12 Monkeys: Breaking the Cycle of Obsession, Revenge, and Violence

(Season 4, Episodes 1-3)

Cole and Cassie hug in 12 monkeys

“I was blinded by my hope for an ending.  Don’t be blinded by yours for revenge”–Katarina Jones to Cassandra Railly

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” —Thomas Edison.

Twelve Monkeys premiered back in 2015, and since then I’ve been an avid fan of the show.  The series is intelligent television at its finest.  The script is tight, the characters are well developed and likable, and the themes are timeless.  There’s an excellent mix of both humor and drama sprinkled throughout, and there are always opportunities to develop theories on what will happen in future episodes.  Following Cole and Cassie’s adventures through time makes for one hell of a mind trip.

The last season ended with Olivia murdering Cole and Cassie’s son, Athan, and taking her fated role as The Witness.  Cole and Cassie escaped back to Project Splinter’s facility with Katarina Jones, who was badly injured, in tow.

It began with a guilt-plagued man seeking redemption, or rather, the erasure of his own existence.  Weighed down by the sins he had committed in order to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, James Cole was tasked with the assassination of Leland Goines.  Katarina Jones, the creator of the time machine, assured him that Goines’ murder would erase Cole’s present self and prevent the release of the virus that had nearly decimated mankind.  With the help of Cassandra Railly, Cole managed to kill Goines, but the timeline remained the same.  Cole did not disappear, and the virus was still released.  This was just one of many attempts made by Team Splinter to prevent the disaster that resulted in failure.

Indeed, Cole, Cassie, and Jones continually try to prevent the plague and the creation of the Red Forest but continually fail.  And the body count keeps rising.  Yet, out of all the deaths that occur, the ones that affect our heroes the most are Jones’ daughter Hannah, Cassie and Cole’s son Athan, and Cole’s best friend, Ramse.

Jones’ sole motivation for the creation of the time machine is not driven by altruism, but rather, obsession.  Her daughter, Hannah, died during the outbreak of the virus.  Although it was actually bacterial meningitis, Jones attributes Hannah’s death to the outbreak.  She is completely devoted to preventing the release of the virus, so much so that, when given the opportunity to work with Jonathan Foster, the leader of Spearhead,

to develop a cure, she instead overpowers his center, kills him, steals his energy core, destroys all evidence of her wrongdoings, and lies to her team.  Eventually, Jones reaches the conclusion that the very creation of the time machine is responsible for everything, and instructs Cole and Cassie to kill her in the past.  But because the time machine is responsible for them being there in the first place, they are unable to complete their mission.

By the time of “Ouroboros,” the second episode of season four, Jones has fully realized her hand in the problems that the team is facing and has come to terms with her own actions.  She admits she placed trust in the wrong hands, that she should have trusted and invested in her team, instead of just giving them “missions” and holding out in the obsessive hope that she would be able to rescue her daughter.  In her conversation with her earlier self, she confronts her double with the cold hard truth of the sins she has committed “Oh please, you can drop the selfless pretense.  I know the things that you will do in [Hannah’s] name.”  Accepting this truth about herself allows her to trust Cole when the team is given a crucial decision to make.  She also goes out of her way to thank Marcus for all that he has done for her, knowing that in the future he will die by her side.

In “45 RPM,” the third episode of the fourth season, it is also revealed that Jones’ creation of the machine is responsible for Olivia’s ability to manipulate Cole and Cassie throughout their travels in time.  Doing so allows her to take her place as the Witness in the future after murdering Athan.  Of course, Athan’s murder weighs heavily on both Cole and Cassie, who went through extreme efforts to save Athan’s soul only to see him captured and presumably killed by Olivia.  While Cole is able to focus on the immediate present and what the next best step is, Cassie is obsessed with tracking down Olivia’s younger self and killing her.  Cole and Jones reject this idea, arguing that assassinating Olivia would simply be a repeat of the same mission they have pursued multiple times before, in both Leland Goines and The Witness.  They instead argue for pushing forward and breaking the violent cycle they have been caught in from the beginning by reaching out to their friend, Jennifer.  Cassie accuses them of chasing visions, but Jones asserts that they should “have faith, in ourselves and in each other.  It’s not just the one mission-not anymore.  It’s only what we decide upon together.”  Unable to take this leap into the unknown, Cassie doubles down on her anger and travels back in time to 1971, regardless of the fact that there is no tether, and she may never see Cole again.  Her need for revenge has outweighed even her love for Cole.

