By Tereza Walsbergerová
Time-travel, popular historical figures, and light humor, but also mystery, conspiracy, and corruption at the very root of America’s past… The American TV series Timeless, created by Eric Kripke (Supernatural) and Shawn Ryan (Lie To Me), is a seemingly straightforward time-travel procedural packed with popular history trivia, stereotypical characters, and overused television tropes, yet its intricate plot also hides a chilling conspiracy theory which is so entangled with the story of America itself that it is often not clear where the truth lies. This article offers a structured review of Timeless along with an analysis of its portrayal of the role of paranoia in American history (1).
Soldier, historian, and programmer walk into a time machine
After a mysterious man, Garcia Flynn (Goran Višnjić), steals a time machine “the Mothership” constructed by Connor Mason (Paterson Joseph), Homeland Security’s Special Agent Denise Christopher (Sakina Jaffrey) decides to hire an unlikely trio of people – Delta Force operative Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter), historian Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer), and programmer Rufus Carlin (Malcolm Barrett) – to follow Flynn in an earlier prototype of the machine called “the Lifeboat”. Together, they travel to various key events of U.S. history (e.g. the Hindenburg disaster, the Alamo, the Moon landing, the Watergate scandal, etc.) trying to catch Flynn and prevent him from altering American history in any way.
While the premise may sound intriguing to history enthusiasts and time-travel fans, Timeless is undoubtedly one of those shows where you have to be patient and wait for everything to fall into place before you can start truly enjoying the story. Just like with any other procedural show, it takes a while to warm up to the main characters – in Timeless’ case, this is even more poignant, as before they start developing, you might consider them to be embodying certain stereotypes, as is the case of Connor Mason, whose portrayal is, at times, dangerously nearing the “black and nerdy” TV trope, or copies of characters Kripke has used before, as is the case of Wyatt Logan, whose mannerisms, behaviour, and even sense of humor closely resemble Supernatural’s Dean Winchester.
In contrast to some popular shows and movies that deal with causality, Timeless is all about changing history by disturbing events.
Moreover, as the screenwriters struggle to get all of the exposition and character introductions “out of the way” so they can fully concentrate on the development of the show’s intricate plot, some scenes come off as “awkward” or even “forced”. One such scene takes place in “Party at Castle Varlar”, when Conner brushes off his ownership of a giant storage-room (i.e. “the Wardrobe Dock”) filled with costumes from different time-periods and geographic areas of the world with a simple: “It’s better to have and not need than need and not have, and it doesn’t seem like these missions are ending anytime soon, so…” (2).
Of course, having to explain how he managed to obtain such a large amount of historical costumes would take up way too much time. On the other hand, Connor’s justification – i.e. the prediction that the Lifeboat missions will be happening for a long time in many different time-periods (as that is literally the premise of the show) despite the fact that their mission is to catch Flynn as soon as possible, came incredibly close to breaking the fourth wall, which may indicate lazy writing and should not be overlooked. In fact, not commenting on the Wardrobe Dock at all may have been the smarter choice here as the audience could have filled the gaps themselves quite easily.
Yet another take on time-travel
When it comes to time-travel narratives, there are several concepts that screenwriters can choose from, and this choice depends on several factors (e.g. the writers’ preference or compatibility with the setting). With Timeless, the writers opted for a simpler option, so that they could concentrate on the plot rather than the scientific element of the show. Thus, its time-travel concept can be summed up with just a few words – and it is, in fact, by Connor when he states: “[i]f you get a powerful enough gravitation field, you could actually bend it [the fabric of space-time] back on itself, creating a kind of loop, that would allow you cross over to an earlier point” (3). This clear suppression of the scientific element does not come at the expense of the show however, as this pretence has already been drained by countless films and television shows.
Conspiracy and America have always been intertwined.
Timeless focuses on causality rather than time-travel. In contrast to some popular shows and movies that deal with causality, such as Doctor Who, where one cannot really change key events in history as they are considered fixed points in time and space – e.g. the eruption of Vesuvius in “The Fires of Pompeii” – Timeless is all about changing history by disturbing those same events. In this manner it is more similar to Back to the Future, although there the action performed in the past only has minor effects connected to selected few who are considered insignificant in the course of history, compared to what might happen in Timeless if an important historical figure dies when they should not have, or does not die when they should have.
