(Editor’s Note: Episode spoilers ahead, just the first couple minutes of each episode except where noted otherwise.)
I finally got around to watching the last half of the first season of Twilight Zone, admittedly a bad idea as I had just spent a long car ride listening to the Twilight Zone BBC radio dramas and had high expectations for where the second half of the season would take me.
With some faults the second half of the season was consistently better than the first, and actually has me wanting to see where the show goes for season #2. Which has been confirmed.
#6: Six Degrees Of Freedom
Six Degrees of Freedom is a great episode, and I know this because I watched it in the decidedly not-conducive-to-tension bathtub in the dark while eating Christmas cookies, and I still found myself on the edge of my
seat bath despite being surrounded by suds and probably washing in crumbs and sprinkles. White chocolate is never not disappointing.
This episode was directed by Jakob Verbruggen who you may recognize as the director of Black Mirror episode Men Against Fire. The writer is Heather Anne Campbell who you may have seen on Whose Line is It Anyway or her numerous other writing/performing gigs, as well as co-hosting the podcast How Did This Get Played? A show about poorly reviewed games.
Six Degrees is the first episode so far in the season that has truly deserved its nearly hour long running time. The episode begins with a NASA team on the launch pad and ready to go to Mars when, in a twist that hasn’t been seen since Far Cry 5, the world suddenly erupts into extinction-level nuclear war. The crew has the choice between blasting off and turning their round trip into a suicide mission or staying put and being directly in the path of a nuclear warhead. They choose to launch.
Anyhow, Six Degrees dips its toes into the Space Madness style of storytelling, as the crew makes their way to Mars with the realization that their vacation is now a one way trip. Even if they wanted to come back, there is nothing to come back to. The crew deals with it the way you would expect; they bang, they cry, they monitor the radio waves for transmissions. For all intent and purpose it seems like Earth is really dead.
Of course Twilight Zone loves stories about nuclear war and how humanity acts when faced with its impending extinction. Avid Twilight Zone fans will have well over a dozen theories about how this episode will come to a head and most of them will be wrong. The episode follows some of the typical Space Madness tropes, only to take a quick left hand turn with a few more twists before the end of the episode.
Unfortunately the ending for Six Degrees is somewhat ruined by CBS’ heavy-handed approach to the final lesson, beating it into the viewer’s head like we’re too stupid to figure it out on our own. To reference back to Wunderkind which couldn’t be more obvious if the kid actor looked directly into the camera and said “in case it wasn’t obvious, I am Donald Trump.”
It does leave some unanswered questions for theories to fly between readers which prior episodes have been lacking. It isn’t the most original ending, but it does somewhat satisfyingly wrap up the story as told. It’s like the Space Madness episode of Ren & Stimpy except nobody ends up eating a bar of soap like an ice cream sandwich.
Hopefully the rest of the season is as bereft of politicking as this one is.
#7: Not All Men (Full Spoilers)
Son of a bitch.
Not All Men might be the worst written episode of a TV show to release in 2019, and I’m going to include the kind of content written on Nickelodeon Jr. for infants.
Episode 7 takes place in a small town affected by a meteor tainting its water supply and turning the men in the town into aggressive, hypermasculine sacks of human garbage. What starts out as a dinner date turned molesty evolves into a bar fight and then an all-out street war as the men of the town start murdering each other and having a fun time doing so. Our hero Annie Miller and her friend Martha and gay nephew Cole escape the town and into military quarantine where they learn the kicker of the story:
The meteor that showed up and caused all the men to go nuts? It didn’t actually do anything. Yes, as the show beats into our heads in the last few minutes, the meteor was a placebo effect. It became the excuse that the men of the town needed in order to let themselves go, to let out their inner Harvey Weinstein, to become insanely aggressive and murder each other for no real reason. The name “Not All Men” comes from the only male character seemingly not affected by the meteor, Cole, who explains that he didn’t go insane simply because he chose not to. It’s that simple. All men are inherently violent murdering rapists and the meteor’s placebo effect doesn’t work on women, even when they want it to, because women are inherently peaceful.
Not All Men’s storytelling fails because the singular point that the whole plot hinges on doesn’t make any sense. The meteor is revealed to be a placebo, but a placebo needs some sort of motivation to achieve the intended result. There is nothing telling the citizens of the city that the meteor rocks make you insane, unless the implication is that all men are just looking for an excuse to hulk out. A doctor hands you a pill and says “this will cure your headache.” The placebo works because you interact with it with the intended result already in your head. Also our main female character touches the meteor wanting it to turn her violent so she can fight back, and it doesn’t with the explicit explanation that it doesn’t work on women, because apparently women aren’t capable of experiencing emotion-driven violence. I can’t tell if this is incompetence or intentional.
It also doesn’t make sense in the context of the episode. The men affected by the meteor are shown experiencing bloodshot eyes, bulging veins, super strength, deep pitch-shifted voices; pretty much anything that couldn’t be achieved with a placebo. It’d be like if at the end of the Courage the Cowardly Dog episode Hothead, we learn that Eustace’s hair tonic was a placebo. You know, the one that makes him blow up in a nuclear explosion. He did that on his own from his toxic masculinity.
Not All Men shows that Heather Anne Campbell doesn’t know what a placebo is or how to write a twist that wasn’t pulled from an established Twilight Zone trope. It’s an episode-killing plot device that could have literally been fixed by a more talented writer with a simple twenty second news broadcast warning residents that meteor contamination could cause elevated aggression. It would also help the placebo thing if our main character was affected by it when she explicitly wanted to be.
