Having now watched the first three episodes of Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone redux, I have to say that the show is beginning to feel a little bit like de-ja-vu.
The first three episodes all seem to follow the basic narrative structure. A character discovers that they possess some kind of reality altering ability, they then exploit that ability for either good or bad effect. In the case of the first two episodes, these abilities were used in negative ways, with both main characters (who are both male) eventually meeting their own sticky ends. So it is admittedly refreshing to see this formula being presented from the opposite way, with a female main character using her ability for acts of good. As this is the basic premise of the show’s third episode ‘Replay’ – which may be the best episode I have seen so far.
The story revolves around Nina Harrison, an African-American woman who left behind her community to become a successful and hard-working mother. While she is driving her son to his first day of College, she discovers that her ancient camcorder has the ability to rewind time. Allowing her to relive the many events of the day. In the first ten minutes of the episode, we are given everything that we need to know. That Nina’s camera holds time-altering abilities, that there is a bigoted police officer in the vicinity and that Nina’s son may lose his life. And from these small clues alone, we are given the most interesting concept that the show has delivered.
From here, we watch as Nina and her son are constantly targeted by the police officer, leading to various outcomes. Some ending in violence, others ending in tragedy and loss. But, thanks to Nina’s magic camera, we get to start all over again and see another pathway be created before our eyes. However, it seems that Officer Lasky always manages to corner them, his racist beliefs fuelling his disdain for the mother and son.
Although the time-travelling element makes this episode both intriguing and impactful, it is its message on race that leaves the most lasting impression.
During the first interaction between Nina and Officer Lasky, it is clear that this story would have been very different if the two main characters were not of African-descent. Nina constantly scolds her son for his sarcastic remarks, telling him to treat Lasky with ‘respect’, capturing the fear that many African-American groups must feel when placed in such a situation. The realisation that these two characters must act a certain way when placed within the dominating presence of a white law enforcer, is both heart-breaking and stomach-churning. And the wave of emotions felt are beautifully portrayed by Sanaa Lathan, who injects her performance not only with fear and misery, but also a spark that hints at a strength hidden beneath her maternal exterior.
Glenn Fleshler also gives an eerie performance in the role of Officer Lasky, who seems to waver between racist officer and emotionless robot. In many ways, the episode seems to portray the police as a symbolic bogeyman, always hiding around the next dark corner. Again delivering a strong and powerful message about race and the treatment of racial minorities in America. In this episode we begin to truly see Jordan Peele’s influence on the show’s make over, with his usual blend of horror and topical themes coming together to create the best episode of the show so far.
However, the episode sadly does suffer from some very basic flaws. For one thing, the episode’s primary message may be both needed and significant, but it also feels far too on the nose. By the time the episode ends, the notion of time-travel has been forgotten in favour of what basically becomes an advertisement for Black Lives Matter.
In some ways, I wish that the show’s message on race had been handled in a more subtle and controlled way. Even in the 1950’s, writers were using The Twilight Zone to address issues within society – but they did it in a way that was more metaphorical than literal. And although the message in ‘Replay’ is one that needs to be broadcasted, I fear that it demonstrates just how unsubtle this new Twilight Zone can be. I am also finding myself growing more and more tired of the show’s modern aesthetic, which again lends itself far more to stories about modern issues, than stories than can transcend both reality and time. However, this episode can still be dubbed as my favourite of the season so far. The writing was clever and the characters were likeable, and Lathan’s performance acted as the symbolic glue that held it all together. But now I want an episode that doesn’t use the same formula as the last three, I want something new and different. Something that the show should be able to deliver – it is The Twilight Zone after all