Warning: Spoiler Alert
Many pundits have stated over the years that America lost its innocence the day that President John F. Kennedy got assassinated. While that statement’s debatable, I can attest as a seven-year-old President Kennedy’s execution affected me greatly and is still the seminal world-event of my life. I’ve always perceived that moment as knocking the planet from its axis and over 50-years later we still have yet to recover. The thought of traveling through time and stopping Kennedy’s assassination has intrigued me since childhood, hence my excitement and enjoyment when author Stephen King released his novel “11.22.63,” earlier this decade.
Last year the streaming service Hulu announced that they’d present King’s novel as an eight-part miniseries and I have to admit to being less than enthusiastic after reading the announcement. The news that the production chose James Franco to bring protagonist Jake Epping failed to excite me, as I couldn’t imagine him using the distinctive Maine accent that the character spoke with.
Whether Franco could fool someone into thinking he’s from Bar Harbor isn’t at issue in the miniseries, as just one character in the first chapter entitled “The Rabbit Hole,” sounded like a New England native and he appeared briefly in one scene. However the act of stripping away any regional accents North of the Mason-Dixon line’s commonplace on the small screen and if that’s this series biggest sin, I can easily live with that. While condensing King’s original story significantly in the two-hour premiere, it still proved to be an entertaining story that remained faithful to the tone of the book.
Our story starts out in the present-day in Lisbon Falls, Maine as we watch a man in his late fifties read his report in front of his adult-education classmates. The man’s named Harry Dunning and he’s the custodian at Lisbon Falls High and is trying to get his high school diploma to gain a promotion. The assignment’s the most significant day in the writer’s life and Dunning stuns his classmates with his recounting of Halloween night in 1960. Dunning’s father killed his mother, sister and brother and hurt young Harry badly attacking them all with a hammer. The custodian suffered brain-damage as a result of his beating but he persevered and made a life for himself.
Teacher Jake Epping’s blown away by the story and how open Harry was in relating his tale and gives him an A+ as a grade and the class spontaneously applauds for their classmate. After the class lets out Dunning asks Epping to write a letter of recommendation for him which the teacher gladly agrees to do.
We head to Al’s Diner, a restaurant that most of the townspeople stay away from as the prices are far too low to be serving real beef. However Epping’s a regular and loves the food as well as having a good relationship with the proprietor Al Templeton. This will not go down however as a happy memory for Jake as his soon to be ex-wife Christy shows up for Epping to sign their divorce papers. When Christy pulls out the papers Templeton goes into his storage closet. Jake signs the papers and they both wish each other the best in the future.
Christy leaves the restaurant and Al emerges from the closet looking like he’s aged ten-years in the past two-minutes. His hair which was dark with gray-temples is now steel-gray and he looks gaunt and sickly, Epping asks what happened and Templeton tells him that he’s fine and for Jake to leave. However Al passes out and Epping helps him back to his home. He tells Jake to come back the following day and he’ll clue him in on what’s going on.
We watch Epping try to keep his class of high-school students occupied with a video, however they’ve all zoned-out and one teen laughs as he watches a video on his cellphone. Jake realizing he’s lost his students shuts off the monitor and asks why the video of people in the past suffering from disease should mean any thing to them and gets met with silence. He responds that all people’s lives matter, not just important people.
Jake heads over to Templeton’s after school and they head down to the diner. Al asks Jake to go into his storage closet and spend as much time in there as he wants. Epping looks at him as if Templeton had gone insane but reluctantly agrees to walk as far back into the closet as he can go. He suddenly finds himself outside in the street but in a far earlier era. Two-Toned American Muscle Cars dominate the streets a huge billboard for Moxie’s dominating the horizon and bobbysoxers and working men are bustling around the area. Epping’s trying to get his bearings when an elderly guy walks up to him and says he’s not supposed to be there. Jake gets spooked and runs out of the closet asking Al what the Hell he just went through.
Al refers to it as “The Rabbit Hole” but the closet’s a time portal to October 28, 1960. Each time someone from our era goes through the portal the era resets and it’s once again that day in late October of 1960. He also tells Epping that if someone spends three-minutes or three-years in the past they return to the present exactly two minutes after they departed. Templeton spent two-years in the past while Jake signed his divorce papers and during that time he contracted lung cancer.
