12 Monkeys: What We Do For Love; The True Nature of The Red Forest

Season 4, episodes 4-6

Cassie in the Red Forest in 12 Monkeys

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.  And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” ~ John Donne, quoted by yakKatarina Jones

“Don’t you forget about me!” ~ by Simple Minds, sung by Theodore Deacon

“All of us here have been something that…that I once shunned.  Something that I can no longer live without.  Family.  I have only one dying wish.  Let’s act as one.” ~ Katarina Jones

“There is one simple truth; we can save the world or we can save each other.  We can’t do both.”  ~ Cassandra Railly

“What if every moment, past, present, future, all existed at the same time?” ~Elliot Jones

“Fate, my ass!” ~ Robert Gale

In my analysis of the first three episodes of season 4 of 12 Monkeys, I focused on the cycle of destruction and sin that Cole and the rest of  Splinter Team are trapped in.  Time and time again, the team attempts to find a solution to a problem only to create the very problem they are trying to solve.  Cole and company discover that in order to break the cycle, they’ll have to find a weapon, a weapon that the primaries invented to take out The Witness.  But the weapon is just a physical object, and if 12 Monkeys is about anything, it’s about human willpower and whether or not an individual can defy their own fate.  So what’s the “true” weapon then?  I’d argue that it’s love.  Love is the driving force behind each character’s actions in the series, and our heroes would not have gotten this far without it.  Unfortunately, love can also be destructive.

Romantic love is at the forefront of the show, primarily embodied in the relationship between our two leads, Cole and Cassie.  In this new batch of episodes, however, the show focuses on a couple of other relationships revolving around romance:  Jones and her relationship with her husband, Elliot, as well as Zalmon Shaw and the former love of his life.  While in past episodes, love has been explored in a positive manner, the romantic relationships in this episode all deal with selfish decisions that result or may result in some form of destruction.

Elliot_Jones 12 Monkeys

The opening of episode 4, “Legacy,” features a monologue by Jones in which she meditates on what kind of legacy she’ll leave behind once the radiation finally takes its toll on her.  We’re then treated to a flashback in which her husband, Elliot, is still alive.  Elliot, Jones, and their assistant Emma are working on Project Splinter.  Though Jones and Elliot are married and are working on the project together, their interactions with each other are awkward and somewhat cold.  When Elliot requests Jones’ presence to present the machine to their audience, she hesitates and Emma joins him instead.  Emma is especially beautiful, and Jones suspects that Elliot may be having an affair with her, but we never see confirmation of this.  However, later on in the episode, once Elliot is back at Project Splinter, the reason for their stilted relationship becomes clear.  Jones is particularly uncomfortable with emotional intimacy.  Even though she craves all of it from her husband.  She sees herself a “scientist” first and a “partner” to Elliot second.  She is so afraid of having a daughter that she nearly aborts it.  When Elliot leaves her, she changes her mind and decides to birth Hannah instead.

Her decision to give birth to Hannah is the way that Jones holds onto her husband’s memory.  Their legacy together.  Yet while Hannah is the literal product of Jones and Elliot’s love, project splinter can also be seen as a sort of “daughter.”  Jones and Elliot discuss the reason for their separation:

“You’re no savior, you’re Oppenheimer in a blindfold!”

“And you’re a mother, so I guess we both became something we never wanted to be.”

“I had a change of heart after you left.”

“I didn’t leave.  I didn’t choose this over you.  You left me with no choice but you.  Only you.”

“You wanted a legacy!”

“I wanted a family, Kat!  Something we could make together, and watch it grow and invent itself, or herself.  The shakes, what’s with the shakes?”

“Splinter radiation.  Lethal exposure trying to escape your masterpiece.  Four weeks.  Six at best.  Nobody knows.  Especially not her.

I didn’t know how to be a mother.  My mother never taught me.  My father loved me through postcards and birthday chocolates.  I wanted to be great at something I was good at.  Not afraid of something I wasn’t.”