Never say never (again)
Similarly to Kripke’s Supernatural, there is also a considerable lighter side to Timeless which counteracts its heavy topics. While Rufus cannot be really described as the comic relief of the show, it is he who is often the centre of the comedic scenes, due to his awkward and socially inept character. Additionally, as he is black, a large portion of the comedy is devoted to the situations he finds himself in as he travels into America’s past: “On a scale from Million Man March to Mississippi Burning, how safe do you think I’m gonna be out there (4)?”
Excluding these instances, much of the humor is not actually centred around the characters, but is rather connected to American history and popular culture. For instance, in the pilot, when the trio travels to the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, Lucy makes the first of many pop-cultural references on the show when she introduces herself to a police officer as “Nurse Jackie”. Similarly, Rufus introduces himself as “Denzel Washington” in “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” when he runs into a group of black soldiers on the street. This use of pop-cultural nicknames thus becomes an inside-joke between the characters on the show and the audience.
Many of the encounters with key historical figures can also often become the source of humorous situations. For instance, in “Party at Castle Varlar”, the trio runs into a mysterious man with British accent in a German Gestapo-frequented pub. The man is revealed to be Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond series. When the trio returns back to the present, they find out that Fleming wrote a book about their entire encounter titled Weapon of Choice. Correspondingly, in “Lost Generation”, the trio meets Ernest Hemingway, who spends most of the episode drunk. Other humorous encounters with popular historical figures include e.g. Harry Houdini, Al Capone, Katherine Johnson, or John Wilkes Booth.
United States of Conspiracy
Paranoia and conspiracy are definitely among the main underlying themes of Timeless. While it can be safely said that they are a current topic all over the Western World at the moment, conspiracy and America have always been intertwined. Based on what historian Richard Hofstadter says in his book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (5), we could even say that the paranoid style is coded into the American DNA.
Of course, it has not just emerged out of the blue. Hofstadter’s theory is that the roots of American susceptibility to paranoia lie as far as France, and specifically the French Revolution, which some believe to be connected to the Illuminati. (10) While there is no evidence that the Illuminati ever made it to America (12), there were those who believed in a “triple conspiracy of anti-Christians, Freemasons, and Illuminati to destroy religion and order” (12) and also those who were “convinced that the US were a victim of a Jacobinical plot touched off by Illuminism and that the country should be rallied to defend itself against the machinations of the international conspiracy.” (13)
Masonry itself became one of the most suspected secret societies in America, even spurring an anti-Masonic movement in the 1820s (16). Hofstadter adds, that “[t]he conflict between secrecy and democracy was felt to be so basic that other, more innocent societies, such as Phi Beta Kappa, also came under attack” (16).
Paranoia has become basically ever-present in American politics with a considerable increase during the rise of mass media, which helped amplify these fears and spread panic amongst people much faster. It increased even further after WWII in connection with Cold War, Korean War, and McCarthy’s communist scare. In his book, Hofstadter points out the similarities of this scare to the scares emerging in the 19th century America and thus reaffirms the continuous presence of paranoia in American politics (26).
Lies and deception
Many episodes of Timeless could be in fact considered examinations of increases of paranoia in American history. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Watergate scandal, Benedict Arnold’s betrayal, the Moon landing, the communist scare… all of these events are connected to conspiracy theories and paranoid thinking, which the authors are using to their advantage.
At the most basic level, paranoia on Timeless is represented by deception, when at first seemingly insignificant lies and secrets become crucial plot points. For example, when Flynn confronts Lucy with a diary that she is going to write in the future and informs her that they will one day collaborate against a common enemy, the authors in one bold move make the audience both suspect Lucy – the main character of the show – of conspiracy and at the same time realise that Flynn may not in fact be the villain after all. Suddenly, it becomes difficult to tell who are the actual heroes and if there are even any.
Similarly, when it is revealed that the entire time Rufus’s real mission has been to secretly record Lucy and Wyatt, it is another shocking revelation for the audience, as Rufus is from the start perceived as a kind of “innocent” character who only became part of the team by default.