He asks Epping to continue the mission he started, preventing Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, as he’s dying and won’t be able to do it himself. Al theorizes if Jake can prevent JFK’s assassination than Robert Kennedy would also live a full life and Vietnam would never have escalated as it did under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Jake asks how can Templeton prove that any changes in the past would remain in place once he returned to the present. Al gives him his switchblade and tells him to go back to 1960 and carve something in the tree outside the diner. Jake does as he’s instructed and when he returns he sees his carving of the initials JFK on the tree. However Jake says he needs time to think it over.
Jake attends Harry Dunning’s graduation ceremony and he’s told by his boss the school’s principal, that Dunning’s not qualified for the promotion. That decision results in sitting down and talking with Templeton in-depth about his plans to prevent Kennedy’s assassination. Al takes Epping into his study in his home and it looks like a detective’s office during a stakeout. Maps, photos and articles cover all the space on the walls along with a library of books on the assassination.
He asks Jake what he knows of the shooting that took place more than two-decades before Epping was born and the teacher mentions Lee Harvey Oswald and assorted crime organizations and intelligence agencies. Templeton informs him that he met Oswald the day he returned from the Soviet Union in 1962. The former US Marine had defected to the Soviet Union the year before, but returned back to the States a year later. When Jake asks why Al didn’t kill Oswald then, Templeton replies because Oswald might have been innocent. He has no proof that Oswald indeed killed the President.
After hours of information and Al showing Jake the false identification cards he acquired for Epping back in the past, the teacher says he doesn’t think he’s the right guy for the job. The pair argue and finally Templeton curses at Jake and throws him out of his house. Epping goes home but he can’t sleep, he realizes he needs to complete Al’s mission. He goes to Templeton’s the next morning but Al died during the night, deprived of seeing what the world looks like after Jake stopped Kennedy’s assassination. He then suddenly notices all the photos of Al during his tours-of-duty in Vietnam and realizes Al had a stake in different outcome as well. But he packs up the money and credit cards and the journal Al gave him and leaps back into the past determined to finish what Templeton began.
Wearing jeans and a t-shirt with a musician on it, along with his scruffy hair and moustache and goatee Jake sticks out like a sore-thumb and so he gets himself a haircut and shave, a new suit and a fedora as well as a 1955 yellow and white convertible. However that depletes his savings so he asks the car dealer where he can find a betting parlor. Jake or James Amberson as his identification cards list him has a book of sports results that can keep him solvent for years.
He goes to the outskirts of town to a little shack with a plate on the door that says Men Only. He tells an older guy he’s looking to place a wager on that night’s prize-fight. He asks what odds the house will give him on the underdog and he’s told he’d get 3-1 odds. Then he says what if he bet the underdog would knock out his opponent in the sixth round and the guy says he’d give him 35-1 odds. The teacher says he’d like to bet $100 and there’s a murmur in the room, than the man in charge says he’ll cover it. The boss tells James Amberson he’ll buy him a beer and they’ll listen to the fight together.
The group sit a table listening to the fight on a transistor radio and things don’t look bright for the challenger in the sixth as his opponent’s pummeling him. Suddenly the crowd starts to cheer and the announcer becomes animated as the challenger takes control and finally knocks out his opponent with seconds left in the sixth. Suddenly the air inside the shack grows heavy with tension as the boss goes to get the winnings. He insists that Amberson count it in front of him and then the head guy and his enforcer walk him outside and the big guy compliments his car. Jake can’t leave the parking lot fast enough and travels to a nearby motor-court to spend the night. However he’s concerned that the bookie might be after him. After trying to convince himself he’s just paranoid, the enforcer pulls into the parking lot and heads for Jake’s door.
The big guy finds the door’s ajar and though the room’s dark he hears some strange music and sees something lit-up on the bed. When the guy bends over to take a closer look at the I-Phone, Epping knocks him out from behind using a blunt object. He grabs his belongings and high-tales it out-of-town, when he feels he’s driven sufficiently far away he stops his car and throws his I-Phone into a river with a swift current. Then he jumps back into his convertible and drives to Dallas.
Jake drives up to right in front of Texas School Book Depository, the building that Oswald allegedly shot JFK from three-years later. He’s comparing his notes to the structure he seeds when he suddenly collides of Catholic school-girls accompanied by a nun and his papers scatter all over the sidewalk. A pretty blonde young woman kind of chuckles over his predicament and says he’d been outnumbered. She starts to walk away from the bench she’d sat on but leaves her purse behind. The woman thanks him for being so gallant and he introduces himself as James Amberson, she responds her names Sadie Dunhill. Suddenly she sees her husband waiting across the street from them by their car and Mrs. Dunhill thanks him again.
Jake gets himself a room at a boarding room outside of Dallas run by a mother and her 14-year-old son Henry who wants to join the army as soon he turns 18 as he wants to serve his country. Jake’s impressed with the teen’s attitude, although joining a branch of the Armed Forces likely never crossed teen Jake’s mind. Jake opens up Al’s journals as soon as he’s set-up, this is the homework Al told him he must keep current with in order to succeed.
Epping takes an evening walk when he’s suddenly to try to call his father on a payphone. He’s connected to his father but the lights begin to sizzle and crackle and the two parties can’t hear each other’s voices. Jake gets freaked out by the experience and leaves the phone booth, but seconds later he turns around to go back inside, but he’s two late. A woman driving a cherry red car strikes the booth shattering it into pieces and her car to flip over in the street. Epping goes to the front of the car and sees the woman with her head sticking outside the window and appearing dead. However she opens her eyes and stares straight into Jake’s and says he’s not supposed to be there.
Jake freaks out over the experience and runs up the stairs and straight to his room in the boardinghouse and proceeds to vomit in the waste basket in his bedroom. The Landlady asks Amberson if she can get anything for him and he thanks her but says he’ll be fine.
We flash back to the hours the pair spent together going over the material and Al’s talking about a Russian expat that lives in Dallas named George de Mohrenschildt. He knows that the Russian got recruited by the CIA but he never found out if de Mohrenschildt recruited Oswald to kill Kennedy. Templeton tried to trail the Russian to an event where he may have been first approached by the CIA, but following George de Mohrenschildt down a flight of stairs his arm caught on fire and he received some massive burns. Al tells Epping that the past doesn’t like to be changed and will often fight back if you try to alter it too much.
Jake decides to trail the Russian on the same day and follows to a JFK campaign rally in Dallas. Jake waits to see where George sits then chooses a seat a few rows behind. He’s engrossed in Kennedy’s speech but suddenly sees the Russian leave the rally and out the door. Epping follows him and watches as de Mohrenschildt, goes through a velvet-rope in a high-rollers section that will engage with the President and Mrs. Kennedy. Jake scams his way though by saying he works for George and his boss doesn’t like his name on lists.
He bribes the maître-de with some greenbacks and gets a table for one next to the table George and his two companions are sitting at. However the past strikes back again making most of the conversation indecipherable, but Jake hears George say Lee Harvey Oswald. That ends the conversation and Epping tries to follow de Mohrenschildt, when the security guards realize he’s a phony and Epping starts running. He thinks he’s found a safe-haven but soon he sees cockroaches the size of tennis-balls starting to climb up his legs. He runs out of the room and immediately gets knocked unconscious.
When he comes to, the guards want questions and Epping plays it smart. He comes off as a half-crazed JFK zealot who drove all the way from Maine to shake the hand he thinks will be the greatest president ever. The guards let him go thinking he’s harmless but Epping realizes he saw the meeting between George and The Agency take place.
He’s elated as he starts to drive back to the boardinghouse but his mood changes radically when he gets a few blocks way. The boardinghouse went up in flames and the Landlady’s son Harry died in the blaze. The following morning when the fire’s out, Jake goes through his possessions and realized all the information Al gave him got destroyed. He decides he can’t do this any longer and starts driving back to Maine.
He makes it to Kentucky and starts looking at a map and suddenly he realizes he can’t be that far away from Harry Dunning’s home in Holden, Kentucky. He gets directions from a kid at a service station who asks the teacher why he wants to go to Holden and Jake responds because this one thing he can do.
Epping drives up to Dunning home just before the father Frank Dunning stops by his estranged-wife’s home to take his children out for ice-cream. Can Jake stop Dunning from killing three members of his family and badly damaging his son Harry. We’ll find out the answer to that next Monday.