“Why don’t you just go back and save your family?”
“Like how you want to save your wife?”
Breaking from the previous format, the Nov. 14 episode of “Timeless” breaks its characters into two groups of two: Lucy (Abigail Spencer) and Rufus (Malcolm Bennett) in a race against time to prevent the Watergate Tapes from falling into the wrong hands, leaving Wyatt (Matt Lanter) held hostage by the show’s villain/hero Flynn (Goran Visnjic).
The quote above emerges during the first part of a conversation between the latter men, both still actively grieving the horrific loss of loved ones, both with access to time machines, both responding in different ways to similar situations: Wyatt holds firm to the party line, that this show’s version of time travel strictly prohibits going back into a timeline in which you are already a part. Flynn, with nothing to lose, is intent on destroying the entire criminal organization which put out the hit on his family — and if that burns down the world? So be it.
This sixth episode of the freshman season raises the stakes at just the right time. We’ve spent the past five episodes acquainting ourselves with the show’s conceits, learning what to expect of determined Lucy, anxious Rufus, and stalwart Wyatt, and firmly placing ourselves on their side of whatever nebulous enemy they’re up against. This episode throws it all into chaos, by foregrounding the heretofore only vaguely referenced “Rittenhouse.”
Joining the ranks of nebulously understood plot device organizations like “Alias’s” Rambaldi, “Revenge’s” Initiative, and “Pretty Little Liars’s” Carissimi Group, Rittenhouse is a classic bad-guy organization: Nobody tunes in to learn these entities’ infrastructures, but their suit-wearing gatekeepers are always reliable for throwing around veiled threats that send our protagonists scurrying. “Timeless,” to its credit, knows this — and until the final twist, confines the character known only as Rittenhouse Agent (John Getz) to limousine blackmail scenes.
Every show eventually requires some exposition: Here, at least, it comes via the always smoldering Visnjic, in a monologue that’s equal parts Bond Villain Denouement and Disney’s Beast Soliloquy. In quick succession we learn the details of his family’s death, the involvement of Rittenhouse in same, how that has propelled him to his current hobby of time terrorism, and perhaps how it led him to becoming Lucy’s future time partner and possessor of her maybe-diary.
At the end of this speech Wyatt asks why he doesn’t just go back, and undo his family’s massacre — and we realize Wyatt’s fallen into the trap Flynn has set for him. Lucy and Rufus, dispensed of early in the episode for 1970s Deep Throat and BLA-related investigations, are only a MacGuffin here: Flynn’s real target is getting Wyatt on his side.
…Or is it? In a series of double- and triple-crosses which again resemble nothing so much as “Alias” at its most brain-burning, the episode ends mostly status quo, with our trio back together (if much more paranoid of one another than they were before), Flynn still a lone wolf time disruptor, and Lucy’s sister (remember her?) still non-existent.
But none of that is the point, here. In an episode that coincidentally aired in the wake not only of a momentous election, but also a stunning reveal on “Westworld” and opening weekend for the similarly-themed “Arrival,” “The Watergate Tapes” airs at the perfect possible time: Of course this is the time period explored in an episode all about deception and deceit at the highest levels, and of course Lucy’s unknown father is unmasked to be Rittenhouse Agent — and of course she doesn’t know that’s who he is, because this show has already solidly build up its brand: Unsubtle delightfulness.
That there was room amid all the above for an entire scene taking place in a literal Time Travel Agent Wardrobe Area, and for Rufus to unbutton his hugely-labeled shirt to infiltrate the Black Liberation Army, and for someone to rightly compliment/burn Lucy by comparing her to Laurie Partridge, is more background that “Timeless” knows just what it’s doing.
If any of us could go back in time, would we? And what would we change, if we could? None of us have the chance to consider these as anything other than rhetorical questions, and so we must find a way to accept that what’s happened is as it should be; followed to its logical conclusion, this means that, given the chance to go back in time, we would actively protect the status quo. Believing that everything that has happened has brought us to where we are today is the first step to getting through to tomorrow, accepting where we are, bracing ourselves for the future.
For Flynn, that’s not enough. He chooses not to return to the moment of his personal devastation, but rather to destroy all the history that led to it. Wyatt, alone with Flynn, is tempted to consider a similar route to save his wife. Rufus, caught in a web of his own deceit, wouldn’t have just one decision to retroactively re-do.
Lucy has not yet truly been tested in this respect; sure, she wavered in saving special guest star Abraham Lincoln that one time, but her Achilles Heel is her evaporated sister. If she had to burn down the world to bring her back, our sense is she’d at least strongly consider the possibility. And with Rittenhouse’s clear vested interest in her survival, her facing down this choice is starting to feel more than a little inevitable.
“Timeless” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.