Pilot, Thinker, Soldier, Spy: The Epic “Timeless” Season Finale Twofer

The heroes help Harriet Tubman raid the Confederacy before leaving their heart in San Francisco

Abigail Spencer as Lucy Preston
Lucy, Rufus, Flynn and Wyatt finish off the season in San Francisco Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Well, another season of Timeless has ended with a bang. Some predictable twists, some less so. As always, these writeups contain not just history but major plot spoilers, so read with caution.

The last two episodes of the season take us to Civil War-era South Carolina and San Francisco's Chinatown, circa 1888. As they aired together, we'll tackle them together.

First, South Carolina, June 1, 1863. In real history, this is the day that a ragtag group of soldiers pull off one of the most audacious operations of the entire war: sail gunboats into the heart of enemy territory, burn Southern plantations, and rescue all the enslaved people. Their leader? Harriet Tubman.

Born into slavery, Tubman suffered under various cruel masters. She escaped to Pennsylvania, and freedom, in 1849, at about age 27 (her birth year is contested), then returned to Maryland to rescue her family on the Underground Railroad. She would ultimately make 19 trips into slaveholding states to rescue enslaved people; conservative accounts say she rescued 70 people, other accounts say up to 300. When the Civil War broke out, she worked for the Union as a cook, nurse and spy.

Which brings us to June 1, 1863. On this night and into the pre-dawn hours of the following day, Tubman, under the command of Union Colonel James Montgomery, took between 150 and 300 black Union soldiers (the 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (African Descent)) up the Combahee River. The river was filled with mines, but Tubman had gathered intel on where they were. Three ships traveled up the river under cover of darkness. By dawn, they had reached the first plantation. Enslaved families ran for the boats, and the soldiers burned everything else.

As the podcast UnCivil reports, the Union freed 700 enslaved people that night. Most of the men of fighting age immediately enlisted in the Union Army.

This is one of those arresting stories that really ought to be taught in history class. (In a nod to the unfortunate relative obscurity of this story, even Lucy needs a refresher, provided by Rufus) In "Timeless," which gets the story mostly right, the mission seems fated for failure because Emma (BOO! HISS!) has given the Rittenhouse sleeper, a fictional Confederate colonel, a modern-day military history of the Civil War that gives him a roadmap to victory, including exactly where Montgomery’s Union troops are camping out. The Rebs massacre members of the 2nd South Carolina, Montgomery flees, and the raid looks to be doomed before it even started.

The Time Team meets up with Tubman, who insists on raiding the plantations, troops or no troops; Rufus is starstruck. Lucy, realizing that the raid will be a disaster for the Union without the extra manpower, goes with Flynn to convince Montgomery to return. Meanwhile, Rufus and Wyatt go incognito at a nearby plantation to find the sleeper and destroy the Confederate version of Gray’s Sports Almanac. Spoiler, they do both.

Then—at the end of episode nine—a twist: Jessica is a Rittenhouse agent. Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal! She swipes Wyatt’s gun, forces Jiya into the Lifeboat and vanishes just in time for Wyatt to realize what an incredible idiot he's been. Whoops.

The season finale picks up where we left off. A slightly sedated Jiya escapes Rittenhouse HQ thanks to some fancy fighting (where'd you learn that, Jiya?) and zooms off in the Lifeboat with Emma shooting behind her. Still drugged and piloting a Lifeboat damaged by one of Emma’s bullets, Jiya’s unable to bring the time machine back to the bunker. Instead, she has jumped in time and space. But Where? And When? Knowing that Jiya will try to change the historical record to communicate with the present, Lucy hits the stacks and finds a photo of Jiya in San Francisco's Chinatown, circa 1888. There's also a message in the photo (written in Klingon, natch): GPS coordinates to where the Lifeboat has been hidden and two words: "DON'T COME."

Of course the team ignores the message. After they've fixed up the Lifeboat, which has been hiding under some bushes since Jiya hid it there 130 years ago, they immediately jump to late-19th century San Francisco and soon find her.

She's spent the last three years working in a seedy saloon and refuses to leave, explaining that her vision shows Rufus dying if and when she attempts to go back to the future. (The gold rush miners filling the bar here aren't exactly cowboys, per her doomsday vision, but they do all have bad teeth and spurs on their boots, so close enough.) Finally convinced to return after Lucy speechifies about friendship and family, events play out almost exactly as Jiya foresaw them. Acting quickly, Jiya prevents her vision—of a Rittenhouse sleeper stabbing Rufus in the back—from coming true, but she can't, tragically, save him from what’s hiding across the street, Emma’s gun.

