Our heroes, acknowledging that much of the past would not be so fun to hang out in

Timeless is coming back soon! I love this ridiculous time travel show. I love anything where the historian gets to save the world (I know National Treasure is flawed, whatever, don’t care). Sure, the writers don’t seem to entirely know (or care) what historians actually do. What is Lucy a historian of? It doesn’t matter. Walking encyclopedia is close enough.

This beauty of this show is about the broad strokes — computer nerds Rufus and Jiya type fast, know a lot about physics, and like computer games. Lucy is a historian of apparently all American history and a fair amount of European too. It’s not going for realism (besides the obvious time travel issue) but for a feeling. Rufus cares about exploration and the future, Lucy about understanding the past. So, the lady with the books is a historian like the guy with a keyboard and a MIT degree is a time-machine pilot. The show gives us the shorthand we need to place the character in a context and that’s really all we need to be on board. The emotions are the important part anyways.

Timeless is, at its root, a show about people who care about stuff. When we first meet Lucy, she is giving a lecture about finding the humanity in history (and President Johnson’s Johnson). She talks a big game about fate and destiny and the greater good but, at her core, she is a person who finds people fascinating and worth learning about, and therefore worth protecting. Our heroes are all deeply passionate and driven — as Wyatt counsels Lucy, you have to know what you are fighting for. They always do although, admittedly, it can shift from day to day. They are fighting for their families, for the people they meet, and, more and more as the show goes on, for each other.

They also keep saying that they are fighting for “history.” It features prominently in the season two teaser. But really, this makes no sense. “History” is not a static thing that can be preserved. It is not one place or one time. It’s massive and incomprehensible and full of things that we will never see or understand. It cannot be fully understood, let alone controlled. What they are really fighting for is the present. Fighting to not change it too badly. Fighting to get Amy back, to help Wyatt get the life he thinks he should be living. And the show doesn’t dig too much into that — they tiptoe up to the idea of trying to change things for the better, but fall back on that time travel trope that you never know what the consequences will be. They know things could be worse, and that keeps them (somewhat) in line.

Lucy meets Lincoln

This show’s conception of important history is pretty simplistic. It’s all about big moments and great (white) men. Sure, some of that comes from Garcia Flynn’s dedication to taking out Rittenhouse — they are the people in power, so the stories we see are those of the powerful. But come on, wouldn’t it be easier to target some of these guys before they were powerful? Or on days other than like the most important day of their life? Of course, these are not practical choices, but dramatic ones. If Flynn really wants to end America he would snuff out the Jamestown settlers when they were already weak from starving, he would spread smallpox at Valley Forge, he would kill all the founders before we became a society aware of assassination plots. He would burn cotton warehouses and destroy fortunes, he would reveal scandals, he would lead a slave insurrection or help Native Americans kick European settlers off their land. There are way easier, and much more significant, targets then the Hindenburg or the Alamo or Bonnie and Clyde. But that’s not the point. The point is that these stories and turning points are fascinating and dramatic, but contained. We get to see our heroes in vintage clothes and we get to hang out with famous people. The past is really just a framing device for these moral struggles. If Flynn’s plan made more sense, there would be a lot of montages of him destroying records or digging through archives for useful new bits of intelligence. That’s how one rewrites narratives or challenges regimes. But who cares, we want to see him all looming and handsome and vaguely menacing but still smoldery. Confronting people dramatically and making speeches. In period dress, of course.

