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TV REVIEW: 12 Monkeys “Atari” Is A Series Standout

BY Abbey White

Published 9 years ago

TV REVIEW: 12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys kept the solid storytelling wheel turning this week, spending a good chunk of “Atari” in 2043 and nailing a major splinter from the film’s original story line.

At this point it feels quite easy to argue that Syfy’s 12 Monkeys has fully stepped out of the shadow of its film predecessor. With only four episodes under its belt, the show has managed to create new — but likeable — versions of shared characters, in addition to planting (and growing) seeds for new or expanded plot lines.

“Atari” was the series’ best go at that expansion thus far. Not only did it show its characters are emotionally dynamic, but it played with time travel in a new way. The episode focused in on the present of 2043 and the events that lead to both Cole and Ramse’s merge with the scientists, while also serving as the show’s most clever use of an episode title to date.

To fully appreciate the relationship between the title and episodic events, we should first note what the term references. The meaning behind the episode title is partially revealed early on by Ramse in a conversation with Cole. During that talk, Ramse brings up the Japanese board game “Go” and a move known as Atari. He proceeds to explain that the term is used during game play situations where a stone or chain of stones has only one move or “liberty” left.

His explanation makes it easy for viewers to assume that the episode is simply about last chance moves or characters being backed into a corner. However, if you know the game “Go,” you know that the move Ramse is referencing isn’t so simple. Yes, Atari is used when a player’s stone may be captured on the next move… if more liberties are not given. In a universe where time travel is at its core, liberties are infinite.

As a result, “Atari” becomes far less about last ditch efforts and far more about illustrating the expanding rules and stakes of the 12 Monkeys universe. In this episode we see the series for the first time truly and physically grapple with the game of fate. Characters do the unthinkable with time travel (e.g. putting your present self around your past self) in order to save not just the future or past, but the present. We are offered an entire 2043 story line that sees Cole dealing with the the West 7, a group we were introduced to last week.

Firstly, viewers were privy to a battle for the facility the scientists currently occupy. Secondly, the episode explored how Cole’s relationship with the West 7 — from initiation to break away — developed and what impact that might have on his current time-traveling profession. Our introduction to the group and its leader Deacon is jolting and creepy. He is clearly a manipulator and if he can’t get you with your words, he gets you through physical force. He also has a bit of a god complex (psychopath, anyone?), which has led the group to commit a number mass murders.

As we see through various flashbacks to 2035, this is generally how Deacon rolls. With free reign and rabid followers, he creates chaos and pain wherever he goes. His troubling relationship with Cole, and Ramse’s role in it, was perhaps the best part of the backstory development this episode. We learn more about Ramse as a person and how his moral compass guided Cole away from the group. It also brought him back to his West 7 flame, Max, and into the predicament of having to fight for the scientists’ facility.

This battle actually occurs twice during the episode by means of a solid twist. The first fight takes place in present time as the facility attempts to prevent a takeover by the West 7. The second happens the very same way — except Cole has been sent back in time by Jones and is helping stop the takeover while his present self also stop’s the takeover. Yeah, it’s as cool as it sounds. It’s even cooler to watch.

Pictured: (l-r) Barbara Sukowa as Jones, Aaron Stanford as James Cole -- Photo by: Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy

Pictured: (l-r) Barbara Sukowa as Jones, Aaron Stanford as James Cole — Photo by: Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy

So far the show has had its characters play with time travel rather delicately. This time around they got a little loose and wild, and it had a massive pay off. Before the West 7 could break into the lab, Jones sent Cole back in time. He landed just far enough that he could intercede the attack. As a result, there were things from the initial battle sequence that we saw from a different and way more informed perspective the second time around.

In the end, Cole was able to successfully stop the West 7, win back the trust of his old flame Max, save Ramse, and protect the lab. Of course none of this means that the events of the episode have been entirely resolved. What it does mean is that the characters of 12 Monkeys have finally acknowledged in some way the concept of “fate/time as a continuous loop.”

This acknowledgement was important for the show moving forward. The last three episodes were dropping hints about it left and right and for the audience to keep believing in the narrative, it had to believe that the story’s smart characters also saw the hints. They have and as such the direction of this story no longer has to be — nor is it — tied to the cinematic world. That gate was the movie clincher and 12 Monkeys the TV series has already busted it open.

Ultimately, the episode was a great mix of exciting action, solid and clear character development, as well as a downright awesome use of time travel. “Atari” set up a plot line that keeps 2043’s characters and universe imperative to the larger story while not forgetting about the past. This will not be the last time we see the West 7 and while a love triangle that spans across space and time is not entirely a new take on relationship plots, it’s still a little fresher than most.

Finally, more questions were raised about Jones’ mission and how much she knows. We hear Cole say that Jones attributes machine damage during the battle as the cause of him incorrectly splintering. However, earlier in the episode we see her, through clenched teeth, say to Whitley that if the facility were to fall, their work would be lost. “The mission is everything,” she hisses.

If the mission is everything, can we really believe that Jones was just going to send Cole back to the past permanently without a fight? Or do we believe that there was no glitch in the machine at all and Cole landed exactly where she wanted him to? If so, is Jones being completely honest about what she knows? More importantly, is she being completely honest about what the actual mission is?

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