There is a sustained, stage play-feeling sequence in “Picture Fades” (March 26): Series antagonist John (Josh Bowman) is interrogated and challenged by two avatars representing two different sides of the goodness he is consistently rejecting.
First, we see John reflected in his adult son Henry (Cameron Couffe) — whose lineage and upbringing suggest choosing light in a world of darkness — and then his usual nemesis H.G. (Freddie Stroma), a man who one doubts has ever been tempted by the dark side of anything.
It’s a testament to the show’s constant tightrope walk between expanding on the layers of John’s personality, while never wavering in its understanding that this is a terrible person. Last week’s episode offered some exposition on his early years — never knew his father, raised poor by a sex worker, elevating himself from that life to become a respected doctor — and this week we see even him not quite knowing what’s brought him to Paris 1918, what force compelled him to risk his own life just to come here to help a son he never knew.
While Brooke (Jennifer Ferrin) presumes John’s interest in the young man is purely narcissistic — psychopathic narcissism, “if something was created in his image, his ego must seek it out” — but something in the portrayal this week (another standout, layered performance by Bowman) reveals there is something more than ego driving his actions. Of course, his Parisian adventure begins with the unseen murder of a man entirely to steal his clothes and money — John may be on a moral quest, but he’s not stopped being himself.
John’s first conversation with Henry occurs in the Cafe l’Automne, a name that itself lends a sense of time and fresh beginnings and hopefulness, along with the nascent looming feel of winter just around the corner. Couffe is perfectly cast as Bowman’s adult son; their jawlines, strong brows, and accents perfectly matched to present a near-mirror image of each other. When John first sees his son, he’s momentarily frozen, perhaps with the reality of who this person is; that sense of seeing a part of oneself in another that other parents would have felt upon first meeting an infant.
John’s eagerness to meet Henry is reflected back when he blithely notes he knew Henry’s mother; the younger man is immediately cheered and eager to hear this, in one quick facial expression revealing everything about his upbringing — while abandoned, like John, Henry clearly adored his mother and is happy to meet anyone who knew her. And perhaps part of John’s pull to come here was to right the wrong he felt in his own life, to present a father figure to a young man who, like him, had perhaps grown up without.
But each time John tries to connect with Henry, the younger man unknowingly parries — and we learn more about him with each well-chosen line of dialogue: While a soldier, he does not delight in killing; even when John prods further, noting the lines between taking and saving lives must somehow blur in wartime, Henry is pleasant but firm: “I can assure you, they’re not.”
The core of where these men deviate comes through the following exchange, after which John seems to give up on finding common ground with Henry:
John: “It’s impressive to experience darkness and not be consumed by it.”
Henry: “Well, we don’t have much choice, do we? We either reject the darkness — or we let it destroy us.”
And almost immediately after, H.G. appears — to sit with John, at another table, for another ethics-laden conversation. Thus far in the series, H.G. has been shown as the exact opposite of John — puppy dog sweetness, to John’s unrelenting darkness: Where H.G. and John are yin-and-yang, John and Henry are more of a Jekyll-and-Hyde. We don’t know what darkness Henry has seen outside of the war, but he is resolute and uncomplicated in his belief that it can be rejected. H.G., as played here so winsomely by Stroma, comes across as a man so far on the light side that darkness would never think to try and tempt him.
Where John and Henry’s first conversation focused on light and darkness, H.G. brings back the topic he always seems to fall into with his old friend; that of the human condition. In so many ways, these two men are nearly God-like among the supporting cast; two men outside of their time, near-archetypal characters who can never quite connect with anyone the same way they can with one another. Jane (Genesis Rodriguez) has become more and more important to H.G., but she can never really know how he experiences the world. For better or worse, only John can speak with him on that level.
If H.G. had gone back to save his son, with John acting against him, it would all be a bit more straightforward from here on out. But the roles are reversed, with H.G. the one intent on ensuring Henry dies young, leaving John in the unfamiliar position of audience surrogate. H.G. is a scientist, generally fairly easily able to remove his feelings from what must be done. John has been similar throughout the series thus far; but again, something he can’t quite define has got him acting with uncharacteristic passion when it comes to young Henry Ayers.
“Do you even care about Henry at all?” H.G. finally asks, and John replies with as much honesty as he can, about the unfamiliar feelings that have been driving him all episode, “Maybe that’s what I’m trying to discover.”
When John forcibly confines his son to keep him safe, the only reason he can provide is that Henry is nothing like him, and yet also “the one good thing [he] might ever do; the punctuation of a remarkable, misunderstood life.” In his way, John sees the goodness in this young man and — unavoidably, given his own psychology — that as having something to do with him. And yet, as the episode ends with H.G. terribly wounded, John does do something else indisputably good by tending to him.
John has done monstrous things, repeatedly and intentionally; there is no single act he could perform at this juncture to balance the scales. Where Brooke, whose research is revealed this week to be even more insidious than it first appeared, sees him as pure evil — a monster to be studied — this episode shows that every action John takes is a statement about who he is; not a monster, not really, but something much scarier — a man who, when faced with darkness, chooses to give in. At least, most of the time.
“Time After Time” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.