In 1942, science-fiction author Isaac Asimov laid out the three rules of fictional robotics: a robot can’t harm a human being, a robot must obey the orders of human beings, and a robot must protect itself. Subsequent writers in the genre have since had the option of adopting these rules as their own or fighting back against them, but there’s no arguing that Asimov clearly established a common groundwork. Unfortunately, the same thing has never happened for time travel. Every time travel story basically makes up its own rules. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly totally changes his family’s history, while Terminator’s Kyle Reese only ends up fathering his own commander. Without a standard playbook, it’s up to each individual time-travel story to establish its own rules and then (hopefully) keep them consistent.
This is the task of the first episode of 11.22.63. Viewers familiar with the show’s promotional campaign (or the bestselling Stephen King novel it’s adapting) know that they’d be watching the story of modern man Jake Epping (James Franco) traveling back to the 1960s in an attempt to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Thankfully, the show established its groundwork fairly quickly, and lost no time introducing some interesting complications.
11.22.63 opens in unexpected fashion, with an old man’s face staring into the camera, telling the story of “the day that changed my life”: Halloween, 1960. The story starts off with cute memories of Halloween candy (“I loved Zagnut Bars. My sister loved Baby Ruth bars”) but quickly turns dark: “I don’t love Halloween anymore.” Cut in quick, scary cuts of the man’s father brutally killing his family with a hammer. Right off the bat, the show not only establishes that it is definitely a Stephen King story, but also paints the Kennedy era as one full of real darkness, murder, and betrayal, rather than the one-dimensional nostalgic Camelot sometimes enshrined in American memory. History is personal, and it’ll probably be important going forward in this story to remember how easily the events of one day can drastically change lives.
The man is named Harry, a student in Jake’s present-day creative writing night class. Jakes warmly praises the story for being honest and powerful, and promises to write Harry a letter of recommendation for a promotion (he works at the school, apparently).
The next scene introduces a vitally important character: Al Templeton, the owner of Jake’s favorite greasy spoon. Jake comes to this diner so often Al is even on good terms with Jake’s ex-wife, Christy. Christy’s not there to eat Al’s mysteriously low-priced burgers, though; she’s got official divorce papers for Jake to notarize. Al disappears into the back of the diner, ostensibly to give the couple some privacy, and a few meaningful glances and vague sentences are all the insight we get into Jake and Christy’s relationship. His dad died while he was on a plane to see her; she loved his writing, which seems to have stalled; they part amicably. (By the way, now that it’s clear Jake’s not just a writing teacher but a dabbler himself, those keeping track at home on their Stephen King Story Bingo Card can cross off “author protagonist.”)
Now the real story begins. Moments after Christy leaves, Al returns, but he appears a different man. He’s wearing completely different clothes (a tan jacket instead of a button-down shirt), his formerly clean-shaven face is haggard and grimy, his hair is much grayer, and most importantly, he’s busy coughing blood into a napkin. Jake is perplexed by Al’s sudden change in appearance, and even more so when Al collapses with nothing more than an “oh shit.”
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Cut to Al’s home, and a framed picture of him as a younger man in the army surrounded by buddies. Jake helped Al home after his collapse, and in return his friend promises to explain everything — such as how he managed to get cancer in the span of five minutes.
The next day, back in his classroom, Jake offers his view on history. He’s showing his students a graphic video on the victims of electro-shock therapy (another preemptive reminder that the ’60s weren’t always very rosy). “People tend to think the important stories are wars, elections, political movements, but these people matter. Little things matter,” says Jake, sounding not a little like historian Howard Zinn. One of Jake’s students was focused on something even more little than this, however: a video of a bird dancing to Icona Pop’s “I Love It.” The student promises to send Jake the video.
