassie from making the transmission that spurs the time travel to begin with. But now they've consistently been portraying the future as an inevitable product of everything that came before, including Cole's time travel exploits. I almost hope they retcon/forget about that watch from the pilot and the possibility of changing the future at some point (kind of like the random siblings in the first seasons of sitcoms that disappear, never to be heard from again. Nebula, anyone?), because at least then we would have established rules and I wouldn't have to get annoyed about it every week.
The world-building and character development were also mixed bags. The West 7 "Hell is other people"-type plotline was interesting, although it was reminiscent enough of superior post-apocalyptic stories, most recently The Walking Dead, that it suffered from inevitable comparisons. Deacon was basically Governor-lite, and the dynamics of the group were not nearly developed enough that the horror of a post-apocalyptic, lawless society really hit the viewer.
The most glaring missed opportunity for social commentary was, of course, Max. A better show, one that's striving for 28 Days Later-esque cultural relevance, would have acknowledged the obvious ramifications of being a young woman in a post-apocalyptic world. Max was only thirteen when she was forcibly taken in by the West 7, so she couldn't have been particularly useful for raids. And one could argue that the show was hinting at her squirm-inducing fate, but I'm not entirely convinced of that, and even if they were, it was completely undercut by having Cole make out with her directly after that revelation. It feels like the writers thought that was "too dark," because murder isn't a dirty word, but rape is. They didn't want to "go there," but if they wanted to write a woman into a post-apocalyptic storyline, they should have gone there, rather than just making her a cookie-cutter conflicted love interest.
The most impressive bit of character writing in this episode was the contrast between Cole, Ramse, and Deacon. Deacon, like Max, was entirely two-dimensional, but the show was fairly adept at drawing lines in the sand between Deacon's sadism, Cole's survivalism, and Ramse's moralism. The title "Atari" was particularly apt; Ramse called it a position in which you only have one choice, but that's not true, and the show knew that wasn't true. It's a position in the game Go in which a piece only has one place to move in order to avoid being captured. Similarly, twice in this episode Ramse had two choices: conform to Deacon's way of thinking, or die. That is a choice, even if it's not a very good one. From Cole's ruthlessly survivalist perspective, the only choice is often to kill and do other morally dubious things in order to save his own life. From Ramse's perspective, there are moments in which the only choice is to die. This theme was cohesively established throughout the episode, and made it a little more than the sum of its parts.
-Although there were strong character moments in this episode, they really need to stop with the on-the-nose, making-subtext-text dialogue. Cassie's "What is it about you that you don't want me to know?" and Cole's "Cassie reminds me of you, waving your moral compass everywhere" were the worst offenders.
-That's two weeks in a row that 12 Monkeys has had an interesting, thematically relevant title. Hopefully they'll keep it up.
-The flashbacks were not always clearly demarcated in this episode, which could have gotten confusing, but I think it was actually refreshing that they didn't feel the need to hold the viewer's hand. It was generally clear from what was happening in the scene whether it took place in the "present" or "recent past."
-I'm glad Ramse isn't dead, as the character is likable. But it was obvious once he didn't die onscreen that he never really died in the first place, so there were never really any stakes when Cole was racing to save his life.
-Cassie found the night room! That last scene was the perfect way for the episode to anticipate complaints that it didn't move the plot forward. Next week, craziness.