“The day you told me you were pregnant, it felt like I’d won the Noble Prize, like I’d invented the wheel.  And when you told me that the next day you wouldn’t be…I…”

“You stole our work and you left.”

“I thought it was the only child I had left…Oh man.  It took us two decades to invent time travel, but just six days of marriage to ruin each other.”

There’s selfishness on both sides of the table here.  And there are abundant half-truths spoken in this exchange.  Elliot has a large ego, he does want a legacy, as Jones so astutely points out.  His word choice in his description of the day he discovered Jones’ pregnancy reveals this.  Instead of “we,” he uses the pronoun “I.”  And he indirectly refers to Jones’ pregnancy as an invention.  His invention.  Something that he primarily created.  It’s clear that he did and does have a love for Jones.   The current scene ends with him placing his hand in hers.  But perhaps his focus on her genius in science was the primary basis for this attraction, and his desire for romantic connection sprung from this.  As he said, he did love her, in his own way.  His ego, however, his strong desire to have something credited to his name, overrode whatever feelings he had for Jones.  Jones was unwilling to reveal her innermost fears to Elliot, especially about the reasons for her unwanted pregnancy.  Instead of facing her fears and turning to her husband for emotional support, she decided to escape from reality into something that was comfortable, her skill in science.  Her love for Elliot was the main reason she kept Hannah alive.  These attitudes of insecurity broke up what, with some work, could have been a healthy marriage.

Christopher Lloyd in 12 Monkeys

Episode 5, “After,” reveals the backstory of Zalmon Shaw and what motivated him to reject God (the removal of his collar symbolizes this) and ministry to instead force nature and time’s hand through the religion of The Red Forest and The Twelve Monkeys.  His childhood love, who later became his wife, suffered an early death.  Enraged with how the innate course of nature and time ripped his loved one away from him, he joins The Witness’ team and becomes Olivia’s main priest or “missionary.”  Olivia promises him that if he acquires the weapon before Team Splinter, that the arrival of the Red Forest will be imminent.  Our heroes battle him in a series of time loops within time loops within time loops.  They ultimately retrieve the weapon (through Deacon’s interference and help in the next episode), but not without one casualty.  Cassie’s faith takes a blow.

Cassie and Cole’s conversation at the outset of the episode reveals that she’s been struggling with what will happen “after” they defeat Olivia and prevent the occurrence of The Red Forest:

       “…My causality is paramount.  if the weapon was really meant for me to find, she doesn’t want to mess around with before.  We keep moving forward until the end.”

“The end.”

“What is it?”

“All this talk about the end and…you and I never talk about after.”

They continue this line of dialogue in the final scene of the episode when Cole apologizes to Cassie for risking their lives:

“I know what I put you through.  I’m sorry.”

“Are you?”

“Look at this place.  We’re running out of chances to end this thing.”

“And what about after?

“We break the cycle.  Reset time.  No Red Forest.”

“I mean us.  What’s left for us at the end of all this?  A memory…maybe.  The alternate timeline of a little boy from Philadelphia?”

“I saw something today.  After everything went black.  I saw water.  I think it was the Keys.  It was beautiful.  It felt…perfect.  Nothing could feel like that, unless you’re there.  I don’t know what it was”

“It was a hallucination, your brain deprived of oxygen.”

“Or it was…After.”

“You can call it whatever you want.  But at the end of all this, there is one simple truth.  We can save the world, or we can save each other.  We can’t do both.”

“Cass…we always knew this was how it was going to be.”

With Cole’s closing words, the remaining vestiges of hope in Cassie’s eyes are completely extinguished.  She flashes back to a conversation with Shaw, in which he spoke about the allure of The Red Forest and the cruelty of time:

“I imagine that by the end of the day you’ll understand.  Witnessing my wife die the way she did…I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone else.  Unless I thought they might see that without Time’s will, its shackles, there is the after of the Red Forest.  Where one never has to choose anything over the ones they love.  Doesn’t that sound right to you?”

