If you ever watch just one episode of 12 Monkeys — if you’re looking for one prime example of what this modestly-budgeted, cosmically ambitious, sweetly humane Syfy series could accomplish — check out “Die Glocke,” season 4, episode 6.
It’s the episode where the gang travels back to World War II. They sneak into a fancy gala, where some smarmy Nazi grandee is showing off a bunch of artifacts for a gathering of well-heeled fascists. It’s an old-fashioned heist, with every kind of time travel twist. Jennifer (Emily Hampshire) delivers a stirring six-decade-early rendition of P!nk’s “U + Ur Hand,” the scrub-shaming anthem given stirring historical resonance given that the audience includes, um, well, like, Hitler.
Which explains why the French Resistance appears with a plan to blow up the mansion. Which is a problem, because our heroes really need to steal a top secret plot thing. And also, Hitler didn’t get blown up in a mansion, “So to save history, must we save Hitler?” is the kind of question a different show might ponder.
But it’s at this precise moment that Cassie (Amanda Schull) walks into a sub-basement full of Nazis dressed in skimpy bondage gear. It’s an outrageous distraction right out of an old exploitation film, and it goes Full Bloodcamp when Cassie mows down the dazed dummies with a machine gun.
And I really want you to watch this episode, but I’m just going to go ahead and spoil a big final-act turn. The good guys successfully grab the plot thing; it’s a bell shaped like a monkey head. They’re driving away, back to the future. And then — spur of the moment, non sequitur, cherry on top, nothing to do with the mythology, just cuz — they blow up Hitler.
12 Monkeys was about the end of the world. The apocalypse has gone mainstream, so even non-fantastical series feel apocalyptic lately. Yet the mood of this series, which ended its four-season run on Friday, was never bleak, or cynical, the polar style opposite of grim-for-the-sake-of-grim. 12 Monkeys moved fast. Months could pass in an episode, or years. Characters splintered across the timeline, living whole lives in distant pasts, reappearing unexpectedly in various futures. Existential dilemmas were struggled with, gotten over. The laws of time were honored, and broken.
This was a modest thrill ride, with a budget that showed, a small cast, an audience only a little bigger than the cast. Structurally, certain elements of 12 Monkeys were old-fashioned, downright procedural-ish. That Hitler-exploding episode begins with a scene familiar to any casual NCIS viewer: The main characters all huddled around a big table, discussing the week’s case, forming a plan. Past a certain point, rugged James Cole (Aaron Stanford) and his lover/fellow badass Cassie wore identical TV Protagonist costumes, black henleys and dark jeans and fitted leather jackets. Like for real:
Many of the great (and terrible) genre shows in the modern era drift a lot of excitement off the idea of constant change: new settings, expanding worlds, an ever-expanding cast of characters. By necessity but also by purpose, 12 Monkeys held true to certain day-one aspects of itself. Cole was a time traveler from a ruined future, trying to stop the end of the world. He was the muscle for Dr. Katarina Jones (wondrous Barbara Sukowa), the kind of brilliant scientist who tries saving the world but invents something that can only destroy it. In our not-quite-ruined present, he met Cassie, an ideal partner, and Jennifer, a jovial madwoman locked into the very fabric of space-time. In the dark future, he hung out with best pal Ramse (Kirk Acevedo), and morally ambiguous frenemesis Deacon (Todd Stashwick).
They all fought a mysterious force, the Army of the 12 Monkeys. The nature of that army evolved, as 12 Monkeys itself moved beyond its influences. (I apologize to longtime viewers if I get any details of the mythos wrong; part of the fun for me was getting dizzy with the details.) The show shared a name with Terry Gilliam’s great 1995 film, and both drew direct inspiration from Chris Marker’s La Jetée, one of the four works of human art I hope the aliens discover when they arrive on our ruined planet millennia hence. The series was developed by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett, and Matalas was the constant creative force, showrunning the last couple seasons, writer-directing the two-part finale.
Under his guidance, this 12 Monkeys became a soulful cliffhanger opera. Characters would execute elaborate time-heists requiring period-piece attire and gunplay — and then do it all again a week later. The fourth season took trips to Nazi-occupied France, the Wild West, the Medieval era. “I just murdered seven billion people” is something someone said in the finale. “Time will collapse in a matter of hours,” said someone else. The climactic plan required a suicide run straight into a universe-crunching chronopolis. Cole needed some help, so he splintered backwards, picking Ramse out of the past…moments before Ramse’s death.
Of course, Ramse died because Cole killed him. But the loveliest idea powering 12 Monkeys was that the main characters were tossed all across the realms of causality—and remained terminally chill, up for anything. So Ramse agreed to help Cole. They got into a vintage car. Ramse said “I gotta die to a good song, brother,” and Cole kept pushing “forward” on his dad’s old mix CD until they landed on “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” So 12 Monkey was a show where dark-future badasses drove to their final showdown vs. a universe-squashing empress, while the theme song from Dirty Dancing echoed through the end of time.
