After weeks of circling Dealey Plaza’s periphery, the seventh episode of 11.22.63 finally lands — hard. Until now, the show has indulged in its characters’ personal relationships, letting the events leading up to the titular date fall to the wayside. It’s Sadie’s (Sarah Gadon) deepening love for maybe-soon-to-be-husband Jake (James Franco) that keeps her at his bedside after vengeful bookies knock the memories out of him. And in a stark parallel, Lee Harvey Oswald’s (a powerfully paranoid Daniel Webber) marriage to Marina (Lucy Fry) is rapidly crumbling, deepening the psychological isolation that lands him squatting at boxes high up in the fated Dallas Book Repository, rifle in hand. It’s the machinations of human emotion, not time, that have driven the series to this point; but now, in its penultimate episode, history — at least the version we’re all familiar with— finally takes center stage.
Ironically, Jake can’t remember how the events are supposed to unfold. Hell, he’s so concussed he cant even remember who he’s supposed to be surveilling. There’s only one other person who knows, and he’s been locked away in a madhouse. Weeks of brutal electroshock therapy have left Bill (heartbreakingly played by George MacKay) bewildered and withdrawn, convinced that his memories of the past three years — the strange man from the future, the assassination plot, his “brother” — were all mania-driven fantasies. Turning to Jake, who’s desperate for his help, he asks meekly: “If I was your friend, why did you do this to me?” It’s a legitimate question that has no answer. As Bill lets himself fall out of a windowsill, landing lifeless on the ground, we realize he was never a friend — just a pawn — like everyone else in Jake’s selfish, doomed scheme.
That’s not to say we’re ever convinced Jake is actually heartless. Even in the depths of his concussion, he’s obsessing over the people he loves: A vision of his ex-wife Chrissy gives way to a flashback of Al (Chris Cooper), expressing his disappointment in his pathetic protege: You’re not the man I thought you were,” he says, sputtering cancerous blood — the price he paid for time travel. Jake’s realizing, finally, that there’s so much more at stake here than he once thought; he was a fool to think he could just drop into Camelot and pop out as easily as he came. He’s not just changing time. Time is changing him.
If Al’s appearance didn’t drive this home, the Yellow Card Man’s (Kevin J. O’Connor) sudden, startling confession makes it painfully clear. Appearing in Jake’s passenger seat in the twilight before JFK’s assassination, the Yellow Card Man reveals who he is really is — a glimpse of the person Jake might become if he continues with his futile mission. “I don’t want any of this to happen, not again,” he says, recounting the number of times he’s gone back in time — whether it’s his head or through a rabbit hole is unclear; does it even matter? — to try to prevent his young daughter’s death. It’s a trap he can’t get out of, but he also “can’t not try.” He fails every time.
The increasingly apparent futility of the overall mission is underscored by the weird, haphazard pacing of this episode, which begins on November 5, 17 days before the assassination, and ends the morning of the fateful shooting. “Soldier Boy” is an accelerating countdown — leaping four days ahead, then one, then twelve hours — that feels rushed and unstable, but maybe that’s the point. In retrospect, Jake actually hasn’t done all that much to interfere with the assassination itself, at least not yet, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that the events of the past — Lee Harvey Oswald is history, here — fall, like dominoes, into place. Lee pays an angry visit to the FBI in Dallas. Lee picks up his shotgun. Lee squats at the Book Depository windowsill. The inevitability of it is like, well, clockwork, and if this episode of 11.22.63 has made anything clear, theres absolutely no stopping that.