Inside ‘11.22.63,’ Stephen King’s Time-Travel Quest to Stop JFK’s Killer

Hulu’s adaptation of King’s historical epic is equal parts suspense, what-if fantasy, and doomed romance. Fate, it tells us, cannot change—not even through time travel.

Alex Dukay/Hulu

11.22.63’s ominous opening-credit theme is punctuated by an atonal final note—a discordant tone that speaks to the less-than-happily-ever-after course charted by this 8-part mini-series based on Stephen King’s acclaimed 2011 novel (and produced by J.J. Abrams) about a man who travels to 1960 on a mission to save President John F. Kennedy. Buoyed by a period-piece narrative that, over the course of eight-plus hours, it clearly and evocatively dramatizes with equal emphasis on what-if fantasy, edge-of-your-seat suspense, and subtle emotional depth, it’s the best (and most faithful) King translation since 2007’s big-screen The Mist—as well as a sterling maiden effort by Hulu to join the ranks of Netflix, Amazon, HBO and AMC at the Peak TV big-kid’s table.

With only negligible deviations from its source material, 11.22.63 recounts the time-traveling odyssey of Jake Epping (James Franco), an English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine whose shaggy head of hair and goatee are destined to disappear once he journeys back to the ‘60s, where men don dapper suits and hats, and sport cleanly cropped hair and shaven jawlines. Jake is newly divorced, and the type of caring mentor who in adult-education class singles out janitor Harry Dunning (Leon Rippy) for his powerful, honest autobiographical writing—specifically, about his childhood ordeal surviving his father’s slaughter of his mother and siblings—and then goes the extra mile by putting in a recommendation for Harry’s possible promotion.

Jake’s life is turned upside down when, while at the local diner, gruff owner Al Templeton (Chris Cooper, doing a great cranky-wise-man routine) materializes out of the establishment’s back area looking years older, and more haggard, than he had moments earlier. Suddenly stricken with cancer, and thus fearful that he won’t be able to finish what he started, Al tells Jake his secret: his eatery’s storage closet is actually a portal to 1960. Moreover, he’s been traveling back in time to not only procure cheap meat (that’s how his burgers are only $1.99), but to figure out if gunman Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber) acted alone at Dallas’s Texas School Book Depository, all so he can stop JFK’s assassination from occurring. Al has undertaken this venture because he believes, butterfly effect-style, that the world would have been a fundamentally better place with JFK alive (most notably, he’s sure the Vietnam War wouldn’t have been such a nightmarish quagmire), and now felled by a fatal disease, he wants Jake to assume his mission.

The idea that a small-town diner’s closet is a time vortex guided by wacko regulations—it only takes you back to the same moment in 1960; no matter how long you’re in the past, only 2 minutes will have passed when you return to the present; if you come back, the past resets—naturally strikes Jake as confounding, illogical, and insane. And as in King’s novel, 11.22.63 gets away with its cockamamie rules simply by shrugging, as if to say “Time travel is magic, so why would any aspect of it make lucid sense?” Rather than wasting undue breath validating its make-believe, it simply dives headfirst into its tale, in which Jake—aided by Al’s copious Oswald research, as well as fake IDs that list him as “Jake Amberson”—heads back to the ‘60s, where at every turn, the past “pushes back” against change, doing whatever is necessary to prevent things from being altered (a twist that justifies plot contrivances by weaving them into the fiction’s fabric).

Before dealing with the president, Jake first assumes a more personal task: preventing Harry’s father Frank (Josh Duhamel) from murdering his clan on Halloween night 1960. Only after that’s been resolved does he relocate, with an unlikely ally named Bill (George MacKay), to the Dallas-area enclave of Jodie. There, he establishes himself as a schoolteacher and falls in love with a divorced librarian named Sadie (a magnetic Sarah Gadon) still pestered by her deviant ex (T.R. Knight). As expertly adapted by Bridget Carpenter and a bevy of assured directors (including, for the debut installment, The King of Scotland’s Kevin Macdonald), 11.22.63 constantly straddles the line between historical mystery and man-out-of-place drama. The former comes via Jake and Bill’s surveillance of the angry, petulant anti-establishment Oswald, under whose apartment they rent a flat to eavesdrop on him, his young Minsk bride Marina (Lucy Fry), their baby, his mother (Cherry Jones) and their possible Russian-CIA handler friend George de Mohrenschildt (Jonny Coyne). All the while, Jake struggles to fashion a new, romantic life for himself in this strange time, where the food and air taste sweeter, and thriving racial discrimination (as seen through the clandestine mixed-race relationship between Nick Searcy and Tonya Pinkins’ school administrators) still reeks.

King aficionados will be happy to find that 11.22.63 remains something of a spiritual echo to the author’s seven-novel fantasy series The Dark Tower, in that it concerns a lost-in-time protagonist destined to repeat his mistakes, ad infinitum, unless he learns—painfully, tragically—that no mission is worth the destruction of everything (and everyone) he loves. The tense push-pull between individual desire and the public good serves as the series’ lifeblood. And it’s a dynamic that gets muddied, to quietly profound effect, in a climax that suggests that the past not only doesn’t want to change, but fundamentally can’t be changed—and, furthermore, that it’s probably better that way, given the impossibility of ever truly knowing, ahead of time, who’s worth saving in the first place.

Such questions emerge naturally from 11.22.63’s narrative, and via the sturdy performance of Franco, who infuses Jake with an innate decency and sense of purpose that’s colored, first faintly and then in darker, crimson shades, by the less-than-noble actions he takes to complete his task. Jake is a man caught between all sorts of competing forces (and stations), and Franco’s alternately tender and frazzled turn roots the material in an emotional reality as compelling as the series’ period atmosphere, with era-specific details (the decor of a local barber shop, the gleam of a newly shined car, the flowing skirts of a teacher at a high-school dance) rendered with understated, authentic loveliness.

Easter eggs for fanboys abound (keep a close eye on the staircase wall in the Texas School Book Depository), yet 11.22.63 is ultimately far more than just a compendium of shout-outs. It’s a rip-roaring account of the sacrifices required for heroism—and the notion that some sacrifices are, in the end, simply too great to tolerate. It’s a Zapruder-like whodunit that digs deeply into historical facts and conjecture with conspiracy-theorist zest. It’s the portrait of a would-be savior who repeatedly fails, until he comes to understand that the universe (embodied by a quasi-mystical bum with a yellow card in his hat brim) is trying to teach him a lesson about what matters most in life. It’s a full-bodied romance in which fate, ever wielding a cruel hand, exploits love to its own maintain-the-status-quo ends—culminating in possibly the most heartbreakingly bittersweet finale in the King oeuvre. In short: it’s Peak (King) TV of the highest order.