The spiraling narrative produced a feeling of relentless surprise. When we met Olivia (Alisen Down), she appeared to be the Army’s main Lieutenant, taking orders from a mysterious masked figure called the Witness. But it turned out the Witness…was Olivia herself, though she only figured that out after she’d raised James and Cassie’s son to adulthood. Multiple selves would pile up, and the show had a clever way of subverting even your cleverest expectations. Deacon appeared to die twice in the final season — once they cut off his head! — and he still returned for the finale, brought back from the past to save the future.
Executed poorly, this could’ve gotten repetitive quickly, or felt cheap. But when the finale brought back a couple of dead characters for one last ride, it felt right, inevitable. Deacon and Ramse rejoined the Jones crew for a battle with the forces of Titan. This was a suicide mission in every sense of the word. If they were successful, they would erase James Cole from history. And everyone else would die so that they could live again. All would be rebooted. 12 Monkeys ended by erasing 12 Monkeys.
Matalas had some fun with the staging, the gunfights and stranglefights, the sky across history turning a Crisis on Infinite Earths shade of red. Olivia died grotesquely, her top half beamed back centuries, leaving her waistline spurting blood skyward. Matalas and the writers always had a clever way of honoring their complex canon, even as they cheerfully complicated it. So Olivia won the series-long “Which Character Is The Ancient Plague Skeleton?” sweepstakes.
But what of the revelation that the Deacon from the past was involved in this final future showdown? Here was a character who had existed on either side of the good-bad equation, who at various points had been trying to kill the same people he was helping? “Gonna be a hell of a performance,” said Past Deacon.
He was pretending the whole time should be an unconvincing twist. You bought it from 12 Monkeys, where every character had a little extra spring in their step. Deacon had a love for Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” making him the first gruff apocalypse badass to appreciate le cinema du John Hughes. Jennifer had the harder job, of course: The present-day version of her left after the final battle, preparing for decades of living as a mysterious seer. She treated her farewell as a curtain call. “The actor does not say goodbye to her audience,” she said, “Only ‘good night,’ and then wakes up, and does it all again.” New theory: 12 Monkeys was the story of an acting troupe holding off oblivion one performance at a time.
Cole and Cassie ruminated over their love story, soon to be deleted. “You and me, we didn’t get a lot of time,” said Cole. “But we lived a lifetime together.” I always enjoyed Aaron Stanford’s performance. He had a grizzled professionalism, like Cole was fixing time the way a plumber fixes the sink. (He’s probably the last cosmic hero who will ever look like even vaguely like Kurt Cobain.) Stanford was well-matched by Amanda Schull, who always looked a little sad even when Cassie evolved from everyperson-doctor to supersoldier in season 2. She sold the sadness of this finale the most, reminding you just how much the main characters would lose by winning.
Still, it made sense to me that 12 Monkeys saved its final farewell for another coupling. All their other friends long dead, Cole and Jones shared a final moment. There’s something transcendent about these two: Him the rueful blunt instrument trying to do the right thing, her the sage woman with a plan, both of them trying hard to make things better and usually just making things worse. Sukowa made mad science look Bogart cool, and had the most interesting arc on the show: From no one matters so long as we succeed to we will only succeed when everyone matters.
The doctor was finished programming her machine, was just about expired from a dose of radiation. “How about one more smoke?” suggested Cole. They shared some terse parting words. “I’m glad you’re here with me, at the end,” Cole said. Jones was silent; she died with a smile on her face, sitting at the very table where all her plans finally came to fruition.
The ending of La Jetée is horrifying, the climax of Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys equally downbeat but halfway-hopeful. Savalas’ 12 Monkeys finale had a tough-hearted final act — many partings, homeward bound — but it was more cheerful, a satisfying TV ending, bittersweet but definably sweet. Cassie beamed back to the moment this show began, left with memories of a life (lives?) that never happened. The plague never decimated humanity. Deacon opened a bar, dead children lived again, Jennifer grew a freaking unicorn.
And Cole survived, because Jones let herself break one rule of causality. He got to join Cassie in their house, just as autumn started turning the forest red. It was one leap of logic in a finale that otherwise followed rigid rules of time-space canon. I think the show earned it. Like, they did Hitler.
“What about manipulating time?” Cole asked.
“Oh, time knows” said Jennifer. “But it also knows it owes you one.”
And the camera pulled back, to a setting I assume the script referred to as EXT. ENTIRE MULTIVERSE—NIGHT. And we seemed to see an eyelid closing: The cosmos, resting peacefully at last. Or, maybe, winking at us.
The finale paid off every idea the show ever had about itself, curlicue revelations sprinkled alongside brawly catharsis. It’s one of the most gratifying finales I’ve ever seen, satisfying and surprising, brainy and bighearted. Like the best finales, it was partly about the need for finality. “We can have forever,” Cole told Cassie, “Or we can have now, with an ending that makes it real.”
I’ll miss this show’s peculiar thrills, the twirling imagination of its time travel narrative physics, how it honored perspectives on fate and free will without ever getting bogged down in mawkish monologuing. It was existential pop, cheerful heroes regarding the void with dark humor. Everyone died a few times, but you’ve never met such friendly ghosts. The cycle has ended; can’t wait for it to start again.
Finale Grade: A
Final Season Grade: B+