It’s all come down to this. After years of preparation, title cards slowly counting down the time, Jake Epping has finally arrived at Nov. 22, 1963, the day of the John F. Kennedy assassination. He and Sadie are armed with historical details (i.e. Lee Harvey Oswald will fire his first shot, and miss, at 12:30 p.m.), though not all of them prove useful in their attempt to change history. After hitting an unexpected police barricade that forces them to abandon their hotwired car, Jake realizes that his presence has already changed history. Time is malleable now, and anything can happen. This makes the appearance of visions (Frank Dunning, Johnny Clayton) even freakier. Time is out of joint.
Oswald is already in position. “They will remember your name,” he tells himself. Even after five episodes with the character, it seems like this is the only motivation we’ll ever get for his attack on Kennedy.
As Jake and Sadie finally reach the book depository where Oswald’s holed up, the scene quickly shifts among different vantage points: Oswald steadying himself, the presidential motorcade approaching the plaza, and other incidental characters so important to Kennedy conspiracy theories. There, for instance, is the Babushka Lady while Abraham Zapruder films the whole thing with his personal camera.
Oswald gets off his first shot (and misses) just as Jake and Sadie burst in. He turns to shoot them. Once again, he misses and loses his opportunity — the Kennedy motorcade gets safely away. But then the door slams shut, trapping Jake and Sadie inside with the assassin — the past can be a real bastard when it gets angry.
Oswald tells Jake he came here to do something important — sounding not unlike Jake himself with his mission. After a few minutes of stalking each other through the rows of boxes, Jake and Oswald finally get into a face-to-face scuffle. Jake grabs the rifle and shoots Oswald dead but not in time to save Sadie. She was shot in the crossfire. Jake wants to run and get help, but she tells him to stay with her. He does so. Police burst in and arrest Jake. He screams at them to help Sadie, but it’s too late. She’s dead. Kennedy is safe but at a great cost.
Jake is arrested and booked — found with two dead people and his fingerprints all over the incriminating rifle, he certainly looks suspicious. Luckily for Jake, FBI Agent Hosty (the one who had been following Oswald over previous weeks) is in the interrogation room. When Jake asks why Hosty didn’t stop Oswald, the agent dismisses the ornery Dallas cop and talks to Jake privately. Hosty tells Jake that American citizens love Kennedy and they’re looking for someone to blame for this scary assassination attempt. Jake promises that if he’s put on trial, he’ll reveal everything he knows about the FBI — not only that they failed to stop Oswald, but that the organization is also spying on the Kennedys. Plus, there’s that little matter of the president’s mistresses. Pay attention in history class, kids!
This only makes Hosty more determined to pin the crime on Jake, but then a call comes through. It’s the president himself, calling to thank Jake for saving his life. We don’t see Kennedy’s face, just hear his voice while Jake gazes at a portrait hanging in the precinct. That’s what Jake was saving, after all — not a physical person so much as an optimistic idea of America that was marred by the violent assassination.
Jake’s name is not publicized, and he gets Agent Hosty to drop him off at the bus station, planning to get back to the rabbit hole in Lisbon and return to the future. Hosty is weirded out by Jake but promises he won’t tear down this image of an American hero. “God knows the country wants a hero,” he tells Jake in full ending-of-The Dark Knight fashion. He asks Jake for his theory on why Oswald wanted to kill Kennedy. No one will ever know, Jake responds. That’s true — Oswald is still a historical enigma. It’s nice that the show didn’t try to shoehorn its interpretation on top of a real historical figure, but on the other hand, it does feel weird to have spent so much time with a character and still know barely anything about him. Oswald’s mother is shown speaking on camera about how her son is still a hero, but there’s no word of Marina or the children.
As Jake waits for his bus, he sees a vision of Sadie — just as he first met her, reading From Here to Eternity on a bench. But then she disappears, like all the others. Jake returns to Lisbon and goes back to the rabbit hole to see what he’s wrought.
NEXT: How it changed
When Jake comes out of the rabbit hole, the light has changed. Al’s diner is gone — just a pile of rubble now. Yep — Jake changed history and came back to a post-apocalyptic world. It’s “A Sound of Thunder” all over again. Al and Jake probably should have boned up on their time travel literature before going on this crazy quest — it would have told them that this was actually a pretty likely outcome.
Jake gets into a tussle with some bandits and runs into his old friend Harry Dunning, now decked out like Mad Max. Harry takes Jake to the damp, underground lair he calls home. After a few minutes, he reveals that he does recognize Jake as the man who saved his family back in 1960. Jake quizzes him about the history of this new timeline. Apparently Kennedy was president for two terms, succeeded by Alabama segregationist George Wallace. Kennedy’s greatest impact, however, apparently came after he was president. In response to bombings, Kennedy founded a bunch of refugee camps, and in the grand tradition of post-apocalyptic camps, they don’t sound like a fun time. “Bad things happened there,” Harry says.
Jake says he just wanted to make a difference — sounding a little like the overconfident, optimistic brain trust that got America involved in the Vietnam War. Good intentions are fine and all, but at a certain point, playing with society on such a macro scale can only lead to trauma.
Obviously, Jake decides, he he needs to reset the timeline. He re-enters the rabbit hole and comes out in 1960. Everything is exactly the same as the previous tries — the milkman dropping his bottle, the girls driving by in a car. Except this time, Jake notices something — Sadie was in that car! They didn’t miss each other in Lisbon after all.
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Running after the car, Jake follows Sadie into the diner. He’s soaked and bedraggled from the Mad Max future but still approaches her, saying they know each other. Before he can get much farther, the Yellow Card Man appears at the window. Jake goes out to confront him. The Yellow Card Man despairs for Jake, telling him that if he keeps pursuing Sadie he’ll be trapped in his own time loop — all his interference will always end in her death. Jake insists that falling in love with Sadie is his true mission in the past. He won’t even bother saving Kennedy this time! But the Yellow Card Man doesn’t change his tune. Sadie comes up to talk to Jake, but this time he listens to the Yellow Card Man’s warning. He tells Sadie he made a mistake and lets her go.
He returns to the rabbit hole — this time, everything is back to normal. Jake, though, is a bit traumatized by his experiences. His students can see something’s wrong. When Harry stops by after class to thank Jake for writing him a recommendation (even though he didn’t get the promotion), Jake breaks down. “I’m sorry I didn’t help you,” he tells Harry. Harry comforts him, and tells him he’s a good man. This is the real scale of heroism — micro, not macro. Smiling at other people, giving them positive affirmation, helping them even when it doesn’t work — that’s how you make the world a better place. Not by throwing all of history into flux in service of a theory.
Jake finally Googles Sadie to see what she’s up to. He sees she’s being honored at a dinner in Jodie — the governor has named her “Texas Woman of the Year.” Jake zips down, and watches an elder Sadie give her acceptance speech. Sadie gets a warm reception from a gym full of her former students, who tell her their lives are better because of the ways she touched them. In her speech, Sadie cites a poem that Deke Simmons used to keep on his desk: “we did not ask for this room, or this music. But because we are here, let us dance.” In her small acts of everyday virtue that helped the lives of so many students, Sadie is the true hero of this story, not Jake — as he would probably be the first to attest.
Jake approaches Sadie afterward and asks for a dance. He asks if she’s had a happy life, and though she admits struggles, she says she has. She’s a little startled by Jake but also charmed. Together they dance in the same gymnasium where they once fell in love — but that was another time, another life.