The Drama Intensifies When “Timeless” Visits “Hollywoodland”

A plot to steal ‘Citizen Kane’ and a visit from inventor Hedy Lamarr give the Time Team a taste of the movie industry’s golden age

The "Time Team" glams it up, and Lucy's costume presents a Hollywood mystery. (Paul Drinkwater/NBC)
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Welcome back, “Timeless” fans! This week’s episode takes us to Hollywood’s Golden Age, where the Time Team foils yet another Rittenhouse plot (sorry, spoiler alert) with the help of a gorgeous starlet who also happens to be a genius. But first and MOST importantly, Lucy and Wyatt FINALLY get together.

Judging by Tumblr’s excitement just from the preview GIFs and clips that NBC put out, this is the event of the century. But not all is well here, for a reason that will only make sense if you watched Season One (or read the following few paragraphs).

See, in our first recap of the first season of “Timeless,” we necessarily had to leave out a few plot points for brevity—and the recap didn’t even mention Wyatt’s wife Jessica.

Again, if you recall Season One, go ahead and skip forward. If you don’t, yes, Wyatt was married before the show started. Jessica and Wyatt were madly in love, but they had a fight, she stormed off, and was tragically killed in a suspected mugging gone wrong. As you’d do with a time machine, Wyatt tries to prevent her killing. He sends her a telegram from the past asking her not to go out that night, Back to the Future style, and there’s even an entire ’80s-themed episode where Wyatt and Rufus attempt to prevent the one-night stand that conceived Jessica’s purported killer. Altering history is complicated (just ask Ray Bradbury) and so none of these interventions bring Jessica back—or, more technically, keep her alive in the first place.

This brings us to “Hollywoodland,” our episode for the week. (The name comes from the original Hollywood sign, which until the late 1940s contained “-Land” at the end, advertising a real estate development.) Our two lovebirds, after spending a good chunk of last week’s episode snuggling in a car trunk, finally decide to consummate their passion, turning them both into giggly teenagers for the remainder of the episode. (It’s actually kind of adorable.) But of course their honeymoon period can’t last, because who’s back as soon as the team returns to the present? You guessed it.

Again, altering history is complicated. We don’t know how this happened—all we know is that something happened in 1941 to prevent Jessica’s murder. But Wyatt is, understandably, shaken up when he gets a text from his wife near the end of the episode, and he busts out of the underground bunker and finds her at the bar where she now apparently works. What will Jessica’s presence mean for future missions? We don’t know yet, but don’t worry, we’ll be watching closely. Sorry, Lucy, seems like you got #clockblocked something fierce.

That’s a lot of words before we get to the history, but now we can move on. It’s 1941 in Hollywood, and a Rittenhouse agent planted a decade earlier has worked his way up at RKO Pictures, one of the biggest studios at the time, in order to gain access to something very important: RKO 281, the original (and at the time only) copy of the unreleased Citizen Kane. Rittenhouse’s plan is to steal Citizen Kane and turn it over to William Randolph Hearst to prevent its release. In exchange, Hearst will give Rittenhouse space in his papers to print anything they want (natch, propaganda and #fakenews). Hearst would have been no stranger to fake news: He and rival publisher Joseph Pulitzer were the forces behind “yellow journalism,” and Hearst’s sensational coverage of events in Cuba is partially blamed for the Spanish-American War.

Rittenhouse’s plan...probably would have worked. Citizen Kane follows the story, told through flashbacks, of a newspaper mogul widely believed to be based on Hearst himself. Hearst famously wanted to suppress the film, banning mentions of the studio RKO in his newspapers and running a smear campaign against director and star Orson Welles. According to film critic Nigel Andrews, “Louis B Mayer [a co-founder of MGM], on behalf of a Hollywood threatened with dire reprisal by Hearst, offered RKO Studios $805,000 to burn all prints and the negative.”

Our heroes can’t allow this, of course. Once they learn of the plan, with the help of bombshell/inventor Hedy Lamarr, they intercept the handoff and save the classic film (as well as saving newspaper readers from a lifetime of propaganda).

