Through Another Dimension: Considering “Twilight Zone 2019” (Part 4) – Season 2, Episodes 1-5

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Finally! I’m back with some thoughts on the first five episodes of The Twilight Zone (2019), Season 2. As noted previously, the premise descriptions will be spoiler-free but my thoughts/response will not be. So, be forewarned. Also, unlike the posts covering Season 1, I (mostly) haven’t listened to or read anyone else’s analysis, so…well, hopefully my takes aren’t too terrible–okay, let’s go!

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Episode 2.01 – “Meet in the Middle”

The Premise: A lonely man suddenly discovers a psychic connection to an intriguing woman he’s never laid eyes on, and the two strangers begin a long-distance telepathic relationship. Once things start becoming more “real” and the couple decides to meet, their rom-com story takes a sinister turn.

The Pay-off: After the ups and downs of Season 1, ending with the fantastic “Blurryman,” I was bracing against a let-down to start Season 2. Instead, we got a pretty solid season opener. We are presented with Phil, a bachelor on a blind date who suddenly hears the voice of a woman named Annie in his head. While the script plays a bit with the idea that perhaps Phil was just imagining this voice, I never doubted that she was a real person (man, if they had “Tyler Durden”-ed this episode…). Part of that confidence may have been that I didn’t think they would pull in Gillian Jacobs as Annie and not have her show up on screen at some point.

The first half of the episode played like a strange but sweet romantic comedy, as the two characters fall in love via long-distance (kind of like a telepathic “You’ve Got Mail”). Then the story turns sinister about halfway through, and you remember, oh yeah, I’m watching “The Twilight Zone.” Once it’s revealed that Annie is married, I wondered if this would become a Double Indemnity situation. Add in Phil’s frightening outburst of anger as his obsession with Annie gets the better of him, and it had all the makings of a real creepfest. The entire time Phil was on the train heading toward Annie and they talked of running away together, I kept waiting for the bottom to drop out–which it did, in a big, bad way.

As Phil searched for her at the train stop after listening helplessly to her screams that she was being followed about an hour before, I half-expected him to come across her body and then be somehow discovered and accused of her murder. But when he gets to the house in the woods, I immediately realized how it was about to go down. As he went inside, I kept waiting for the camera to pan up and show a picture on the mantle of Annie and her husband. Instead, we are left with the chilling image of Phil covered in blood after bludgeoning the poor man to death, with Annie and her horrified daughter looking on. The scene of Phil sitting in the police car as the weight of what just happened fully lands on him was really well-delivered but tough to watch, and then Annie’s voice cuts in and reveals that it was all a set-up. Oh man, what a nightmare. This was a chilling tale about obsession and unmet expectations, and it kicked off the season in a satisfying way.

Episode 2.02 – “Downtime”

The Premise: After landing a much-deserved promotion, it looks like Michelle Weaver’s perfect life has finally come together…until everyone around her stands up, eyes transfixed on the giant orb in the sky.

The Pay-off: This was an episode with a great premise and a couple of really great performances that still left me a little cold in the end. First of all, the acting: Morena Baccarin is fantastic as always, and even given just a few pages of dialogue, Tony Hale is a delight on-screen. The visuals of this episode were top-shelf: the shot of everyone standing around looking up at the orb is one of the most vivid images in this new TZ run, and it captures the vibe so well. The central conceit of the episode–a person learns that her life is actually an avatar in a simulation–is pure sci-fi, and the idea of an avatar becoming sentient when the user dies while connected to the system is a concept worth exploring. I even loved how Michelle’s interactions with the “customer service reps” of the simulation company reflect her own interactions earlier in the episode. The writing was pretty crisp, and the episode didn’t overstay its welcome. If anything, the first act could have been extended a little to ramp up the creepiness.

Where the episode started losing me was the introduction of the “user’s” wife, which I thought that was a bit clunky (the whole “I know you’re still in there” thing has been done). In the end, Michelle stays in the simulation (because what else was she going to do?), but her user’s wife comes back to the hotel to stay for a while (implying they would carry on a relationship)–WHICH DOESN’T MAKE SENSE because while there may be some traces of the man’s psyche or personality extant in Michelle’s programming, she’s still not the same guy, and his wife (who had no prior relationship with Michelle inside the simulation) is going to seek to spark some sort of romantic relationship with a woman who is only tangentially like her husband? It just seems unlikely. This just felt like a lazy way for the writers to throw in a same-sex relationship just to say they could. In the end, cool set-up, good performances, but they stumbled at the landing.

Episode 2.03 – “The Who of You”

The Premise: When Harry Pine discovers he can switch bodies with people at will, the struggling actor makes one desperate and foolish decision after another in the hopes of saving his relationship.

