Episode 1: “The Rabbit Hole”
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Written by Bridget Carpenter
* For a review of the next episode, “The Kill Floor” – click here
The first episode of this Stephen King adaptation begins with Harry Dunning (Leon Rippy) telling us about his father killing his entire family. Except it’s him telling the story to a class full of people. The teacher is Jake Epping (James Franco), who gives his student Harry an A+ on the story. Jake seems like a personable man, getting along with his class quite well with ease.
Then Jake heads on over to a diner run by Al Templeton (Chris Cooper). They’ve also got a pretty good relationship. For his part, Al is a friendly dude himself. Up shows Christy (Brooklyn Sudano). Their relationship is a little less nice. Clearly heading into the rough of a full-on divorce. Already I love the adaptation of King’s novel – one of my favourites of his latest work – because Christy even makes a mention that, at the price, “that can‘t be real beef” in regards to one of Al’s famous burgers.
No sooner does Christy leave, Al stumbles out from behind the counter of the diner, coughing and looking nearly 20 years older than before. Jake’s stunned. He eventually helps Al home, but it’s clear the old guy has got some serious health problems happening – cancer, so he says. “You got cancer in five minutes?” Jake asks. But Al tells him to come back tomorrow, all will be explained.
Not only this well-filmed, I’m loving the score. Highly foreboding stuff. Hulu has done a solid job producing this show, which is evident even after the first little slice of an episode.
Al prepares to tell Jake everything. Only first, he asks Jake to go into the supply room closet at the back of the diner. Heading inside, further and further, all of a sudden Jake hits the ground on his stomach. He isn’t sure where, or when, the place might be. Running away, Jake ends up back inside the diner. He freaks, obviously. He asks Al what the fuck happened, to which the older of the two replies: “That was October 21st, 1960.” And it seems Al’s been trying to prevent the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Al goes on to explain all the actions and events associated with preventing the assassination – the Kennedy brothers would be alive, maybe prevent Vietnam, et cetera, et cetera. Well Jake isn’t sold on that theory. “You save Kennedy‘s life you make the world a better place,” Al yells. So to explain his theory about changing the past to alter the future, Al has Jake head into the closet again, back in time, and then carve something into the tree behind the diner. So Jake heads back in, and it’s always at the same exact moment in time during 1960, right to the second. He goes ahead and carves the tree with his knife before going back into the present. Once there, he heads down to the tree and the evidence is right there for him to find. Furthermore, Al explains everything “resets” each time you go down the rabbit hole, right back to that day. And no matter how much time you spend in there, only two minutes pass in the present; hence why Al looked fine one minute then haggard as hell the next. He spent two whole years in 1960, up to ’62, in the time Jake signed those papers for Christy. Now, it seems Al requires a successor to his task with all that ailing health.
Not only do we get fun time travel stuff, King provided plenty of fun information surrounding JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald. So here, Bridget Carpenter’s script gives us a nice lead-in to it with Al explaining things for Jake. Al saw him “come back from Russia in 1962” and couldn’t do anything; after all, did Oswald really do it? Well, Al wasn’t going ahead without everything squared away. The plan now is for Jake to go back in time, last until 1963 were Oswald may have supposedly taken a shot at General Edwin Walker, which would help with a theory on his culpability. But aside from the conspiracy stuff, Cooper and Franco have good chemistry. The way they talk together and with one another is like two people who know each other fairly well; I’m a fan of them both, anyways. Also, we finally get the scoop on Al’s famous burgers – they’re beef, from 1960. Great prices. Such a fun little bit of writing out of King, he always thinks of something other writers don’t and this is simply one small mention.
There’s a slight bit of tension between Al and Jake. The latter doesn’t want to just go jumping back in time on a whim. Al isn’t pleased, he thinks it’s an easy choice. But obviously, as anyone would, Jake doesn’t see it that way. “Get the fuck out of my house,” Al tells Jake after chastising him a bunch.
After sleeping on it, Jake heads back in the morning. He finds Al slumped in a chair, dead, or perhaps only passed out. Sad that their last words were an argument, but such is life sometimes. Maybe Al hasn’t died in this adaptation yet. We see Al’s knife on the table; it’s from Vietnam, obviously belonging to someone close to him (I doubt it would have been him serving). Perhaps a major reason why he wanted to try and change the JFK assassination. This cements Jake’s decision, as he heads over to the diner, and headlong into 1960.
Jake: “Okay, buddy. See you in two minutes.”
Again, as it was the last couple times, the Yellow Card Man (Kevin J. O’Connor) tells Jake: “You shouldn‘t be here.” This time, Jake just walks on and tries to ignore him.
I love seeing Jake in the middle of 1960. He looks incredibly out of place, from the facial hair, to the hair, to the clothes he’s wearing. When he goes to the barber, a King reference to “Castle Rock” comes out. Best of all, Jake gets himself suited up like a regular adult during 1960. Even more, the pie tastes better: “Everything tastes better,” Al says in a flashback. Better yet, it only costs sixty cents for a slice. Then there are people from the present whom Jake runs into in the past, their younger selves and people related to them, and so on.
