Through Another Dimension: Considering “Twilight Zone 2019” (Part 5) – Season 2, Episodes 6-10

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Hey friends! You know, they say that if you want to be a successful blogger, you should write engaging posts that serve your readers. And believe it or not, I do try to keep that in mind, but sometimes I just want to write something for me. These posts on the recent Twilight Zone seasons have definitely been one of those “selfish content” series, based on readership stats, but I don’t want to leave the miniseries hanging without closure, so today I’ll finish up my brief discussion of Season 2 of The Twilight Zone (2019).

As noted previously, the premise descriptions will be mostly spoiler-free, but my thoughts/response will not be. Let’s do this thing!

Episode 2.06 – “8”

The Premise: Members of a scientific research team in the Antarctic collect a biological specimen that proves far more intelligent than any of them anticipated–and underestimating it will prove disastrous.

The Payoff: To be honest, this one fell flat for me, but I’m not sure it had much of a chance. I watched it during my lunch break (making lunch and trying to get an episode of TV in while my wife and kids were at the park), so I was a bit distracted and rushed. On top of that, the “twist” (not that there really was one) was spoiled for me by accident on an episode of Tom Elliot’s Twilight Zone Podcast, in which some viewer feedback mentioned the reveal (derisively), so I knew going in what was going to happen. But even without those factors impacting my viewing experience, there really wasn’t much to this episode. Essentially, the crew of a science outpost finds a hyper-intelligent octopus that immediately figures out how to kill several of the scientists, use computers, and get smarter? Ehhhh. When your pitch is, “it’s like The Thing, but instead of a monster/alien, it’s an octopus,” I’m not sure it should have been green-lit. I enjoyed Joel McHale in a “non-Joel-McHale” role, and the creep factor (and unexpected gross-out factor) was fairly effective in spite of the premise. But in the end, I just didn’t care that much. I should have gone back and rewatched this with the subtitles on, because I feel like there may have been a lot of details in the dialogue that I just missed in my distracted state. Even so–an octopus?

Episode 2.07 – “A Human Face”

The Premise: An alien creature arrives at the home of a grieving couple, taking the form of their dead teenaged daughter. The couple faces a difficult question: not “Is this actually our daughter?” but rather, “Does it matter if it isn’t?”

The Payoff: I really wanted to enjoy this episode, and appreciated most of it in retrospect…right up until the ending. (Seems to be a recurring theme with this rebooted series.) The performances were gripping, and the idea of an alien using telepathy/empathic abilities to impersonate a dead loved one is horrifying. What made it all the more disturbing is that the alien acknowledged that it wasn’t really the couple’s daughter back from the dead, but still spoke “in her voice” to mess with the couple’s minds, and it worked. The set-up is great, the CGI was TV-okay, and the progressing of the plot/dialogue was intriguing. At the point when you realize that the mother is so desperate to have more time with her lost girl that she’s willing to pretend that this alien creature *is* her, the horror becomes heart-breaking.

But then the whole thing shifts–why? Because the alien, WHO HAD ADMITTED IT WAS SENT TO EARTH TO PACIFY THE POPULACE AND PREPARE FOR AN INVASION, suddenly changes its mind because it experiences the love that the parents had for their daughter. And when the couple and their “doppel-daughter” walk outside, you see that every house on the block has a simliar “happy family” walking outside together. So–hang on… So, you’re telling me that in every one of these houses, these alien drones designed to manipulate emotions to suppress the populace all had the same epiphany? I kept waiting for it to be a trick–the final manipulation, convincing the humans that it was “won over by love” only to trap them with their own belief that love conquers all. But then Peele’s closing narration says the alien was “conquered itself by humanity. It will go on laboring now under a yoke of its own design.” And that’s it. The alien invasion force was fully thwarted by the power of love. Come on, y’all. This was a great premise and a really effective narrative progression that was killed stone dead by an unbearably sentimental conclusion. I’m the kind of guy who enjoys sentimentality, but it’s got to make sense. And in this particular episode of The Twilight Zone, that ending feels like a cop-out.

Episode 2.08 – “A Small Town”

The Premise: A grieving widower discovers that making changes to a scale model of his small town can bring those changes to life in the real world, and he must decide how he wants to wield such power.

The Payoff: On the other hand, here’s an episode where the sentimentality works. While this one isn’t ostensibly a “holiday episode,” it has the vibe of a softer TZ classics like “Night of the Meek.” Some TZ episodes are morality plays that punish characters for their fatal flaws, while others are sweeter and more pleasant in their storytelling. “A Small Town” manages to be a bit of both, with passable results. The main character, Jason, is still grieving the death of his wife, the mayor of a small mountain town, when a local pastor gives Jason a job and a place to live to help him get back on his feet. In the attic of the rectory, Jason discovers a perfect scale model of his town, and then finds that changes he makes in the model are reflected in real life. While his wife’s replacement as mayor (played by David Krumholz as more smarmy than menacing) is dismissive of his constituents’ requests for improved public works, Jason uses the model to make those changes and improve life for his fellow citizens. Once the mayor starts taking credit for the good work being done, Jason uses the model to get even with the opportunistic and egotistical public servant–smashing his car or scaring him with a “giant” tarantula.

