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How 12 MONKEYS Plays with Time and Time Travel Better Than Anyone

How 12 MONKEYS Plays with Time and Time Travel Better Than Anyone

Several years ago, mainstream media (read: non-genre niche fare) remembered that time travel was a really useful storytelling device. Movies and television fell in love with it all over again after years of being out of fashion, using it to varying degrees of success and inventiveness. While no one would accuse this particular writer of being a huge proponent of reboots and the reimagining of film on TV, on the Venn Diagram of time travel and TV, Syfy’s 12 Monkeys stands alone in its ability to create and reinvent the way we look at time. This is particularly evident in its third season, debuting in an equally inventive use of real-world time: airing all 10 of its new episodes in a single weekend, attempting to mimic the appeal of a streaming weekend binge on terrestrial TV.

Whether it will prove a good experiment is an answer left to time itself, and it makes sense to personify time in that way when discussing 12 Monkeys. No other series looks at time as a tangible thing—as an entity you can exist outside of rather than within—at once a hero and villain, the dark matter to which humanity is inextricably linked.

“One of the things I always wanted to do was to run full tilt towards the notion of paradoxes and causality loops,” explained series showrunner and co-creator Terry Matalas. “Because everything else has been sort of done before, so you have to take it to the next level.”

12 MONKEYS -- "Brothers" Episode 304 -- Pictured: Barbara Sukowa as Katarina Jones -- (Photo by: Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy)

The allure is undeniable, but there are complications and tropes that are easy to fall into when telling stories about time. In 12 Monkeys‘ third season, the story of James Cole (Aaron Stanford) and Dr. Cassandra Railly’s son, The Witness (the savior of a religious order hellbent on destroying time itself in order to create a universe where neither time, nor death, exist), is the culmination of two seasons worth of mystery, intrigue, and the ouroboros of tinkering and existing outside of the one thing that moves humanity forward.

But those things start folding in on themselves—as they so often do when playing with time. For Matalas, that was the point. “When you start organically telling that story, one of things you kind of discover is that you can cause the problems you set up to solve. And that’s both with the heroes and the villains start to become tied into each other. … Like if you were to put it all in a tank and just watch it grow, that’s what the story becomes.”

12 MONKEYS -- "Enemy" Episode 303 -- Pictured: Amanda Schull as Cassandra Railly -- (Photo by: Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy)

“I just went the opposite direction. I mean when you say, ‘It’s a trap,’ you could look at it that way. Or you look at it as an opportunity,” added Matalas. “And there’s a—I don’t want to spoil it but … We don’t run away from it and there’s a big revolution [that will] have personal impact. Heroes and villains. … And when you have a long form story like this, with an ensemble cast, you get some incredible character opportunities by leaning into that. ”

In 12 Monkeys, time is connected not only to forward momentum, but it physically evolves and understands itself through its connection to certain characters, dubbed “Primaries,” who see the world in a particularly unique way. For three seasons, we’ve seen this play out in the ostracism and subsequent vindication of Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire), a Primary with a connection to time that’s bigger than she realizes. And her journey in particular, shows not only the ramifications of messing with time, but how grey the line of hero and villain truly is—something Matalas has always been interested in.

12 MONKEYS -- "Guardians" Episode 302 -- Pictured: Emily Hampshire as Jennifer Goines -- (Photo by: Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy)

“If you’re going to play God and fuck with nature, nature might have something to say about it. … We run full tilt to [the idea of time as a tangible and physical entity] this season,” said Matalas. “Time is something that’s part of us, but it’s also part of another game: it’s tied to how much love we can have in our life. There’s always a time clock on your relationship with your parents, your siblings, or your significant other—and time is a part of that.”

Considering it that way, Matalas continued, “My point is that it can’t just be a method of measure. Like, we’re going back into time: how does this feel like more? And when you had a cult that was obsessed with it, it gives you an opportunity to dig deeper into ‘What does this mean?'”

When you look at time as more than a measurement construct, the story opens up into something much bigger than destiny and who we are—it becomes a more complicated look at why we’re here, how do we cope with what we know, and where does that fit into the reality beyond the limits of our own understanding?

12 MONKEYS -- "Masks" Episode 308 -- Pictured: (l-r) Amanda Schull as Cassandra Railly, Aaron Stanford as James Cole -- (Photo by: Dusan Martincek/Syfy)

This is what Matalas is most excited about for season three and the already-confirmed final season four. “It comes from the things that I love—horror and digging into philosophy and religion— …  And also just being somewhat philosophical on an emotional level. Shows like Battlestar Galactica were, for me, a way of talking about politics, religion, and philosophy and I just wanted to…I really hoped to do that with this show.”

 12 Monkeys season 3 will premiere on Syfy on Friday, May 19 to Sunday, May 21 in the network’s first-ever binge-a-thon from 8-11pm ET/PT each night. Are you going to tune in? Let us know in the comments below!

Images: Syfy

Alicia Lutes is the managing editor of Nerdist, host of Fangirling!, and can regularly be found geeking out on Twitter.

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