One Last Time, Read Our ‘Timeless’ Deep Dive Into What the Beloved TV Show Got Right and Wrong

“Timeless”’s finale teaches us how to say goodbye to the intrepid, time-traveling crew

Abigail Spencer as Lucy Preston, Malcolm Barrett as Rufus Carlin, and Matt Lanter as Wyatt Logan just got back from saving history. Again. NBD. (Darren Michaels/Sony/NBC)
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Fans of the NBC show “Timeless” just couldn’t let the series end. They turned out the vote, choosing the time-travel procedural as the number-one show that should get renewed in USA Today’s Save Our Shows poll. They raised $20,000 to rent a helicopter to fly a #SaveTimeless banner over San Diego Comic Con. The lesson: Don’t mess with Team Clockblocker, basically.

NBC in the end came to a compromise, of sorts, un-canceling the show a second time to allow the writers and producers one final wrap-up show, a two-hour finale to tie up the many loose ends left at the end of the second season this spring.

Are you just joining us? You can catch up here, but here’s the 60-second summary: A shadowy secret organization known as Rittenhouse is trying to use a time machine to Make America Great Again by altering history to entrench white male power. They’re basically the Illuminati, but with time travel. Attempting to stop them are a ragtag team of Lucy Preston, a historian, Wyatt Logan, a soldier, and Rufus Carlin, an engineer, who together travel through history to fix or prevent the potential damage done by Rittenhouse. At the end of Season 2, though, things look real bad for the #timeteam. Rufus has died in San Francisco in 1888, the rest of the team is bruised and battered, and while Rittenhouse is down a few members, mostly thanks to infighting, the evil organization seems more evil than ever.

Yet not all hope is lost. At the end of season 2, an older, more steampunk, bad-ass versions of Lucy and Wyatt appear in a souped-up time machine. Older Lucy, sporting a distinct Lara Croft vibe, gives Present Lucy a gift—her own journal. “Figure it out together,” Older Lucy says before she and Older Wyatt disappear into the time machine.

Tonight’s finale picks up there, but before the team can figure out the message in the journal, they get an alert that Rittenhouse has jumped to California in January 1848, on the dawn of the Gold Rush. Ever eager to stop their adversaries, Lucy, Wyatt, new pilot Jiya (also Rufus’s girlfriend) and baddie-turned-antihero Garcia Flynn chase after them.

Once in Coloma, California, near the famous Sutters Mill where gold would be found, the heroes find themselves again in cowboy get-ups and wanted by the law. By happenstance (per usual), they team up with Joaquin Murrieta, a fellow fugitive and Mexican outlaw with plans to avenge the murder of his brother and assault of his wife at the hands of Americans. As in the show, Murrieta is considered the inspiration for Johnston McCulley’s pulp hero Zorro.

The writers had a lot to cram into this two-hour episode, so the next few bits are a blur, but in essence, Wyatt decides that the only way to rescue Rufus is to eliminate Jessica from the timeline. I’m still confused about why this is the conclusion they came to—as my editor has pointed out, why not just time-travel to a time before Connor Mason invented a time machine and off him?—but inspired by this conversation, Flynn sneaks out at night, takes the time machine to the night Jessica was killed, and, in the best time-paradox moment of the episode, kills Jessica and the Rittenhouse agent protecting her. Turns out Jessica's mysterious killer was Flynn all along. (Time is not a straight line, but more of a Jeremy Bearimy.) Deciding he’d rather die a hero than live as a tormented ex-terrorist, Flynn sends the time machine back to 1848, while stranding himself in 2012, doomed to suffer and eventually die from the side effects of existing in two places at the same time.

Still at breakneck speed, Rufus appears in 1848, rescuing Wyatt, Lucy and Jiya from bounty hunters, as if nothing had happened. (To him, nothing has happened—he doesn’t remember going to rescue Jiya in 1888 because in his timeline, Jessica never betrayed Wyatt, captured Jiya or brought her to 1888. No abduction, no rescue mission, no dead Rufus. Surely this isn’t the plan Future Wyatt and Future Lucy had envisioned.)

Back in 2018, Emma, realizing that Jessica has been erased from the timeline, utters what is either the best or worst line of the episode. “Get the mothership ready,” she orders an underling. “What for?” “Hell.”