To its credit, this show does attempt to reckon with some of the sins of American history. At least, more than most history-based shows have done. Rufus, rightfully, has no interest in exploring the past and we see him having to confront more virulent racism over and over again. Lucy also chafes at increased restrictions on a lot of these expeditions. Wyatt doesn’t seem to notice, of course, but at least he is generally receptive to his teammates’ complaints. Yes, the show is taking baby steps, but at least they are steps. And it pokes at these issues in interesting ways. Like in 1960s Vegas, where Rufus realizes he can get away with things because he is “invisible,” a person relegated to the background— so he acts like a valet and steals the car they need. Or when Rufus is the only one who can infiltrate the Black Liberation Army’s hangout and tells Lucy, like she told him in 1930s Jersey in the pilot, to wait outside and not make eye contact (she is way worse at it than he was because, of course, she has not had to practice nearly as much). They spend a whole episode making sure that everyone knows that the Lone Ranger was black. They show viewers the hope that African American soldiers had after the Civil War, but also hint to the devastation that will come when Reconstruction ends, a part of history most Americans are not taught. Of course, Timeless could deal explicitly with this and it often chooses not to. I also wish they dealt more with the emotional impact of Rufus having to live this stuff over and over. We know that racism creates its own form of trauma and this is never dealt with (amongst all the myriad other traumas our heroes live through). Timeless is still a show interested in famous men and relatively contained stories, presumably, in part, in an effort to attract viewers. Come see H. H. Holmes and Houdini and Lincoln and Kennedy and Al Capone! Fair enough I guess. But I hope season two continues to poke at these things just a little more.

The real reason I love this show is its complete dedication to the feels. It is, at its core, a show about people and about connections. Lucy, Wyatt, and Rufus travel through time trying to convince others of the righteousness of their cause. They win people over with emotional appeals and acts of bravery and smarts, never (or rarely) with intimidation. People seem to trust them because their earnest conviction just seeps out of them. I love that this show, over and over again, decides that humans are worth saving. The bad guys aren’t evil (mostly — the original Rittenhouse is a dick), but they are lead astray by power and pressure and jackhole fathers who were made so by their own jackhole fathers. Over and over, Wyatt, Rufus, and especially Lucy, get through to people and convince them to do what’s right. Flynn, the main “villain,” is driven less by revenge and more by love. He does not want to avenge the death of his wife and daughter as much as he desperately wants to bring them back. He is driven by love and is therefore able to be redeemed. Redeemed by the brilliant Lucy coming up with a better plan.

But the failure of that plan shows the real tragedy of this show and its world — that people can try so hard, but that the real power lies with systems built over hundreds of years that nobody can really understand or undo. Even the people who built them or those who wield the power now. It’s a world where humans shape history, but that also recognizes the vastness of the world and of connections and systems and centuries. Timeless knows that we can stir things up but that our powers are always vastly limited and we can rarely predict the full consequences of our actions (see above Re: the most classic trope). Maybe people cannot be saved, even with a time machine. Maybe things are meant to happen, or maybe it’s random, but there is no real knowing or controlling. There is only living and trying to do what you can to move forward and make something better. Across centuries, Rufus, Wyatt, and, again, especially Lucy, connect with people on a true human level. The main message of this show seems to be that this connection is always worth it.

Lucy and Wyatt with Katherine Johnson (a month before Hidden Figures made her even more well known)

So I am pumped for season two. I love this show that just sweeps us along with the feelings. Our heroes are people just as excited as we are, and it’s so much fun when we get to see them geek out — Lucy with Lincoln, Wyatt with his knowledge of the Alamo and military history, and Rufus with his love for NASA and the space race. After all, it is Rufus’s excellent idea to go to Katherine Johnson for help — the “smartest person in the building” — that saves the day. This show recognizes how much she would mean to a Black boy growing up interested in physics and space. It lets people have heroes and it never, ever diminishes how important that is. And maybe that’s why we love its heroes all the more. We are in this with them, leading fans to launch a campaign that brought back this cancelled show for a second season. We are along for the ride. I know I am. I hope Lucy and Wyatt figure out what they want from each other — and I hope they get it. I hope Jiya is fine and I hope she and Rufus kick all the nefarious ass and ride of into the sunset. I still want Flynn to be redeemed, even after all the s*** he’s pulled. I want humanity to win out and I want systems to be overturned. As excited as I am about season two, I almost wish the season one’s happy finale (before that big twist) had been it. I want to feel like knowing history gives us a solid chance at making our present better. But we still have at least one season ahead of us, so who knows?

(Follow the new season at NBC, where you can also find the last few episodes of season one. Unfortunately, to fully catch up, you’ll have to turn to Amazon Prime or iTunes. I think it’s worth it.)




Amateur historian and media critic talking about what stories we tell and why it matters.

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Telling History

Telling History

Amateur historian and media critic talking about what stories we tell and why it matters.

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