“She’s just… She’s remarkable.”
Much to its credit, “Timeless” does not assume its audience’s knowledge of its various historical subjects. From better-known events like Lincoln’s assassination to the only recently familiar figures like Katherine Johnson, the show finds ways for its characters to quickly dispense the crucial info so we can sit back and enjoy the trip.
Rather than merely hearing Lucy’s (Abigail Spencer) latest encyclopedic recitation of facts, this week’s introduction to Josephine Baker (Tiffany Daniels) is co-delivered by Rufus (Malcolm Bennett). It is Rufus who first recognizes her as the bombshell on the cover of his mother’s vintage vinyl. Lucy then interjects to let him (and us) know that Baker was not just a sex symbol, but the international celebrity of her time — “think Beyonce 1927” — a woman who would also go on to become an undercover spy for the Allies in World War 2.
This quick bit of exposition sets us up to meet the badass herself, but also perfectly encapsulates how Baker is remembered to history — first, as a sex symbol; then, as a legendary performer; and finally, in footnotes, as a daring Resistance spy and lauded military veteran. Nearly a century after Josephine Baker took Paris by storm, we’re in a time when the coexistence of scathing political commentary and fun fashion tips in the same periodical is seen by some as so unexpected as to inspire riffs on the same joke, hour after hour, on social media. Yet in three short scenes with Josephine Baker, “Timeless” shows us how easy it is to be simultaneously a glamorous midriff-baring showgirl, a badass spy, and a thoughtful confidante.
That this episode aired just over 24 hours after Lady Gaga’s thinkpiece-provoking Super Bowl Halftime show is yet another instance of the uncanny way this series airs the perfect episodes at the perfect dates and times, almost as if the writers have access to a time machine themselves. Josephine Baker combined sex, politics, consumerism (she made enough selling eponymous skin tint and hair pomade to buy a mansion), and joie de vivre in a way that set the stage for women as diverse as Beyonce, Rihanna, Nikki Minaj, FKA Twigs, Amber Rose, and Blac Chyna.
Along with being basically the most rad person in the world at that time, here we see not only her skill in performing but also the empathy and quick people-reading skills that must have been assets for her later career as a spy. The best scene, in a slam-dunk of an episode is the quiet moment between Lucy and Josephine: Most of their time journeys find Lucy Preston almost exclusively in the company of men; if memory serves, the last major female historical figure she connected with was Bonnie Parker. It is crucial, then, that her moment of reflection comes with another singular woman — that it’s Josephine Baker makes Lucy, basically, the luckiest girl in Paris.
The show is building up for a climactic showdown between the Time Team and Rittenhouse’s seemingly endless supply of interchangeable white dudes in white shirts and ties. Like any good drama, we need a calm before the storm. Lucy’s self-described quicksand life has left her flailing — nearly murdered in an oven one week, blasting Jesse James away the next. But Josephine’s words help her, finally, begin to reframe her life.
The titular Lost Generation doesn’t mean what Lucy assumes; aimless, confused, not sure what’s right or wrong. As Josephine explains, it “Doesn’t mean aimless…. [It] means battered, broke down, but getting ready to stand back up. There’s a difference.”
Balancing the gender scales, Lucy and Rufus also meet up with the machismo and alcohol-drenched Ernest Hemingway (Brandon Barash), and it is in his company that Rufus has his own catharsis. Both team members emerge from their time in Paris more sure of where they stand, better prepared to face the inevitable showdown with Rittenhouse to come.
Pro tip: you can learn more about Baker’s fascinating story and effect on popular culture in — where else? — Vogue.
“Timeless” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.