On the Oct. 31 episode of NBC’s “Timeless,” the show’s time-traveling trio found arrived in the ultimate no-win situation: Alamo Mission, days before the famously deadly siege. Like every time travel story, from “Back to the Future” to “Doctor Who,” this show’s chaos butterflies are in full effect — so by the fifth episode, they knew that warning (or saving) the Texan revolutionaries could be cataclysmic for their current reality…
And yet. The difference between knowing this and really understanding it is an ongoing struggle for our stalwart historian Lucy (Abigail Spencer), pilot Rufus (Malcolm Bennett), and soldier Wyatt (Matt Lanter).
Each character is also on the brink of a personal crisis when they are sent to back to the Alamo Mission: Lucy, increasingly frantic to will her sister back into existence after being semi-responsible for her vanishing from the universe; double agent Rufus, increasingly torn between loyalty to his corporate overlords and his teammates; and soldier Wyatt, possibly about to be kicked off the team for his continued inability to gun down rogue time agent Flynn (Goran Visnjic) in the previous four episodes.
The time periods selected for this show are ostensibly those native to Flynn, who is set on some sort of terrorism-adjacent plan to upend the United States… or something. Of course, we know it’s the show that selects each week’s on-the-nose time setting for maximum drama: When Lucy must deal with the non-interference policy, she’s put face to face with Lincoln on the day of his assassination; when Wyatt’s double-dealing weighs heavily on his conscience, they catch up with a Cold War-era double agent in the 1960s; and now, Wyatt deals with his Texan heritage, survivor’s remorse, PTSD, and lack of follow through by dealing with the ultimate no-win situation.
And while the sci-fi underpinnings and emotional undercurrents aren’t exactly subtle, what “Timeless” invariably is, is wholly genuine — in a way that resembles no other current TV show so much as “Westworld.” Perhaps it was the team showing up in frontier chic for their Alamo trip, or the way they’re all gaining so much insight, or the iffiness of the so-called “bad guys” — but the parallels with HBO’s thinkpiece-generating sci-fi western are almost too perfect.
Plato’s allegory of the cave — or, for those more familiar with 20th century philosophy, “The Matrix” — rely on the idea that we are not in control of our own lives or perceptions; that what we see as the world are merely projections, and the journey of life is realizing that outside this cave/prison is a larger, scarier — and more wonderful — world, which we can choose to engage with, or not.
This is how some people view religion — the comfort of knowing we’re all living out a plan made by someone much wiser than any of us are — or conversely, finding ourselves, like “Westworld”’s Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), trapped in a perpetual motion machine of a life we can’t escape. So like “Lost,” or more recently “The Good Place,” the characters themselves are aware of their existential status and, as such, become self-aware elemental archetypes themselves — as any of us might, if our situation meant being so persistently pushed to question the very nature of our life, and its origins, on such a constant basis.
The gods of every TV show are its showrunners and production crew: Here, they give us Ford (Anthony Hopkins) in “Westworld” and Connor (Paterson Joseph, playing a twist on his “Leftovers” character) on “Timeless.” While both come across as all-powerful — particularly impressive is Ford’s ability to wordlessly control the AIs with a flick of his finger — they are, in turn, probable pawns of someone even larger. In both cases here, vaguely villainous mega-corporations.
The levels of power, who controls who, become a Möbius strip, including all of each show’s characters and creators along with the audience’s expectations. In each case, it takes a man working apparently under nobody’s orders: Visnjic’s Flynn, and “Westworld’s” Man in Black (Ed Harris), in concert with a woman only starting to realize she is not in control of her destiny — Lucy here, Dolores on “Westworld” — to spur on the drama.
On a weekly basis, Lucy and company don the fashions and affect of people from different time periods. That means Abigail Spencer and company don their characters, donning these fashions, layering yet more layers to the already onion-y conceit. On “Westworld,” William (Jimmi Simpson) and Logan (Ben Barnes) choose their Wild West adventure costumes, actively choosing between literal white and black hats. The major difference between the play-acting on each show is that on “Timeless,” our heroes could be killed at any time — whereas on “Westworld,” almost all the characters are either nearly immortal or (supposedly) indestructible.
While “Westworld” maintains a silo approach to its multiple plotlines (the better to incite speculation about clones, multiple timelines, and other “Lost”-ian conspiracies), our “Timeless” trio always travels together, and one of them always winds up in some kind of face-off with Flynn.
Most notably in the pilot, Lucy confronts Flynn in the burning wreckage of the Hindenberg, and rather than going on the offensive he pulls out his version of Dr. River Song’s (Alex Kingston in “Doctor Who”) diary — a journal, in Lucy’s handwriting, outlining all her time travel adventures. The hook, of course, is that she doesn’t keep a diary and hasn’t written these words… yet. Flynn further stirs the pot by challenging her on why she was chosen for the mission: After all, her importance is clearly not limited to being a local expert on American history.
While the series focuses on Lucy, the Alamo episode rightly centers on Lanter’s Wyatt: A Texan soldier, his knowledge of the nuances of the battle they stumble into is as credible as historian Lucy’s encyclopedia knowledge of history’s minutiae. His loyalties, divided between his current assignment and the pull to course-correct a tragedy in his home’s history forms just part of his arc this week; he’s also grappling with PTSD and survivor’s remorse. Just as when his doppelgänger Teddy (James Marsden) was recreated on the fly with an all-new ready-made backstory, Wyatt’s more natural characterization did wonders for our understanding of his purpose on the show.
Part of the delight of “Timeless” is that the hand of its writers and showrunners, usually invisible, is here at least semi-opaque. Lucy, Rufus and Wyatt loyally go to whichever iconic time period they’re sent to — always chasing after the mysterious Flynn, who is either trying to destroy the United States or possibly save all of humanity and is also somehow connected to Lucy.
Similarly, the C-plot of each “Westworld” episode is whatever scenario Ford has concocted for his hosts and guests; how convenient that they all seem to be helping William and Dolores on their respective journeys to self-actualization. The storytelling itself becomes a character, called out by Dolores in “Contrapasso” when she declares her intent to take control of her story, ending her literal cycle of victimhood.
Similarly, Lucy’s “Timeless” journey is always toward greater understanding of both her importance in the universe and who she is, when her whole world is suddenly malleable. Each trip back in time shows her growing comfort with combat, her confidence in her own abilities, and the cementing of her role on this three-person team. To paraphrase J.K. Rowling, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and escaping the Alamo via grenade tunnel is one of them.”
We know why the writers put this group of people in Alamo Mission in 1836 — but why did Flynn? Did he choose to land there, knowing it was what Lucy needed? Is this all just some kind of “Blacklist” breadcrumb trail to get her where he needs her to be? Did he read about it in her as-yet-unwritten diary, knowing her various time journeys themselves have become fixed points?
These questions remain delightfully unanswered — but the glee of both shows creators is the slightly opaque, less invisible than usual, hand guiding all these decisions. For them, as for us, the the delight is in the myriad of possibilities, the how and the why: Sitting in our cave and watching these shadows coalesce. Maybe into a monster, but maybe into a miracle instead.
“Timeless” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. PT/ET on NBC; “Westworld” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. PT/ET on HBO.