Watching 12 Monkeys for the first time has been the highlight of my quarantine so far, and though I’ve written about the first two seasons individually, there has been at least one thing in every season so far that has made me stop and go: this deserves an article by itself. Continuing with that trend, today I want to talk about how good a job 12 Monkeys does at writing a plot-heavy show without sacrificing characterization because of it.
If you’ve watched TV, you’ve probably come across an instance where a show has had a character do something that doesn’t feel to you, the viewer, as something that character would actually do. In some instances, there will be an explanation of why the character changed or what led them to the decision they’ve made, and yet, in others, the show will just ask you to take it on faith. They say that’s what the character would do, and you must accept it.
This doesn’t typically work as well as shows want it to. We feel ownership over the characters on our favorite TV shows. We spend hours with them, we analyze their every move, their every word, and we feel like we know them. There’s, of course, some leeway in that, but without some explanation, it’s hard for us as viewers to forgive when characters start behaving in OOC ways just because the plot requires them to.
Personally, I’ve always been a character over plot kind of person. I will forgive nonsensical plots if the characters remain more or less consistent, I have a much harder time forgiving inconsistent character arcs that push the plot forward. Thing is, I didn’t realize you could have a plot-heavy show that didn’t betray its characters for the sake of that plot.
Not till 12 Monkeys.
12 Monkeys is the most character driven plot-heavy show I’ve ever watched.
In fact, I’m not sure I’d even call this a plot-heavy show, that’s how good they are at character arcs. But how can you watch this can’t-look-down-for-even-one second show, the type that shocks you once an episode and has left so many breadcrumbs I cannot possibly be noticing even half of them, anything but a plot-heavy show. There’s no question that every second of what’s going on was meticulously planned, every step these characters take leading somewhere.
The thing is, they managed that without ever having to put that plot over their established characterization. And that’s not only rare, it’s almost unheard of.
Look at the most celebrated pieces of entertainment of the past few years. Game of Thrones threw every character under the bus to get to the nonsensical ending they’d presumably settled on ahead of time. Avengers: Endgame fell so in love with a predetermined ending that they didn’t even care that, for a character to end up there, he had to basically betray everything he ever stood for. In the meanwhile, 12 Monkeys, a superior piece of entertainment not enough people know about, has managed to deftly balance both at every second, and more importantly, they’ve made it look easy.
In a way, I feel 12 Monkeys might be spoiling me for TV going forward. How am I going to just forgive big things because I enjoy some others when I now know the standards this show has set are actually possible?
The best example of 12 Monkeys’ mastery is, strangely enough, Jose Ramse. I’ve already written a love letter to Cassie, and I’m close to ending my season 3 binge by writing one to Cole, a character I enjoyed in an exasperated way and have grown to absolutely adore, but I’ve had more trouble with Ramse, as was to be expected.
Everyone has had more trouble liking Ramse than Cassie, Cole, Jennifer or even Katarina.
In fact, in most other shows, Ramse would be a straight up villain. Reasons aside, if you look at the things he’s done, it’s hard to feel for him. And yet, 12 Monkeys has never sought to put him in one box or the other. Ramse has done the things he has done, and he’s done them all for exactly the same reason we do everything: love.
Judging Ramse is incredibly easy, and yet excruciatingly hard. I’ve gotten mad at him about once every episode he’s been on, because I’m rooting for Cassie and Cole, the story is framed around them, and so from that perspective, Ramse is just a guy being selfish, betraying his friend over and over. But if you stop for a second and think about it, what Ramse is doing is exactly what Cole and Cassie end up doing later in the story, what most of us would do for someone we love.
Selfish is, in this case, in the eye of the beholder.
This is incredibly important because there was never a moment in the narrative where I though “Oh, yes, Ramse’s doing this for plot reasons.” In fact, that thought never even crossed my mind. Love him or hate him, understand him or not, there was never any doubt that Ramse’s reasons for doing everything he did were not just supported by the narrative, but completely in character.
He isn’t a villain. He isn’t a hero. He’s done a lot of things we absolutely hate him for, and yet we can’t make ourselves truly hate him. The plot moved forward, and yet the character didn’t suffer, because – I don’t know, magic and good writing and magic?
Or maybe good writing is magic, I don’t know. I’m still processing that this is all possible.
Possible to have a good, engaging, yet complicated story that works in a way that allows the characters to grow. Possible to love characters and trust that, even when they’re not making the decisions you want them to make, the choices they’re making will make sense within the context of the story.
Possible to watch a show and have absolute faith that the story they’re telling, whether it ends up being what you expect or not, is going to be amazing.
Have I made it clear yet that you should be watching 12 Monkeys? Because you really, really should.
12 Monkeys is available to stream on Hulu.