Hulu took a big risk deciding to release episodes of a show like 11.22.63 on a weekly basis. If anyone tuned in last night, it was only because last week’s episode reeled us in with that weird AF clothespin fetish: Compelling, sure, but overtly freaky in a way that sniffed of desperation. This week, the show went about redeeming itself — or at least getting back to its core mission, which seems to be an ongoing critique of Mad Men-style nostalgia.
Unfortunately, the premise outlined in the pilot — that history will push back when tampered with — has been largely abandoned in favor of straightforward melodrama. Our protagonists continue to creep on Lee Harvey Oswald in preparation for their grand intervention, but happenstance doesn’t interfere. Instead, the show switches monsters. Instead of fearing time, viewers are reminded that they should fear Stephen King.
King’s particular brand of all-American horror is manifested here in T.R. Knight’s terrifying Johnny Clayton — Sadie’s deliciously fucked-up ex. The now-notoriously penis-clamped Johnny, butthurt that Sadie leaked his sexual proclivities, has taken his wife (he still hasn’t signed the divorce papers) hostage. Johnny’s southern gentility makes him an especially effective villain; clad in a suit, speaking in carefully measured, but increasingly manic tones, he’s reminiscent of Sherlock’s Moriarty, a gentleman sociopath. And there’s no predicting how far he’ll go: Will he continue to knife up Sadie’s bloody face to incite Jake? Not when he can jam his finger in her wounds and force Jake, at gunpoint, to drink a glass of bleach!
Johnny is, refreshingly and terrifyingly, a genuine psycho — and the most compelling character the show has. His is the brand of violent and weird we were promised at the beginning of the series, when history’s pushback crashed cars into telephone booths and drew swarming cockroaches out of convention hall basements.
Camelot-era heroism ultimately prevails, but no one leaves the encounter unscathed, and that’s kind of the point. Terrible things transpire in polite company. Then this was more true than it is now.
None of that is to say that Johnny is single handedly replacing the plot — in fact, he’s revving it back up. The peace in of Jake’s life for past two years has led us to believe that time was no longer resisting his meddling, but the crazy-ass culmination of the Sadie-Johnny storyline made it clear that it had been pushing back this whole time — only on a wide timescale. If Jake didn’t have the space to fall for Sadie and incite Johnny’s rage, he might have succeeded in his mission to be at General Walker’s front yard the night of his assassination, instead of leaving it to (budding Communist) Bill, who ends up bungling the whole thing anyway.
A voiceover from Al affirms this point: “The hardest part about living in the past is that everything you tell everybody will be a lie. It’s possible to forget who you are, and you’ll want to reach out and make a connection. I made that mistake. If you get too close, you forget what you came for.”
In a sense, time has finally interceded in the way 11.22.63 promised. Inevitability hasn’t violently defended itself, but there’s an insidious deviation towards the mean. The biggest handicap to Jake’s mission is his own complacency. Like Al predicted, he’s forgotten why he’s come.