Cassie’s answer is a soft-spoken, submissive “Yes.”  Her fear of losing Cole is driving her to consider the possibility of actually joining The Witness to bring about the Red Forest’s existence.  And she does not trust Cole’s vision to be anything but a hallucination, despite the hope it gives to him.

Cole’s vision is quite clearly a metaphorical stand-in for the concept of Heaven.  Many people who die on surgery room tables or hospital beds report having visions of a peaceful existence surrounded by loved ones before they are brought back to life.   While those individuals believe their visions to be authentic and real, detractors and skeptics address their experiences as hallucinations caused by lack of oxygen to the brain.  Cole describes it as “After.”  Add the suffix “life” to the end, and it’s pretty clear what he’s referring to.

But what is the Red Forest?  And does it actually hold the possibilities that Cassie and Shaw are hoping for?  I will return to this question later in the analysis, but first I’d like to touch on two other themes.

Romantic love is not the only form of love explored in the series or in these three episodes.  Both the love of families and friends are also addressed.  These aspects of love are mostly given positive spins, unlike the ego-driven exploration of Romantic love.  Here’s a quick list of the different examples of both familial and friendship love in this week’s batch of episodes:

  • Cole’s reluctance to share the origin of the Ouroboros riddle derives from his fear that doing so will cause the group to turn on each other.  Fortunately, Jennifer is able to spot that Cole is holding something back.  Jones reveals that she is dying and encourages the group to act as the family they have come to be and trust each other.  Cole then reveals that his mother passed the riddle down to him.  Trust is established.
  • Elliot risks his life for Hannah by distracting the Tall Man.
  • Agent Robert Gale once again puts his life at risk to help Team Splinter.
  • Shaw tells his son (Pallid boy) he’ll meet him in the Red Forest.
  • Emma’s line of dialogue to Jones:  “Hey you leave home, devote your life to something.  The people you share that with, whether you love them or hate them, they’re yours, right?”
  • Emma learns the secret of Project Splinter for her mother so that she can live with her forever in the Red Forest.
  • Jennifer trusts that Deacon has not turned on the team.
  • Jennifer’s hunch is proved correct when it is revealed that Deacon is secretly working against Olivia for Team Splinter.
  • Cole rescues Deacon from Nazi torture.
  • Jennifer rescues Jones by communicating to her telepathically.
  • Jennifer risks death to entertain the Nazis.

2 women hug in fear in front of a Nazi flag

The final couple of scenes in episode 6, “Die Glocke,” however, display the greatest act of love that can be shown: the sacrifice of one’s life.  Jones’ reading of John Donne’s’ poem cements for the group her love for them and the way she considers them one family unit.  If one member of the team leaves, the unit will be incomplete.  What she had once “shunned” before, she has found fulfillment in.  Surprisingly, Deacon shares similar sentiments.  He doesn’t hold any grudge towards the group for leaving him behind when they splintered back to the origin of the loop.  Both Deacon and Jones willingly accept the fact that their deaths are imminent and return to Titan with Jones as a “hostage.”  This act of self-sacrifice may end up saving existence itself in the end.

Now, back to The Red Forest.  All the villains of the series and even our hero Cassie believe that the Forest will be their salvation.  They see it as a kind of “death” that enables them to live forever with their loved ones, without ever worrying about the clutching hands of time.  As Jones says, “To those of faith, [death] is time eternal, salvation.”  The Red Forest is Heaven to The Cult of The Twelve Monkeys.  They believe that defying God (as in the case of Shaw) and forcing the premature arrival of this state artificially will grant them peace.  They are sorely mistaken.  Time may cease to exist in the Red Forest, true, but with the erasure of the passage of time, it follows that consciousness will cease to be.  The Red Forest is corrupt by its very nature and by issuing in its existence, Olivia and the rest are not only playing God by forcing nature’s hand but are returning the universe back to its primordial state.  In essence, in destroying time, they are negating existence, turning the clock back to when the universe was a singularity and forcing it to stay there, simply with the addition of all time simultaneously happening at once, so that no time exists at all.