A few words on Hedy. The most commonly, so-called “little known” fact about her is that she was an inventor. “While other Hollywood stars were at parties, Lamarr was at home, tinkering with a design for a traffic light, or experimenting with a soluble fizzy-drink tablet,” writes the BBC. When the Time Team meets her in early 1941, she and collaborator George Antheil are putting the finishing touches on the invention that would eventually make her famous: a frequency hopping device that made radio-controlled torpedoes un-jammable. Lamarr had had the idea, and Antheil, a mechanical genius with player pianos, put it into practice. Her technology wasn’t used until her patent had expired, so she only received belated credit (and no money) for her work, but experts say the same principle behind frequency hopping is what underlies modern Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices.

It would have been nice to see a little more Hedy here. The best example we get to see of her genius is when she helps Rufus eavesdrop on Rittenhouse by means of a hole in the wall covered by Scotch tape. (Side note: This actually works, but it wasn’t described in the scientific literature until 2013. The scientists used Saran Wrap.) Later, Hedy asks Rufus if he’d like to see her inventions, but it all happens offscreen, presumably to give more time to the Lucy/Wyatt plotline (and presumably because frequency-hopping is a somewhat abstract concept hard to show on television). Still, disappointing.

A few other interesting leftovers from this episode:

  • Rufus uses “Langston Hughes” as his alias this week. “Don’t you know who I am? I won an Oscar for Way Down South,” he says indignantly. “N--no, he didn’t,” says Lucy, trying to cover. “Well, I should have–I was robbed,” huffs Rufus. What you might not know: Langston Hughes, the leader of the Harlem Renaissance, really was living in Los Angeles in 1941. He really did co-write the script for a movie called Way Down South, a musical “plantation drama” about enslaved people who don’t want their “good” “massa” to leave them. (The film, which came out in 1939, is about as horrible as you imagine.) At the time, many industry publications loved the film; Hughes reportedly did it for the money and because he hoped that the screenwriting credit would lead to more lucrative, and less exploitative, film work. But he never wrote another screenplay again. And in reality, the first African-American to win an Oscar for best original screenplay would be Jordan Peele in last year’s Get Out.

  • For those interested in fashion, a quick sidenote: The Time Team steals costumes from the Paramount lot so they can attend a fancy party. The dress Lucy is wearing is basically identical to Katharine Hepburn’s in The Philadelphia Story, a popular 1940 film. (Thanks to Tumblr for pointing this out.) Philadelphia Story was made by MGM, not Paramount, and the designer was in fact MGM’s in-house designer at the time (he also designed Dorothy’s famous ruby slippers for The Wizard of Oz). Anyone have ideas about how the MGM dress would have ended up at Paramount less than a year later? Prop sale? Theft? If none of the above, it’s an odd (historically speaking) choice of dress for Lucy, then, but it does look fantastic on her, so maybe that’s all the reason we need.

  • Meanwhile, Jiya sees a doctor for her seizures, and finds out that a heart murmur she’s had since childhood has magically disappeared. She’s still seeing visions, though (it’s not entirely clear whether she’s seizure-free). As Season One viewers will recall, Jiya originally got sick after she violated an apparently unbreakable rule of time travel: only three people can travel in the time machine at once. (Why? Because reasons.) Jiya’s prognosis is much better than that of the other two Mason Industries employees who violated that rule: one died and one was institutionalized.

  • Remember that rule, because also in this episode Agent Christopher and the Time Team use some clever Time Tricks to help Flynn bust out of maximum-security prison, and he joins the team in the underground bunker. With four people now on the Time Team and only three seats in the Lifeboat, this could get ugly in future episodes.

The next promises to be a little more...old-fashioned. If Jiya’s latest vision is to be trusted (she hasn’t been wrong yet!) the team is headed to late-17th century Salem, Massachusetts, perhaps in a meta-twist to do some research on the accuracy Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Editor's note: The next "Timeless" episode will air April 8, skipping one week.

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