Character Deep Dive: Rufus Carlin

Episode Still of Malcolm Barrett as Rufus Carlin in NBC's Timeless
Photo by NBC/Sergei Bachlakov/NBC – © 2016 NBCUniversal Media, LLC

Portrayed by: Malcolm Barrett
Show: NBC’s Timeless

Rufus Carlin is Timelessbrave, endearing pilot, but really he was more so their genius extraordinaire in every way—the film expert, the anchor, the heart. In short, Rufus’ kindness was unparalleled. His bravery and integrity along with the loyalty to his friends and family stood out gorgeously in all episodes, allowing him to be the kind of light every TV show needs.

Because of Timeless’ cancellation, there is a lot about Rufus we never got to learn. And yet, we knew with a shadow of a doubt that his loyalty was boundless. Rufus Carlin wanted to consistently better himself in order to be a helping hand for others while simultaneously vocalizing everything that was unjust about the past and the present.

We also know enough to say that it’s his kindness towards the Time Team and Jiya that’s left us all floored. From the moment they all met, Rufus has effortlessly illuminated just how gentle and kind hearted he could be. It was revealed early on in his slightly awkward introduction then in later episodes through the subtle, everyday choices he made to improve the lives of those around him.

Rufus Carlin, The Pilot

On Timeless, each member of The Time Team had their pivotal role, and their place in history. In more ways than just the literal sense, Rufus Carlin was the Pilot. He was a guide both through time, and as a beacon of hope in all their lives.

Where we didn’t get much about his family, we knew enough to understand that everything he did was by virtue of taking care of them. For the longest time, his mom and his brother were his entire world. They were the reason for his choices, the reason for his enduring efforts, and the reason for the colossal love in his heart. Rufus is the man that he is because of the woman who raised him, and the women who’ve come into his life. A man who was never afraid to let those in his circle inspire him, including Conner Mason, the man whose footsteps he’d follow and the man who he’d also later stand up to.

The Fanboy

Rufus Carlin was a film aficionado. A fanboy in the most wholesome way, and a beacon of light every single time he was face-to-face with a hero, expected or surprised by it. His reaction to the Lone Ranger being Black is still one of the best, most memorable moments throughout the entire season. As was meeting Harriet Tubman in the finale. Anytime Rufus got to meet someone in a time where history was especially unkind to Black people, it was the most beautiful kind of human experience we got to watch as viewers.

His love for Star Wars, the film references, the jokes. As much as I adore Wyatt Logan and Lucy Preston, without Rufus Carlin, the missions wouldn’t have as much light as they do. He was the pinnacle of joy in every way because he vocalized his excitement constantly.

Additionally, while Rufus wasn’t a soldier like Wyatt, his bravery knew no bounds.

Rufus wasn’t brave in the traditional sense of knowing how to partake in a physical fight, but Rufus was brave because in spite of the moments where he experienced harrowing fear, he never once gave up trying to help others.

There have been a few moments throughout the seasons where he’s been the only hope another Black person has, the only hope the Time Team has, and the only hope even the enemy has. Where his life was always in danger, and he could have gotten seriously hurt, Rufus never stopped helping others.

On a series like Timeless, Rufus Carlin was the audience’s eyes and ears into the constant (and necessary) reminder that history was never kind to Black men and women.

Rufus Carlin was never afraid of the truth even while he lived through his very fears. He was never afraid of standing his ground and vocalizing just how much the situation sucked, and he even hated initially recording their missions while he knew he was being threatened because of it. Honor, above all things, right alongside kindness mattered exponentially to Rufus.

He never took the selfish route (which he deserved to do plenty of times). He jumped even while he was afraid. He fought through the darkest battles even when the outcome meant his death. And that was the actual case in “The General/Chinatown” where he made it clear that Jiya’s safety mattered far more than his life.

Rufus Carlin was a pop culture fanboy, but in a myriad of ways, he was a fan of his friends too. His joy and excitement every time something worked out for them was such a heartwarming thrill to watch. The way he actively “shipped” Wyatt and Lucy and even canonically coined the term “Lyatt” in “The Miracle of Christmas” is still a lovely little detail to remember. He was a fan of what the world could be, the best of it, and the little things that mattered.