After buying himself a car with the money Al collected in his travels to the past, Jake heads to try and make some more of it by placing a bet. He ends up in a bar where the car salesman sends him. Jake places a 35:1 bet, long shot on $100; of course that much blows everybody away, as if he’s from somewhere on another planet. A man named Little Eddie (Tony Munch) takes the action. He listens on the radio with Jake. At first things don’t go well for Epping, but soon his boxer makes a turnaround. The big bet pays off. Although, nobody there is too happy about it. Jake leaves, and a couple of the guys follow him outside. But off he goes, for the time being, to a motor court nearby. Nearly a dicey situation for ole Jake.
A little later, up shows somebody on Jake’s tail outside his room at the motor court. When the man heads inside, Jake fools him using a cellphone playing a modern video, knocks the guy out, and takes off. The Yellow Card Man almost sends him off the road, though. What a spooky dude, that one.
On a bridge, Jake tosses his cell. Probably best. Anything to keep him from being found out as an… outsider, we’ll say. And then off Jake goes, heading further towards his destination. On the way he sees signs for the Nixon campaign. He eats delicious corn, long before genetically modifying food became the thing to do. Hell, even the Coca-Cola likely tasted better. Moreover, Jake experiences the supposed good old days in all its racist glory – he makes his way to a bathroom before an old black man advises him it’s the wrong way; white bathrooms are the other way.
Finally, though, Jake arrives in Dallas, Texas. With a file folder in-tow, he finds the book depository from where the fatal JFK shot was fired. Here, he accidentally meets Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon). They bond over John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, reading in general – then little references to From Here to Eternity and The Manchurian Candidate (Jake almost flubs on the last one talking about its movie adaptation; didn’t come along yet at this point in ’60). Clearly here is a love interest for Jake, possibly.
Jake poses as a writer, finding himself a bit of lodging at a house Al stayed during his previous trip. Love all the little bits about how time resets every trip into the rabbit hole, so the woman at the boarding house doesn’t remember Al. Slowly, Jake has to indoctrinate himself into this new world of skipping around space and time. For now, he sits down to review some of the “homework” Al gave him on his mission. The amazing writing of King is adapted well here. Great narration from Cooper’s Al while Jake is wandering around in 1960. Very King-esque, and almost reminds you of The Shawshank Redemption at times, just not in a copy-paste way. Rather, it’s a refreshing kind of nostalgic feel that the narration brings on at times.
Al: “If you do something that really fucks with the past, the past fucks with you.”
In a phone booth, Jake tries to call his father. Electrical failings in the booth and static over the phone prevent any contact. “The past doesn‘t want to be changed,” almost echoes from Al’s previous narrative monologue. Then, a car crashes right through the booth after Jake steps out. Problem solved. When Jake heads over to check the person in the crash, a bloody woman on the ground mumbles: “You shouldn‘t be here.” Just as the Yellow Card Man keeps on nagging. This sends Jake into a bit of a headspin.
We get some flashes back to Jake and Al, filling in pieces of the Oswald backstory. In ’60, Jake tries his best to start in on the investigation. Still, two years separate him from when Oswald arrives from Russia to the States again, then another year before he takes a shot at General Walker. Lots of time for Jake to hang around, almost too much. In the meantime, Jake sits in on a speech by JFK, an inspirational one as they often were. Jake pokes around at the big private VIP reception afterwards, spying on a target recruited by the CIA; the one who Al believes may have recruited Oswald, too. Then Jake’s found out, pursued by security and police.
This entire sequence is beautifully filmed, as are many/most of those set in 1960.
But wait – the Yellow Card Man appears in the hallways below the hotel where Jake sneaks off. Only briefly, as if guiding a path for Epping. Jake makes his way into a storage room, but finds himself nearly attacked by a swarm of cockroaches. He wakes up some time later in the custody of a couple officers, likely Secret Service agents. So Jake puts on his best act, to make sure neither of the men discover Al’s Vietnam War pocket knife. He sneaks out clean. But Jake’s got to start being more careful. What if he gets caught in the past and thrown in jail?
Still following the target, George de Mohrenschildt (Jonny Coyne), we find Jake in a high class Spanish restaurant. The past starts to “push back“, as Al puts it – small fires, a chandelier falls on a table, all nearly putting Jake off the trail. But he’s armed with prior knowledge, and a keen wit. Jake tries his best to eavesdrop on de Mohrenschildt, as he talks with others at a nearby table. Another great aspect of the production here: the eavesdropping sounds so real, the muffled bits and pieces of conversation Jake picks out swarmed in a ton of other noises from around the restaurant. Neat addition to the sound design here playing into the situation.
Jake goes back to the boarding house, only to find the place on fire. Upstairs his things burn: all the research from Al, everything. Worst of all, the young boy who lived there is burned alive. A tragedy on all sides.
The finale of the episode returns to Harry Dunning. We knew this would come – Jake decides there are other things, smaller yet amazingly life-changing events which also need changing. Not just the JFK assassination. So, Jake has plenty more work to do. Something attainable for now. He heads down to the old Dunning home, where daddy Frank (Josh Duhamel) and mama Doris (Joanna Douglas) have a fractured relationship. Jake’s eyes say it all, as he watches from afar, wondering how to intervene. Should he?
Excited to watch the next episode, “The Kill Floor” – can’t get enough of this King adaptation so far, high hopes for the rest.