It is no surprise thematically that the path Cassie takes ultimately ends in failure, and even results in the very creation of the loop our heroes are already caught in.  The young Olivia plays her for a fool, lying about her mother’s true intentions towards her daughter.  Olivia’s mom is simply just one more person who is attempting to break free of the Witness’ grasp on her fate.  She has lost trust in, ironically, her own daughter. When Olivia possesses her younger self and urges Cassie to pull the trigger, Cassie gives in and accidentally kills Olivia’s mother, removing the one obstacle that could have prevented all future disasters.  Did Cassie have a choice?  Could she have resisted Fate and upset the loop?  Could she have resisted traveling back in time in the first place?  Perhaps.  I think there’s quite a good possibility.

There’s a persistent theme that runs through these first few episodes:  the idea of second chances.  The theme is initially touched upon but not literally called out when the team discovers that splintering their facility has not merely resulted in a movement of location, but also a reorientation in time.  They are given another chance to use the machine in what Jones calls “a final splinter before the first.”  Ironically, the second chance (or third, or fourth) takes place before the initial use of the machine.  While infiltrating the facility, all three of the remaining members of our team encounter a situation dealing with “second chances.”

As she walks the corridors of the facility, Cassie is distracted by an image of herself speaking about the outbreak that has already occurred in the past.   Keep in my mind that the Cassie on the television is our Cassie’s future self.  Although the recording is in the past, this has not yet happened for our Cassie.  The dialogue future Cassie speaks to the reporter begs for close inspection:

“Outbreaks, pandemics, they’re cyclical right?  History repeating itself.  But what would history be without them?”

“You sound optimistic.”

“Yes, the Black Plauge gave birth to the Renissance.  These tiny little cells with no emotion, no ambition, no visions…They somehow remind us to feel, and create, and aspire.  We fight, we learn, we learn, we live.  Not just longer, but better.  I tell myself often sometimes, ‘Terrible things happen so that great things can happen next.  Sometimes, Cassie, a circle–a loop–is just a second chance.’”

With these last words, we see future Cassie make straight eye contact with present Cassie.  This is a message from her future self imploring her past self to embrace new possibilities and learn from her mistakes.  The “Outbreaks” and “Pandemics” future Cassie speaks of can easily be seen as metaphors for violence, hatred, revenge, and war.  The sins of mankind.  Future Cassie knows her past self is already on a path towards revenge.   Unfortunately, this message does not immediately register with our Cassie.  She remembers it when she encounters young Olivia, but is ultimately tricked.  Hopefully, she will remember it down her timeline, either to repeat it towards her past self or use it to alter the loop.

Jones’ meeting with herself also touches upon sins, mistakes, and their value towards self-reflection and redemption.  Our Jones warns past Jones about everything that has transpired and then the younger double counters:

“I’m here to warn you.”“Of what?  The myriad of mistakes we’ll make?  Perhaps we’ll need them.  What was it that Elliot used to say?  ‘The common core of all great achievements, is failure.’”

The older double suggests throwing causality to the wind, but younger Jones explains that it is not wise not knowing which threads to pull.  Insisting that her future self shares her burden and “borrows” some of her hope, past Jones inspires future Jones with the idea to take her energy core and use it for her team, fulfilling the condition of the time machine in the first episode of the first season.  This encounter with herself gives Jones a second chance, the courage to direct her hope and faith elsewhere, towards her teammates and friends, Cole and Cassie.

Yet the most important character moment in the second episode is between Cole and Ramsey.  Cole, assuming the role of his past self, encounters his “brother” while in the facility.  Ramsey stops him during their walk to ask what’s wrong with him, does he “want to make a change?”  Ramsey’s not aware of it, but he is speaking towards Cole’s apprehension that perhaps he is caught in a literal time loop of wrongdoing, sins, and violence that will repeat ad-infinitum.  Cole’s mind immediately jumps towards his murder of Ramsey, a sin he committed to save Cassie from being murdered by his best friend in order to ensure the death of The Witness, so Ramsey’s own son would not be killed by their son, Athan.  The following dialogue houses a series of double meanings:

“You want to make a change?  Brother, you give the word, we’ll go right now.  Listen, I know it’ll get messy.”

“Well…it’s messy either way, right?  One and done sounds good, but…when’s it ever that easy?”

“However many times it takes, man.”

“Until what?”

“Until your soul is saved.”

“What if it never stops?  All the shit that we did?  Hm?  What if it’s just that?  Over, and over, and over again?  We keep trying to do the right thing the wrong way?”

“There’s no right or wrong.  You know what I mean?  There’s no good and bad.  You just gotta do what matters in the–in the moment.”

“Yeah, I’m uh…I’m trying real hard to forgive myself. I don’t know if I can.”

“Better stop trying.  I mean only the dead can forgive, brother.  You’ve got to give them a reason to forgive you.”

