Journeyman: “The Legend of Dylan McCleen”, Episode 5

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[EDIT, May 2014: Journeyman is no longer streaming on any sites, and my embedded clips from Hulu in the review are no longer functioning. Hopefully someday?]

In which Zach learns his dad is magic, and Dan learns his was not.

Having bashed Katie around the head and shoulders for an episode, the show turns to their child, Zach, to bear the brunt of the time travel disruption. (In fact, Katie seems oddly chipper, as if the last episode hadn’t even happened. I don’t know for sure but they could have aired out of the original order.)

The episode’s cold open takes place at a farmer’s market, where Dan and Zach are separated from Katie in the crowds, and Dan flashes out before he can get Zach into her care. When that crisis is over, up pops a sports event that Dan has promised to take Zach to (just them) about which the boy is very excited– while Dan is realizing there is no way he can be alone with Zach ever again, and that he’s going to have to disappoint him and send Jack in his place. His relationship with his son is doubly saved– Zach sees Dan flash away, and is now completely forgiving about everything (as Katie points out, “Honestly, being seven might help”), and Dan gets more tickets so other adults can go. (The latter seems oddly obvious, but it’s sort of implied that the tickets were very expensive, and they couldn’t afford to buy extras until Dan gets his windfall late in the episode.) This avoids dealing with the real problem raised by the episode– Dan will never able to be alone with Zach, or be the parent on duty (how is that going to work?)– the tickets are bought, case closed, don’t think about it anymore.

(But I have to say, the scene where Zach sees his dad flash out is great. See for yourself, below.)

If I sound a little underwhelmed about all of this, it’s because that plotline feels like an exercise being done for the sake of itself. We had “the one where Katie suffers”, and now it’s “the one where Zach suffers”. (It makes one dread what could have come next– “the one where Jack suffers”, “the one where Hugh suffers”… oh dear. Fortunately, we are spared all that.)

The thing is, I don’t think it is an exercise. I think it’s there to reflect on Dan’s relationship with his father, Frank. The trouble with the Zach plotline is its shallowness. Till now, Zach has hardly been a blip on the radar of the show, but up he pops to center stage all of a sudden, as if the writers suddenly remembered their show had a kid on it. It also breaks the pragmatic streak: after wearing shoes to bed and all the things on the No Can Do List, it hadn’t occurred to Dan and Katie earlier not to ever leave Dan in charge of Zach, even for a few minutes, even for the cheese guy?

Its shallowness continues as the bulk of the subplot is Dan worrying about a conversation he will have to have at some point and Zach’s future reaction to it– not something that is happening now. Zach never actually gets hurt, unless you count the day or so he thought he’d have to go to the game with his Uncle Jack. And really, that just makes me roll my eyes. When my son was six I did a year of plays back-t0-back, so I was often off to rehearsal or performance at night leaving my partner to take over my evening parenting jobs. My son wasn’t a huge fan of this arrangement, but it didn’t hurt our relationship. My dad traveled quite a bit for work when I was little (in the days before the internet, when even one phone call a day from overseas was a small fortune), and our relationship was just fine. In fact, the show says much the same thing– Dan’s father (as I’ll get into further in a bit) was often off working rather than being with his kids, and Dan worships him. So it’s kind of sad (I guess?) that Dan can’t go to the game alone with Zach, but it hardly seems like a huge problem. And then it’s solved so quickly and easily– and with Zach deciding his dad is “magic”, it lays to rest the entire Zach Situation forever, as if the show were saying, “OK, you got that? So don’t ask about the kid again, he’s fine.” The Zach plotline only becomes interesting when you lay it up against Dan’s relationship with his father.

For the moment we are going to have to lay aside any speculation about Frank being a time traveler, because it isn’t mentioned– while last week I speculated that Frank “left” his family, and that seems to be exactly what happened, we don’t get any indication whether this was the normal sort of divorce, or a strange disappearance. (It seems Dan processed it as mundane family abandonment, just as he processed Livia’s disappearance as death by plane crash, but then, why wouldn’t he?) I really don’t have any idea if Frank was a time-traveler, it’s simply a question raised by Frank’s friendship with Deep Throat, er, Eliot Langley. It’s possible it was a Deep Throat situation, in which Langely hoped Frank would help him expose some scientific something-or-other. (Even though I’ve seen these before, I honestly can’t remember.)

So without a time-travel excuse, the story of Dan’s life as he understood it was this: his father, Frank Vassar, was a star reporter at the Register in the heady days of Woodward-and-Berstein-style reporting, and a work-hard-play-hard (read that as “drink a lot”) sort of man. He left (whatever that means) when Dan was 13. Dan seems to regard him as a hero and role model, despite leaving his family– Dan went into the same career, works at the same paper, and has soaked up stories of his father’s exploits from the people who knew him.

When Dan’s investigation of the Wrong of the Week leads him to Frank in 1975, he finally gets to see the man behind the myth. The work-hard-play-hard stories are true, all right– but they come at the expense of Frank’s family, when he sends word to his wife he’s not coming home for dinner (again, probably).  It’s hard on Dan to hear Frank dismiss his family so casually, after looking up to him all these years. Suddenly, Dan’s angst about his new “job” taking him away from Zach makes a lot more sense. He’s trying very hard to have the extra-special close relationship with his son that he did not get to have with his father.

