Hulu’s big, “event series,” 11.22.63 (2016) is now complete. Last time I discussed the first four episodes of this Stephen King adapted novel, this time, the final four. Warning *Spoilers* ahead.
As I said before, this is a nice looking production, particularly the classic cars, and the acting is good, with Daniel Webber’s portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald being especially noteworthy, but the only summation that keeps coming to my mind is, “disappointment.” I say this both as a fan of the book and as a student of history.
I know shows from novels often fell truncated but it’s more than that with this one, especially since they had eight hours of screen time to work with. It wasn’t just missing a lot of the book, it was very dumbed down compared to the book. For example, they kept giving us the date on each episode, getting closer and closer to the assassination. Once they go within a week they started counting down (e.g. 11.15.63, seven days until the assassination) as if we can’t count. The worst title card was at the beginning of the final episode when they told us it was 11.22.63, the day of the assassination. How stupid do they think we are? Do they really believe that a significant portion of the audience made it through the last seven hours of this program without catching on to the meaning of the date in the title?
There was one striking change from the book that could have been great but ultimately fell flat. In the novel there is an unnamed character, known only as the Yellow Card Man, who notices that our main character, Jake Epping (James Franco), does not belong in the past and calls him on it. The Yellow Card Man, so named for the yellow card in the brim of his hat, is creepy and strange, like a crazy hobo with some form of ESP. In the end, we learn that Yellow Card Man is actually some kind of a Timecop (not unlike Jean-Claude Van Damme) who has been trapped in this period of the past and gone insane. We learn this from a second, sane, Timecop, who makes it clear to Jake that the past cannot be altered without causing the future to become unstable; think climate change on steroids. For me, this was the most unfulfilling part of the original story, because it felt silly. “The Past” isn’t a thing, which needs to play out one way, like a record or a movie, it’s just a series of events that could have gone very differently. The Hulu version of the story gets ride of the Timecop concept, and the crazy weather and natural disasters that somehow results from altering the past, but it keeps Yellow Card Man (Kevin J. O’Connor) in a modified version. This YCM tells us that he is just a regular guy, like Jake, repeating the past, over and over again, trying and failing to save his son from drowning and going crazy in the process. He warns Jake not to get caught like him, in his own loop, after Jake saves JFK but gets his girlfriend, Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon), killed in the process. The future that Jake returns too is much worse than the one we all know – with a horrible war, presumably between the US and the USSR, devastating America – so Jake decides to go back again and not save the President but live out his life with the woman he loves. Somehow, magically, all it takes are a few words from YCM and Jackie gives up the love of his life and returns home.
King’s original scenario may have left me feeling a bit underwhelmed with the ending but at least it has an internal logic to it. Jack could not save JFK or be with the woman he loves because both choices would cause the world to literally fall apart. The Hulu version, however, has no such logical. Jake, who was able to change one of the greatest turning points in American History, takes the word of a crazy person who is perhaps the most incompetent time traveler in the annals of the genre, and throws away happiness for what? It’s just silly. The final resolution, where Jake dances with a much older Sadie, is far less meaningful, because he made a stupid choice and because we don’t really know anything about her life without him. Did she marry that horrible husband who took up so much of the plot? Did he ever come after her and try to kill her, as he did when Jake was there? And what about Bill Turcotte (George MacKay)? This minor character in the novel was elevated to the level of costar in the show, being an important player in the plot for the bulk of the series, then, because he dies in one version of the past he should never be mentioned again? It’s just sloppy storytelling.
Then there’s the sloppy history. The assassination of President Kennedy is one of the most well studied event in human history and it is easy to find many people who know the names of key players, the order of key events, even very obscure details off the top of their head. It might not seem like a big detail that this story kept Oswald living in the same apartment after his wife left him but for many of us this is simply absurd and very distracting. Oswald couldn’t hold down a steady jump for long and had a hard time paying bills and making the rent. He moved away from Dallas to live in New Orleans for several months, during the majority of that time his wife was with him and neither of them were living at the apartment where they took the infamous photos of him with his weapons in the back yard. Hulu’s 11.22.63 acknowledges the fact that Oswald went to New Orleans yet magically has him back in the same apartment, without his wife, when he returns to Dallas. Who was paying for this empty apartment while they were gone? It’s a plot convenience and it’s lazy, because it makes no sense. Rather than nitpick on details like this, however, I want to address the conspiracy drenched feel of this production.
As I mentioned last time, the show makes way too much out of Oswald’s friend, George de Mohrenschildt (Jonny Coyne), and his alleged connections to the CIA and others. In these later episodes they also distort FBI Agent James Hosty (Gil Bellows), ignoring the fact that he was a Kennedy supporter and making it seem like he had Oswald under heavy surveillance 24/7. When Oswald takes a job at the Schoolbook Depository, Hosty is waiting outside to harass him, which isn’t even close to reality. When Jake shoots Oswald in this alternate timeline and gets arrested, Hosty asks Jake, “Who’s your handler?” and acts as if clandestine agents are operating behind every fens and in every sewer hole. I think the show’s creators were consciously trying to appeal to conspiracy theorists and placate the fact that Oswald did it by continuing to suggest that all this conspiracy nonsense has some legitimate bases to it.
Overall, for the casual viewer, 11.22.63 will probably be a big hit (the IMDb score certainly suggest so) but I can’t cut it enough slack to recommend it.