For a show about time travel, the events of the past haven’t played an especially big role in 11.22.63. Jake’s (James Franco) personal dramas — his deepening relationship with Sadie (Sarah Gadon), his crumbling faux-fraternity with Bill (George MacKay) — have grounded the series in the present. But in this week’s episode, “Happy Birthday, Lee Harvey Oswald,” we get the benefit of perspective. It’s October 1963, almost three years after Jake first stepped into the past, and the mission to save JFK is faltering in a big way. But that seemed inevitable: Al’s (Chris Cooper) original missive — to live three years without really living — was impossible to begin with.
Despite all warnings to avoid personal relationships — “It will only complicate things,” Al said — Jake has done nothing but seek them out. At this point, he’s paying for Sadie’s plastic surgery bills and contemplating marriage — not exactly hermit behavior. Their relationship has reached a point that history can’t accept, and so Time sends forth the ominous Yellow Card Man, who materializes in a hospital corridor. Suddenly, Jake is locked behind a pair of glass doors as Sadie is about to go under the knife. Frantically smashing a window pane with a fire extinguisher, Jake bursts into the operating room, where Sadie is breathing her last air from a broken oxygen tank. He gets there just in time.
It’s a close call, like so many key moments in this episode, all of which are the direct result of Jake’s inability to stay out of people’s lives. He’s not exactly the smartest time traveler, but maybe that’s more than we can expect of anybody: To time travel wisely is to live like a ghost, affecting nothing and no one. But 11.22.63 is a show about relationships set against the backdrop of historical intervention, not the other way around. Jake, so unrelentingly human, is gonna Jake — he always has — and now, with two episodes to go, he’s paying the price.
In a terrific performance from MacKay, who plays the sulky little brother with convincing petulance, we see Bill’s relationship with Jake unravel violently — an inevitable conclusion. Arguably, Jake’s biggest mistake was allowing his friendship with Bill to blossom in the first place. Now, after being strung along on Jake’s insane mission for three long years, cooped up with a pair of headphones and the unconsummated hots for Lee’s wife Marina (Lucy Fry), Bill is pissed, and deservedly so. Meanwhile, Jake is so distracted by his other personal affairs that he’s not home to watch Bill careen toward mutiny, buddying up to Lee and being molded into the legendary second shooter.
It’s ironic that Jake, so desperate to reverse the consequences of his humanity, unveils the least human side we’ve seen yet. In a brutal betrayal, he coaxes Bill to the hospital using Marina as bait, only to have him locked up, screaming, in the psych ward. Later, we see Jake at his most savage — who knew James Franco could be so threatening? — choking Georges de Mohrenschildt (Jonny Coyne) from the backseat of a Thunderbird in a last-ditch effort to collect the intel he forfeited the night he missed the assassination attempt on General Walker.
With two episodes to go, and time accelerating its vengeance, it’s hard to predict whether Jake can make it to the end of his mission. Early on, he planted new — and very personal — narratives into a history that didnt’t belong to him, and now that they’ve had three years to take root, they’re catching up with him fast. If the Yellow Card Man does show up again, he’ll be there just to give a final push; Jake’s been digging his mission’s grave the entire time.