JFK’s Excellent Adventure: “Timeless,” Season 2, Episode 5 Recapped

We learn a lot about the once and future President, and he learns way too much about himself, in a tense twist with the past coming to the present

A young JFK is all, like, "Whoa" when he gets taken from 1934 Connecticut to 2018 Palo Alto. (Paul Drinkwater/NBC)
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“Timeless” enters new territory this week. Instead of the adventure-of-the-week taking our heroes back in time, forcing them to adjust to the realities of the era, most of this week’s action takes place in the present day. The episode opens with much of the drama happening off-screen, in which Rufus, Wyatt and Flynn (Lucy is still recovering from last week’s witchin’ stabbing injury) mostly fail in their mission to save a 17-year-old John F. Kennedy from being assassinated by Rittenhouse at his Connecticut boarding school. Fortunately for world history, their bare-minimum success means they avert the murder but must leave Flynn behind as Rufus and Wyatt bring the young JFK back to the present. (Maybe Wyatt just had a history report to write?)

Then teenaged JFK (“Jack”) escapes the bunker to have some California adventures with some random teenagers he meets at a convenience store. (Editor’s note: Jack also asks for a pay phone. And the show already has a character named Rufus....Carlin. If these aren’t some bodacious, next-level Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure callbacks, then I don’t even know what to believe anymore.)

Then the good guys tangle with Rittenhouse agents, tap into the surveillance-state panopticon, rescue JFK and send him back to 1934, where nothing bad will ever happen to him ever again (well, until 1963). Along the way we get a glimpse into Kennedy's many health ailments—concealed from the public for years—and a preview of Jessica's future role on the time team.

There's not a lot of history on screen, since most of the episode takes place in 2018, but let's talk about young Kennedy. In 1931, he entered high school at the elite Choate (rhymes with “coat”) boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut. (Choate, an all-boys school, later merged with the girls' school Rosemary Hall. Other notable alumni include playwright Edward Albee and Ivanka Trump.) Jack's older brother, Joe, also attended Choate and was a good student and star football player. Jack, on the other hand, was a middling student who spent his time playing pranks. "It’s fair to conclude that Jack was influenced by trying to live up to an older brother with whom he could not possibly compete as an athlete," writes Jeffrey Laikind, another Choate alumni, who produced a “JFK at Choate” retrospective for the school magazine.

Choate may also be where Kennedy got the idea for one of his most famous speeches. Choate archivist Judy Donald told CBS in 2011 that the school turned up a notebook from headmaster George St. John that included the quote: "The youth who loves his Alma Mater will always ask, not `What can she do for me?' but `What can I do for her?"' One biographer disputed the claim that Kennedy's "Ask not" speech was inspired by a St. John address, saying that Kennedy was probably not paying attention and instead focused on planning pranks with friends.

We only see a glimpse of this in the “Timeless” episode, but Kennedy references something called the "Muckers Club" right before a Rittenhouse agent takes aim at his head. "Muckers Club" was an unofficial secret club Kennedy founded after the headmaster of the school gave a speech denouncing pranksters. At the time, "muckers" was a slur applied to Irish immigrants who couldn't find work except shoveling horse manure, and JFK went wild with the label. He had shovel pins made up and hatched a plot to fill the dining room with manure, but the headmaster found out before they could carry out the prank. He did, however, fill a classmate's room with hundreds of pillows. The rest of his Muckers Club pranks are lost to history.

JFK, at right, with his fellow "Muckers Club" members. (National Archives)

Kennedy was also the victim of pranks. In an undated letter home to his father he writes about how a classmate "bet me I couldn't place a dime on my forehead and drop it into a funnel which was placed in my belt. I ...put my head back to put the dime on it and he poured a glass of water down the funnel—of course that went over big."

The most famous story of Kennedy at Choate says that he blew up a toilet seat with a cherry bomb. That, the school's archivist says, was actually the work of another student a decade later. Perhaps one inspired by JFK's legacy.

The other defining feature of JFK's life at Choate - and really, his entire life - was his illness. Kennedy was plagued by various ailments his entire life. Before he turned 3, he had suffered through whooping cough, measles, chicken pox and scarlet fever—the latter at the time a life-threatening disease. His family used to joke that a mosquito that bit him would die from his dangerous blood, and his best friend at school used to say that if he wrote a book about Kennedy, he'd call it “John F. Kennedy: A Medical History.” (“Timeless” attributes this joke to Robert Kennedy, probably to avoid introducing a new character.) JFK had frequent ear infections, colds, boils, pink eye and astigmatism. He blacked out at school. He spent the summer of 1934 at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Later in life, he would suffer from a bad back, digestive issues and Addison's disease, an endocrine disorder that is fatal without treatment. Medical records disclosed in the early 2000s showed that the president took up to eight medications a day to manage his conditions and to maintain the mirage of his youthful, Camelotian vitality.

In the episode, Kennedy's illness is used as a plot point—he has a flare-up and his new friends take him to the hospital. Whatever they give him in 2018 works miracles compared to 1930s medicine, and he skips out of the hospital before both the Time Team and Rittenhouse can find him.

Young JFK heads to a party with his new friends, where he reads his own Wikipedia page and learns about his own death, as well as the death of his older brother Joe, who was killed in action during World War II. (Joe was thought to be the future of the Kennedy political dynasty, not John.) One more heroic Wyatt action scene later and Jack's back in the bunker, ready to go back to his life in 1934, instructed to never tell anyone about time travel, to be a good president, and to avoid Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Other notes:

  • Jessica made herself very useful in 2018—she knew enough to help Lucy and Wyatt bluff their way past a convenience store clerk, and it was her idea to check social media to find Kennedy at the party. Expect to see her playing a bigger role in future #TimeTeam missions. This of course isn't good for...what are we calling this ship, anyway? Wucy? Lyatt? Neither of those exactly roll off the tongue.

  • Jiya has totally figured out how this Time Stuff works. Early in the episode, while searching for JFK: "We all still know who JFK is, right? That means we're going to find him." Conclusion: Because they still know JFK becomes president, he must still become president, which means the team is destined to find JFK and return him to his time. Later in the same conversation: "I had a vision of a man dying and he died. You tried to stop it but history doesn't change as easily as you want it to." This is emphasized again at the end of the episode when, warned to avoid Dallas in 1963, JFK is assassinated in Austin.

  • A golf-clap for the game, young actor Grant Jordan, who took on the yeoman’s task of attempting to mimic JFK’s iconic accent. In fairness, the Boston Brahmin accent is famously one of the hardest to mimic. It's been done well on occasion (OK, maybe not that last one) but has just as often been mangled. Jordan did a very good job turning on the charm as Kennedy, but his voice was a little distracting. (Hear what Kennedy really sounded like as a young man in this digitized 1937 clip.)

  • Carol Preston kidnaps Denise Christopher to tell her that if Lucy is hurt on a mission, she'll hurt Christopher's children. "You couldn't just text, Carol?" Christopher says, exasperated.

  • The Time Team so comfortable in their shoes that evading arrest with just a paperclip, confounding Jessica, becomes mundane enough to not even bother showing the action.

The time machine must have its dial stuck to the 1930s because next week the team's heading to 1936 Texas. And if NBC's promo photos are anything to go by, Connor Mason gets, for the first time, his own turn in the Lifeboat. Tune in next week to find out what happens, and we’ll hopefully be back on our regular recap-posting schedule.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article misspelled Connor Mason's name. Perhaps in an alternate timeline we had it right the first time.

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