At pep rallies and football games, University of Texas students sing “The Eyes of Texas,” a school spirit song that’s ostensibly meant to inspire greatness, but instead, creeps everyone out with its threat of constant surveillance. “Do not think you can escape them/ At night or early in the morn,” goes the song, which was also, incidentally, sung to JFK by a bunch of school kids on the morning of his assassination. It sets the stage and provides the title of 11.22.63’s fourth episode, which rides on the drama of its characters scrambling to hide their secrets, but still manages to be dull — with one gleefully insane exception.
Yes, I’m talking about that clothespin. More on that later.
As in previous episodes, the events and characters relevant to the actual plot are the least compelling. It’s March of 1963, and Jake and Bill now live in an apartment below Lee Harvey Oswald and his hot Russian wife Marina — where they still keep tabs on his relationship with George de Mohrenschildt, who’s probably working with the CIA to plot General Walker’s murder. Or is he? Does anyone care?
Miz Mimi’s prying eyes threaten Jake’s investigations and out his true identity as Jake Epping to the cops, who barrel through the Shamrock Hotel, a local brothel, during a night of (sex-free) espionage. But the actual outcomes of these scenes don’t feel important because, frankly, they’re not. At this point, halfway through the series, it’s hard to give a shit about Jake’s mission, because it’s unfolding so damn slowly. Like Bill, chained to a pair of headphones streaming hours of Russian conversation, we’re feel the tedium of surveillance, banking on spicy moments — like when Marina and Lee get it on — to keep us engaged.
11.22.63 hasn’t exactly been generous with those moments, but when the show does deliver, the payoff is huge. In episode four, we have the delicious pleasure of meeting Sadie’s smarmy ex-husband Johnny Clayton, played by Grey’s Anatomy’s T.R. Knight. He harbors a secret darker than all of Jake’s hidden identity issues combined.
Rattled by Johnny’s refusal to sign their divorce papers, Sadie opens up to Jake about her traumatic wedding night: Johnny, it turns out, has OCD tendencies, a mean streak, and a fetish for pain he satisfies by — wait for it — clamping a clothespin on his penis.
Jake’s response echoes what we’re all thinking: “What?”
The fetish is a Stephen King trope, one he’s suggested was the root of rapist-murderer Ted Bundy’s evils in a Rolling Stone interview. Apparently, some mothers, in an attempt to curb their young sons’ early masturbation habits, used clothespins to slap curious hands away, leading to an entangling of pain, pleasure, and mommy issues. It’s hard to blame a young virgin in the genteel 60s for being so freaked. Yes, this provides a gleefully refreshing WTF moment in an otherwise tedious episode, the scene also stresses the era’s disturbingly repressed culture and beliefs. Sadie is stuck with her clothespinned husband, even after he abuses her, because it’s “her duty,” as her mother puts it, to satisfy him. (Later, Jake coerces Johnny into signing the divorce papers with this intel.) In the end, it isn’t clear what’s more messed up: the fetish, or an era that allowed it to exist, persist, and foster shame.
An ongoing problem with 11.22.63 is that its writers seem to have forgotten the original premise and engine — that history, resisting a rewrite, will push back. While in the pilot the weight of the past threatens to distroy Jake for merely evesdropping, episodes like this one see entire lives derailed — with Jake around, Bill’s and Sadie are careening way off track — without consequence. At this point, the series risks a devolution: into an utterly unwatchable soap. But 11.22.63 is rescued by the fact that the 1960s themselves were fucking weird.