At the most basic level, paranoia on Timeless is represented by deception, when at first seemingly insignificant lies and secrets become crucial plot points.
In this manner, the authors are very skillfully playing with the audience’s trust by keeping them on their toes; as soon as you become comfortable and happy with all the information you have, some new information is introduced that completely turns your understanding of the story upside down. Examples of this are the revelation of Lucy’s father’s identity and the last scene of “The Red Scare” in which Lucy’s mother completely discredits the entire season with one line of dialogue.
Perhaps the most important element of Timeless is then the theme of secret societies – or more accurately, one secret organization called “Rittenhouse”. As is apparent from Hofstadter’s book, secret societies have always been objects of paranoia to the point of obsession in American history. It is therefore not surprising that they have also become a part of American literature and popular culture. From The Crying of Lot 49 to Fight Club, the concept of secret societies, organizations, clubs, and cults keeps reappearing again and again with paranoia as the common theme.
In Timeless, Rittenhouse is a secret organization founded by David Rittenhouse in 1778. While the man himself actually existed (he was an “American astronomer and inventor who was an early observer of the atmosphere of Venus”), the organization is fictional. Its aim, based on its actions in the show so far, is to take over America and rule over its people from the shadows.
According to the show, members of Rittenhouse included e.g. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Joseph McCarthy. The first mention of Rittenhouse appears in the pilot during the confrontation between Lucy and Garcia Flynn. At this moment, neither Lucy nor the audience has any idea what it means. Each episode leads the heroes to another clue, though, and by “The Watergate Tape”, Rittenhouse is finally recognised as the true villain of the show.
What is the “right” version of history? What is the “right” version of America? What are we actually fighting for?
Suddenly, the trio has to decide whether they should continue obeying their orders and keep going after Flynn who has been going after Rittenhouse the entire time (as opposed to try and destroy America as they had been told), or whether they should help Flynn eradicate Rittenhouse instead. The problem, however, is that by eradicating Rittenhouse, they would also fundamentally change history (and thus change America), as some of the most prominent members of the organization are at the same time key figures of America’s past.
At this point, the main motivation behind the Lifeboat missions, and therefore the skeleton of the show’s procedural side, pretty much shatters – another bold move by the writers. What is the “right” version of history? What is the “right” version of America? What are we actually fighting for?
Un-canceled and renewed
Timeless was cancelled by NBC after the first season due to low ratings. According to Deadline, “[b]y Thursday [11 May 2017] morning, fans’ reaction to the cancellation of Timeless had reached fever pitch, with them rallying to save the show while Sony TV was trying to find a new home for the series on a cable or streaming network.” Consequently, Timeless was un-canceled that same week and according to Kripke’s tweet, renewed for another 10-episode season due to air in Summer 2018.
Despite some of the setbacks, Timeless has thus apparently managed to draw a passionate audience and has also been praised for its smartness by critics, which predicts a bright future for the show. All in all, it can be said that Timeless has great potential to rank amongst the best time-travel shows in the history of television, especially if it leaves behind shortcuts and stereotypes and continues leaning heavily on its theme of paranoia. That way, it can maintain its niche amongst other procedurals and sci-fi shows that are currently airing.
Re:Views Verdict: 85%
Name: Timeless (2016–present)
Running time: 43 min
Starring: Abigail Spencer, Matt Lanter, Malcolm Barrett, Peterson Joseph, Sakina Jaffrey, Claudia Doumit, Goran Višnjić
Available on: NBC and Netflix
1 Warning: The following text may contain spoilers revealing some important plot points.
2 “Party at Castle Varlar.” Timeless, Season 1, Episode 4, NBC, 24 Oct. 2016. Netflix, www.netflix.com/watch/80164480?trackId=200257858.
3 “Pilot.” Timeless, season 1, episode 1, NBC, 3 Oct. 2016. Netflix, www.netflix.com/watch/80164477?trackId=200257859.
4 “Pilot.” Timeless, season 1, episode 1, NBC, 3 Oct. 2016. Netflix, www.netflix.com/watch/80164477?trackId=200257859.
5 Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Harvard University Press, 1996.