Turns out “Hell” is North Korea a year into the Korean War—so, pretty accurate. Emma, now obsessed with eliminating Lucy, has set a trap: Lure the Time Team to North Korea in 1950. Bribe a U.S. Marine to kidnap them and drop them in enemy territory. If that plan doesn’t work, the Chinese soldiers, the bombing, or the sub-zero temperatures will.

Our team quickly realizes they’re in a trap and dispatches the Marine off-camera. But now, they are miles away from their time machine, and it’s real cold. While Wyatt and Rufus hotwire an Army ambulance, Jiya and Lucy warm up in a church, where they meet a very pregnant woman named Eung-Hee. She says her dissident journalist husband and their young son have evacuated, and she’s planning to wait for them to return in a few days. But as troops pour into the church, Lucy convinces her to escape with them.

The Hungnam Evacuation is a lesser known chapter of the Korean War. As Lucy and Wyatt explain, after the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, facing heavy losses, the United Nations decided to evacuate its troops. Thousands of Korean refugees poured into the port of Hungnam hoping to escape. One ship, the SS Meredith Victory, designed to carry 60 people, ended up boarding 14,000 refugees. (That’s not a typo.) Miraculously, nobody died—and five babies were born on board. Lucy insists that they can get Eung-Hee to safety and then make it back to the Lifeboat to save themselves. While they do manage to get Eung-Hee—and the baby she delivered on the way there—to the port and reunited with her family, the team only makes it back as far as the church. They’re essentially waiting to die, when who appears but Agent Christopher in the Mothership!

Back in the bunker in 2018, Agent Christopher and Mason had discovered photos of their colleagues killed by the Chinese Army on Christmas Day, 1950 in the Massacre of Usang-Ri. (This isn’t a thing.) In another tying up of loose ends, they bribed Lucy’s father into leading them to Emma’s safehouse, where they shackled her and forced her to take Christopher to 1950 for a rescue mission. After a brief confrontation, Emma is conveniently shot by Communists and the team escapes back to the present, where Mason destroys the Mothership, Christopher gives hand-knitted scarves to the whole team, and--most importantly for many—Lucy and Wyatt finally agree to give their relationship a chance.

The episode—and for now, the series—ends with an epilogue. In 2023, Lucy and Wyatt have married and have twins named, naturally, Flynn and Amy. Lucy’s back to teaching history, and just made tenure, which is...surprisingly fast? Rufus and Jiya founded a startup called Riya Industries that spends some (but not enough, as the episode makes weirdly, snarkily, clear) of its profits funding youth science fairs. And the team has one last mission: to go back to 2014 and give Flynn the journal that started the entire (mis?)adventures. With that out of the way, they could theoretically smash the last time machine, but as Mason points out, once the technology has been invented once, there’s nothing to stop someone else from building one, so they may as well keep their spare, just in case. (This will surely be treated by some Clockblockers as a sign that a full Season Three isn’t fully out of the question.)

The final final scene shows a young girl, the same one who showed off her Leyden jar to Rufus at the science fair, drawing up plans for a new time machine. Cue dramatic music ... and the history notes!

  • There’s no magic time machine upgrade that allowed Lucy and Wyatt to travel to their own timeline. It turns out that it’s just, disappointingly, a case of bad side effects; Connor Mason says they start with headaches and end in insanity or death. Mostly they seem to take the effect of characters having migraines just as they’re about to spill an important plot point.

  • As far as Murrieta goes, the writers are eliding history here in sake of a larger truth. Historical records about Murrieta are scarce and many accounts of his life draw on an 1854 pulp novel as truth. Some say he wasn’t even a real person and was actually just an amalgam of many Mexican-American outlaws. But if he was real, he didn’t arrive in California until 1849, the height of the gold rush. When Murrieta says that he was kicked off his gold claim by “filthy Americanos,” he’s telling the story of the tens of thousands of Mexicans who had become second-class citizens in 1848.

  • When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, California was still, technically, part of Mexico, and Mexico and the United States were at war. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and Mexico’s forced surrender of massive amounts of land including what would become California, would be signed eight days later. The Treaty gave Mexicans living in the newly ceded territories the opportunities to become American citizens, and on paper protected existing property rights, but as Hsuan L. Hsu writes in The Paris Review, the government failed to intervene when whites just took what they wanted. Later, Gen. Persifor Smith, the military governor of California, encouraged a rumor that it was illegal for noncitizens to mine gold (it wasn’t) and California in 1850 instituted a “foreign miner tax” that was “that was chiefly (and often violently) enforced against Mexican, South American, and eventually Chinese miners.” Even if Murrieta hadn’t yet experienced violence at the hands of white Americans, many other new Mexican-Americans had.