Jake returns to Al’s diner to take him up on his explanation promise. Al’s response takes a page out of the writing teacher’s playbook: show, don’t tell. Rather than droning on and on, he begins his explanation by having Jake walk into a closet to see things for himself. Sure enough, this doorway transports Jake back to the Maine of 1960, complete with milkmen, kids playing baseball, and a cool-looking car straight out of Grease. Oh, and there’s a weird-looking guy who repeatedly tells Jake “you shouldn’t be here,” a harrowing enough experience that Jake immediately returns the way he came back to Al’s diner. Al’s hunch was correct: seeing things firsthand helps Jake quickly accustom himself to the sci-fi concepts in play. He immediately asks if the door is some kind of “time portal”; Al prefers to call it a “rabbit hole.”
NEXT: The rules of time travel
Here, then, are the rules of this time travel, according to Al:
After the rules, it’s up to personal interpretation. Al is under the impression that history can be changed. Specifically, he wants to prevent the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Citing the “butterfly effect,” Al believes that saving Kennedy would also save his brother Robert F. Kennedy (also assassinated, in 1968 while running for president) and more importantly, might prevent the Vietnam War. Al, like many historians, blames Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson for escalating the U.S. military’s involvement in Vietnam. Al’s voice breaks as he insists that with Kennedy, “those boys would’ve lived,” reminding viewers of that army photo in his house.
Jake argues that trying to change the past is arrogant. After all, Al does seem to be laboring under some misapprehensions about the butterfly effect. There are two definitions of the term: one, from chaos theory, refers to the concept that small changes (like a butterfly beating its wings) lead to big ones (like a hurricane). The other comes from Ray Bradbury’s The Sound of Thunder, in which a time traveler accidentally steps on a butterfly in the past, setting off a series of minute changes throughout history that radically reconfigure his present. Neither of those bode well for the outcome of altering so momentous a historical event as the Kennedy assassination.
Al, however, is insistent. In his words, “you save Kennedy’s life, you make a better world, you little shit.” To prove that history can be altered via this portal, Al has Jake carve ‘JFK’ into a tree outside the diner. When Jake returns to the present, that carving is indeed intact outside the diner.
Jake still isn’t sure what to make of all this and takes a break from time-traveling conspiracy theories to attend the graduation ceremony of his night class. Jake cheers for Harry walking across the stage and trades barbs with Alice, a bitter school employee. Something about Alice’s manner convinces Jake to return to Al.
The Kennedy assassination is one of the biggest sources of conspiracy theories in the 20th century, and Al is well-versed in all of them. He shows Jake a room, covered Carcosa-like in all manner of newspaper clippings, Zapruder film screenshots, and Dallas dioramas. Al’s main interest is in the 1963 assassination attempt on General Edwin Walker, who was shot at by the same make of rifle that killed Kennedy. Al’s task for Jake is to go back and see if Lee Harvey Oswald shot at Walker as well. If so, that would peg Oswald as the Kennedy killer, conspiracies be damned, and Jake can take him out to save history.
Jake still isn’t sure, though, not least because Al seems oddly dismissive about the man who accosted Jake on both trips. “Don’t worry about the yellow-card man, he’s not important,” Al says. His indication of familiarity doesn’t exactly provide reassurance to Jake. He and Al get into an argument, Al arguing that this is a chance for Jake to finally do something with his life, Jake insisting that “just because you wasted your life on this, it doesn’t mean that I have to.” Even though Al ostensibly wants to save Kennedy in order to prevent the escalation of the Vietnam War, his logic here is very similar to the one used by U.S. authorities in Vietnam. At a certain point, the American government had invested so many resources (time, money, soldiers) into the Vietnam conflict that they stubbornly refused to abandon their goal, even after the war was clearly a waste. Al’s line “you might do something with your life, not just talk about it” sounds like it came straight from an army recruiter.
Eventually, Jake relents. He ventures to 1960, armed with helpful tips (get a shave, wear a suit), a dossier of relevant conspiracy data, and important sports scores (to sustain himself on gambling). He immediately finds that Al’s nostalgic insistence that food tasted better in 1960 is actually true. A stop at a diner brings him not only the best pie he’s ever tasted, but also an encounter with a much younger Alice. “Try to stay sweet,” he tells her before moving on to the next items on his list.