The Pay-off: First of all, ETHAN EMBRY. Totally didn’t realize it was him, though I knew the lead was familiar to me somehow. He and his impressive beard deliver a great performance as a struggling, selfish, slightly-conceited actor who decides to rob a bank in a fit of desperation and ends up switching bodies with the teller. I really like that there is no explanation given for this–true to the show’s central conceit, it just *is* because he’s in the Twilight Zone. I also liked the way the body-switching was handled, with people being returned to their bodies once Harry “hands off” to the next person. This allowed the police detective to “follow” Harry in what would have been an otherwise impossible pursuit. Instead, it provided a clean narrative device for moving the plot along.

In many ways, this episode reminded me of “The Four of Us are Dying” and “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” from the classic series–stories of desperate and selfish men who abuse their abilities in order to get out of jams or improve their situations. In the case of “The Who of You,” however, you don’t get the same kind of tragic, morality-play ending–at least not the one that you expect. I definitely assumed the stand-off in the psychic’s storefront would have ended with Harry dying, but instead, he comes away from it unharmed, yet now without another body to go back to. The twist is when, having accepted his permanent “role” as the detective, he goes to his now-former apartment in the guise of the detective to inform Harry’s girlfriend of his demise, only to realize that she’s been cheating on Harry with the detective the whole time. (Unfortunately, this was pretty obvious when the episode kept lampshading his phone calls to an unknown woman.)

The strength of an episode of like “The Who of You” resides in its performances, and I think, for the most part, the various character actors were pretty solid (I was most impressed by the kid, because child actors don’t usually have that kind of control). Billy Porter was a bit of stunt casting that doesn’t distract from the story, because they had him play essentially himself but as a fake psychic. Embry steals the show, however, as he portrays not just Harry but every person he “inhabits,” and there are subtle differences in each character that make his performance very effective. All in all, a good entry in this season’s list, and a nice throwback to past episodes in the classic run.

Episode 2.04 – “Ovation”

The Premise: Jasmine struggles to get her music career off the ground, until she’s given a gift that brings her the adulation she’s dreamed of. Soon, the dream becomes a nightmare.

The Pay-off: From the first scene, I basically had this episode pegged, but I still enjoyed the execution, for the most part. The “be careful what you wish for” story is staple in The Twilight Zone, so when the pop star asks Jasmine, “What do you want?”, the audience knows what’s coming. What made this one work was how much the episode leans into the weirdness of the “cursed” coin. It’s not just that Jasmine suddenly has a meteoric rise to stardom; it’s that the rise was immediate and uncanny. Even though she starts buying into her own fame and begins alienating her sister, she quickly realizes that there’s something off about how popular she’s becoming. Suddenly, people seemed to be enchanted by her every move and sound, to the point where her nervous fumbling in the talent show finals receives thunderous applause. Even the heart-surgery patient on the operating table suddenly starts applauding despite being under anesthesia! (I kept thinking of the scene from the Josie and the Pussycats movie, after a montage showing the band’s rise to fame, when Josie says, “Does anyone else think it’s strange that all this happened in a week?”) In the first half of the episode, as the public’s growing obsession with Jasmine becomes more frantic and frightening, the viewer is pretty familiar with how the beats are playing out.

(One brief side-note: I loved the cornyness of the “Ovation” talent show. While such televised talent shows are commonplace, the whole vibe was straight out of the 1950’s, all the way down to the physical “applause board.” What a wild choice. I love it, because it fits with the whole bizarre tone of the episode.)

Then the episode throws us a narrative curveball: Jasmine throws the coin away, escapes to her family’s cabin, and waits out the publicity “storm.” During this sequence, as she stops taking care of her self and just coasts, subsisting on ramen, she learns that another pop idol has supplanted her. Suddenly, her relief at returning to normal life evaporates, and she becomes obsessed with this new unknown star called Mynx (we conveniently never see more of her face than a glimpse of her made-up eyes in an advertisement). She finally goes to confront the celebrity at an in-person appearance before an adoring crowd, pulling a knife as she walks up and stabs her, only to realize that Mynx (DUM DUM DUMMMM!) is actually her sister, who retrieved the enchanted coin from the lake and became a pop star herself. (As soon as they refused to show Mynx’s face, this seemed like the obvious twist ending.)

The very best part of this episode, honestly, was the final shot. As Mynx is bleeding out on the ground, the sound of the tumultuous crowd around her, her hand opens and the coin rolls out. Two shoes come into frame, as we see Jordan Peele bend down, pick up the coin, stick it in his interior breast pocket with a wry look to the camera, and walk out of frame. No ending monologue, just that little visual button–because what else is needed with this story? We all know the lesson.

