This 12 Monkeys review contains major spoilers for season 3.
Whether or not you agree with the way Syfy released 12 Monkeys season 3 as a binge-a-thon this weekend, there’s no denying this series keeps getting better and better, and in some ways, not having to wait between episodes was a good thing. As the long held secret of the identity, purpose, and mythology behind the Witness unfolded, the show didn’t rely on established concepts to tell its story. Rather, it branched out into new territories, farther and farther abreast from the post-plague future and our present while still adding layers to the story we’re familiar with.
One of the immediate takeaways from the “linear binge” model is that each night felt like a complete chapter and left viewers feeling like they had just watched three 12 Monkeys movies (albeit very different from the Terry Gilliam original, which no longer defines or even informs this show’s identity). Night 1 followed the arc of the birth of the Witness to the death of Ramse; night 2 carried the bulk of the mission to track down the Witness and established the camps of “nature” versus “nurture;” and the final night told the story of Athan and how he ran from his fate before discovering he wasn’t the Witness after all. Chapters 1, 2, and 3 – boom.
Describing the season that way seems over-simplified, but in reality the batched episodes felt as complete as a movie trilogy, with each night being between 90 minutes and two hours, just like theater releases. Likewise, the epic scale of the time travelers’ quest, the highs and lows of the season’s love stories and betrayals, and the massive twist ending were worthy of the best movie franchises out there, never mind television shows which rarely take on such far-reaching story arcs.
Each of the characters had clear and logical growth as they confronted the reality of the Witness’ identity. The process began with Cassie, who had to make the difficult decision over months in Titan whether to end her life along with her unborn child or try to escape and rescue her son from his supposed fate. This dilemma went through an amazing evolution as the secret went from Ramse to Cole and eventually to Jones and Deacon who made surprisingly believable antagonists for a few episodes near the end.
The time travel vests were a worrisome element at first. Would they make things too easy or cause viewers to question why they were used at some times and not others? This trepidation was quickly cast aside as the teleporting fight scenes showed how cool they could be, and the self-immolation button reassured us that there would be no troublesome duplicates running around. The Cole-and-Cole conversation where we first saw the vest (and where the initial worry first manifested) was especially chock full of details to file away until season 4.
The guest stars in 12 Monkeys season 3 contributed greatly to the overall flavor of the narrative as well. Hannah Waddingham and Faran Tahir were simply top notch as natives of Titan, each with their own motivations. Christopher Lloyd was appropriately creepy as an early Army devotee and father of Tom Noonan’s Pallid Man. The return of Jay Karnes as Agent Gale was a joy to behold and tied up a loose thread from season 2 which foreshadowed his further involvement, and Zeljko Ivanek returning as Jennifer’s father Leland was fun, too. Even small cameos from Wynonna Earp’s Dominique Provost-Chalkley and Impractical Jokers’ Sal Vulcano and Joe Gatto pleased fans of those shows without disrupting the flow.
But nothing could have prepared viewers for the masterful portrayal of Athan Cole, the supposed Witness, by James Callis of Battlestar Galactica fame. The 1879 interlude in episode 9, “Thief,” as Athan waited for his time travel vest to be repaired, brought 12 Monkeys fans a love story like no other. The tale of Eliza, the woman who taught Athan to defy his fate became, in death, the overriding reason for his acquiescence to it. The repeated attempts to save her life, combined with Athan’s clandestine visits with his parents in their past, cemented a world view consistent with the desire to bring the infinite Red Forest into being.
12 Monkeys is never content to rest on its laurels, though, and its crowning achievement this season was the reveal of Olivia’s role in the creation of the Army of the 12 Monkeys and the mythos of the Witness. Alisen Down was already knocking out of the park with her performance as Olivia in past seasons, but in season 3, she oozed joyful malice, barely contained anger, crafty manipulation, and quiet confidence. Which makes it that much more amazing that she also pulled off a Jennifer Goines impression in episode 5, “Causality”! The prospect of having her as a future villain in season 4 is downright delightful.
And, it seems, the other MVP of 12 Monkeys season 3 may end up being her opposing force, if Athan’s high opinion of Jennifer’s importance among primary’s is to believed. It’s hard to believe Jennifer Goines was originally a recurring role for Emily Hampshire; who could imagine the show without her? With the enticing details surrounding the ancient symbols, the snake eating its tail, and the vision of the prehistoric Origin corpse from season 1, the writers have even prepared us for a season 4 with Jennifer at its center, expertly assuring viewers that there’s a grand plan to all this.
Together with some truly heartfelt dialogue and back story for Cassie, Cole, Jennifer, and even Deacon, season 3 of 12 Monkeys did the impossible: it improved upon its already stellar record of blowing our minds and delivering near-perfect episodes. Some may have preferred that the season be doled out weekly so that they could absorb all the twists and turns, but the truth is viewers can still do that if they want. In this age of whole season releases on Netflix, Syfy’s decision to release all ten episodes at once and making them available on its website fits a multitude of viewing styles.
So to those of you who binged before reading this review, kudos to you! Now catch your breath, rest your brain, and settle in with the reassurance that 12 Monkeys season 4, although its last, will bring a complete story another day. For more 12 Monkeys discussion, check out this reviewer’s podcast at 12monkeyspodcast.com.