The climax of the episode–the antagonist discovers the existence of the “magic gizmo” and monologues about how he will use it for selfish purposes–is almost too cliched to bear, and in the end, the breaking of the table and the resulting chaos in town seemed to be resolved a bit too easily. I was hoping for more meat on the bone (for example, the breaking of the model table could have resulted in catastrophic damage, showing the Jason’s increasingly selfish use of the model was being punished by the Zone’s justice). But I think I was expecting this episode to be a bit more like that first kind of story I mentioned. Instead, the no-good mayor was shown to be a selfish jerk and the town turns him out, and Jason is presumably given credit for the good he did and how he engendered goodwill and community spirit among his neighbors. And that’s fine. This isn’t a story you’d go back to repeatedly, but the premise is a little fun, even if it seems like a missed opportunity.

Episode 2.09 – “Try, Try”

The Premise: Claudia has a chance encounter with a charismatic, romantic stranger named Marc, and as they spend the day together, he always seems to know the perfect thing to say or do. There’s a reason for that…

The Payoff: I saw a description online (I believe) that this episode is like if Bill Murray’s character from “Groundhog Day” were actually a sociopath. I don’t think I can sum it up much better than that. The first act of this story gives us Claudia’s meet-cute with the enigmatic Marc, who seems to know the perfect comment or compliment to pique Claudia’s interest or make her smile. As they spend the day together, Marc starts making little side comments that confuse Claudia but tip the audience off to the fact that he’s not what he seems. Finally, the shoe drops and he admits that he’s lived this day over and over so many times that he’s essentially perfected his “first date” with Claudia (and has frequently ended up in her bed). Claudia is understandably unsettled, but Marc persists, arguing that he knows her better than she knows herself and they’re perfect for each other. (Also, the name “Marc” is a lie to gain her trust. No big deal, right?) He has begun to feel godlike in his omniscience, to the point that he may be able to do whatever he wants to her and it won’t matter because the next day she’ll vanish like a dream.

Oh man, was this episode a creep fest! While it very clearly falls in the same vein as Season 1’s “Not All Men” and to some extent the S2 premiere, “Meet in the Middle,” it more effectively captures the message of those episodes without seeming as preachy (mostly): men who presume upon women can easily become predatory, and that kind of behavior can escalate dangerously. In the climax of the episode, when Marc essentially tells Claudia that he might just assault and/or murder her for his own amusement, since she’s “not real” to him, he embodies a real-world evil and a type of guy that tragically does exist in our culture. And the reason this portrayal is so horrific is because Topher Grace is just stellar in the role. He has a natural boyish charm that is disarming and unthreatening, but he can also turn on the menace in an instant, and that juxtaposition is exactly what makes this character so disturbing.

My only beef with the episode (brace yourselves for a shock) is the resolution. Claudia gets her “yass queen” combat moment (meh), which thankfully was a bit more believable since Grace isn’t physically imposing so the power differential was a bit more balanced. Her promise that she’ll kick his tail in any future iteration of the day (so he’d better not try that again) rings a bit hollow since there’s really nothing stopping him from doing all the things he threatened to do–because he’s still that same wicked guy, just now with more advanced warning. The fact that this momentary comeuppance somehow cows him into never attempting this evil again seems to indicate a shocking naivete about human nature on the writer’s part. The final sequence also demonstrates that Marc’s initial assumption that he was always saving her from being hit by a bus was presumptive (she’s fine, she doesn’t need you, man! *snaps*) and he is now locked in a TZ time loop, doomed to relive the day. That’s his punishment…except it’s not, really. Yes, being stuck in the timeloop is bad, but I don’t know if it’s bad enough. Not for him. Now, a time-loop in which his wickedness results in suffering? That might be interesting, though that may drift a bit too close to the classic episode, “Shadow Play.”

All in all, this was one of the strongest episodes of the season, with knockout performances (no pun intended) by the leads.

Episode 2.10 – “You Might Also Like”

The Premise: Janet Warren is on the waiting list to receive “The Egg,” the amazing device that will make all of her dreams come true and take away her pain. But when she notices inexplicable happenings around her, as well as out-of-character and irrational behavior by her friends and neighbors, she has second thoughts about picking up this life-changing device.

The Payoff: Oh man, where to begin with this one. The visual style, cinematography, and editing were almost too clever–like when film school students are trying really, really hard to evoke the right visual cues and film history references, and you feel as if they’re sitting next to you during the episode, watching you watch it and saying, “did you see that? did you get what I was going for?” The conceits of constant commercial interruptions, fourth-wall lampshading, and extremely mannered acting were jarring, and I sat through the whole episode with a half-smile on my face and my head cocked to one side like Nipper, repeatedly mumbling, “What…is…happening?” It was a similar feeling I had when watching the Season 1 finale, “Blurryman”–but taken to the extreme.