Which brings me back to my opening line– Zach discovers his father is magic, and Dan discovers his father was not. The Great Frank Vassar was just a man, and kind of a dick, who didn’t love his family as much as they thought.

I’m slightly torn on the portrayal of Frank’s attitude about his family. While we’re supposed to hear him not giving a whit about his family’s feelings or wanting to be with them (to fill in all those blanks about Dan), it plays more like he has a legitimate late-night at work (he’s going to see President Ford– while he won’t get there in time to see Ford shot by Squeaky Fromme, it sounds like he wasn’t going to make dinner anyway) and he’s posturing 1970s-style for the strange guy in his office. “Pfft, women,” Frank seems to say with his rolled eyes, but it’s hard to tell if he means it, or if that’s just the way men talked to each other then, showing off their “macho” side. (For all I know, they still do?) Plus, it’s not like Frank was going to open up to a stranger in his office and talk about his enduring love for his kids. But heck, I’ll go along with it. It does hurt Dan, and deflate his mythology of his father, which is the important part.

Fortunately, the Wrong of the Week turns a myth into a man with a much happier ending. Based on the real-life mystery of D. B. Cooper, the legend of Dylan McCleen involves a man who had stolen a large amount of cash, hijacked a plane and then jumped out of it, never to be seen or heard from again. To make sure we didn’t think he perhaps flashed out of the plane in time travel (as we’ve known two other characters to do), the first time we see Dylan McCleen he has parachuted from that plane and is caught in a tree, only to be rescued by Dan. Dan is thrilled to have “this assignment” on his time-travel gig, because if he could solve the mystery of who Dylan McCleen really was (the name is an alias) and what happened to him, it could be a real boon to his day job. (Unbeknownst to Dan, it could save his job, and the newspaper, but we’ll save that for Threads.) As the WOW unfolds, it turns out the man behind that myth was a Special Forces soldier who was trying to get money to rescue the Cambodian family that rescued him while he was overseas. Dan helps McCleen find the Cambodian husband (now an illegal immigrant in the US, with his family still trapped in the war zone), and in the present learns the husband’s family was indeed rescued, and McCleen has settled down to a nice quiet life and family. Dan decides not to reveal McCleen’s true identity in a present-day story, as it turned out the dastardly fiend was really a nice guy trying to do the right thing.

As thanks for Dan’s help, McCleen (who had stolen much more than he needed, and couldn’t spend it because of the serial numbers being tracked) gives Dan most of the ill-gotten cash. Remember, it’s the Wild West for Dan back in the past, so in the way the show has defined moral choices, this doesn’t make him an accomplice to the crime. (It does, however, allow him to splurge on extra game tickets.) My spidey sense tells me this will come up again.

Threads To Be Pulled:

Langley: Dan meets with Langely in person, using “working on a sci-fi book” as an excuse for discussing time travel (the new version of “working on a story” from his gambling days). Langely’s pretty cryptic, and the camera angles reinforce the strangeness of the conversation.

Note the use of “you” and then quickly “your protagonist” as he falls back into their shared cover story. The ambiguous lines about an outside threat to me read as a friendly but serious warning of something Dan hasn’t considered. Was Frank The Time Traveler (which hasn’t been proven yet) being hunted by powerful people?

Dan’s Job: This story has been percolating under the surface since the pilot, but in this episode it picks up steam. Because of the rapid decline of print newspapers at the time, the show has a great way to show that Dan is a star reporter, but the time travel thing could still sink his job. Hugh is desperately trying to keep the paper afloat and save Dan’s job, but with his star reporter salary, others would like to see him go for their bottom line. The mistakes Dan makes (being unavailable, being late, having to hand off work) are just the excuse they need to get rid of him. Dan’s possible lead on the legend of Dylan McCleen could have been just the shot in the arm the paper needed, and the story that could cement Dan’s job for a few more years, but not knowing that, he throws the story away. Poor Hugh, I really felt for him when he heard the news that the story “didn’t pan out”.

On the other hand, the pile of cash Dan got from McCleen could tide them over for a while. I wasn’t sure if the show was sinking Dan’s job while providing him an out with the cash? If so, that’s kind of lame.

Dan in trouble in the present? A detective came sniffing around, following a lead that a man with a gun was seen at the gala. It seems a liquor store near the gala was robbed and the owner pistol-whipped, and they think the perp ran into the gala. The detective didn’t seem entirely satisfied with Katie’s answers.

Tiny Threads:

  • Economical Character Development Watch: When Katie takes off for the elusive Cheese Guy at the market, Jack’s date Theresa immediately follows saying, “I LOVE him!”, so you know they are going to hit it off great. One would hope that someday these four could all be friends, and rebuild the kind of old foursome we saw at the engagement party.
  • Time-Travel Sightseeing: lots of great 1975 atmosphere, but the honking cars waiting in line for gasoline was priceless Gas Crisis of ’75. I remember that, actually, and they nailed it.

Here’s the whole episode!

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