Through four episodes now, Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone episodes all have something in common: They feature a really talented roster of diverse actors (Steven Yeun, Kumail Nanjiani, Tracy Jordan, Sanaa Lathan, Adam Scott), some terrifically talented (and diverse) directors who do strong work, a lot of interesting themes, and writing that lets all of the other elements down, like an SNL episode with host Emma Stone. The strong cast aside, the episodes often feel like they are lesser short stories a novelist might pull out of a drawer when asked for a contribution to an anthology. They’re built around themes rather than stories, and all four episodes have suffered greatly anticlimactic conclusions. When we tune into The Twilight Zone, I think we all expect a stunning twist or a thought-provoking revelation in the end, but thus far, the conclusions have been hugely unsatisfying.
There’s no better example of that than this week’s A. Traveler, which — and I apologize for this analogy — feels like one of the lesser episodes of The X-Files reboot (I thought that even before finding out that The X-Files’ Glen Morgan wrote the episode). There’s a germ of a good idea here, I appreciate what the episode is saying, and the performances and direction (from Ana Lily Amirpour) are outstanding, but the story is a baffling mess.
(Episode 4 Spoilers)
The episode opens in the small Alaskan town of Iglaak during the Christmas season. Sergeant Yuka Mongoyak, a native Inuit played by newcomer Marika Sila (who is fantastic), has picked up her drunk brother Jack (Patrick Gallagher), so that she can take him back to the police station and her racist, blowhard, narcissistic boss Captain Lane Pendleton (Greg Kinnear) can continue his tradition of pardoning someone on the night of Christmas Eve, because he’s oh-so-humble. On the drive over, a drunken Jack is complaining about American Christmas traditions, how they’ve replaced those of the Innuits, and how Yuka has sold out to the white man.
Back in the jail cells, a hitch avails itself when someone who calls himself A. Traveler (Steven Yeun, in an effectively creepy role) materializes in one of the cells and asks for the pardon, claiming to be a traveler who documents his travels on a popular YouTube channel. He charms his way into the good graces of Pendleton, as well as everyone else, except for a skeptical Yuka, who begins running background checks on A. Traveler and comes up empty. A grinning A. Traveler, however, endeavors to win over Yuka by promising her the Christmas present she most wants.
Here, I will cut to the chase: A. Traveler is not who he seems to be, but he does endeavor to give Yuka what she really wants for Christmas — to run the police department — by outing her boss, Pendleton, as some sort of agent for Russia. Pendleton’s actions essentially confirm A. Traveler’s story, and Yuka confronts him with a shotgun while he’s trying to protect Russian interests at the city’s power grid. While she’s training a gun on him, a group of UFO’s zoom in and hover above. Meanwhile, back in the jail cells, A. Traveler releases Yuka’s drunken brother from his cell, reveals himself to be an alien, and Jack says something to the effect of, “Maybe it’ll be better with you guys running things.” Then Jack and the alien enjoy a piece of pie together.
Here, again, it’s a thematically interesting episode — even if it is a little muddled — about colonization, about aliens stealing the land from the white people who stole it from the Innuit, and presenting this story through the filter of the traditions of a white people holiday, Christmas. The kicker here is Jack — whose people understand having their culture replaced — sort of shrugging his shoulders over the whole ordeal, “Maybe it’ll be better with you guys running things,” he says, the reverse implication being, “Eh. It can’t get much worse.”
The parable here is timely and relevant, but the vehicle for the message is a draggy mess, and Steven Yeun is little more than a misdirect with a creepy smile killing time for 40 minutes before the twist is revealed. I appreciate what Jordan Peele is trying to do with the updated Twilight Zone, but so far, the payoffs have not been worth the effort.
Header Image Source: CBS All Access