TV REVIEW: 12 Monkeys “Shonin” Is Time-Travel Sci-Fi At Its Best

Have you ever, out of a handful of viral apocalypse survivors, got the chance to go back in time and influence the creation (and destruction) of the very virus that wipes out over 6 billion people — except that when you try to do that you end up being the reason it gets made?

Yeah, me neither, but 12 Monkeys managed to put two of its characters in this exact position this week in “Shonin.”

The episode wastes no time jumping right into the action, with Ramse having splintered to 1980s Tokyo and Cole splintering back moments after. Unable to locate his ex-friend, Cole makes his way to a club were Leland Goines is turning down an offer for a super, super old corpse. For him, the sample isn’t good enough to meet his needs or its $500,000 price tag. That is until Cole shows up and not so much whipsers as yells in his face that the world-ending virus is in that Himalyan mummy.

Before anything else can happen, Ramse gets a hold of Cole and a fight ensues. The two tussle for quite a bit, destroying a good chunk of the club they’re in until Ramse puts a knife in his friend’s stomach — and we are left to assume Cole is dead. Ramse, meanwhile, gets to live, but lands himself in prison. With empathy no longer in his corner, we watch him get battered and beaten for the next seven years.

In that time he receives several letters from someone named Olivia, claiming she knows who Ramse is, where he has come from and that once he is outside of the prison walls they will connect to create something great. He also (ironically) learns how to kill a man without laying a finger on him. And that’s exactly what he does to mankind in another mind-bending twistedly good, yet totally awful turn of events.

In a scene that felt more than a bit Omen/Rosemary’s Baby than I was expecting, Ramse comes face to face with Olivia, Pallid Man, and several other folks bearing grins oddly reminiscent of the creatures from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Hush” episode. The entire scene is uncomfortable, but towards the end gets eyebrow raising interesting after Ramse puts a medallion from his time with one from the mid-90s. When they touch they make a noise, followed by a mini-mushroom cloud that turns the green shrubbery red.

Something big has clearly happened, and for as much as we were judging Cole a few minutes ago, we’re judging Ramse twice as hard. His desire to get his family back has pushed him, Olivia and the other creepy smilers to get involved with Goines’ company, and ultimately the creation of the virus. Ramse — Cole’s best friend — is now a mastermind behind the virus timeline and the reason Cole can’t get a jump on stopping it. This is probably not an appropriate thing to say, but I’ll say it for all of us anyway. What an asshole.

Watching Ramse from this point on became a bit difficult, especially if you were rooting for the world to not end. On the other hand, the blow he dealt was softened by revelations about another character. As we travel through time with the harbinger, we are given more insight into the Goines’ family dynamics and what role Jennifer plays in the larger 12 Monkeys game. With efforts to create the virus moving full steam ahead — and Ramse’s crew already having killed Goines scientists in an effort to find the night room — Jennifer has found herself locked away in a psych ward. Her father, knowing full well she didn’t kill anyone, is purposely keeping her there so the secrets of the night room stay locked up.

Pictured: Alisen Down as Striking Woman -- Photo by: Ken Woroner/Syfy
Pictured: Alisen Down as Striking Woman — Photo by: Ken Woroner/Syfy

After we learn this, we continue on our highlighted run through of the entire first season. Right on down to that weird encounter Aaron has in the yard. Remember that random lady who claimed she could help him protect Cassie? She’s not so random. In case you haven’t had enough surprise in one episode, we cam finally make the connection that the woman is Olivia. Whatever deal Aaron made with her, it’s scary because he looks freaked when he asks — after being turned down for a spot on Senator Royce’s presidential bid team — to be a part of a private think-tank project about viral control and he sees that Olivia is behind that, too. Aaron has helped end the world, and like Ramse he now has to accept his unintended role.

As our journey through time converges with the present, we learn how things have turned out for Jones and her crew. They frantically watch as Cole dies decades ago, but Jones makes one last ditch effort to save their cause, using the remaining power of the machine to send their time-traveling hero to 2015. We aren’t sure it works until we see Cole, still wounded and bleeding out, on the floor at Cassie’s. Here is where he can tell her everything she needs to know and everything Jones will know when she uncovers Railly’s recorded transmission from the past.

At the episode’s end, Jones tells her last remaining comrade — and a fellow scientist — that hope is for those unburdened by fate. And with that it feels like the end of the story. The reality is that Jennifer Goines understands time travel better than anyone, including Jones. Fate isn’t some pre-determined timeline controlled by a higher power puppeteer, but rather, as the episode and her speech from last week illustrates, a series of very human choices that can happen exactly the same way over and over again if and only if its continuously reinforced.

While it’s scary how many times Olivia, Pallid Man and Ramse have probably enacted the end of the world, the revelation that they are behind this does give us hope. If fate relies on the predictable choices of unpredictable human beings, it means that fate can change. All it takes is a single variation. One choice, one behavior, one event that doesn’t happen exactly as it did before, and a giant ripple will occur.

By the end of it, there was a lot to for viewers to take in this episode. First and foremost though we should probably talk about how well “Shonin” illustrated that this series knows exactly what it is and what it’s trying to be. You can probably count on one hand the number of shows where, after fans asked if there was a clear endgame planned, the creators swore up and down that there was and they actually delivered on that promise. You couldn’t possibly have enough hands for the amount of shows that didn’t. Lucky for us, 12 Monkeys is on the hand that nailed it.

Secondly, I’m going to take a moment to brag about calling Cole as the catalyst for the virus’ creation. I’m only doing that, however, to illustrate a larger point about an episode (and series) strength. If “Shonin” proved anything, it’s that this series can still manage, even if you know what’s coming, to be legitimately surprising. The episode could have relied on the reveal of Cole’s knowledge sparking Goines interest in the virus as its big twist. The 12 Monkeys writers are clearly not interested in being good, but rather great.

Instead of stopping there, they use that reveal as a launching point to not only show us the literal rules and boundaries of the series’ universe, but deliver the greatest use of backstory as present action and character development I’ve seen… well, ever. Not to mention, from that initial twist stems several more amazing (and well paced) shockers on top of weaving the entirety of the season together comprehensively. Don’t forget teasing our curiosity about possible future storylines.

“Shonin” was an excellent example of how strong a show can be if serious attention is paid to universe building. The way characters develop and storylines unfold on this show, without the advantage of being able to tell a story in a linear way, is slow-clap worthy. And to be frank, for as good as “Shonin” was it still didn’t even feel like the absolute best of what 12 Monkeys can offer, which only means one thing. When this show peaks our minds will probably explode. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait.