Jake takes a break from saving Kennedy to help an old friend from Kentucky
The second episode of 11.22.63 opens with a reminder we’re still a few years out from the infamous title date. It’s now Oct. 29, 1960, and Jake Epping is feeling a little disillusioned with his time travel quest. The harrowing events at the end of the first episode (where the past appeared to fight back against his meddling by burning down the bed and breakfast at which he was staying) have inspired him to take a brief detour from foiling the Kennedy assassination to do something a little smaller. When he was still an English teacher in the present day, Jake had instructed his students that history isn’t just about big events, but also the normal people just trying to live their lives. Jake’s now taking his own lesson to heart. The series opened with school janitor Harry Dunning telling the story of how his father murdered the rest of his family on Halloween night, 1960. Jake just happens to be right in time to do some good.
The Harry of 1960 is a long ways away from the hollow-eyed, slow-speaking janitor Jake knew. He’s a quiet, diminutive kid suffering from the bullies of Holden, Ky. Jake first encounters him at a local corner store, where Harry has an emergency pair of shorts stashed since the bullies keep taking his pants. Jake asks the store owner, Harry’s confidant, for a place in town he can stay for a few nights. This man is the first of many surprised that an out-of-town visitor would be at all interested in a little hamlet like Holden. Saving the little guy, it appears, is difficult when the little guy’s so used to indifference from the outside world.
Luckily, Mr. and Mrs. Price keep a room open in their house for men in town who need a place to stay. Mrs. Price is a God-fearing woman suspicious of Jake’s writing-a-book cover story (“aren’t most writers communists?”) but agrees to let him stay, so long as he doesn’t bring any girls or food into his room. Mrs. Price explains her strict payment requirements: $3 in advance. Once again, Jake is delighted by pre-inflation ‘60s pricing.
Since most of Jake’s important papers (his newspaper clippings, his data from Al) were burned in the fire, he resorts to laying on his bed and reciting Harry’s story to himself. Jake remembers Harry saying his sister Ellen was “a real Lucille Ball” who could make anyone laugh, even their father when he was sober. “When he was drunk, he was always mad.” Focusing on this detail, Jake heads out for a bar to see if he can drum up Frank Dunning.
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Upon arrival at Sammy’s Townhouse, Jake immediately asks the young bartender, a boy named Bill, about Frank, throwing off a flimsy cover story that he was told to look Frank up if he ever passed through Holden. The young man is visibly uncomfortable, the first indication that Frank had something of a reputation in town even before the grisly murders. Jake takes a seat with his beer just as a swarm of rowdy men pile in and accost Bill for faster service. It’s these bros who finally summon Frank from the shadows. Harry’s father is surprisingly charismatic and unfazed by Jake asking for him. He sits down at a table with Jake and his boisterous friends, Calvin and Dickey.
Jake chums up with Frank and pals the only way he knows how: quoting James Agee. Agee’s 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men chronicles the lives of Depression-era sharecroppers, and Jake sees a clear connection between these “little guys at the bottom, struggling in the dirt” and Frank’s crew. Like many a privileged hipster intellectual before him, Jake thinks this makes them more “real” somehow. One of Frank’s buddies makes a crack about the Dunning patriarch sleeping on the couch. Jake is concerned by Frank’s brusque response to these cracks and tries reaching out to him, one divorced man to another. Frank brushes him off, saying he’s not divorced. Declaring that “every writer needs a great chapter 1,” Frank and his buddies instead take Jake for a car ride.
In the car, as Calvin and Dickey sleep, Frank interrogates Jake’s cover story. Jake had told Mrs. Price that his fictional book was an Agee-like chronicle of the common man; now he changes it to a ghost story. Frank asks what it’s called. Halloweentown, Jake replies, to much laughter. Stephen King apparently isn’t a big Disney Channel fan.
NEXT: Some men don’t have what it takes
Their destination turns out to be an empty slaughterhouse on a rainy night. So classic Halloween fun. Frank buys off the night guard with a couple cigarettes and explains to Jake that his family has been in the meat business for generations. Frank’s grandfather was a roving butcher, and his father worked in the slaughterhouse. Neither of them had what Frank calls the “worst job you could possibly have:” working the hide cellar. He opens the door to a room of animal hides covered in enough swarming flies to make men go insane. His creepy talk of flies laying eggs in workers’ ears is reminiscent of the creepy scene with the cockroaches from the first episode, when Jake infiltrated a Kennedy campaign stop. Perhaps bugs are some kind of time cop; at the very least, they serve to creep Jake out a lot.
Incoming episode title alert! Frank takes Jake to the “kill floor,” the room where the eponymous slaughtering happens. Frank says his dad used to be nicknamed the “Bambino” because it only took him one hammer swing to kill a cow, a Midnight in Paris-style reminder that every era is nostalgic for the past. Jake talked a big game earlier with all his Agee quotes about the common man; now, Frank wants to see if he really has what it takes to be “one of us, struggling in the dirt.” For inspiration, Frank tells Jake to think of “that bitch ex-wife of yours.” Jake ultimately declines to slaughter the innocent cow, which doesn’t bode well. The success of his mission depends on killing men like Lee Harvey Oswald (and possibly Frank) before they commit their historical atrocities, when they’re still innocent cows.