  • Murrieta, after a few years of stealing horses and robbing miners, was chased down by the newly formed California State Rangers and purportedly beheaded in 1853. When Jiya says that she knows this to be true because she saw Murrieta’s pickled head in 1888, that’s distinctly possible—after collecting a $5000 bounty for killing Murrieta, the rangers toured the state exhibiting a decapitated head preserved in alcohol, charging people $1 to see it. There are rumors that the head didn’t actually belong to Murrieta and that the bandit lived to a ripe old age, but we may never know the truth.

  • Incidentally, what is thought to be the first piece of gold found at Sutter’s Mill is in the collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

  • It seems eminently plausible that McCulley was inspired by Murrieta when creating Zorro. As Hsu points out, though, McCulley changed the setting for his masked vigilante to Mexican, not American, California, making Zorro’s antagonists Mexican rulers instead of white.

  • Rufus: “You think you’ll get back together, or what, because I’m still totally shipping #TeamLyatt.” Lucy: “Huh?”

  • The Hungnam Evacuation as described in the show sounds impossible, but it’s true. First, a little context: U.S. and U.N. troops had been winning the Korean War until Chinese forces surprised them at the Chosin Reservoir. This was a brutal battle over 17 days in severely cold weather—recorded at -40 degrees F at some points. Troops froze into their boots; many lost toes later. Medical supplies froze and weapons malfunctioned. The “Frozen Chosin” is considered one of the defining moments of the Marine Corps, even if it ended in a retreat.

    Facing heavy losses, troops retreated to Hungnam to evacuate to Busan, South Korea. A hundred Navy and merchant marine ships made nearly 200 trips to evacuate not just the troops but most of their equipment as well. Thousands of civilians got wind of what was happening and went to Hungnam too, hoping to escape North Korea. A military history says that the North Korean military was encouraging rumors that the Americans would evacuate any civilian who wished to leave, to create a mass movement of people that would hide spies and saboteurs. But while Gen. Edward M. Almond had planned to evacuate officials and the families of those who had assisted the Americans, he hadn’t planned to take anyone else.

    According to English-language newspaper Korea JoongAng Daily, an on-site interpreter by the name of Hyun Bong Hak, “desperately pleaded or the transfer of as many civilians as possible, arguing that they would be massacred if they remained in the North.” Top brass ultimately made the decision to remove cargo to make room for refugees. (Dr. Hyun also makes a brief cameo in the episode as the man who offered to help deliver Eung-Hee’s baby.)

    The SS Meredith Victory was the most striking example. On a ship designed to carry 12 passengers and 47 crew, Captain Leonard LaRue fit 14,000 North Koreans. In total, 100,000 civilians—about half of those who came seeking help—escaped. Among the civilians evacuated were the parents of current South Korean president Moon Jae-In.

  • Eung-Hee, it turns out, is not important to history (but as Lucy says, everyone’s important to someone). We may be meant to infer that Paulina, the young inventor of the new time machine, is Eung-Hee’s granddaughter, but that’s not clear. We do know that Eung-Hee lived a long, peaceful life, and her daughter grew up to be a teacher. Happy endings for all!

  • Gotta love the nose-thumbing to the haters at the end. As we see Lucy talking with her history students on campus, one doofy guy asks her: “This was supposed to be a regular American history class. How come we’re only studying women?” “I meant to get to the men,” Lucy replies, “but I just didn’t have time.”

    One thing “Timeless” consistently did well throughout its run was tell less-known stories, especially those of women and people of color. Yes, the team saw Abraham Lincoln get shot and saved JFK from an untimely death, but they also met Benjamin Franklin’s mother, an early African-American NASCAR driver, and Katherine Johnson (before the movie Hidden Figures was released). Bravo to the writers for sticking to their guns on this one.

This may be the true end for our heroes—but everyone gets a happy ending. Luckily, it’s available to stream on Hulu , so we can watch it again from the beginning. It’s the next best thing to having a time machine.

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