This The Twilight Zone review contains spoilers.
The Twilight Zone Episode 4
When it comes to science fiction, the devil is in the details. Hell, when it comes to any piece of narrative art, the Morningstar remains in the minutiae.
That’s what makes the beginning of The Twilight Zone Episode 4, “A Traveler” so promising. The first quarter of “A Traveler” establishes its tone and world more effectively than any of the other three offerings thus far (save for maybe “The Comedian” and Kumail Nanjiani’s deliberately awful Second Amendment joke).
The first thing “A Traveler” presents to the viewer is the northern lights. Then the camera pans down and we’re in a cop car, speeding through the frozen darkness with Yuka (Marika Sila) and her drunken brother Jack (Patrick Gallagher) in the back. Through Yuka and Jack’s uncommonly smooth expository dialogue we find out everything we need to know about this place.
The Twilight Zone has taken us to Iglaak, Alaska. It’s Christmas Eve and Yuka has booked her brother on public intoxication and is bringing him back to the police station to sober up in a holding cell. It’s all OK though because police chief Pendleton (Greg Kinnear) has a Christmas tradition of pardoning a prisoner every Christmas. Jack will be eating pie with the rest of the station (and assembled townspeople) in no time.
Even once they arrive at the station, “A Traveler” keeps up its unusually natural expository dialogue. Captain Pendleton further explains his Christmas ritual of pardons and in such few words perfectly encapsulates the tension between the white Americans like him who have “tamed” Alaska and the native locals like Yuka and Jack who must tolerate their presence…and the military Chainey Listening Station they brought with them.
By the time the titular “A Traveler” mysteriously turns up in a cell next to Jack, the episode barely even needs the now familiar Jordan Peele beginning narration. Many Twilight Zone episodes take on the general structure of a joke. There’s a setup, in which the “normal” world is established and the “punchline,” in which that normal world is lifted up to reveal something far more sinister and weird. “A Traveler’s” setup is about as good as any episode of The Twilight Zone can hope to achieve. The punchline, however, is ultimately disappointing.
Part of the problem arises from just how damned intriguing the sudden arrival of A Traveler is and all the unused storytelling possibilities he represents. The dapperly dressed man (played by Steven Yeun) says that he is part of an extreme tourism movement and travels the world over looking for unusual places to travel to. He loves traveling so much that he’s even legally changed his name to “A. Traveler.” Sure enough, his California license card says just that when Yuka checks out. He says he’s come to Iglaak, Alaska to be “pardoned” by the famous Captain Pendleton in is well known Christmas pardoning ritual.
For an all too brief moment within the episode, it’s pretty exhilarating to imagine the routes “A Traveler” can take. A Traveler could be an intergalactic criminal, exploiting the de facto laws of Earth to really receive a pardon for his many space crimes. He could be a ghost of Christmas past, coming to rattle the white Alaskans into being less awful. Or he could just be an individual with a vested interest in getting poor Jack his pie.
The truth, however, turns out to be the least intriguing option. It also robs Yeun of the chance to further explore the character’s inner-workings. A Traveler is an alien who wants to…say it with … to conquer Earth. He’s come to Iglaak not for any compelling reason other than the fact that the Chainey Listening Station is an important communications hub fro the country.
In terms of both science fiction and The Twilight Zone, an alien species bent on world domination is as ho-hum as it gets. A Traveler’s strategies for taking over the world are as equally uninspired. Despite possessing powers untold, he seems simply content to turn the residents of Iglaak against one another by spilling all their respective tea over Christmas eggnog. He even eventually tells Yuka that Captain Pendleton has been selling secrets to the Russians, which is not as Earth-shattering a revelation as “A Traveler” thinks it is.
Still, despite how uninspired the revelations within “A Traveler” are, the setting they take place in are still unique and add a level of poignancy to the proceedings. Much discussion of this Twilight Zone reboot has revolved around how it will seek to reflect the diversity of the world in 2019 more so than in previous incarnations. “A Traveler” is an excellent example of how that can, in theory, help the show tell new stories…even if it doesn’t work to tremendous effect here.
The concept of an alien invasion being presented as analogous to the invasion of white America to the natives of Alaska is a powerful one…and it’s certainly not one I can remember seeing on television. In fact, being able to draw comparisons between an extraterrestrial invasion and a sadly terrestrial one mitigates a lot of what’s boring about the episode’s back half. It’s thought provoking at the very least. It also certainly helps that Marika Sila gives what might be the best performance on this iteration of The Twilight Zone thus far as the capable and thorough Yuka.
Yuka is the ideal heroine for a story like this. When presented with something impossible, she does what any good cop or hero would do: she puts in the work to try to figure that shit out. While everyone else is getting drunk with their new mysterious traveler, Yuka throws on a headset and starts making calls to gather useful information. It’s important to the context of the episode but it also helps endear the viewer to the story’s quiet protagonist.
Still, despite the strength of its lead character and clever approach to invasion metaphor, “A Traveler” just isn’t able to pull off that invasion as well as it needs to. So much of our best science fiction is allegorical. “A Traveler” knows this and seems to almost get too excited in presenting the allegory. A Traveler is very blunt with Yuka and Jack about how a possible alien invasion could benefit them and their culture. Jack even concedes “maybe things will be better with you guys in charge.” That is an observation that belongs to the keen-eyed viewer, not a character onscreen. The characters have a story to concern themselves with.
“A Traveler” would have benefitted from more trust – both more trust in its characters and the audience. Thankfully, this isn’t a total wash as parts of “A Traveler” present intriguing concepts that are rare to television, despite how ineffectively presented they may at times be. And even more thankfully: Jack finally gets his pie.