Jake realizes this and decides to try a different route. He visits the Dunning house posing as the deliverer of good news, telling Frank’s wife, Doris, (and the young Harry) that they’ve won an all-expenses-paid Halloween vacation.
Back at the Price home, Jake ends up in a conversation with Mr. Price about his war service. Mrs. Price is proud of her husband’s accomplishments as a war hero — serving under Gen. Eisenhower, winning a Bronze Star — but he brushes them off. He asks Jake if he served. Jake once again turns to pop culture to save him, replying that he served in Korea in the M.A.SH. unit. Then Jake knows the truth, Mr. Price says: There’s no such thing as a “war hero.” Clearly still contemplating his mission, Jake asks if doing terrible things to make the world a better place doesn’t count as “a kind of heroism.” Mr. Price responds with the story of his Bronze Star. When he and his unit were trapped behind enemy lines in Sicily, Mr. Price came upon a napping Nazi soldier. Rather than simply moving on, Mr. Price brutally drowned the soldier, who couldn’t have been more than 17 years old. Later, he found out his commanding officer nominated him for the Bronze Star. “The best thing you can say about killing a man,” Mr. Price tells Jake, “is that it’s ‘brave.’”
Suddenly Frank’s at the door. Mrs. Price recognizes him warily; the store owner did tell Jake their room was mostly for “fellas with wife problems,” after all. Frank apologizes for the weirdness of the slaughterhouse visit and wants to make it up to Jake by taking him to his own butcher shop. Frank tells Jake his favorite part about owning his own butcher shop is making his own rules. “When rules are broken, there’s a price,” Frank says, unknowingly echoing Al’s warnings about the past fighting back against changes. This isn’t a pleasant hangout after all, as Frank reveals his wife standing in the back room with a black eye. Frank interprets Jake’s giveaway ruse as an attempt to seduce his wife, so he beats up Jake and throws him out of the shop.
Somewhat less conflicted about killing now, Jake runs to go buy a gun. The older woman who owns the gun shop initially refuses to sell him a gun because of the suspicious circumstances but then reveals she’s just kidding. Jake can buy five guns for all she cares. America: same as it ever was.
NEXT: Happy Halloween, Frank Dunning
Al isn’t around to take questions, but Jake has vivid memories of their previous conversations. He recalls Al’s tales of trying to help a little girl avoid a hunting accident until problems kept popping up every time. Jake has only Al’s experience to go off. He’s a bit like the Envoy in The Left Hand of Darkness, alone in an alien world with nothing but the scattered reports of previous covert investigators to help him. And this investigator thinks the past gave him cancer to stop him from interfering.
It’s no cancer, but Jake does wake up Halloween morning with some disturbing food poisoning. He pukes in the sink, bathed in the red lights that seem to indicate the past is angry. He asks the befuddled clerk for Gatorade and then quickly settles for the ‘60s equivalent of cold medicine. Refusing to let these slow him down, Jake takes his new gun and sets up a watchful position outside the front door of the Dunning home. There, he runs into none other than Bill the bartender. Bill, apparently, is on a mission, too. He says that before Harry and Doris, Frank had been married to his older sister, Clara, and killed her 12 years ago. In order to placate a knife-wielding Bill, Jake reveals he’s from the future. Bill immediately points out a hole in Jake’s story, however: it’s already 8:05 p.m., five minutes after Frank’s supposed arrival. At first Jake thinks he may have interfered enough to stop it, but then Doris screams. Frank went in the back door.
Coming up the back door, Jake runs into the young Harry and tells him to stay inside his room while he heads to the parents’ bedroom. Now it’s Frank’s turn to be the person from the past telling Jake “you shouldn’t be here.” Jake fires his new gun into Frank’s shoulder to stop him from killing Doris, but it’s not enough to slow the butcher down. Frank slaps the gun away and takes a swing with his weapon, the slaughterhouse hammer. The two men grapple back and forth as a terrified Doris looks on. As Frank wrestles Jake to the ground, the time traveler screams at Doris to run. She does, only to be replaced by her young son. Frank screams at Harry to bring him the hammer, but Harry runs away with it down the stairs instead. Frank lunges after him, and that’s when Jake garrotes him from behind with a spare piece of rope. Bill appears at the foot of the stairs just in time to see Jake earn his Bronze Star.
Jake walks out of the house, telling the Dunnings nothing more than “don’t go in the bedroom.” His bloodied visage scares the trick-or-treaters outside, who whisper among themselves about hearing shots fired. Upon his return home, Mrs. Price asks Jake if she needs to call the sheriff. Jake tells her that “no matter what this looks like, I didn’t do a bad thing.” Here, then, is a classic time travel paradox, this one about ethics rather than physics. If you go back in time and kill baby Adolf Hitler, the German citizens of 1889 wouldn’t know that you just prevented the Holocaust. All they’d know is you just shot a baby. Mrs. Price’s religion is to Jake’s benefit here, however. Declaring that God will be the final judge, she sends Jake on his way.
Driving away, Jake is bothered by the literal and figurative blood on his hands. He stops at a streetside faucet to wash his hands of it, reminding himself that Harry, Ellen, and Doris are still alive. That’s when Bill reappears. Holding Jake at gunpoint, the erstwhile bartender holds up one of Jake’s newspaper clippings of the Kennedy assassination. “What the hell is this?” he asks, then tells Jake to get in his car.