The first episode of 11.22.63 took the audience on something of a winding path, as it worked to establish the show's basic premise, and introduce us to its protagonist, Jake Epping (James Franco). While it may have lacked a clear sense of focus, overall, it was an episode that still managed to do a great job of indicating where the story was headed in the future - and, there was definitely a lot to enjoy about Jake's early experiences in 1960.
The episode also gave us a fairly clear idea of exactly how difficult Jake's mission to prevent the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy might prove to be - not just in terms of the three year commitment it would require for Jake to even reach that point in history, or the complex web of conspiracies he will be required to sort through, but also in the fact that the past just doesn't want to be changed. Time, itself, is working against Jake in a manner that feels distinctly supernatural - and, innocent people have already died, as a result.
By the end of that first episode, in fact, things had already got so out of hand for Jake that he was, basically, forced to admit defeat - abandoning his mission and setting out for the portal which would return him to the present. On the way, though, Jake came up with an alternate plan - a smaller change he could try to make that would benefit someone that he cares for. And, it is here that the second episode of 11.22.63 begins.
Even on a series set to tell its tale over only eight episodes, it was probably inevitable that there would still be room for the occasionally diversion into self-contained side-plots - and, that is exactly what this episode is. Jake's efforts, here, may feel smaller in scale than his efforts to sort through the various conspiracies surrounding JFK's assassination, but it is also clear that his new mission is much more personal, in nature. From the moment that Jake arrives in that small town, the episode finds a much clearer sense of focus in its self-contained situation.
It is, also, a situation that allows for some fantastically tense moments between Jake and Frank Dunning (Josh Duhamel) - the man who will soon murder his estranged family. Right from the start, Frank's unpleasantness, and his generally threatening demeanour, is played very strongly - so much so that the audience may, almost immediately, begin to fear for Jake's safety. Frank is clearly abusive toward his estranged wife, Doris (Joanna Douglas), and he obviously delights in the idea of intimidating Jake, himself. The whole sequence in which Frank and his friends take Jake on a trip to the slaughter-house at which Frank used to work was especially tense - with the threat of violence seeming almost inevitable, despite Frank's seemingly jovial nature. The fact that that moment of violence, when it did present itself, was to be directed at a cow, rather than Jake, almost felt like a relief - though, the stand-off that ensued, as Frank tried to subject Jake to something of a 'test of character', was still very effective.
If anything, though, Frank's overall aggressive demeanour might have actually been played a little too strongly during these scenes - to such an extent that I found myself wondering if there was some twist in store, and that the murderer might be revealed as someone else entirely. It just seemed a little too obvious - though, at the same time, it is also difficult to deny that Josh Duhamel was great in the role. Arguably, we learned everything we needed to know about Frank Dunning from that performance (that he was, for example, an abusive thug who felt that he was better than the people around him). It may be true that the episode didn't really delve too deeply into who Frank Dunning actually was, beyond that exterior - but, arguably, it didn't really need to.
As the young version of the sad, and clearly damaged, man that we met in the previous episode, Jack Fulton also does a remarkable job of bringing Harry Dunning to life. The whole sequence, which he is chased down by bullies then first to walk through town without his pants, was obviously intended to make the audience sympathise with him - but, it worked. Along with Joanna Douglas's brief time, on screen, as Frank's abused wife, the two manage to clearly convey the true stakes of what Jake is trying to achieve. Doris's other two children are, admittedly, treated more like extras - though, I suppose that screen-time needs to be conserved, somehow.
Of course, the real question was whether Jake would be able to bring himself to do what he felt he needed to do in order to save Doris and her children - along with the equally important issue of whether he would actually be able to change the past. While Time didn't push back against Jake in any way as overt as what we saw in the previous episode, the idea that it might have been responsible for Jake's food poisoning was a development which managed to be both funny and disturbing (this, along with the implications that Al's cancer might have been the result of his own attempts to meddle with the past, gives some fairly unpleasent implications for what Jake might truly be up against, in this regard).
As compelling as all of this was, though, the episode's true high-light actually came from somewhere else, entirely - with Arliss Price (Michael O'Neill), from whom Jake is renting a spare room while he is in town, telling the story of how he earned his Bronze Cross during the second World War. It was a fantastic sequence, featuring some great acting from both Michael O'Neill and James Franco, which proved that sometimes 'telling' seems to work just as well as 'showing' - since, as strange as it may sound, I'm actually convinced that a flash-back, to show us this moment in action, wouldn't have been nearly as effective. It was a wonderfully dramatic moment which also managed to provide a fascinating parallel to Jake's own dilemma in this episode. Also, as a side-note, Jake claiming that he served in the Korean war as part of the 4077th MASH unit, only moments earlier, was another great moment - though, obviously, for entirely different reasons.
Obviously, with only eight episode, 11.22.63 can't afford to spend too much time being diverted into episodic side-plots. Eventually, the series is going to have to focus entirely on Jake's overall mission. Though, given the quality of this episode, that almost seems like a shame. By the end of the first episode, I still wasn't entirely convinced that the central 'JFK' plot-line would be worth following - and, by pushing that aside entirely here, this episode hasn't really helped, in that regard. But, as a self-contained story, this episode of 11.22.63 was definitely a success.