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A clever Christmas Twilight Zone explains the effectiveness of “fake news"

Photo: Robert Falconer (CBS)
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The first three episodes of the new Twilight Zone have all seen writers and directors wrestling with the legacy of Rod Serling’s original series, trying to figure out how to make a science-fiction anthology show that’s relevant to today, yet also true to what “the Twilight Zone” really means. This week’s “A Traveler,” on the other hand, more effortlessly feels like an old Twilight Zone episode. Or, to put it a better way, it’s Serling as filtered through the sensibility of veteran X-Files writer Glen Morgan, and the promising young A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night director Ana Lily Amirpour, two people who’ve clearly internalized his cultural influence.

“A Traveler” is still pointed and up-to-date in its own way, though—just like last week’s devastating “Replay,” but less emotional, and more sly.

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We begin with a solid, old-school Zone premise. In the snowy west Alaska town of Iglaak, not far from an Air Force listening station, the local police captain Lane Pendleton (played by Greg Kinnear) has a tradition of pardoning one prisoner from his dinky jail on Christmas Eve. This year, the plans are for Officer Yuka (Marika Sila) to arrest her drunken rapscallion brother Jack, for the purposes of teaching him a lesson before letting him go. But when the time comes for Captain Pendleton’s annual act of ceremonial magnanimity, Yuka looks into what’s supposed to be an empty cell near Jack’s, and she finds… a man in a hat!

Okay, maybe that doesn’t sound so scary, no matter how unexpected. But what if I told you that this man in the hat was also wearing a really nice suit? And that he claimed that his name was “A. Traveler,” and the he was part of a community of adventurers who’ve heard all about Captain Pendleton’s pardons, and consider it a “bucket list” kind of honor? What if I told you that Mr. Traveler was played by Steven Yeun, continuing the run of charmingly unsettling characters he began with last year’s should’ve-been-Oscar-nominated performance in Burning?

The Yeun factor has a lot to do with why “A Traveler” works so well. He’s so quietly ingratiating, with his stories about riding the Trans-Siberian Railway, and his willingness to grab the karaoke microphone at the Iglaak police Christmas party. Yeun plays well off of Kinnear’s Captain Pendleton, who’s something of a self-promoting, self-righteous blowhard, easily persuaded when his visitor talks about the Captain’s tough-but-fair reputation reaching all the way to neighboring Russia.

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Photo: Robert Falconer (CBS)

The newcomer Sila is excellent as well as Yuka, whose Inuit roots and low tolerance for her boss’s good ol’ boy nonsense is all part of something else that sets “A Traveler” apart: the sense of character and place. From the opening shot of the northern lights, to the emphasis on the specific challenges of living almost off-the-grid, this episode makes good use of its setting. Nothing about the story’s location is incidental.

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This Twilight Zone isn’t flawless. Even with the finely shaded scenes of local color, there’s little reason for this thing to run 50 minutes. Plus, I remain unconvinced that this series needs to be TV-MA. So far, four episodes in, the adult content hasn’t involved a heightened level of gore, or sex. With the exception of “Replay,” the themes haven’t even been what I’d call “recommended for a mature audience.” The new show though is liberally, and to my ears gratuitously, sprinkled with swears. For everyone who remembers watching the old Twilight Zones with their parents—either in syndication or when they originally aired—it’s disappointing that the new version has decided to exclude a younger audience.

I say that in large part because “A Traveler” would’ve been a good episode for families to watch together, and to talk about after. The villain’s motivations and methods are fascinating to unpack. He exploits the Captain’s ego, and his traditional gospel message of, “For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in.” Then, once he’s accepted as a member of the community, he starts bringing up their secrets, and the issues that divide them, very easily pitting neighbor against neighbor.

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Why does he do this? Because he’s a space alien, of course! (This is The Twilight Zone, after all.) By the end of this episode, while the Iglaakers are directing their rage toward each other, the glowing flying saucers are hovering over the town, en masse.

This ending of “A Traveler” is a feint, I think. Sure, it wraps the story up nicely, with a traditional Twilight Zone punch. But the real stinger happens a scene or two earlier, when Yeun’s outsider—now all antennae-sporting and distorted-voiced—convinces Yuka that her boss has been funneling classified information to the Russians for years. Earlier, she didn’t want to believe him when he said that her brother had been stealing snow machine parts. But now she’s all too eager to buy what he’s selling, if it means she can get rid of a superior officer she can’t stand.

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Photo: Robert Falconer (CBS)

As someone says earlier in this episode, “You believe in what you believe… Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?” So is “A Traveler” meant to be a cynical commentary on the blandly reassuring myths and legends of the holiday season: from Santa Claus to the baby in the manger? Perhaps. But I don’t think it’s coincidental that the basic details of this story involve a seemingly friendly fellow arriving in America via Russia, and inflaming (as well as distracting) the citizenry by telling them what they want to hear.

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Who is this Traveler? He’s a walking, talking, grinning, singing embodiment of a politically charged, wildly inaccurate Facebook post. He’s a living meme, made to be “liked.”

Stray observations

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About the author

Noel Murray

Lives in Arkansas, writes about movies, TV, music, comics, and more. Bylines in The A.V. Club, The Week, The Verge, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone.