Review of NBC’s Timeless second season finale. How well did they handle the Civil War? Did they break their own rules?

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Timeless’s heroes meet Harriet Tubman

So, the season finale of Timeless was a doozy, receiving big critical praise and trending #1 last night on Twitter. It blew the minds of its fans, and made a pretty strong case to NBC for renewal of a show that currently sits on the proverbial bubble.

I loved it too, but have to admit I’m angry at the Civil War historical inaccuracies, and also that the show’s creators broke their own time travel rules, apparently just to shock and surprise us. (Which worked).

SPOILERS AHEAD.

The opening scene was set in June 1863 in coastal South Carolina, yet we see what looks to be the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia hanging in the tent of a Rebel officer.  I knew at that moment we were in for some pretty basic historical inaccuracies, and boy, we sure were.

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Battle flag of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. NOT the Confederate flag.

Yet, I reminded myself, the flag is just a fairly minor detail.  Most people think the Army of Northern Virginia’s battle flag is the Confederate flag, so just let it go.

Later, however, Wyatt (one of our time traveling heroes) explains to Harriet Tubman that he and the others are spies sent by “General McClellan” to help her with her planned raid into the interior of the state.

Oh come on! This is just lazy research by the writers, as Little Mac was removed from command as general-in-chief of all Union armies over a year earlier, and was in fact not in command of anything (except his New Jersey household) in June 1863. Lincoln canned him in November 1862.

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You say McClellan sent you? Hmm.

If Wyatt had told Tubman that McClellan sent them, instead of taking the group into her fold, she surely would have taken the assertion as proof that our heroes were particularly ill-informed Rebel spies, and then would have promptly unloaded her gun into them.

As if this historical error weren’t enough, the Rittenhouse “sleeper cell” agent working as a Rebel colonel reveals to other Confederate officers that Grant is converging on Vicksburg and that they must now maneuver to get him. “We leave at dawn,” the colonel declares, “face them on the road before they join forces. Should be easy pickin’s'” He knows this because he has a copy of a “military history of the Civil War” that tells him everything Union troops are going to do before they do it.

Too bad the show’s writers didn’t read the same book.

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The book contains a military history of the Civil War. The writers apparently skipped almost everything about the Vicksburg Campaign.

First of all, Confederate troops in coastal South Carolina would have had little to do with maneuvering in Mississippi, and secondly, that Grant was moving on Vicksburg was hardly unknown in June 1863.  He had been converging on that city for over 7 months, had tried digging a canal across the river from it, had already fought several battles as he marched there, and in fact was already entrenched and besieging the city!

I’m sorry, colonel, but you’re too late. The Yankees had already “joined forces” outside of Vicksburg. So much for “easy pickin’s.”

I have to wonder how Confederate officers would have reacted had the Rittenhouse agent delivered the news that Grant was trying to get Vicksburg.

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This is all just lazy research on behalf of the writers, but what was most maddening about the episode is that they would have us believe the Combahee River Raid was a pivotal moment in the war.

Yes, it was a unique campaign in that it was planned by an African American woman, Harriet Tubman, and was a spectacular success for the Union, achieving all its primary objectives. For the estimated 700 or more enslaved people that got their freedom as a result, it was a pretty huge deal.

But did it alter the course of the Civil War? Not even close. It was a minor raid that is rightfully famous today only because of Tubman’s involvement and because it was a Union operation mainly for the direct purpose of liberating slaves (and getting them into Union uniforms). It is a great story, and one of the war’s largest emancipation events, but hardly a crucial event in the course of the Civil War.

Had Rittenhouse wanted to change the outcome of the war by changing events, June 1863 in South Carolina would have been a strange place to start. (Unless they targeted the 54th Massachusetts before its assault on Fort Wagner).

And yet, when Tubman’s raid is thwarted on the show by Rebel troops tipped off by the Rittenshouse agent, one of our heroes declares, “so we’re too late? History has already been changed? The South’s going to win?”

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The real Tubman was definitely hardcore.

Um, no.

FYI: the real raid involved Tubman directing two Union ships up the river (she was aboard ship, none of which we see in the episode), avoiding Rebel mines thanks to intel she gathered from local runaways, and her singing songs to attract and encourage some 700 enslaved African Americans to escape, many of which then enlisted in Union service. They also destroyed southern plantations and supplies in the process.

