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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled A high school mean girl gets superpowers in a slight-but-snappy iTwilight Zone/i
Photo: CBS
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Neither of the two lead actresses in “Among The Untrodden” have done much before this Twilight Zone; and both are very good. And yet the real star of this episode may be its director, Tayarisha Poe, whose first feature Selah And The Spades was a sensation at Sundance when it debuted there in 2019. The movie landed on Amazon earlier this year, where it didn’t draw nearly enough attention… because, y’know, we’ve all been kind of distracted. But if you’ve seen Selah, you’ll understand why Poe was an inspired choice to direct “Among The Untrodden.” Both that film and this Twilight Zone are about a clique of boarding school bad seeds, and about a potentially destructive mentorship between peers.

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Poe didn’t write “Among The Untrodden.” That credit goes to Heather Anne Campbell, whose previous Twilight Zone credits include co-writing the pretty good “Six Degrees Of Freedom” and writing the under-baked “Not All Men.” This new episode exhibits a lot of the strengths of those two earlier installments: namely a strong sense of the ever-shifting dynamics within a social circle.

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The social circle in this case is a familiar one from TV and movies—and no doubt from real life. Abbie Hern plays Madison, an alpha in her circle of mean-spirited private school girls. Sophia Macy plays Irene, the new girl in class, an oddball who announces on the first day that her big science project for the semester is going to be about psychic powers, and will involve testing her classmates to see who might have any enhanced mental abilities.

Irene is, of course, almost immediately targeted by Madison and her posse of bullies. (On day one, they pass her a note that asks if she was forced to transfer from her old school because she’s: A slut; or: A loser.) But Irene seems unconcerned about the harassment. She presses on with her tests, and soon identifies Madison as obviously gifted. The reason? Madison scored a 0 on Irene’s basic ESP test—the one about guessing the simple shapes printed on the other side of a card. This would be almost impossible to for Madison to do unless she’d “seen” all the shapes in her mind and had deliberately answered wrong each time.

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“Among The Untrodden” proceeds along two tracks, one of which is more fruitful than the other. About half of the episode is an entertaining but predictable riff on the likes of Mean Girls and Heathers, with a dollop of Carrie stirred in. As Madison tentatively allows Irene into her life, the other girls keep duping the newbie into saying and doing embarrassing things—like asking her whether she’s ever “orgasmed.” Yet again, Irene is unruffled. She cheerily plays along. (“She’s not even embarrassed about how embarrassing she’s being,” the bullies marvel.)

Illustration for article titled A high school mean girl gets superpowers in a slight-but-snappy iTwilight Zone/i
Photo: CBS
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The relationship appears to shift after Irene falls off a rooftop balcony while hanging out with the clique. Curiously, she comes away uninjured. (“It doesn’t hurt if you don’t give a fuck all the way down,” she laughs.) Suddenly, the other girls seem to admire Irene, with her earnest “I’m okay you’re okay” speeches and her fashion tips from Girls Beat magazine.

But alas, the sudden kindness is all a ruse. The gals are just setting Irene up for their biggest prank on her yet: the reveal of their science project, which is a video display of her most awkward moments, titled, “Anatomy Of A Loser.” This inevitably leads to a full psychic beat-down of Irene’s tormentors, who get totally The Fury-ed as soon after they unveil their project.

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But who’s doing the Fury-ing? Irene or Madison?

What I liked best about “Among The Untrodden” is the other track it proceeds along: the one involving the wary friendship that develops between the eccentric girl who loves psychics and the hard-edged girl who may be one. These parts are more surprising, with a potentially larger meaning.

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First off, there’s a double-twist in this central relationship. As Irene runs through a list of potential psychic powers and tests whether or not Madison has any of them, Campbell and Poe subtly suggest that maybe Madison has no powers at all. Instead maybe it’s Irene who has ESP and telekinesis. (Hence her not being hurt when she falls off a roof, and hence her persecutors getting psychically flattened at the science fair.) Maybe she also has the power to enter people’s minds and bend their wills. Maybe she’s been manipulating Madison into believing she’s special, just so they could become friends.

Illustration for article titled A high school mean girl gets superpowers in a slight-but-snappy iTwilight Zone/i
Photo: CBS
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But here’s the twist on the twist: After Madison angrily accuses Irene of just this thing, Irene persuades her otherwise and they reconcile… just in time for Irene to crumble into ash and blow away. Early in the episode, we saw Madison’s pencil do the same thing after she dropped it on the floor. And in the testing sessions between the two girls, on the list of potential powers Irene puts on the big board, one of the ones she never gets to is “conjuring.” It turns out that not only is Madison actually psychic, but also powerful enough to be able to create, unconsciously, something as simple as a writing implement and as complex as a teenage girl.

For me at least, this bait-and-switch was completely unexpected. It also cast the previous conversations between Madison and Irene in a new light. All this time, Madison was really talking to herself: admitting to herself that she hates her friends, and encouraging herself to embrace being “different.”

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If you want to, you can read this as a metaphor for all kinds of angsty adolescent rites of passage: from making the choice to break away from “the crowd” to coming to grips with sexual orientation. But this episode smartly keeps that vague, and thus more universal. In the end, this is a story about the popular kid who’s secretly lonely, yearning for something she may not find until she allows herself to grow up.


Stray observations

  • This episode’s press kit easter egg: “He can twitch a muscle, move a jaw, concentrate on the cast of his eyes, and he can change his face.” That’s a line from intro to “The Four Of Us Are Dying,” a Twilight Zone about a shape-shifter. Make of that what you will.
  • The elaborate technology and design of the “Anatomy Of A Loser” science project bugged me, I have to admit. I’m always annoyed by how in TV shows and movies people somehow have the time, resources and skill to make, like, elaborate Halloween costumes or museum-quality school projects. (Plus, how did they assemble that big display without a teacher seeing what the project was going to be about and stopping them?)
  • Another one from “The Twilight Zone is a shared universe!” department: In one scene, the girls are listening to Mynx!
  • Next up: “8.”
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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.

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