Some of what I’m about to say might seem to you like I’m basically repeating my season 2 review word for word, with a few extra superlatives thrown in. Let it be known that a part of me gets this. It’s pretty befuddling, as a writer, to open a blank document and realize you don’t have that many new words to say, so you just have to find a way to re-use the old ones.
It’d be infinitely easier if I had something negative to say about 12 Monkeys. It would even be helpful to be able to compare this show with another one, draw a parallel between how two different shows have handle x or y. But the truth is, I can’t. 12 Monkeys stands pretty much alone in most of the things I’m about to say, and that’s what makes the fact that it took so long for me to discover it so… infuriating.
How does a gem of a show like this one escape the general consciousness? How have we all been sleeping on what is, perhaps, one of the best shows ever? How do we constantly praise sci-fi that only does half of what 12 Monkeys attempts to do?
This isn’t really the place and time to go into the realities of promoting TV, but if there’s any fairness in the world, 12 Monkeys will develop the kind of loving, cult-following lesser shows like The X-Files or Fringe have.
Part of the reason 12 Monkeysworks as well as it does, and something that is clearer in season 3 than it ever was before, is because the show understands the intricacies of writing good characters. I already wrote an entire article about this, but I did that before I had finished season 3 and could use Athan Cole as further example of my point, so if you will allow me to revisit the idea, I have a few things to add.
Athan Cole is introduced as a villain. Not just a villain, the villain. It matters little that he ends up not being The Witness, because throughout most of the time we know him, Athan seems to be walking the path that has been preordained for him. He might not want to be The Witness, but he still makes a lot of questionable decisions in his journey toward not being the big bad we expected.
Yet, Athan is never an easy character to hate. Part of that is, of course, because he is Athan Cole, and this has been, in many respects, the journey of his parents, so there’s a desire to sympathize with him, to believe he can change, if not for us, for James and Cassandra. For their sake. But that level of sympathy can only take you so far, which is why the show makes another brilliant decision when it comes to Athan.
They show us who he is.
Empathizing by proxy is never as powerful as the empathy you feel for a character you grow to understand. An episode like 12 Monkeys 3×09, “Thief,” might feel out of place in any other show, but here it works perfectly to tie every piece of the puzzle – both plot and characterization wise, so that when Athan makes the decision he makes, we feel both pain and happiness, both pride and rage.
He did all he did, after all, for love. Romantic love first, familial love second, but all he did was because of love.
We don’t always have to understand love to do things in its name. At first glance Ramse doing everything he did for a child he just met seems as ridiculous as Athan’s final sacrifice in the name of the parents he shunned for so long. But love isn’t always black and white, easy to comprehend, or easy to explain. And deep down, despite the beautifully crafted plot and the amazingly real characters, the real message of this show is and has always been about love.
The things we do in its name, and the things we sacrifice for it.
Ironically, the big reveal of season 3 is that the real villain of this show is and has always been, Olivia, the only person in this show who seems to not be guided by love. This is, of course, and oversimplification. We don’t know all about Olivia’s backstory, and there is likely some perversion of the idea of love that led her to who she is now, but unlike Athan and Ramse, Olivia isn’t doing things because of love, and that makes her the only true villain in the show.
Well, that, and it makes her the only person we have been able to consistently root against.
That’s not a dig, not at all. That’s a compliment. One of my favorite things about TV – and it doesn’t happen as often as it should – is the feeling of being outmatched. I watch a lot of TV, and dissect a lot of TV, so yes, I appreciate a show that can actually surprise me as much as the next person, but you know what I really, really appreciate even more than that?
A show that doesn’t really need me, doesn’t need its fans. At least, not to remind them of who they are.
There are very few things as frustrating for fans as thinking that you love a show more than the people behind it, that you understand it better, that you have higher expectations for it than the people who actually make the decisions. I have felt like that about many a show I’ve watched in my life, but the feeling hasn’t even come close to existing in my 12 Monkeys binge-watch.
In fact, the only reason I bring it up is because, in this show, everything happens for a reason. And that reason is that yes, the writers are smarter than us, and yes, this really is a labor of love, and truly, the only thing that makes sense, as you watch it, the only possible reaction to it is …to love the show as much as they love it. To appreciate it as much as they do.
They’ve earned it, and just as importantly, we, as viewers, have earned a show like 12 Monkeys.
12 Monkeys is available to stream on Hulu.