The weakness of this episode was that the second half felt too rushed, so the ending didn’t feel earned. Jasmine’s “descent into madness” was portrayed more through edits than acting, and it felt very clipped and quick. If the idea was to portray an addict going through withdrawals, that needed to be a bit drawn out. And then there’s the idea of her sister, a successful surgeon, who decides to fish the coin out of the lake so she can become a pop-star…why? The motivation for that seems completely absent because there’s nothing up to that point that would lead you to believe the character would do that. She had been set up as almost dismissive of show business, choosing instead her “real” (and important) job. So this “twist” was both predictable and a bit hollow.

On the whole, decent but predictable, with a few nice moments but a rushed ending.

Episode 2.05 – “Among the Untrodden”

The Premise: A new student at a girls’ boarding school enlists the help of the queen-bee of a mean-girls clique in studying the existence of psychic abilities. What they learn is that the the darkest influences come from the most common of places.

The Pay-off: Of the first 5 episodes of this season, I think “Among the Untrodden” surprised me the most, and I really didn’t expect it to. Once the set-up of the episode was laid out–outsider-Irene helps Mean-Girl-Madison learn to develop her powers–I saw this going one of two ways: either Irene was going to be the villain, manipulating Madison (or perhaps having more terrifying powers of her own) toward some terrible, “be-careful-what-you-wish-for” end; or Madison, having developed these psychic powers, is either driven crazy by knowing too much about other people (echoes of “A Penny for Your Thoughts” from the classic series?) or abuses the powers and makes the people around her suffer (“It’s A Good Life”). What we got instead was something a bit more thoughtful, if a bit muddled: an exploration of the loneliness of popularity (interesting that this episode comes right after “Ovation”).

Rather than leading us to sympathize with Irene as the outsider, the episode leads us to start seeing Madison in a new light; instead of being a cliche, she becomes a more fully-formed character (her posse does not). Madison’s position in the clique is tenuous at best, and as she reaches out for a more authentic friendship with Irene (and begins to be protective of her, sensing the other girls’ motives), she begins to lose her position within the group. Once the science-fair set-up is revealed (buckets of pig’s blood replaced with a monitor bank of embarrassing video playback), Madison’s suspicions are confirmed and the villains are punished, swiftly and horrifically. No need for gore here; the dead-eyed stare of each girl as they are trolleyed into the back of the ambulance was chilling. The final scene between Irene and Madison really worked me over, as I started guessing and then second-guessing what was really going on. Even when the truth was revealed, I was still confused–it took Peele’s closing narration for the last piece to click into place for me.

And that was one of my two issues with the episode: while the story was both familiar and unpredictable, and the way it played out effectively undercut my expectations and kept me guessing, the script and direction could have been a bit tighter, clarifying thematic elements like Madison’s subconscious loneliness. For example, the shot of the pencil disintegrating at the very beginning was visually effective but a bit unclear in retrospect, given what is revealed in the narrative (did she manifest the pencil because she wanted exactly that object to throw at the new girl?). It felt like one more editing pass could have refined the storytelling even more.

The other problem I had with this episode, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the coarseness of the dialogue. I haven’t talked a lot about the “mature content” in this series, because it’s an adult-rated show that clearly indicates in its advertisements and parental warnings that you’ll get strong, profane language and “adult” dialogue in certain episodes. (As with anything I review or discuss in this blog, I ask and expect you to use your judgment when choosing what media to consume.) With this episode, the dialogue felt especially coarse and crude, as these (ostensibly) teenaged girls were discussing sexuality wtih a frankness that I didn’t think was necessary. Others may argue this is “realistic” for teenaged girls (Lord help us), but it still felt gross to listen in on that kind of conversation, especially coming out of underaged girls.

All of that said, this was definitely one of the best episodes from the first half of Season 2, even despite the writing/direction issues.

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Half-way through Season 2! So what are my thoughts thusfar?

I’m reminded of the Season 1 finale, in which the main character argues that The Twilight Zone should be about the message and not the scares, and she then learns from the Blurryman that the scares are important, too–as in-universe Jordan Peele says, there’s no reason it can’t be both.

Even though Win Rosenfeld, one of the series’ producers, said in an interview with Tom Elliott right before Season 2 aired that he definitely wanted it to be a message show, it honestly feels like these first five episodes of Season 2 have played it relatively safe–almost too safe. And I realize that I could be accused of wanting to have it both ways, because I critiqued the first season’s preachiness, but in my defense, I said how much I enjoyed the well-done “message” episodes. I’m not against social issues in art–just the ham-fisted presentation of them.

This season, the writing is more focused on the narrative hook, which is a nice change of pace. While some of the twists seem to be telegraphed (e.g. the ending of “Meet in the Middle” or the identity of Mynx in “Ovation”), it’s still been enjoyable to watch these twists play out. I’m hoping that the second half of the season has even greater surprises. The showrunners still have to be willing to take some chances, even if they don’t all land. So far, they’ve done solid work, and are set-up to finish the season strong.

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I’ll be back with the back-half of Season 2 in a few weeks. Until then, I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below!

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