Nearly every “Timeless” episode begins with a dramatized, iconic moment in American history. This week’s opens with the NASA control room at the moment of the Apollo 11 landing, the rows of identically clad white men familiar from “The Right Stuff,” “Apollo 13” and countless other versions of this time and place…
And then a figure walks by an elevated, glassed-in corridor: A black woman eyeing the events with curiosity and undisguised pride. She is, of course, Katherine Johnson (played here by Nadine Ellis and, to be played in 2017’s “Hidden Figures” by Taraji P. Henson).
The episode is bookended — following Johnson’s adventure with Rufus (Malcolm Bennett) and Lucy (Abigail Spencer) — with how the show’s universe will recall the same moment. Following a heroic computer programming sequence (on par for delightful unexpectedness with last week’s blacksmithing montage), Johnson brings the astronauts safely home to Earth, winning the titular Space Race for America and — in the show’s flexible historical narrative — turning her into as much a celebrity as Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong.
But to Rufus, Johnson has always been just as much a hero as the white men who became the names and faces of the 1960’s Space Race. When it becomes clear that this mission will entail sophistical computer programming on extremely old devices, Lucy and Wyatt (Matt Lanter) instantly shift to become supporting players in Rufus’s game.
We already know the triple-agent has a past with Anthony Bruhl (Matt Frewer) — but only this week do we learn how deep the connection goes: How Rufus sat by Bruhl’s bedside as the latter recovered from his initial attempts at time travel; how Bruhl taught Rufus everything he knows about computer programming; how much of a betrayal it is for Rufus to see Bruhl take off with Flynn (Goran Visnjic) for a series of time terrorist attacks.
When the episode culminates in Rufus holding Bruhl at gunpoint while Johnson looks on, the stakes are more than your average hostage situation: Bruhl insists he knows Rufus won’t really shoot, Rufus kills the NASA agent trying to stop him; both men realize they never really knew the other.
Flynn’s motivations continue to be both single-minded and charmingly oblique, with a particular emphasis this week on the charm. For reasons our heroes cannot glean, Flynn has outsourced the NASA terrorism to Bruhl, in order to spend his time in 1969 with a secretary named Maria (Kaitlin Ellis). Their repartee is tinged with the same “am I supposed to be feeling this chemistry or…” as the moments between Lucy and Flynn and, sure enough, we eventually learn that Maria is his mother and the little boy is his half-brother.
Maria’s interest in this stranger is not, as you may suspect, that of any human with eyeballs confronted by Goran Visnjic dressed like Cary Grant — but is, rather, caught in a Lorraine McFly Effect: Drawn to her future son, and trying to process it. As we’ve already learned, this show doesn’t permit time travelers to cross their own paths, so Maria’s young son isn’t a baby Flynn, but rather the older half-brother he never met because… he died of anaphylaxis the day of the moon landing. What. A. Coincidence! So as Bruhl handles things at NASA, Flynn is able to present a convenient adrenaline shot to his brother, changing the course of his family’s history — but luckily, not erasing himself from the narrative.
Another show could have left it at that, but this one takes pains to note that Maria is more than merely Flynn’s mother and a secretary; rather, she’s currently studying astrophysics and will in time become a rocket scientist. She is shown to be encouraged by her male superiors to pursue this career, much as Johnson was respected by her colleagues at NASA. That both women are recognized for their brilliance is, however, also shown to be an outlier — Lucy, delegated to the C-plot for maybe the first time ever, must handle the casual misogyny faced by secretaries working in the same facility. While the sight of Abigail Spencer effortlessly pulling off a full Peggy Olson drag justifies much of this plotline, Lucy’s epic takedown of a sexist colleague would have had even “Mad Men’s” Joan dabbing an eye.
Aside from the nascent feminism hopefully inspired in the secretaries who witnessed Lucy’s speech, two things of historical significance are changed this week: The first, Flynn saving his brother, is personal. The second, the elevation of Katherine Johnson’s heroism, is righting a wrong — much as we, in the real world timeline, are trying our hardest to do the same.
Most episodes end with the trio reviewing history texts to see how their actions have affected the historical record — who assassinated Lincoln, how many James Bond stories were written — but this time, the change feels like a moral victory. As the characters have debated several times throughout this series, non-interference is of paramount importance in their work — see: the erasure of Lucy’s sister from existence, for starters — but with the pros of this week’s changes seeming to outweigh the cons, it’s becoming more and more inevitable that Lucy and company will wind up willfully changing something huge before the season comes to a conclusion.
Our three protagonists each started morally superior to Flynn — certain they would never change things, never kill or terrorize or put the fate of the world at risk. This week, of course, saw Rufus kill a man in self-defense. The twist, of course, is that he was defending not only himself but all of 20th century history. The only major change from their meddling with the Hindenburg crash was the removal of Lucy’s sister from existence. Heartbreaking for Lucy, but — by definition — not for the human race at large. As outlined by the trio in an early brainstorming/exposition session, stranding Aldrin and Armstrong on the moon could have catastrophically changed the outcome of the Cold War, affecting countless lives.
“Lucy, what am I becoming?” Rufus wonders as he struggles with the destruction of his faith in Bruhl, the consequences of the shooting, and the uncertainty facing them all. That this episode could swing from Rufus’s goofy riffing on “ancient” computer technology to this moment of genuine pathos speaks to the question at the heart of it all: What personal stake is large, important, or crucial enough to warrant changing, protect — or destroying — history?
“Timeless” airs Mondays at 10:01 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.