THE TWILIGHT ZONE
Season 1, Episode 4
Available on CBS All-Access (new episodes uploaded every Thursday)
If there’s something I’ve learned in all my years of watching every single incarnation of this show, it’s that it often comes maddeningly close to a point — then fumbles at the last minute, squandering everything that came before it.
Such is the case with “A Traveler”, the fourth episode in Jordan Peele’s re-boot of “The Twilight Zone”.
That isn’t to say that the rest of the episode is a lot of fun: it’s Christmas time in the sleepy little town of Iglaak, Alaska and the town’s local police Captain, Lane Pendleton (Greg Kinnear) is throwing his annual Christmas party for the town’s residents, which includes his yearly tradition of pardoning a prisoner who resides within his precinct’s jail cells. The winner this year is the alcoholic brother of Lane’s deputy, Yuka (Marika Sila) both of whom can’t stand Pendleton due to his obnoxious behavior and penchant for exploiting those around him in a casually racist manner.
Imagine Pendleton and Yuka’s surprise when they discover somebody in their jail cells in the form of “A. Traveler” (Steven Yeun), a fairly unassuming man whose presence is nonetheless unsettling due to his unrelenting smugness and the mere fact that the jail was supposed to be empty. Alas, Traveler has the cult of personality on his side and easily works himself into Pendleton’s fold through flattery — EVERYONE knows who Lane Pendleton is, according to Traveler. Everyone knows about his epic Christmas parties and his yearly pardons and Lane is practically a celebrity where ever Traveler, who claims to be a YouTube celebrity who travels all over the world, ends up. This is especially true, he says, in Russia where he’s uber-popular, something which causes Pendleton to bristle just slightly.
Half in the bag from both booze and holiday cheer, however, Pendleton buys Traveler’s story and makes him his annual pardon, which doesn’t surprise Yuka who knows her boss is susceptible to having his ego stroked like one pets a cat, and she immediately goes on a quest to find out more about their surprise guest. This, despite the fact that the townies warm up to Traveler as he takes selfies and sings Christmas karaoke with them. All of this is undercut, of course, when Traveler decides to reveal small secrets about the residents of the town which causes them to turn against one another. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The episode has a fantastic atmosphere, something this particular series succeeds at on a regular basis. The town has an unreliable power grid which causes routine power spikes, causing the lights to flicker or shut off completely for a couple seconds. This adds a sense of unease which perfectly compliments Traveler’s presence and gives us a sense of impending danger. That menacing also provides for a nice dichotomy: it runs contrary to the Christmas setting which is cheery and bright and magical by default. The jail scenes are fantastic, recalling the first seasons of “The X-Files” when Mulder and Scully were nearly bathed in shadow while chasing aliens down dark hallways.
“A Traveler” is also anchored by great performances all around. Kinnear’s Lane Pendleton is a man stuck in his ways, old and world-weary which clashes with Yuka’s more liberal ideals primarily because she has roots in this area and traditions of her own that Pendleton doesn’t even come close to respecting. Sila does a great job as portraying Yuka as somebody who begrudgingly acquiesces to her boss’s behavior no matter how bad he gets — but has her reasons for doing so, which are later revealed by Traveler. As Traveler, Steven Yeun is in his element, stealing every single scene he’s in. Yeun plays Traveler not unlike a praying mantis: a soft-spoken businessman whose seemingly kind behavior is undercut by an undeniable sense of malevolence. While his behavior never seems to manifest in violence, there’s always the sense that he could end your life in seconds and not feel the least bit sorry. It’s beautifully unnerving.
Where the episode falls short, however, is the lack of identity. While the episode recalls classics like “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (I’ve got to stop mentioning that episode) and “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”, the episode doesn’t seem to know exactly what it is or what it’s trying to say. Is it an indictment of how easily we’re seduced by those who have ulterior motives? Is this a statement or satire on traditions and beliefs? Is it about the dangers of fear? Nothing seems clear, even when we get the final reveal which, while welcome, doesn’t help clear things up.
Inspiration and utilization of bits and pieces of other episodes is one thing but, ultimately, “A Traveler” seems just a little lost.
LOST IN THE ZONE
- And speaking of traditions…ok, look…I’m not the type who dislikes swearing. I’ve watched (and seen) some heavy shit (see?) in my time and I am accepting of these things and I swear like a goddamn sailor…but the swearing in this episode is just beyond unnecessary. In “Replay”, the swearing was believable because the viewer was most likely saying “oh, shit” at the very same time Nina was saying it whenever Officer Laskey appeared on screen. Here, you have characters dropping the word “fuck” like they have a quota to meet. It’s annoying.
- That ending…(SPOILERS, CLICK AND DRAG TO SEE IT): So, Traveler is an alien from another planet whose race of beings has come to take out the little relay station that provides power to the town. They’re gonna take over and we’re all supposed to be ok with our new alien overlords. I don’t have an issue with this ending. I only brought it up because I love the bit where Traveler (in alien form) is just chilling with Yuka’s brother in jail and eating Christmas pie, a sign that Traveler has found a new, favorite tradition.
- Jordan Peele’s ending narration was wooden and painful. At one point (the “fateful present” line), it sounds like he’s doing a first read off of cue cards.
- Here’s this week’s Easter Eggs:
- “The Dummy” appears on wrapping paper.
- The doll from “Living Doll” also randomly appears as does the “gremlin” from “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”.
- At one point, Traveler introduces himself as “Marius Constant”. Constant is the man behind the famous Twilight Zone theme song.
- One of the characters here is named “Ida Lupino”. Lupino was an actress who starred in the classic episode “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” and would later come back to become the only woman to ever direct an original series episode: “The Masks”, fitting since Ana Lily Amirpour is the first woman to direct a re-boot episode.
- Another character is named “Dotty Matheson”. The last name is a homage to Richard Matheson who wrote a bulk of the original series episodes with Charles Beaumont and Rod Serling. Matheson also wrote the novels “Stir of Echoes”, “I Am Legend”, “Hell House”, “What Dreams May Come”, “Somewhere in Time” and “Duel”.