“Who the hell ever said easy and right were the same thing?”
The backbone — and goofiest part — of “Timeless” is the way each week’s history lesson dovetails perfectly with the emotional state of its characters: Last week’s encounter with a serial killer solidified Lucy’s (Abigail Spencer) inner strength, and this week she’s given a lesson in morality from the man who inspired one of pop culture’s most morally upright heroes: The Lone Ranger.
As those who missed Leslie Jones’s gleeful plug on last week’s “SNL” may not have already known, the man who inspired the Lone Ranger was a black Federal Marshall named Bass Reeves. Brought to life for perhaps the first time on film by the perfectly cast Colman Domingo, Reeves emanates a particularly masculine brand of decency. He’s introduced to the show via a labyrinthine plot, enlisted to help our heroes track Flynn (Goran Visnjic), who in turn has enlisted the unhinged Jesse James (Daniel Lissing) to track down… Well, that’s not really the point.
As always, the point is that just when Lucy and her companions feel they’ve delved as deep as they can into their particular moral quandaries, they find their compasses challenged yet again. What better place to make the choice between white and black hat than in the Wild West?
Which is why the addition of Reeves is so necessary this week. His unwavering decency helps balance the team’s respective spirals, even if his influence can’t stop Lucy from making the fateful decision to straight up murder a man. In her defense: The subject is Jesse James, played here as a sort of 19th century Joker intent exclusively on mayhem.
Also, it was a Trolley Metaphor situation: Killing James means saving others — and of course, he’s supposed to be already dead, so in a “Travelers” kind of way she was just restoring history to its proper conclusion.
We get hints at what brought her to this point in the form of waking dreams of her absent sister, and the dull glazed look Spencer has in her eye for much of the episode. Three episodes ago, Lucy likely felt she’d reached the nadir of her downward spiral — only to find herself trapped in a murder oven last week, and now facing off with a spree killer with a machine gun. Of course she killed him; given everything she’s lived through and her now-precarious connection with linear time, what can death even mean to her anymore?
With our heroine taking on shades of grey (and it must be noted, a breathtaking new goth-Victorian aesthetic), the entire show must slide itself over, to keep Lucy somewhere near the moral center. To this end, Flynn completes his transition from “sorta mysterious antihero who just misses his family” to “Ed Harris in ‘Westworld’,” embracing the nihilism of temporary BFF Jesse James: Murdering not just for Rittenhouse reasons, or even self-defense, but just for the pure delight of the kill.
With everyone dipping into their respective downward spirals, thank goodness we have Reeves as the ever-constant reminder of what morality really is. The show cannily includes his frequent collaborator, another Marshall named Grant Johnson (Zahn McClarnon from “Fargo” and “Longmire”) who, being part Native American, is perhaps the inspiration for the Lone Ranger’s unfortunately named sidekick. McClarnon, like Domingo, instantly grounds his character as a real man who’s lived through a lot, but still retains a sense of decency.
It’s a sure bet the Wikipedia pages for both Reeves and Johnson will see a sudden surge of interest this week, as well they should. “Timeless” has the honor and responsibility to carefully select which historic personages become more widely known, and including those historically marginalized is clearly part of the show’s vision for the show: These Marshals join past guests Katherrine Johnson, Nonhelema, and Sophia Hayden, all lesser-known badasses who deserve wider recognition.
This subtext is even made text when, upon their farewell, Rufus encourages Reeves to share his story more widely — so that future generations will know his name. Reeves, ever tactful, explains that he doesn’t do this for the glory… Before literally riding off into the sunset.
This moment carries perhaps more weight than the usual farewells our characters offer their temporary historical companions: Rufus’s delight at learning about Reeves, similar to the glee expressed by Leslie Jones, is reason enough for this show to continue on its peculiar, vital course to introduce a primetime audience to history’s greatest hidden figures.
“Timeless” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.