SPOILER ALERT: Do not read unless you have watched the premiere episode of “11.22.63,” titled “The Rabbit Hole.”
Time travel is tricky. There is no clearly defined definition on how time could — or even should — work which has led to endless interpretations. Whether it’s with the help of a DeLorean, a Tardis, a super-power, or some newly-discovered technology, each comes with their own set of do’s and don’ts. In 2011, Stephen King threw his hat into the ring with the release of his book “11/22/63” and brought his own twist on time travel. The first episode of Hulu’s eight-part adaptation on the novel had the unenviable task of both explaining how time travel works in King’s world, but also set up the central mystery of the series.
The central story involves President John F. Kennedy and his assassination. That comes later though, as the episode opens with an older man reading a story about the day that changed his life. The man in question, Harry Dunning, an elder student in Jake Epping’s (James Franco) creative writing night class, recounts Halloween night of 1960 where his father killed his mother, brother and sister with a hammer and left him wounded and scarred in his Kentucky home. Harry’s story hits Jake hard and he immediately awards Harry an A+. After the end of class Harry, who is a janitor at the Maine high school Jake teaches English, asks for a recommendation for a promotion.
Jake is next seen eating an incredibly cheap burger at Al’s Diner. The owner Al (Chris Cooper) shoots the breeze with Jake until a woman comes in and Al saunters off to the back room, seemingly to give them some privacy. The woman, Christy, is Jake’s ex-wife and they’re meet uspis to sign divorce papers. They share small talk — Jake’s dad just died, Jake hasn’t been writing anything — and they part amicably. Immediately after Christy leaves, Al comes out of the back room looking terrible. Not only is he wearing different clothes, he is haggard and unshaven, his hair has grayed and he appears sick. Before a worried Jake can ask many questions, Al passes out.
Cut to Al’s home. Jake is rightly confused. He wants to know how his friend could have gotten late-stage cancer in the two minutes it took him to sign his divorce papers. He is shooed away and told to meet Al at the diner the next day where everything will be explained. After a day of teaching, he returns to Al’s. Instead of telling Jake anything, Al wants him to walk into his closet to take a look around. He’s told to stay as long as needed. Confused, Jake does what he’s asked.
Jake opens his eyes face-down in the dirt in Maine 1960. The scene looks straight out of “Grease.” Metal-framed cars, milkmen, kids playing baseball, everything you’d expect from the ’60s. Then a strange-looking guy with a yellow card in his hat starts screaming at Jake that he “shouldn’t be there.” That’s enough to have Jake jumping through the space he fell through and back into the closet in Al’s diner.
Al explains where Jake was, who wants to know why Al has a time portal in the back of his diner. Al says he has no idea, and that he calls it the Rabbit Hole. He then explains how using the Rabbit Hole works. Here’s the rundown:
1. The Rabbit Hole always drops you at the same time on Oct. 21, 1960;
2. No matter how long you stay — three weeks or three years — only two minutes will have passed in the present day;
3. Going through the Rabbit Hole erases any changes that were made during previous trips.
Finally, Al drops the big question: he wants Jake to use the Rabbit Hole to stop the assassination of JFK.
While most time travel stories deal with the terrifying repercussions of the butterfly effect, Al is convinced that saving the 35th president will do more harm than good, including thinking it will save Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968. More importantly to Al who was a soldier he thinks it will stop Vietnam from ever happening, saying Lyndon B. Johnson was the reason things escalated. “Those boys would have lived,” Al says with a waver in his voice.
The two go through debating the potential consequences of changing the past. One question that comes up: Jake wants to know why the only person who seemed to notice him falling out of nowhere was the man with the yellow card.
“Don’t worry about the yellow-card man, he’s not important,” Al insists. His familiarity with the creepy man who lurks around the Rabbit Hole raises more than one alarm bell.
Needing more convincing, Al takes Jake to what can only be described as his war room. A place in his home that is plastered with new clipping on the JFK assassination, Zapruder film screenshots, and a diorama of the grassy knoll, book depository and street where the assassination took place. There have been so many conspiracy theories on the Kennedy assassination that Al isn’t actually sure that Lee Harvey Oswald worked alone. The way he has decided to find out? Six months before the Kennedy assassination, there was a similar assassination attempt on General Edwin Walker. The same type of rifle was used in the attempted assassination as the JFK assassination. Al wants Jake to go back and see if Oswald was the shooter on Walker’s attempt. If he was, Jake needs to take him out.
After a night of tossing and turning Jake agrees to do it and heads through the Rabbit Hole, though unfortunately during his sleepless night of deciding Al succumbs to his cancer.
Jake has a list of instructions upon beginning his time in the ’60s: get a haircut and nix the goatee, buy a suit and hat, get a non-descript car (which Jake ignores) and enjoy how good the food tastes. Jake will subsist in this period by pulling a “Back to the Future 2” and betting on sports, already knowing the outcome. After a gambling victory with a less-than-savory sort, Jake leaves Maine and heads to Dallas.
In Dallas Jake runs into a woman (Sarah Gadon) who has a passion for books. After almost letting slip that “The Manchurian Candidate” will get an adaptation in the future, the woman departs. A voiceover from Al says that being here will make Jake feel apart from people.
Then, Jake runs into his first problem with changing time: the fact that it’s going to do whatever it can to stay as it is. Using a payphone, Jake tries to speak with his father though the connection is poor. After frustratingly walking away, Jake decides to give it one more go only to be nearly hit as car crashes into the phone booth, destroying it and killing the driver. Running to the accident, the dead driver let’s Jake know — once again — he “shouldn’t be here.”
“The past doesn’t want to be changed,” Al explains in a flashback. “If you do something that really f—s with the past, the past f—s with you.”
Jake doubles-down on his resolve to do this for Al after checking into a bed and breakfast and meeting a boy dreaming of joining the Army. Jake realizes this kid will probably die far from home. Al’s next mission for Jake was to follow George de Mohrenschildt, a friend of Oswald’s and potential assassin’s CIA handler. Jake follows the man to a Kennedy campaign rally. After sneaking past security, the past makes moves to stop him by sending more hard-nosed security after him. After an attempted escape that let to Jake at a dead-end teeming with cockroaches, he is captured, but he sweet-talks his way out of much trouble by passing as Kennedy’s No. 1 fan and gets back on the trail of de Mohrenschildt.
He follows the man to a high-end Dallas restaurant. Al isn’t sure if this particular night is important, but he suspects it’s the night de Mohrenschildt was contacted by the CIA. Al warns him that time pushed back hard when he was there. He’s instructed to avoid a fight that breaks out near the restaurant, and to be ready to put out an accidental fire that sent Al to the hospital when he was there. After dodging those obstacles Jake is nearly crushed by a light fixture falling from the ceiling and is constantly interrupted by hostesses and music while trying to listen to de Mohrenschildt’s conversation. Turns out Al was right — Oswald’s bestie was meeting the CIA at the restaurant.
Delighted with himself, he returns home with newfound hope — only to find the B&B he was staying at burning to the ground. Not only are all of the notes that Al gave him going up in flames, but the boy who wanted to join the military is carried out of the house, burnt to a crisp. Deciding time is too big a contender for him, Jake hightails it back to Maine and the comfort of his mundane life. About halfway home Jake stops for directions and asks where Holden, Kentucky is. Turns out, it’s not too far from where he’s currently parked.
Saving JFK might be too big a task for Jake to take on, but perhaps something smaller — something like stopping his friend Harry’s father from killing his mother, brother and sister on Halloween — is one good thing he can do before leaving.