So our story is about Janet Warren, a housewife who is having repeated black-outs, hears unexplained sounds, has dreams she can’t understand, and is hoping that The Egg will solve all of her problems. I nearly called it the “Amazon Egg” just now because the anti-consumerism theme is basically presented in flashing neon during the entire episode. And it’s not like this messaging is anything new, at least from the outset. For most of the episode, you don’t even see the Egg, but it takes on a mythical persona, like the famed Maltese Falcon, “the stuff that dreams are made of.” Once Janet starts questioning if that’s the case, things get real crazy. How crazy?

The Kanamits from “To Serve Man” show up, but in a new and more allegedly-humorous incarnation. (Ooooh, we made a pronouns joke, aren’t we hip!) Technically, as some pointed out online, it must be an alternate timeline version, since they are unknown to humanity at this point. And to be fair, pulling out one of the most iconic alien characters from the classic series is a bold move, Cotton, but I’m just not sure how it plays out for them. Especially when Janet (should she have been named Karen?) essentially asks to speak to the alien hive mind’s manager, and they concede? What?

Janet speaks to the female Kanamit in charge who admits, yes, it’s aliens who are behind The Egg. (Feel free to make an Elon Musk joke to yourself.) They are baffled and distrustful of humanity’s penchant for independent thought. They have studied human television for years, and realized the way to entrap humanity was through its commercialism and desire to buy happiness. And oh, by the way, The Egg is literally that–an alien egg that will hatch a carnivorous Kanamit piranha-baby. (The slow-mo “misting” of Janet’s friend just out of frame is a shocking sequence that effectively horrifies without showing actual violence.) So does Janet decide to stand up against the alien menace and tear the whole thing down? No, because Janet is broken. She had lost her unborn child years before and feels a gaping wound there. She is struggling to cope with this on her own. (Her husband and other child aren’t seen anywhere in the episode other than a framed photo–no explanation given.) So Janet decides to take The Egg home, knowing it will kill her, because she’ll at least get to hold it for a little while. Sorry, again…what? While I recognize the deep heartbreak of miscarriage (we have some experience there in our family), this just doesn’t make sense.

The final shot of this episode is bonkers, with flying saucers hovering over a town descending into madness. I should amend what I said previously: the bold visual style is over-the-top but it WORKS.

This episode…I don’t know. It works, sort of, but the bold leaps it takes only stick the landing sporadically. Ending a season in which I’ve noted that the show’s writing has often played it safe, this one really came out of left field, and that alone should get some credit. It was a daring and exuberant semi-failure, which also makes it a middling success.

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So, what did I think of Season 2 as a whole?

In my final comments on Season 1, I talked about how the show struggled with thematic subtlety, and that the “message” episodes were a bit too ham-fisted and surface-level to be enjoyed. At the start of this season, it felt like the showrunners were trying to play it a bit too safe, in terms of themes. I think that’s still the case on the whole for Season 2. However, looking back, I think Season 2 was perhaps just a bit more effective at subtle themes and messages. They were still there to be sure–the recurring “arrogant, selfish, toxic man” trope came up in 4 episodes: “Try, Try,” “The Who of You,” “Meet in the Middle,” and to a small degree (no pun intended) in “A Small Town.” There was also a recurring theme (noted by the showrunners in pre-season press) of misdirection, people and situations not being what they appear at first. That idea is present in every episode of this season, and ties the stories together nicely. On the other hand, the weakness of the season is that too few of the episodes were willing to do something bold and unexpected, the way that “Among the Untrodden” or “You May Also Like” managed to do so.

If the theme from “Blurryman” was that you can still tell good “campfire” stories that contain social messages without lampshading them, Season 2 of The Twilight Zone (2019) has demonstrated that playing it too safe results in a satisfying but average show. Nevertheless, despite some frustrating writing decisions throughout the run (and cheap/easy resolutions), this season was still fun to watch, and I’ll be back for Season 3. There were just a few times when it felt like the potential for great work was within reach, but the show came up a bit short.

Here’s how I’d rank Season 2’s episodes, from my least favorite of the season to my most favorite:

10. “8”
9. “Ovation”
8. “Downtime”
7. “A Small Town”
6. “A Human Face”
5. “You Might Also Like”
4. “Meet in the Middle”
3. “Among the Untrodden”
2. “Try, Try”
1. “The Who of You”

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That’s all I’ve got for today. Perhaps sometime before the next season premieres, I’ll pick this blog miniseries up again and give you my recommendations for top-ten classic TZ episodes. Until then, thanks for taking a walk with me through another dimension!

Did you watch any of this season of The Twilight Zone? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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