Elliot’s lecture and demonstration at the beginning of “Legacy” illustrate this point:

“We think about the birth of the universe as the beginning of everything.  Right?.  What without when, planets without seconds.  We have exhausted the origins of the Universe.  But not the origins of time, right?  Now to some that is the Hartle-Hawking state, right?  The Big Bang in an hourglass.  Okay yes, but, if everything we see and don’t see….What if past, present, future, all existed at the same time?

“A single seed.  All potential.  All possibility.  There’s a whole life here, and it’s just waiting.  It’s waiting for water, and it’s waiting for sunlight.  It’s waiting for time.  Let’s give it everything at once.”

In this scenario, the seed represents the singularity that according to Stephan Hawking and James Hartle, existed before the existence of time itself.  The Hartle-Hawking theory argues that the beginning of the universe has no origin because time did not exist before the Big Bang.  The introduction of time to the singularity was the initial start of the Big Bang.  Afterward, additional effects took place gradually until the formation of the Universe.  Elliot’s demonstration with the seed, however, is different.  In giving the seed “everything at once,” he replicates the experience of the Red Forest.  The effect to the seed is the corruption of its natural state.  At first, the seed’s growth is healthy.  The plant that sprouts is green and full of life, but then the blue light turns a harsh shade of red, and the plant warps and twists into something resembling a briar patch.  Its red color and thorny appearance indicate that it has been corrupted.  It resembles the plants in The Red Forest completely.

a beautiful footpath through trees with bright red leaves

It thus follows that individuals who are subjected to The Red Forest environment will cease to exist in their natural state.  With the erasure of the progression of time, and an individual’s perception of time shifting so that it takes on what only an entity who exists outside of time and space could possibly perceive (the simultaneous happening of events) the concept of free-will ceases to exist.  Furthermore, the cycles of sin and redemption that I explored in my previous analysis cease to progress naturally.  With all events happening simultaneously, it is as if events are not happening at all.  The formation of individual personalities and souls is impossible because cycles of growth in which we learn lessons turn static.  Time stands still and ceases to be precisely because time is occurring all at once.  This new universe is both everything and nothing.  And the subjects (people) that are in this new world cease to be human.  They instead become what can only be referred to as an artifical replication of God.  It could be argued that everyone’s consciousness has been broken down, merging into one substance.  This will remove pain and choice, and essentially reset the universe and hold it in a static state.

It is posited scientifically that a Big Crunch will occur, returning the state of the universe back to a singularity and eventually inducing a new Big Bang.  If this is true, then the Twelve Monkeys are not only undoing time, they are forcing its hand forward, progressing to a state that will eventually occur naturally.  Of course, their desire to halt the flow of time contradicts the natural course of events.

This is not what Cassie desires.  Destroying time will erase her relationship with Cole.  Hopefully, Team Splinter will sway her opinion and convince her that love is the only way forward for mankind.  Love is the key to breaking the continual cycle of sin and redemption that mankind has found itself in since the beginning of time.  And with that break comes true, not artificial, paradise.


Notes and Observations:

  • Loops upon loops upon loops.  Sorting out the timeline of  Episode 5 was extremely enjoyable.
  • Cole’s conversation with the wash-lady was some of the best comedy the show has ever had.
  • Team Splinter killed Hitler!
  • The weapon is not actually a weapon, but the key to the weapon.
  • Jennifer always gets to put on anachronistic performances.  Her previously recorded album even featured in the episode!
  • Deacon’s wink to Jennifer was an amazingly cool moment.
  • The concept of the Red Forest and the Witness’ goals remind me of SEELE’s plans in Neon Genesis Evangelion.
  • “I may be sixteen kinds of asshole, but I ain’t a freakin’ Nazi.”
  • What is Olivia’s mission?  We’ll find out next episode.
  • It was great to see Gale back in action.
  • Christopher Lloyd!
  • The fact that the final lines of Donne’s poem which are “It tolls for thee” are overlaid on a camera shot of Olivia spells doom for her character.

Written by Aaron Ploof

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