His Bravery, His Mind

We can’t stress Rufus Carlin’s bravery enough because without him, The Time Team would have been nothing. Mason Industries would have been nothing. And this mission would have been nothing.

He was, in every way, the heart of Timeless.

As a Black man traveling back through time, there had been countless places that weren’t safe for him, and as their pilot, he could have stayed behind in order to make it out alive, but that never stopped Rufus from stepping up and trying to be just as much of a team player as Wyatt and Lucy werre. He was going to fight bravely even while his life was constantly in danger.

And it’s in those scenes where we’re able to see his bravery best because we’re able to see that it’s men like Rufus Carlin who’ve fought tirelessly to reach a place where we no longer have segregated bathrooms or water fountains. He’s fictional, yes, but he’s a paradigm of the voices who’ve stood their ground.

His bravery is also acutely present during “The World’s Columbian Exposition” where they’re separated from Lucy, and he uttered the words: “of course I’m scared, I’d be crazy not to be, but I’m not going anywhere until we find Lucy.” This wasn’t the first (or only) time Rufus actually vocalized his fears, which is precisely what tells us that he continuously chose to fight in spite of fear.

That very display of raw human emotion was the gorgeous authentication of what bravery is—the choice to push forward even when fear attempts to convince us otherwise. There’s no human being in the world who doesn’t know the pangs of fear, but the bravest amongst us are those who fight in spite of it all. And Rufus Carlin was one of those people.

And there’s the brilliance behind Rufus Carlin’s mind—who else could fix a 21st century time machine using only what’s provided to him in the 18th century? Not that many. It’s plain and simple that without Rufus, the Time Team could not go forward (or back in this case); his skills as a pilot aside, it was his passion for engineering that allowed him to serve as their greatest strength. He knew his craft, and when given the time or opportunity, he’d figure out exactly what’s needed to save the situation. And sometimes that means sending encoded Star Wars references to with the belief that Jiya would know exactly what to do with the information provided.

Rufus Carlin believed in his own skills, but he also believed in the capabilities his team has. He believed in their gifts, their mind, and their ability to understand what was in front of them.

Loyalty is a trait many characters possess, but for Rufus to have such a steadfast devotion to his team after knowing them a short while was something not many do. When he first began recording their missions in order to protect his family, it was understandable why he’d do so, but when he began to feel uncomfortable shortly after beginning, it was clear to not only see how fervently he cares for them, but how much he values honesty.

Rufus didn’t want to lie to his teammates—when they all essentially promised to be a team, they chose to reiterate the fact that wherever these missions take them, they’ll always be on the right side. And the right side doesn’t mean recording each other.

At the end of the day, above all things, Rufus Carlin valued transparency, and even when he was afraid to speak up, the desire alone was enough to showcase where his heart stood.

What Malcolm Barrett has done in layering the character has stunned me episode after episode—just when I thought we’d seen the best in him, by the following week, he’d outdone himself. The amount of heart Barrett brought to the character was sublime, but most importantly, he bared it all for viewers—the full range of emotions that he brought to the screen never failed to remind us of just how much the character’s willing to give.

Rufus Carlin has a heart the size of the moon, a sincere aspiration to do good, and the mind of a warrior—he is the bravest, most inimitable Pilot to grace our TV screens. (I said what I said, and I stand by this after all these years.) Rufus may be one of the kindest men in the fictional world, but he is just as capable of a fight—he’s capable of rage and frustration, and he’s capable of losing battles, too.

But at the end of the day, his heart always did the talking. He forgave when need be. He loved fiercely. And he made the best of every situation. The choice to open up Riya Industries with Jiya as a result of inspiring people in STEM was just the kind of greatness that’d be expected from a character like him.

He was so crucial as a character, so beloved as a friend ,and so important in all their lives, they were each willing to sacrifice something precious to bring him back. And thank heavens for that because I for one, would have never forgiven the show if they didn’t.

Rufus Carlin fought like hell to ensure that he constantly grew as a person. He questioned fate, he questioned God, he questioned history, he questioned his peers, he questioned the present, and then, he did something about all of it. He made honorable, brave choices, and he exhibited steadfast loyalty all throughout. He even questioned himself, proving that character is built from within.

He loved hard and he loved fiercely and as a result, the people in his life were better because they knew him.

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