NEXT: The past pushes back
Jake naively mishandles his first attempt at sports gambling. When he offers to lay down $100 on 35-to-1 boxing odds, the entire shady bar goes silent. Things get even worse when the improbable bet goes Jake’s way (as history said it would). Luckily, when his shady betting partners track Jake to a nearby motel, he’s able to escape thanks to a well-timed use of… that stupid video of the parrot dancing to “I Love It.” Denizens of the ’60s didn’t exactly have a reference for viral videos.
Jake immediately skedaddles in his new car, but not before catching one last glimpse of the mysterious “yellow-card man” (who remains eerily silent this time around). Jake throws his smartphone into a river (so there will be no use of that “Get Out of Jail Free” card a second time) and heads down south. He encounters a Richard Nixon campaign billboard declaring “They Can’t Lick Our Dick!” This show about the importance of saving Kennedy certainly doesn’t miss an opportunity for potshots at his 1960 presidential opponent. More ominously, Jake also has his first run-in with racial segregation when he almost walks into a “Colored” bathroom.
Scouting out an important assassination locale, Jake enjoys some flirtatious banter with a book-loving blonde. Together they discuss their shared love of The Manchurian Candidate (although Jake briefly forgets he’s arrived two years before the film version) and Of Mice and Men (the real-life Jake, James Franco, starred in a production of the John Steinbeck novella a few years back). The conversation ends badly for Jake when it’s revealed he’s been flirting with a married woman. “You’re gonna feel apart from other people,” Jake remembers Al telling him. “That doesn’t go away.”
Al’s voiceover tells Jake something ominous as well: The past doesn’t want to be changed. “If you do something that really f—s with the past, the past f—s with you,” Al apparently told Jake. Unlike Back to the Future, this universe’s space-time continuum apparently has some built-in defenses against time paradoxes. When Jake attempts to contact his father in Chicago (the same father whose death he missed while visiting Christy), he gets nothing but static… and then a car, careening through the phone booth he’d just been standing in moments earlier. The car’s dead woman driver comes back alive just long enough to tell Jake, “You shouldn’t be here.”
Jake’s staying at a new bed-and-breakfast Al told him about. In the lobby the next day, he encounters the owner’s son in military garb, insisting that he wants to serve his country. Jake looks at the boy knowing that in the current history, the boy will probably end up dead in a jungle far from home. Doubling down on purpose, Jake remembers the next mission Al sent for him: tailing George de Mohrenschildt, a good friend of Lee Harvey Oswald’s, and uncovering if he was the likely assassin’s CIA handler. Tailing de Mohrenschildt brings Jake to a Kennedy campaign rally. Jake is initially able to sneak past security, but then gets another dose of “you shouldn’t be here.” Trying to escape guards brings Jake into a dead-end, a room bathed in red siren lights, covered with teeming cockroaches. All in all, it looks like a nightmare realm, where space and time are breaking down. Jake escapes only to immediately end up in the clutches of much-less-nightmarish Kennedy security.
After charming his way past these captors, Jake continues his pursuit of de Mohrenschildt, following him to a high-profile Dallas restaurant. Al isn’t sure what, but knows this dinner is important because when he went he felt the past push back. He suspects this was the night de Mohrenschildt was contacted by the CIA on the first step in a complex assassination scheme that led to Oswald and the grassy knoll, all of which Jake needs to confirm. Jake too, gets some pushback from the past. Per Al’s instructions, he avoids a violent fight outside and an accidental fire inside, but has to fend for himself against a collapsing ceiling and a loud bartender. Even so, he successfully completes his mission, and learns that the men meeting with de Mohrenschildt are, indeed, “the goddamn CIA.” Upon returning home, however, he finds the bed and breakfast on fire, with all his papers inside. The owner’s son, that bright young military recruit, is burnt to a crisp. Is that charred corpse really any better an outcome than Vietnam? Welcome to time travel, Jake.
Via time-travel arithmetic, Jake decides one tragic small historical change might be justified by another, positive one. Bringing the episode full circle, Jake heads to Humboldt, Kentucky and watches a young Harry with his soon-to-be homicidal father. There’s still about three years until the all-important title date. Looks like Jake might have some time for some Sliding Doors-style acts of heroism.