Timeless Leaves Behind a Legacy: How to Tell (and Respect) a Damn Good Story

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<i>Timeless</i> Leaves Behind a Legacy: How to Tell (and Respect) a Damn Good Story

Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers from the two-part Timeless finale, “The Miracle of Christmas.”

“What’s the point of saving history if we don’t save the people in it?” —Starry-eyed historian Lucy Preston, encapsulating Timeless’ beautiful, if not entirely logical, guiding principle

What you are reading is not a review, but if it were, this American judge would give the long-awaited Timeless series finale an enthusiastic 9.7—full marks, minus a tenth of a technical point for each member of the Lifeboat team to jet off to wartime winter in North Korea without hat, gloves, or scarf. (Rufus, at least, had the #HeroInAHoodie wisdom to not only bring a hat to “the coldest winter” Wyatt’s grandfather had ever experienced, but one with ear flaps.) My time-traveling buddies! What are you doing! The last thing Wyatt said before you all loaded into the Lifeboat was “bundle up, it’s gonna be cold!” No wonder you all almost died, with listening skills like that.

Honestly, I appreciated this minor hypothermic oversight. Without it, the excellence of Timeless’ double-feature finale, “The Miracle of Christmas,” might have seemed suspect. Eric Kripke, Shawn Ryan and the rest of Team Timeless somehow managed to put satisfying bows on upwards of ten major open story arcs, all in under two hours, all while illuminating, with precision and compassion, two little-known (but important!) parts of American history. Had they accomplished all that without making a single “dumb television” misstep, who knows how many clever Clockblockers would have gone looking for the time machine they were keeping stashed in the writers room to prevent just such errors from ever hitting our screens?

I joke, but I’m not entirely sure what about. “The Miracle of Christmas” was a suspiciously tight piece of television, and, having been revived by the very network that canceled it two years in a row—the first time getting picked up for a short second season three days after NBC dropped the axe, the second time securing this 2-hour series finale special after a month of a fervent “Clockblocker” fan campaign that that reached the literal heights of a #SaveTimeless helicopter flying over Comic-Con—Timeless really does seem to have had some sort of magic working in its favor. Why not consider a time machine? And having already crowdfunded, as I just mentioned, an actual helicopter to win this final outing from NBC, it is absolutely the Clockblockers who would be the first to suspend their disbelief at the possibility of real time travel—especially if it might mean that Timeless could live on beyond 2018.

That said, it is safest for everyone involved to believe that what might have looked like a hidden time machine at work was only ever wild coincidence, and that “The Miracle of Christmas” really was Timeless’ final outing. It’s also, ultimately, more satisfying: I was half-joking about a lot of things above, but not about how much Kripke, Ryan et al accomplished in 85 minutes—75, if you don’t count the deliciously fan-service-y final “God bless us, one and all” vignette. “The Miracle of Christmas” is a densely constructed gem of a series finale, efficiently and energetically wrapping up whole seasons’ worth of story while never once losing sight of the patriotic optimism at its heart.

Now, when I say dense, this is what I mean: Did you care about the series’ romances? Cool, you got them all sorted out, from Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) and Jiya (Claudia Doumit) coming to terms with each other’s unique traumas and eventually running a massive technology firm together, to Lucy (Abigail Spencer) and Wyatt (Matt Lanter) coming to terms with the mess Jessica (Tonya Glanz) made of their present, then flourishing with their happy young family in the future. Even the never-tested Flynn (Goran Visnjic) and Lucy romance got its due, running from what if to well, an alternate-reality version of us at least tried in a single astonishingly productive conversation within the finale’s first 30 minutes.

Related: Did you care about saving Rufus? Awesome, he was saved by minute 31. What about getting rid of Jessica/solving Jessica’s original murder/redeeming Flynn’s past sins? One fell swoop, minute 33, RIP Garcia Flynn.

How about the Rittenhouse cabal, did you care about that? I never found that storyline, key though it was to series’ very existence, to be all that compelling—and from how the writers wrapped it all up by having Agent Christopher (Sakina Jaffrey) flex her government muscle (offscreen, no less!) to spring Lucy’s Rittenhouse dad (John Getz) from federal prison in exchange for giving up the secrets of the entire organization/saving his daughter’s life, neither did they. (Maybe in the end, the real Rittenhouse was the privileged old white men we pardoned along the way. —your very wise critic, 30 seconds after realizing that all the team ever needed to do to stop their long-running Big Bad once and for all was to return briefly lost wealth and freedom to an imprisoned old white man.) As for the would-be usurper, Emma (Annie Wersching)? Taken out by Chinese Communists before she could effect any kind of escape. Sucks not to be family.

