“The Red Forest” sets up one of the most interesting things about a time-travel show: the past gets changed, and then the future follows accordingly. Since Cole sits outside of time – his cells vibrate or something like that, 12 Monkeys tells us – whatever he changes in the past doesn’t affect the future very much, at least until something big happens. In last episode’s “The Night Room,” a big event occurred; after Cole was unable to save Cassie, she was killed by the Pallid Man and his team, and the virus still ravaged the land.
Some might be deterred from this time travel thing, especially since Cole realizes it’s eventually going to kill him – clarified, as well, by Jones. But he’s determined to end this thing, whatever his motivations really may be, and the setback is only a small one. When he meets Ramse in the changed future, now the leader of the West VII taking over the compound, he recognizes the good within that man, even if he does look like a pirate with his eye patch. Maybe he urges him on to go back to the past and fix the murder of Cassie. Cole’s motives have been quite shady throughout 12 Monkeys so far, a problem that the show will have to address at some point when Cole continues to get sick from his time travel, but right now, most interesting is the way the show has been addressing the paradoxes in its time travel.
But “The Red Forest” also shows the randomness of why some things change in the future and some things don’t. One could argue that all of the things that Cole is doing in the present are important to the future, and yet none of them really affect it. But Cassie’s death is an important one, a link between when the virus spreads and how it affects the development of time travel itself. It implies the character’s importance to the story without needing to do the work to develop that importance; after spending so much time with the Cole-Cassie relationship at the start of the show, 12 Monkeys has really limited her impact on the plot besides centering it around her. This limits the show to telling more about her than it shows.
This episode does set aside some time to focus on Cassie, though. She’s spirited away to some crazy lab where the Pallid Man and the Striking Woman feed her some hallucinogenic drug that shows her a Red Forest and a Man slipping around the vision with a gas mask on, known as the Witness. 12 Monkeys continues to drop these hints at new mysteries, but it’s doing so in a way that doesn’t become frustrating; part of that might be because Cole and Cassie are just as clueless as the viewers are.
“The Red Forest” also finally makes use of Cassie’s boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend, Aaron Marker. Cole and Aaron aren’t quite the same team as Cole and Ramse, but the incredulousness of Aaron makes things pretty fun, especially as Cole is stitched up from a bullet wound in the altered future by Jones. 12 Monkeys would do well to continue these odd pair-ups between characters, and now that Aaron is part of the team, the show has more room for nuances between characters.
I did want to talk about that bullet wound, though. If Cole is outside of time – meaning he can travel without being in another time period or alternate universe or however you want to look at it – what happens when other Cole, in the past, splinters back to the future? Is he in two places at once, and does he loop? Or does he stay in the future? It kind of makes my brain hurt thinking about it, but “The Red Forest” has that weird scene where Jones is stitching up Cole’s wound in real time. It’s an intriguing concept that also shows experimentation within 12 Monkeys’ plot, but at the same time, it doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense.
Still, the show is trucking forward, not even deterred by the way the destruction of the virus’ host didn’t change the outbreak. It’s including some of the secondary cast members into an even deeper storyline, and the complexity of the time travel is questionable but also full of places the story can change depending on what Cole changes. So far, I’d say 12 Monkeys is up there as one of Syfy’s best shows, and “The Red Forest” is no exception.