The next episode can’t be this bad, right?
#8: Point of Origin
Point of Origin is an example of Twilight Zone done right, a 44 minute episode that kept me on the edge of my seat from the first moment until the final monologue by Jordan Peele.
Ginnifer Goodwin plays housewife Eve Martin who starts out the episode discussing schooling with her illegal immigrant housekeeper Anna Fuentes (Zabryna Guevara). Almost on cue if you’re keeping score of the social justice bingo card, ICE busts into the house and takes Anna prisoner. She’s going back to Guatemala, or is she? Later on that day, Eve goes shopping with her two daughters.
Eve’s character is the rich, spoiled, pampered brat. She parks in two spots because she’s inconsiderate of other people’s presence, she hires illegal immigrants she doesn’t care about to raise the children she neglects, and hosts fancy dinner parties as long as she doesn’t have to do any of the work. So Eve finds herself naturally surprised when immigration shows up once again and arrests her family.
Surely there must be something wrong. Eve is all white and rich and stuff, immigration made a mistake. They did, and with an apology let Eve’s husband and daughters leave. Eve however is staying.
Shout it out if you know where this plot is going, and if your first assumption was “space immigrants” you are in the ballpark.
What’s great about this episode is that it takes a long time to build up to the payoff, with Eve taking the audience with her as she experiences the fear of wondering why she’s been locked up and what is going to happen to her. For a 44 minute episode, we are well past the halfway point before things start coming together and making sense.
It also works in the suspense category as while avid Twilight Zone fans will have guessed the “twist” roughly around the time Anna gets arrested, the episode keeps you guessing as to where the plot is eventually going to end up.
Point of Origin is haunting and unsurprisingly was directed by Mathias Herndl who has done cinematography on Twilight Zone’s best episodes. The episode was written by John Griffin who has incidentally done jack squat up to this point. His IMDB credits him as a writer on the upcoming Magic: The Gathering show, Crater, and Romeo and Juliet: The War. Great first impression, John.
I can’t help but feel like Grubhub sponsored this episode. References to the delivery service are so subtle that you just might miss them…if you’re deaf and watching without subtitles.
Can Twilight Zone continue this quality?
#9: The Blue Scorpion
Chris O’Dowd! But to answer the earlier question, not really.
The Blue Scorpion is the penultimate episode of the season and details just what happens when Twilight Zone loses its messaging and its point.
We join Chris O’Dowd as Jeff Storck who comes home to find that his father has shot himself dead. The problem? Jeff’s dad was a hippy musician who hated guns and loved life. Not the type of guy who would own one let alone blow his brains out. The pistol is a very cool looking item with a blue scorpion printed on the handle. It’s the very gun Che Guevara was seeking. It also has a bullet, one with Jeff’s name on it. Literally.
Blue Scorpion is directed by Craig William Macneill (Lizzie) and written by Glen Morgan who also wrote some X-Files episodes. As far as Twilight Zone episodes go this one is pretty low-key. Especially for an episode that is pretty explicitly about a nearly religious love of guns, all of the characters are played pretty sane. There isn’t that scene with the bible-loving, gun-clutching redneck who loves Jesus and threatens to blow our protagonist’s head off for looking at him wrong in a bar.
The bulk of the episode is based around the idea that the gun appears to kill the person whose name is on the bullet, and in this case that person is Jeff. Unfortunately our protagonist Jeff comes across a lot of people named Jeff, including the guy at the gun range, the guy his wife (in the process of a divorce) fell in love with, and more. Which Jeff will be the one that takes the bullet? You’ll never guess.
Ultimately Blue Scorpion shows that you go so far away from being politically preachy that you end up not making a point at all. It’s a hard sell at the end of the episode figuring out what we were supposed to learn or take away other than that there is a magical gun that names its next victim. I’m not entirely sure Jeff learned a lesson either, any of the Jeffs.
Can Twilight Zone end the season strong?
Of course it can.
Boy this episode threw me through a loop. Blurryman starts out with Seth Rogen playing a writer who decides to throw his readers through a loop by introducing his twist at the start of the story, a nuclear apocalypse. He stands up and goes to the window to find that what he has written becomes real. Then we the viewers are thrown our own twist as Jordan Peele enters the room to give his opening monologue and…interrupts himself to change the narration.
Yes, the final episode of the first reboot season of Twilight Zone takes place during the shooting of the final episode of the first reboot season of Twilight Zone. Our protagonist Sophie has put so much work into her show that she’s starting to lose her mind…in the Twilight Zone.
Sophie finds herself being chased by the mysterious blurryman, an entity that has been keeping an eye on the Twilight Zone reboot ever since its first episode. Incredibly this culminates in the revelation that the blurry man has indeed been appearing in every episode up until now, and you can go back and see the scenes that he appears in but never brought much attention to himself.
Blurryman is about obsession with science fiction, with closing one’s mind to creativity as they grow up, and about attaching labels to art and entertainment. It feels like a passing of the torch from Rod Serling to the new crew, and seeing Jordan Peele play an exaggerated form of himself really brings it all together. There is a bit of stilted CG at the end, but all in all this was a great way to end the season.
Blurryman is directed by Simon Kinberg who wrote Nightmare at 30,000 feet and directed/produced/wrote Dark Phoenix. They can’t all be winners. The story was written by Alex Rubens, staff writer for Community season 5 as well as Key & Peele of course.