Some first thoughts on “Travelers”

Leah Cairns in 'Travellers' s1e5

In “Travelers,” Leah Cairns is ready for her close-up. Well, yes, literally—but I mean that in episode ten, “Kathryn,” she’s finally given a well-earned showcase. No spoilers for this post, just praise.

First, a brief introduction. In the same sense that “Battlestar Galactica” was but wasn’t a sci-fi show, “Travelers” is but isn’t a time-travel show. Its premise is pregnant with the kind of implications raised by “Caprica” and “Dollhouse”: In the pilot, a group of people from the future permanently imprint their consciousnesses into the brains of present-day people, whom they then pretend to be while carrying out… Other activities. For ethical reasons (sometimes dispensed-with later in the season), travelers choose hosts who were about to die. As Topher observes in “Dollhouse,” you can’t imprint over a full brain because it’ll implode—he was right, and man, it looks like a painful way to go. And as in “Dollhouse,” the wetware interface is fascinating: What if you got a doll drunk and swapped their imprint? Would the second doll also be drunk? Here, one host was a heroin addict. A non-addict traveler is imprinted into an addict’s body; the body that is now the traveler’s body is dependent on heroin, thus, the traveler is too. Another host had cognitive damage. The traveler doesn’t have the same problems that the previous owner did, but it stresses and destabilizes the imprint. (Rebuking Zoe Graystone’s algorithm concept in “Caprica,” the same traveler discovers that the bio they had built for her host from her social-media footprint is wrong.) 

The group’s leader is imprinted into Grant “Mac” MacLaren (Eric McCormack), a 15-year FBI veteran who’s eleven years into his marriage to Kathryn “Kat” MacLaren. That’s a lot of history for the traveler to have to know if he’s to successfully fool his colleagues, and even more (and more intimate) history if he’s to fool her. This is where Cairns—astutely if amusingly for BSG fans cast as Kat—comes in. (The universe will be out of balance until “Travelers” casts Luciana Carro as a character called Maggie.)

Cairns excels at building out a three-dimensional character and projecting it almost entirely through performance. Give her dialogue and she’ll kill with it, but that ability to convey much without saying much (cf. Edward James Olmos) let her build Maggie “Racetrack” Edmondson into a fully-realized person in “Battlestar.” Other characters were more visible, but they had more lines; Cairns built a character who feels real, specific, and profoundly sympathetic (I have light-heartedly but non-jokingly argued that Racetrack is the protagonist) almost entirely on performance. That ability also made her the perfect choice to play Lois in “Interstellar.” We meet Lois only briefly, and she has only a few lines, but in Cairns’ hands, you get an immediate empathy for her—you have a sense of who this woman is and how her life (especially her marriage) has gone, and you sympathize with her plight. Like Racetrack, Lois feels real. She’s sitting at a table with two oscar nominees, each given a ton of dialogue, and she acts them both out of the room. (If acting were about saying the lines, I could do it!)

Kat is a supporting character, threaded through season one until her eponymous episode, “Kathryn,” a long-overdue showcase. It’s a recurrent part that could have faded in and out of the background (cf. Philip’s attorney). But just as Mac is trying to intuit his relationship with this woman, the audience is in the same position—we don’t know these people, and what a great actor can do is make us care enough about the character to want to infer it, and then give us enough subtext to let us. Cairns builds out another character who feels real and three-dimensional and every bit as fully-formed as the main characters. When we find out that she works as a restorationist (prompting an impressed Mac to utter my favorite line from season one: “What you do is amazing—you take something neglected, something that’s rare and beautiful, and make it whole again”), it doesn’t feel like a surprise, it just fits. I promised no spoilers, but for another example, it surely won’t come as a surprise that Mac isn’t as good an actor as is McCormack, and the changes in his behavior plant suspicions in Kat’s mind. There’s a moment in episode seven, “Protocol 5,” in which the tape visibly comes off the end of Kat’s world and she starts to unwind; happily the writers give her lines, but that’s gravy; Cairns’ reactions sell it and convey Kat’s turmoil.

Thus, when we arrive at episode ten and see some of the backstory on Kat and Mac, it feels all the more real and organic—and consequently, even more painful. I promised no spoilers; suffice to say that in a series of flashbacks we see this couple’s life and it’s again Cairns who does the heavy-lifting in selling the emotion of it, culminating in a brief present-tense exchange with Mac that’s just heartbreaking. We watched it yesterday morning, and as I write this (Tuesday morning), I still feel quite emotionally-drained and sad. To work, fiction has to be true: It has to be more true than real life. “Kathryn” was that, in spades. It’s having a lingering impact. That’s rare; “Leverage” did that sometimes: The flashbacks of Tim Hutton screaming and hugging his dead son are still wrenchingly-painful to watch, and lingered for days after first viewing. But, of course, Hutton won an Oscar. Hint hint, The Emmys.

To single out one actor for praise is by no means to imply any slight of the others. The entire cast is excellent; I haven’t seen McCormack since “Will & Grace,” so his turn as MacLaren was revelatory to me. But I want to single out three others: Patrick Gilmore (David), Jared Abrahamson (Trevor) and Reilly Dolman (Philip, the afore-mentioned heroin-addict). When saw them in the trailer, I admit to thinking “oh lord, here we go—teen drama, the Dave Mustaine wannabe and the jock. Meh.” I really wanted to like this show, so that made me nervous. But Abrahamson and Dolman make none of the choices feared by silly, jaded me, and both characters prove hugely and unexpectedly enjoyable. Toward the end of the afore-mentioned “Protocol 5,” there’s a lovely moment with the two of them that (like so many moments on “Leverage”) makes you think “I would watch a whole show of these two.” Meanwhile, David is in a situation that, from the outside, could look sketchy, and Gilmore imbues him with a decency and integrity—he is immediately and visibly trustworthy, honest, incorrupt—a good man. There’s a similar character in my work (also coincidentally called David) who, almost alone, never had a mental casting attached to him; watching Gilmore as this David, I felt for the first time that I know how my David looks.     

It’s difficult to explain the tone of the show, but season two of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” might be an apt reference-point: The material is serious, and so the tone is, too, but it’s also cut with the perfect amount of humor. “Orphan Black” tries to do something similar, but leaves most of its humor to a comic-relief character; “Travelers” integrates it better, salting the script with wry lines that the actors deadpan: “That’s a federal offense,” Special Agent MacLaren tells David in the pilot; “really?” David asks (Gilmore perfectly playing the nervousness); “No, I’m messing with you.” “He’s suddenly a better shot,” Mac’s partner tells Kat; “yeah,” she replies, and in the one Kat line that recalls Racetrack’s mordant sarcasm, Cairns deadpans: “He’s suddenly better at a lot of things.” I lol’d, as they say.

There is so much more that I should probably talk about, but this post is already long. The show’s well-written, well-acted, well-scored, and well-shot. You really can’t ask for more; go to Netflix, binge it up to episode eleven, “Marcy,” and then we’ll all meet back here next Monday and watch the finale with Canada, where it’s still airing—kay?