Ramsey’s last line is chock full of irony.  The one man Cole feels the most guilty for killing is standing right in front of him, alive and well, but to ask for forgiveness is impossible.

How many Coles and Cassies have been through this cycle?  This loop?  Is this the first Cole, the third, the twelfth, the fifty-sixth, or the one-hundredth?  Or did the cycle even ever truly have a beginning?  Regardless of the number, I think the possibility to break free of this Jinn, this loop of sin exists.  Is Ramsey saying there is truly no good and evil?  No sin and no virtue?  I don’t believe so.  Each person lives out their lives struggling to do what they think is best when presented with a moment in which they must choose.  Sometimes,  it is only when they look back, when they are given a second chance, that they are able to recognize their sins and seek redemption through better behavior.  As future Cassie puts it, “We fight, we learn, we learn, we live.  Not just longer, but better.”

Cole does exactly this when he rejects Cassie’s thirst for revenge and seeks out Jennifer.  Could past iterations of Cole in previous cycles accompanied Cassie or gone down darker avenues?  Most definitely.  The path that Cole chooses this time, however, leads towards definite hope in the clue that he and Jennifer find hidden in the mouth of the snake.  Cole has to use his mother’s–Marion’s– poem in order to solve the puzzle:

There once was a serpent who travelled in one direction.  Always forward, never backward.  Until one day, the serpent came upon a demon.  The Demon cursed the serpent, driving him insane, causing him to eat his own tail.  The serpent was blind.  But a few, those who were seers, knew the serpent’s true path.  So they created a weapon.  A weapon to destroy the demon.  They hid the weapon in the snake’s den, where he waited for his madness to end.

But it never did. For the seers discovered that the only one who could wield the weapon was the Demon itself.

And so the serpent was doomed to circle in madness…forever.

In this poem, the serpent represents time, traveling along a straight line.  The demon that the serpent encounters could be Jones, Olivia, or a combination of the two.  This entity (perhaps the time machine itself) causes time to double back upon itself and leaves it unable to return to its original form.  The seers are associated with the Primaries, who can see through time (Jennifer is the last surviving one, but she’s been ripped of her visions).  What the weapon is, we don’t know yet.  Could it be Project Splinter?  Are the weapon and the demon one in the same?  As we see in the prologue of “The End,” the primaries have known of Cole’s existence many, many, years ago, and have purposefully passed down the Ouroborous puzzle so that it would eventually end up in Cole’s hands.  How it landed in a museum is anyone’s guess, but now that it’s in Jennifer’s possession, she gives it to Cole, who solves the puzzle and discovers the clue.  When he embraces Cassie in the final scene he promises that they’re going to break the cycle of timeless violence.

The final two stanzas of the poem may foreshadow doom for our heroes, but Cole’s ability to literally remove the tail from the snake’s mouth may symbolize substantial change and a new way forward.  Furthermore, the thematic leanings and the overall tone of these first few episodes are hopeful and seem to be looking towards a brighter future (or past).  And the willpower and strong love between Cole and Cassie have allowed retainment of both memories and physical changes through altered timelines throughout the series (Cassie’s recollection of her stay with Cole in the house of cedar and pine and her retainment of baby Athan is an example of this).  I have a strong feeling that the end of the series will not settle on a harsh deterministic viewpoint as the source material did, but rather carve its own niche.  Whether the conclusion is bittersweet or happy remains to be seen.  But I’m betting on the former.

Other Notes and Thoughts:

-Deacon got his own second chance, and he used it to join Olivia’s team.  Is this his final allegiance flip-flop?  He shows up in the previews with the team.  Is he a mole, or a triple agent?

-If Cole and Cassie are able to break the loop, will Cassie’s death in 2017 be averted?  Or will we create two alternate realities/timelines?

-From the previews, it looks like our heroes will be encountering some of the worst sins of mankind’s past (Nazi Germany!)

-Who’s body is patient zero’s?  Is it Cole’s?  How did it end up in the Himalayas? Will this all connect to the beginning and the creation of the virus?

-How did “future asshole” Cole know to rescue Jennifer?  Will we see the scene where he meets past Cole in the entrance to the hotel again?

-Jennifer’s imaginary friend is bad-ass!  Alias!

-The fact that The Red Forest has not already engulfed time itself may be a clue that it indeed never happens.

-Who is Olivia’s child?

-It’s difficult to say whether our main characters will use violence in later episodes but ridding themselves of the anger behind it is a definite step forward.  I personally believe that sometimes violence is called for.  Still, one can’t escape the negative effects it will incur upon one’s soul.  Cole and Cassie are excellent examples of this.

Written by Aaron Ploof

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