Courtesy Warning: This Point Contains Spoilers for the Entirety of 11.22.63
What if I told you that a TV show called 11.22.63 about a man traveling back in time to stop the JFK assassination ends with him deciding not to change the past at all?
Eh. That’s not all that surprising. You kind of assume there are only two possible conclusions. Either he saves JFK or he doesn’t.
But, wait, there’s more. In this TV show, Jake – that’s the man’s name – actually spends three years in the past, making several friends and falling in love with a wonderful woman named Sadie. He tries to stay on the sidelines of history while laying in wait for his moment to stop Lee Harvey Oswald, but along the way he decides to do something good and prevents a drunken, psychotic man from killing his ex-wife and kids. In the end, he actually does save JFK, but Sadie is shot dead in the process. So he decides to reset the timeline and go back to the beginning to restart his courtship process with Sadie and completely forget about saving JFK. But then some weird time agent rants about time loops causing our hero to give up completely and head back to his own time, having changed absolutely nothing in the past.
Huh. So by the end the only one who actually remembers anything we saw on the show is Jake?
Does Jake seem changed by the experience?
Not really. Just super sad.
Is that a natural conclusion for his character arc?
He starts the show as a newly divorced English teacher who missed his father’s death and isn’t writing anything anymore. He ends the show as a newly divorced English teacher who sits in front of a computer and googles Sadie to see what became of her.
Wait. Didn’t she die?
Yeah, but in the old timeline. He reset that, and her death was kind of his fault anyway. That wasn’t how she was supposed to go.
Is she still alive in the reset timeline?
Yep. She’s become of those high school teachers who get a lifetime achievement award at a ceremony where former students, young and old, rave about the impact she had on their lives. Except she’s actually a librarian, not a teacher, but it’s the same basic story. She’s probably profiled in a Human Interest segment on the local news.
Hold on. Sorry. Why did he reset the timeline? Why didn’t he just go back to be with her? She sounds awesome.
Because time doesn’t want to be fucked with, that’s why. The past doesn’t want to be changed, and if you persist with messing with history the past will Final Destination your ass, especially if you dare to change something huge like the JFK assassination.
But did Sadie die in the original history before he went back and fell in love with her?
This isn’t Quantum Leap. Al’s not around relaying Ziggy’s updates about how things played out pre-time travel. However, the fact that Sadie survives to retirement age after Jake decides to cancel out everything he changed indicates she was always supposed to survive.
So we’ve established that this isn’t really a Final Destination scenario. Sadie didn’t die because Tony Todd will have his soul no matter what, dammit. Then why does Jake think she’ll die again if he tries to travel back in time and re-fall in love with her.
Because a time agent guy tells him a sad story about how he keeps trying to stop his daughter’s death but every time he does something else happens to cause her death. Then when Jake re-sets the timeline and re-meets Sadie for the first time the time agent rants about time loops, claiming Sadie will always die.
But are these even the same situation? The time agent guy went back in time specifically to save his daughter. Time won’t let that happen. Jake’s going back to undo the right he put wrong, but now because Sadie has died the one time she’ll keep dying?
It’s supposed to be more the general idea that time just doesn’t want to be changed. It took 3 years for it to happen, but eventually time knocked off Sadie after Jake met her. It could do it again.
Really? Is time somehow responsible for her death?
Well, technically Lee Harvey Oswald’s gun is, but for JFK to be saved Sadie had to die. Oswald’s bullets demand nourishment, and they only dine on human suffering. Time demands it.
That shouldn’t matter anymore, right? He just wants to be with Sadie again. He doesn’t care about JFK anymore. Let the President die. Not even Sam Beckett could stop that. So why is time being such a a-hole about this?
This doesn’t sound like a time loop at all.
It’s not. Not yet at least.
So what the heck was the point of this whole dang show?
The showrunner, Bridget Carpenter, told Vulture:
You have this story that speaks to me of somebody wishing to do more, wishing that his life mattered a little bit. It’s not grandiose. If you’re somebody who’s living a life that maybe feels lost or unrewarded — like being a teacher, or having lost your spouse, or if you’re getting a divorce — you might feel adrift. So the idea in the book spoke to me: I want to matter. I want to do something important. I want to do something that would change people’s lives.
11.22.63 turns out to not actually be about one man traveling back in time to save JFK just to prove to himself that he somehow matters in the larger scheme of the universe. It’s actually about a man traveling back in time and realizing it’s the people in our lives which make us matter as human beings. World leaders rise and fall. History keeps on churning. Books are written and movies are made about the giants who changed the world, but tears are shed and hearts are broken over the lost loved ones who changed our little corner of the world. Jake saves JFK, but it means nothing to him because Sadie isn’t there to share in his victory.
Did saving JFK at least help things?
God no. When Jake returns back to the present, everything’s different. America looks like The Walking Dead just without the zombies, and the explanation we’re given for what happened mostly boils down “And then George Wallace was elected President.”
Okay. So I get why he wants to reset that, but why does he decide not to do anything with Sadie after that?
Because the true point of this whole story is time travel is hard. Don’t do it. Just leave everything the way it was, and then dance with an old woman at her lifetime achievement ceremony and creepily stare at her as she politely tries to figure out how you know her.