The irony is that Comedy Central’s Drunk History hilariously covered the raid, and did a much better job at getting the details correct. Check it out (language warning):

And yet,  if the biggest thing viewers take away from the episode is that Tubman was “hardcore,” (as one of our heroes rightfully observes) that’s pretty great. The show provides a quick and accurate biography of Tubman (including the rightful assertion that she claimed to see visions). Most people know of her Underground Railroad activities, but fewer know she was involved in Union military efforts during the Civil War.  Actress Christine Horn’s performance as Tubman was fiercely on-par with that of Aisha Hinds, who played her so memorably in WGN’s Underground.

(We could definitely use more Tubman on screen. What happened to the project HBO announced several years ago, as well as the separate theatrical film? What’s taking so long? My guess: the difficulty of securing funds for a movie featuring an African American female protagonist. Come on Hollywood, it’s time).

The best part: Timeless demonstrates that Tubman and the enslaved community probably wouldn’t have needed the help of our time traveling heroes anyway. Despite the setback, Tubman is determined to just change plans and try again, convincing our heroes to go along with it AND go after the Rebel spy (the Rittenhouse agent) as equally important missions. Yet when the decisive blows are struck, Tubman fires the shots, backed up by runaways and black Union soldiers.

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Standing strong against the bad guys.

Further, as hoped, the whole episode was a hit on the Lost Cause. Timeless has the evil democracy-hating forces of Rittenhouse trying to engineer a Confederate victory.  It’s clear that a southern triumph would have sucked for African Americans and democracy, and that the Union cause became intertwined with the liberation of enslaved peoples. (I loved when Rufus referred to the Rittenhouse agent/Confederate officer as “David Duke.”)

I especially appreciated the depiction of African Americans heroically fighting against their oppressors—the Confederacy.  “Believe me, we are we NOT going to lose this friggin’ war,” African American time traveller Rufus stubbornly assures Tubman, indicating the importance of Union victory for the future of African Americans. Timeless’s 2.4 million viewers last night were shown that in the American Civil War, the Rebels were the bad guys and that African Americans played an aggressively active role in bringing them down.

In the end, that lesson is way more important than flags, General McClellan’s career status, and the whereabouts of Grant’s troops in June 1863.

On another note . . .

Let me bitch about something apart from the episode’s historical accuracy. Timeless got a lot of attention last night because of its surprise ending. I too was pretty wrapped up in the show (which took us far afield from the Civil War, and ultimately into 1888 San Francisco) and caught off guard. BUT, it’s because they broke their own time travel rules.

At the start of the first season, the creators told us that their rules would be simple, because they wanted to focus on the history, not the sci-fi. For example, our time travelers couldn’t revisit a place/time where they had already been. And, to quote co-creator Eric Kripke, “What we’re trying to avoid is the overly complicated time travel trope where you’re meeting slightly older and slightly younger versions of yourself.” For example,  “we didn’t want an older version of Lucy meeting a younger version of Lucy.”

And yet that is EXACTLY what they did in the shocking last seconds of the show. Making this worse in my mind, is that in an interview with Entertainment Tonight actress Abigail Spencer (Lucy) tells us that they had been planning this all along.

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Future Lucy and Wyatt. Wait, what??

“What you see at the end of the finale,” Spencer claims,”was pitched to me in my meeting when [executive producers] Shawn [Ryan] and Eric [Kripke] asked me to play the part.”

So that means the creators established and publicly shared their time travel rules, just so that it would be a shock to audiences when they broke those rules at the end of the second season?

I call foul. That’s cheap audience manipulation.

Anyway, that aside,  I was still admittedly very entertained by the pulse-quickening episode that paid off all the more because of the strong character development we’ve gotten, especially this season. I also appreciated the overall message about Tubman and the Civil War (though the writers should have done their history homework better), and everything positive I wrote about the show last week still applies.

I sure hope NBC renews it.

 

PS: Also count me as one of the ones hoping Lucy ends up with Flynn and not Wyatt. Yes, ordinarily I would cheer for the “good guy” instead of the “bad boy,” but there is something about Wyatt that rubs me the wrong way. Flynn is way more of an interesting character. But maybe that’s just me.

(And one more thing, please get that modern make-up off Lucy’s face, especially when she is in the 19th century).

 

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