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The end is the beginning in twisty, touching 12 Monkeys series finale

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Jul 7, 2018, 12:31 PM EDT (Updated)

It’s always been a story about time, but with “The Beginning,” SYFY’s 12 Monkeys boiled its central concept down to why it actually matters. Cole, Cassie, and the rest have spent the better part of four years trying to “save” time, but rarely stopped to ask themselves why. As the series came to a thrilling finale, that question was finally answered — and then some.

**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for “The Beginning,” the series finale of SYFY’s 12 Monkeys, below**

Sure, this show has grown into a tight ensemble with a twisty story that often jumps between decades from scene to scene, but 12 Monkeys never lost sight of why we should care about this saga in the first place. At its heart, 12 Monkeys is a love story, be it the love between Cole and Cassie, the brotherly bond between Cole and Ramsey, the familial love of Jones and Hannah, or the makeshift family of Project Splinter itself. Sure, there are epic gun battles and huge sci-fi effects to string it all together, but at its heart this is a story of people not just fighting, but trying to figure out why they fight.

We saw that with Hannah’s sojourn to the 2000s to live a normal life, and we saw it much of this season as Cassie started to question the mission itself. Once the stakes became clear — saving time would likely mean losing Cole — The Witness’ promise of a red forest where we live eternally in our happiest moments started to look more and more promising. Ironically enough, it took the man who lived his entire existence on borrowed time to come through in the end and remind Cassie why eternity isn’t a happy ending. Given enough time, it’d be a hell unto itself.

Four years of splinters, adventures, and hard decisions came to a head as Cole appealed to Cassie through the rubble of Titan’s main tower, with only a few seconds left for Cassie to stop the 12 Monkeys’ endgame or let the red forest come. Cole’s plea was simple — he’d rather have the moments they’ve lived than an eternity together, because without time, those moments mean nothing. Without time, life itself means nothing, because it's time that gives life meaning in the end. Even with his life on the verge of being erased, he could see that. After living a life as a scavenger, only to fall in love with a woman out of time and go on to save reality itself, Cole knew that nothing would matter if the clocks just stopped ticking.

In the end, 12 Monkeys was a story about why time is important, and what we should do with it while we’re here. Cassie talks about the only way left to move through time is moment by moment, and while it might not be as glamorous as splintering off to the Wild West of the 1960s, it’s still the thing that makes life worth living. Even amid an explosion of CGI, and raging gunfights, 12 Monkeys never lost sight of that to the end.

As for the ending: After so much pain, it almost felt like a bittersweet ending was the best we were going to get. Thankfully, Jones had one last gift to give, tweaking the Primaries code to erase all of Cole’s trips through time, the release of the virus, and effectively the final development of time travel in the first place — with one last command. Once the time stream was corrected, it spit Cole out on the beach, the same one he’d been glimpsing in his dreams, and he was reunited with Cassie to finally live their happy ever after. We close with a montage of our heroes in the lives they finally get to live: Deacon is running a bar with his brother; Ramsey is raising his son; Jennifer is inventing real-life unicorns (of course); and Cole and Cassie settle in for a quiet life in their cabin.

If you think it borders on too sweet, this show has put its heroes through more than enough to earn it. Besides, as Jennifer points out — time kind of owes Cole one at this point, right?

Assorted musings

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This season did quite a bit of work clearing out its supporting cast on the final push to battle Titan, but positively nailed the execution of bringing them back for one last mission. Cole rescues Ramsey from the moment before his death for one final ride, while the earlier version of dearly departed Deacon also shows up. It has been a long time since we’ve had these three together, and it was a quick reminder of just how much fun that dynamic had been. The action was top-notch, and though this show is somber at times, don’t sleep on the banter. It’s pretty great.

If you ever worried the writers might pull a Lost and just shrug into an ending, “The Beginning” made it clear just how much of this story was mapped out from the early days. The journey comes full circle as Cassie kicks Olivia straight into the time stream, slicing her in half and dropping her head and torso into the distant past — where it will freeze and eventually be discovered and used to create the virus in the first place. Her cycle has officially ended.

We even get closure to Future Asshole’s story, as Cole takes the time vest and jumps off to meet with his younger self, save his younger self a few times, and rescue Jennifer on the train platform. We even get an explanation as to why he gave his younger self hope, even when he knows at this point the endgame is to erase himself from existence. Because, hey, he had to get there in the first place. If it takes false hope to finish the race, then so be it.

It’s hard enough to nail all the stakes and McGuffins when it comes to a science fiction series finale, but “The Beginning” did it all and more. And with the world itself on the line, it never lost perspective on the lives of the people at the heart of this story. Cole. Cassie. Jennifer. Jones. Cole and Cassie save the world, but it’s their love that gets them there.

One of the best series on television has just wrapped one of the best finales of the year. As for time, well — this four-season run has absolutely been time well spent.