“What’s the point of having a time machine if you can’t fix your regrets?”
At least once per episode, “Timeless” drops a line like this, which so precisely captures the appeal of time travel as a plot device. The three heroes at the heart of this show are each dripping with things unsaid, choices they ache to remake: Finding themselves as they do this week in deadlier-than-usual circumstances brings the expected amount of soul-searching.
Coming on the heels of the explosive admission in last week’s Watergate episode, Lucy (Abigail Spencer), Rufus (Malcolm Bennett) and Wyatt (Matt Lanter) are still on the outs: Rufus is a triple agent, Lucy seems destined to team up with their arch-nemesis, and Wyatt’s devotion to his late wife still threatens to throw them all off-course on their non-interference policy.
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In a departure from previously established formula, “Stranded” opens in medias res, team already mid-assignment… Which has clearly already gone sour. But the show’s tone and delightful tropes remain: Lucy identifies herself as Dr. Quinn, “a medicine woman,” after instantly identifying each of their captors from her encyclopedic historical knowledge; Rufus proves himself a MacGyver of any time period with his scientific know-how; and Wyatt is, as ever, able of besting soldiers of any persuasion with his training. The apt title does, however, capture what’s so different about this week: Rather than their usual quick trips, this week finds them at loose ends when their ship is damaged, potentially beyond repair.
The setting for this week’s episode is 1754, in the series of forests, camps, and forts that would eventually become Pennsylvania. We never learn why Flynn (Goran Visnjic) lured them here — in fact, in another upending of the show’s usual rhythm, Flynn himself fails to make his customary appearance. Not only is this the earliest they have yet to visit, but the land they stumble into is not only not urbanized, but is the matter of a brutal war between the British, French, and numerous Indigenous tribes.
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As ever, the team’s psychological state is matched in true sympathetic fallacy by their surroundings. Lucy, Rufus, and Wyatt are on shaky ground — highlighted and mirrored by the unstable alliances between British, French, and Shawnee which surround them. We explicitly learn this week that the time machine doesn’t involve a “Star Trek” style universal translator, as the English-speaking team are first held at the mercy of French troops, and then by the Shawnee nation. A ray of hope emerges when Chief Nonhelema (the luminous and always-welcome Karina Lombard) is revealed to speak English, all the better for Rufus to lay it on the line as he begs for their lives.
This act of selfless bravery both frees and bonds the trio, whose weekly trust issues will hopefully settle down from here on out — come on, guys — but in any case, there’s less time for squabbling this week as they’re in full survival mode, avoiding their numerous enemies while grappling with possibly being stranded in this time and place. Lucy, refusing to accept death by either smallpox or as a pawn of war, basically wills into existence a rescue plan.
Lucy’s plan includes the heretofore unknown safety feature known as “The Protocol” — a high-tech message in a bottle for their future colleagues to find. The message they leave will help their colleagues land their Lifeboat, which will of course only fly again if they’re able to smelt tin plates into, basically, a flux capacitator. If you weren’t sure that this show is flat-out delightful: its climax hinges on TV’s most earnestly suspenseful sequence of heating and smelting of metal.
With Lucy & co. stranded, the characters at Mason Industries are pressed, for the first time, into their version of crisis mode. As such, as learn more about lab tech Jiya (Claudia Doumit), notably her previously only hinted-at connection with Rufus. We also see rare cracks in the armor of icy Connor (Paterson Joseph), who takes a break from mustache-twirling to reminisce about his past with Rufus. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we see Denise (Sakina Jaffrey) motivated to begin a secret investigation into Connor’s behavior and goals.
As with last week’s preternaturally well-timed Watergate episode, “Timeless” again seems to speak to current events; when Nonhelema dismisses Lucy by recalling other promises to her nation broken, it’s impossible not to think about the current situation at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. What Nonhelema has no reason to know, but the audience does, is that our time traveling heroes are not colonizers — much the opposite: Even when they encounter injustice or are tempted to make a change, they continue to follow a policy of non-interference.
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With this in mind, the trio’s epilogue conversation seems to be setting us up for what’s to come. Lucy spells out how her belief in a higher power and fate means she must somehow reconcile with a future in which she’s partnered up with Flynn. Wyatt, ever the pragmatist, challenges her on this point: “If you’re not happy with the history that Flynn has written for you, then rewrite it.”
The use of tense here is fascinating; Flynn’s past is Lucy’s future, but now that she’s seen it, is it inevitable? We’re left with this tantalizing glimpse of Amy Adams/”Arrival” philosophy: Past, present, and future all laid out on an equal plane, each equally able to influence the other.
“Timeless” airs Mondays at x p.m. ET/PT on NBC.