The Time Team returns down a man, with everyone shocked in disbelief. This would be a depressing note to end on; the "rules" of time travel say that the team can never go back to a place they already were, and it'd take too long to train a new pilot to mount a rescue mission. But just as all hope is lost, what appears but another version of the Lifeboat. Out step older, more badass versions of Wyatt and Lucy. Just before the show closes, Lucy says to a stunned audience (and probably a not-insignificant number of gleeful #Lyatt shippers): "You guys wanna get Rufus back, or what?"

More of note:

  • NBC has yet to announce whether or not “Timeless” will be renewed for a third season, leaving quite a compelling cliffhanger for the rabid “clockblockers” out there.

  • Should there be a new season, there’s been a reshuffling in the House of Rittenhouse. While in San Francisco, Emma murders Lucy’s mom and “big bad” Nicholas Keynes in cold blood, accurately sensing that she was being pushed out of the organization. It’s now her and Jessica as the new matriarchs of Rittenhouse.

  • Episode 9 takes us deep into metaphysical sci-fi territory, with Jiya learning more about her visions from a mentally unstable pilot who's also been seeing visions. He tells her that he's been spending weeks inside his visions, "time traveling" inside his own head. He says he believes the visions are a gift, just like the gifts given to, he says, Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, and Kirk Cameron. (Joan did say she spoke to God; your guesses are as good as ours on the other two people.) Another character who we learn is seeing visions? Harriet Tubman herself, who says that God told her to expect Wyatt and Rufus (and showed her a vision of them "stepping out of a giant metal ball, " aka the Lifeboat.) Are we to believe there were other famous people through history who traveled (at least in their heads) through time, and explained those visions through whatever lens made sense to them? Sure seems that way.

  • As in the show, Harriet Tubman did actually report having blackouts, seizures and visions. Historians believe they started when an overseer tried to throw a heavy object at another slave, but hit Tubman in the head instead. A devout Christian, Tubman attributed the visions to God speaking to her. She remained deeply religious her whole life. (Her hymnal is now in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.)

  • It seemed remarkably easy for Lucy to convince Montgomery to return—all she had to say is that there were 750 potential soldiers on the plantations. This number may have been exaggerated; again, historians believe that the total number of people freed, including including women and children, was closer to 700, putting the population of men of fighting age a bit lower. But, by 1863, the Union Army was in poor shape. After the Battle of Fredericksburg late the prior year, morale was low. Some historians believe that the Union was seeing 100 desertions a day. So perhaps Montgomery would have been thrilled to get a couple hundred replacement soldiers.

  • When Tubman first meets up with the Time Team, Wyatt says that General McClellan had sent them from the North to help. Actually, George McClellan had been sent back to his home in New Jersey months earlier after he failed to land a decisive victory against the Confederates after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. Some historians believe he was doing the best he could; others argue that his own caution and incompetence caused the battle to end in more of a tie than a rout. McClellan's troops had, by '63, been transferred to Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

  • In the Chinatown episode, Lucy said she knew to look in a book about San Francisco—one she co-wrote with her mother, confusingly—because Jiya had been obsessed with it ever since she had her first vision of the Golden Gate Bridge under construction. (This happened at the end of season 1, as you may remember.) The Golden Gate, however, was far, far in the future in 1888. Construction began in 1933. The engineers primarily involved in its design, Joseph Strauss and Charles Ellis, were teenagers at the time.

  • Chinatown in San Francisco arguably was founded in the mid-1840s, when the first Chinese immigrants arrived. By 1880, the 12 square blocks of Chinatown were home to an estimated 22,000 people, and white San Franciscans were getting anxious. By that time, California and San Francisco had passed eight anti-Chinese laws, banning gongs, fining laundry operators and requiring men who wore their hair in a queue to have it cut, among other indignities. (Some of these laws were later repealed or declared unconstitutional.) The racist lawmakers were just getting started, though: 1882 saw the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first U.S. law passed that banned immigration on the basis of race. And in 1890, two years after our story is set, San Francisco passed a law that banned Chinese people, including citizens of Chinese descent, from living or working outside of “a portion set apart for...the Chinese.” (This law was mercifully declared unconstitutional the same year.)

That’s it for our writeups for now, unless NBC decides to renew this fan-favorite show for a third season. But we’re not quite done yet. Look out for our Q&A with co-creator Shawn Ryan to publish tomorrow.

Editor's note, May 16, 2018: We mixed up who was involved in the shootout in Episode Ten—the shooter was indeed Emma, not Jessica.

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