One genre convention Timeless never really bothered with was a sense of preciousness about the butterfly effect. The idea that one tiny change to the past might have major consequences in the future was always a part of the series’ understanding of time travel, but it only ever really mattered insofar as the personal tragedies of family members overcome by vanished timelines were concerned. Lucy’s sister, Amy (Bailey Noble), lost in the series’ pilot, was the emotional hook the show used to get Lucy committed to the cause. Wyatt’s wife, Jessica, murdered in 2012 by an unknown man only to be returned to him later as part of Rittenhouse’s master plan, was the emotional shrapnel with which the show demonstrated how easy it would be for a broken person in possession of a time machine to tear himself to pieces. Agent Christopher’s wife and kids, saved from potential future loss by Christopher stashing a flash drive of memories in the Lifeboat in case Rittenhouse ever got to her own past, were the emotional button the show used to remind us how much history is defined by what lives in our own minds. Beyond family, though? The extent to which the Lifeboat team cared about which details from the past were preserved—especially when maintaining those details meant letting someone in the past suffer—was minimal.

That said, the moral questions about time travel in general, and about the dangers of keeping both Mothership and Lifeboat active once Rittenhouse was defeated in particular—those still needed to be tackled. And they were, in surprisingly extended detail, whenever the action cut back to Christopher and Conor Mason (Paterson Joseph) in the bunker staring at Wikipedia for news as to whether the most recent historical mission succeeded or failed. There have been worse schemes to make staring at a computer screen engaging!

By my count, reaching “the (im)morality of time travel” leaves just one final element of “The Miracle of Christmas” unaccounted for: What about the history? What about the “patriotic commitment to the hopeful, messy American experiment” I argued earlier this year is at the show’s core? When, in all of American history, did Timeless send the team for its final two missions?

Well, meet Joaquin Murrieta (Paul Lincoln Allayo), a Mexican vaquero (and the real-life inspiration for Zorro) who sought revenge on Anglo rapists and gold thieves during the Gold Rush, whose tragic story is diverted by the Lifeboat team to one of long-lived happiness. Also meet Young-Hee (Kahyun Kim), a pregnant refugee of the the Korean War, who earns her own long-lived happiness after being reunited with her family by the Lifeboat team on the eve of the Hungnam Evacuation (i.e., Christmas Eve).

The Timeless team could have chosen any two points in America’s past to go back to, any historical figures to highlight—George Washington! Sister Rosetta Tharpe! The Wright Brothers!—and these two stories are what they landed on: A Mexican folk hero fighting back against Anglo violence at the rapacious peak of 19th-century America, and the reunification of a refugee family on the way to seeking asylum at an international border. (“Is she important to history?” Wyatt asks when Lucy insists they take Young-hee with them to find her family. “Everybody’s important,” Lucy snaps back. “I wouldn’t be here if my parents didn’t get out of Lebanon,” Jiya says, pointedly. “I got a second chance,” Rufus says, just as pointedly. “Why shouldn’t they?”)

So, uh, yeah—by getting their stay of execution so early in the year, and knowing that they had a single shot to pull everything off, Timeless got to be utterly intentional in how they used history to shape their final story, scheduled to air here in the dark, cold end of 2018, and with “The Miracle of Christmas” got that whole patriotic commitment to the hopeful, messy American experiment thing down. Excuse the wet splotches on your screen. That’s just me, appreciating Timeless, ostensibly a sci-fi romp on an alphabet network, for being so much more than anyone ever expected it to be.

I may be biased, but if special event finales end up being a trend for canceled shows with small but fervent fanbases (and I would argue that they should), it’s hard to imagine a better model than “The Miracle of Christmas.” Everything that fans could have wanted, Timeless delivered, with a bow (and Agent Christopher’s ugly Christmas sweater). And just in case the Clockblockers ever locate the writers’ hidden time machine and/or the stars align in the future, that whipsmart teen girl laying out plans for her own time machine in the episode’s final moments left some intriguing doors cracked open.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.