SPOILERS below the cut
The catalyst for everything that happens in 11.22.63 should have tipped me off that this mini-series would have fundamental flaws. The main character travels back to 1960 to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. How? Through a time portal in the back room of a diner.
As a means of time travel it’s more suited to a fairy tale or a sketch comedy than a serious drama. The script doesn’t even bother to distract us from how arbitrary a plot device it is. But for the first few episodes, the contrivance is forgivable because it efficiently ushers us into the unabashed fun that the premise creates. In one of his periodic shifts sideways into unexpected jobs for a movie star, James Franco plays Jake Epping, a Maine schoolteacher recruited by his old friend Al (Chris Cooper), owner of the diner, to save JFK. He moves to Texas and spends three years preparing, including by spying on Lee Harvey Oswald. If he determines that Oswald acted alone, Jake will kill him to change the future.
The opening episodes have a Back to the Future appeal as we watch Franco adjust to life in the early 1960s, often failing to hide his 21st century perspectives and speech pattern. Watching him track down alleged key players in the assassination conspiracy has a meta thrill. This period of American political history has become so culturally iconic that it feels mythical and almost fictional in what a strange loose end it remains. 11.22.63 understands how exciting it would be to follow a contemporary of ours crossing that divide and watching it unfold around him.
And Franco is certainly modern. His provocatively fluid career – where he leaps between mediums, combining acting in mainstream comedies with directing weird micro-budget dramas and cameoing in daytime soaps – marks him as a different kind of star to those of the ‘60s, transgressing boundaries rather than excelling within one set. Casting Franco draws on our real-world knowledge of his career to amplify our sense of displacement. It helps that he’s at his most sincere and engaging rather than mocking his experiment from the inside.
But as episodes roll on and subplots emerge and conclude (the second episode is a terrific stand-alone but only connects with the rest of the story thematically), unease sets in as characters start to do stupid things to generate plot obstacles. This ramps up to alarm when, as soon as Jake realises with certainty that killing Oswald will save JFK, he’s beaten up by a bookie and forgets what he was doing. He spends the next episode looking for prompts to remind him what his mission is, wasting our time merely to crawl back to where we were before. Memory loss as a plot complication needs to be intrinsic to the premise or move the story forward in a way no other mechanism could. Otherwise it’s narrative suicide, tarnishing the story’s positive achievements. 11.22.63 verges on the latter.
As the climax gears up, it becomes clear the characters will avoid an unavoidable question: why do Al and Jake assume that saving JFK will improve the world? Al himself cites the butterfly effect, which posits not just that changing a single event can have far-reaching consequences but that even a positive change may precipitate unintended negative ones. It is massively irresponsible and idiotic for two ordinary people, accountable to no-one, to change the course of history and have any confidence that their actions will inevitably do good. Hopeful as I was that someone close to Jake would raise this objection, from the beginning the spectre of him returning to a ravaged 2016 in the finale loomed.
And that is exactly what happened. The final episode is a narrative disaster. Kennedy’s survival had a near-apocalyptic outcome and Jake hasn’t considered this possibility once. However, there’s no real peril to the sequence because the time portal always sends him to the same point in 1960 and erases the effects of all prior trips. We know he can just step back through, reset the past, and return to his original future as easily as flicking a light switch.
Well, he doesn’t have to return to the future in order to restore it. He could stay in 1960 if he wanted. During the series, he falls in love with local school librarian Sadie (Sarah Gadon) but she dies in the final shootout with Oswald. As soon as Jake returns to 1960 to reset his mistake, beyond all probability he sees Sadie in Maine, on the other side of the country from where they originally met. In an astronomical coincidence, she’s visiting cousins in Jake’s home town that day and even drives past him moments after he emerges from the portal. Not particularly astonished by this improbability, Jake introduces himself and evidently considers staying in 1960 so they can fall in love again.
Then Time-Loop Guy (Kevin J. O’Connor) shows up. Having appeared meaningfully only once before to wail something about being tragically stuck in an endless loop trying to change a certain event and never succeeding, he now insists that Jake is in the same boat and Sadie will inevitably die if he remains in the past with her.
Hang on, what? Who is this guy and why is any of this guaranteed? It’s a desperate contrivance so Jake pays some kind of cost now that he’s easily fixed every other problem, but it makes no sense. Jake refusing to save JFK means Sadie won’t be killed by Oswald. Even if the problem is that the timeline will course correct, why would it revert to the changes Jake brought about when the original timeline has already been restored? And if Sadie’s death will happen again, wouldn’t JFK survive too? But no, he returns to his original future.
And why is Time-Loop Guy drawn to Jake, no matter where he is in the country? Although the rules of the diner portal are entirely arbitrary (you return two minutes after you left, for instance), they’d be forgivable if other, unrelated time travel rules weren’t also rammed into the script to force the desired outcome. At the end of eight hours, we’re expected to accept that our protagonist will turn down a life with the person he loves because of an inevitability that seems anything but. Not contaminating the timeline as he did before would actually be a pretty good motivation, but it never comes up.
The O’Connor character (credited as the Yellow Card Man, as per the novel) suggests a more substantial architecture to the story’s time travel lore that the adaptation largely excised. He sticks out like a vestige from an early, longer draft, responsible for a climactic decision despite the script leaving out the groundwork for such a pivotal role.
So in the end, none of the series really mattered, narratively or thematically. Jake’s efforts had no consequences except that he loved and lost, eliminating any potential resonance or thematic value. 11.22.63 amounts to little more than a time travel ride fueled by nostalgia when it could have been a more insightful analysis of our relationship with a past we never lived or a metaphor for the sacrifice required by service to something greater. But without a compelling reason for why Jake has to lose what he does, even that option is squandered.
Why such a huge production was mounted for a story that amounts to so little is baffling. That’s not to say there aren’t elements to enjoy, from the immersion in conspiracy lore, the 60s milieu, and some terrific performances (Josh Duhamel and T.R. Knight are actually scary in this). But it needed to be in service of something greater than what ultimately feels like an elaborate creative writing exercise.