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The Twilight Zone clumsily tackles immigration in another frustrating episode

Photo: Robert Falconer (CBS)
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The two best episodes of this new Twilight Zone so far have been “Replay” and “A Traveler,” neither of which have shied away from the social commentary that’s been central to this series, but both of which have been effectively spooky regardless, even divorced from the points they’re making. Even if “Replay” weren’t about a racist police shooting, the idea of a time-travel device that can’t change a person’s fate would still be nerve-wracking. Even if “A Traveler” weren’t commenting on Russian “fake news” farms, the isolated Alaskan setting and Steven Yeun’s performance as a suspiciously friendly alien would still be wonderfully weird.

With this week’s “Point Of Origin” though, it’s harder to separate the more finely crafted, genuinely creepy scenes from the parts that are just the episode repeating the same message, over and over, to diminishing returns.

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The usual caveats apply: Yes, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone could be heavy-handed; and yes, the points this show’s trying to make may actually need to be delivered as clearly and sharply as possible. But even the ‘60s Twilight Zones that “Point Of Origin” most resembles—I’m thinking here in particular of the “walk a mile in your enemies’ shoes” episode “A Quality Of Mercy”—often had a certain slyness this installment could use.

The cast is definitely not to blame. Ginnifer Goodwin is excellent as Eve Martin, an upper-class suburbanite and the mother of two eight-year-old twin girls. In the opening sequence, Eve comes across as kindly but fussy. We see her planning a lavish party, while worrying that too many people are going to tromp around her mini-mansion, ruining the expensive decor. We also see her agreeing to let her housekeeper Anna Fuentes (Zabryna Guevara) use the Martins’ address to get her grandson into a prestigious charter school, even though it’s clear Eve doesn’t know enough about Anna’s life to call her “part of our family.” (The way Goodwin chirpily says to Anna, “Is that someone at the door?” after their little chat perfectly captures the tone of, “I’m acting like I’m your friend because that makes everything more pleasant, but please don’t forget you work for me.”)

Then the twists begin: Two, to be exact. First, Anna gets whisked away from the Martins’ house by government agents. Then, not long after that, Eve gets arrested while out shopping with the twins, and is detained in the same facility as Anna. Why did the authorities grab her? Because Eve is secretly a “pilgrim”… from another dimension!

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This episode’s credited writer John Griffin and director Mathias Herndl don’t so much exciting or unexpected with this second twist. As soon as the government refreshes Eve’s memory about who she really is, this becomes a fairly rote “turnabout” story. What if wealthy white folks were being herded into camps and told they don’t belong here, instead of poor brown folks? “Point Of Origin” presents the everyday nightmare of a migrant detainment facility—from its frustrating bureaucracy to its physical and mental torments—from the perspective of someone who until very recently had been sheltered from all this.

But shouldn’t the horrors of being herded into a cell with no apparent due process be just as hellish presented as it really is, from the point of view of an actual immigrant or asylum-seeker? Is this switcheroo really all that clever—or necessary?

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Photo: Robert Falconer (CBS)

The one really sharp twist in “Point Of Origin” is that unlike some past Twilight Zone protagonists who need to be taught a lesson (for example Vic Morrow’s character in the “Quality Of Mercy”-like Twilight Zone: The Movie segment “Time Out”), Eve isn’t some raging bigot. She’s just a well-meaning person of privilege, with convenient blind-spots. The best parts of this episode come before Eve gets nabbed, when we see her with her friends, lying about her reaction to Anna’s arrest. (“I said, ‘You cannot walk into our house and do this!”)

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Later, when she’s running errands with her daughters, the girls keep noticing how clueless their mom is about basic stuff: like what country Anna’s from, and why she shouldn’t park her SUV across two spaces, and why the kids might want to give a dollar to the homeless man playing guitar outside the store, and how to use a rewards card and credit card in a supermarket checkout line. There’s a welcome subtlety to these scenes of an otherwise “good” person behaving terribly in multiple small ways, because she’s never really had to think about how her life of ease affects the people who—sometimes without being asked—make it possible.

This more quietly unsettling side of “Point Of Origin” though soon gets crushed under the episode’s more lead-footed social commentary. James Frain is very good as the government inquisitor who’s unmoved by Eve’s haughty demands of, “We have a right to know why we’re here!” And Guevara has one of the best moments when Anna meets Eve in the mass cell and the latter breathlessly says, “I had no idea they’d take you to a place like this!” Anna cooly replies, “Yes, you did.”

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Photo: Robert Falconer (CBS)

But the details of Eve’s original dimension and the lives of its many pilgrims aren’t especially well-developed, beyond the most pertinent information: The old dimension was ravaged, and thus this side’s powers-that-be don’t want “them” coming over here and diluting “our” bloodline. Without more information—or indeed any kind of richer narrative—the big final stinger of Eve’s husband and kids rejecting her after her desperate escape feels pretty abrupt.

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As Eve sneaks home, the soundtrack plays a version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” a populist anthem for the ages, about the artificial lines thatpeople draw to decide who does and doesn’t “belong.” The song is a fine piece of popular art about class divisions and the American promise. “Point Of Origin” lacks that kind of grace.


Stray observations

  • I mentioned that “Replay” and “A Traveler” as this Twilight Zone’s two best, but I still have a soft spot for “Nightmare At 30,000 Feet”—which I know a lot of folks didn’t like—because I thought it was funny. “Six Degrees Of Freedom” was fairly enjoyable too. This episode wasn’t as terrible as “The Comedian” or “The Wunderkind.” It’s more on par with “Not All Men,” in that the genre elements still (mostly) work, even when the social commentary doesn’t. Still… This show’s hit-to-miss ration right now is one-to-one. The original Twilight Zone was always a pretty spotty show, but given the low number of episodes and the talent involved, shouldn’t the new one be more reliably good—let alone great?
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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.