By total accident, I watched the second episode of the new Twilight Zone first. Which I think is fine, since it’s presumably all one-shot episodes anyway. And I think this was a good one. In Nightmare at 30,000 Feet, an investigative reporter named Justin Sanderson, who is still recovering from having seen some serious shit in Yemen, finds an mp3 player with a mysterious podcast on it in his seatback pocket after boarding a plane. The podcast purports to explore the mystery of how the very flight he’s on disappears shortly after takeoff. Justin, as you might imagine, is concerned.
It feels very classic Twilight Zone, and it’s got so many callbacks in it to the famous William Shatner episode, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. (Look, it was another time and the airplanes were not as cool back then.) And the episode damn well knows what expectations its setting up with that title and twists them around in really interesting ways, with about the same amount of “oh god I can’t watch this because this person is making such a spectacle of themself oh help.”
SPOILERS BELOW since I want to mull about the theme of the episode and how it differed from its predecessor.
So the big thing about the classic Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is that in the end, William Shatner’s character is right. He’s got a similar background to Justin; he’s just recovering from a nervous breakdown, and that combined with his nervous disposition makes it impossible for people to believe that his fears are real. It’s only because he refuses to believe that it’s all in his head that he ultimately saves the flight from the gremlin that’s attacking one of the engines. He stands up to his fear by trying to confront the monster on the wing, and thus forces the plane to land, saving everyone on board and in effect sacrificing himself since he ends up getting hauled off in a strait jacket. So you could say that Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is about a man regaining his belief–his confidence–in his own perceptions enough to save the day.
Nightmare at 30,000 Feet turns that on its head. Same set up. Justin’s recovering from a nervous breakdown and on a flight. He even ends up in a window seat over the wing, which leads to a lot of shots where you as the viewer are just waiting to see there’s something on the wing this time, too. Visually, there are a lot of callbacks.But the setup about what kind of flight disaster we’re talking about is definitely different. Via the mysterious podcast that was left for him to discover, Justin’s lead to believe there’s an imminent threat to the airplane that no one else will pay attention to or believe in. And he decides he’s the man to solve the puzzle of what happened–he’s an investigative reporter, right? He’s in the business of figuring out the truth.
He pursues the leads the mysterious podcast seems to throw his way, causing a scene as he basically checks on every person mentioned by name as a possible culprit… except for himself. That’s kind of the key turning point. He’s easily convinced that the other people named–or in the case of the Sikhs, potentially related to a technical issue–could have caused the plane to disappear. But he takes his own name being mentioned as affirmation that he’s the one who is going to save this airplane. He’s so convinced in his ability to be the lone savior that he never stops to ask the question of if it’s his own actions that are going to cause the crash. Everything he hears from the podcast just affirms the direction he’s going in–he needs to solve this problem! Only he can do it!–and the only other passenger he actually listens to is… the drunk burnout guy who claims he’s a pilot and mentions bad decisions and regrets like he’s waving a series of giant red flags. The guy that flattered Justin earlier in the episode and is probably the most superficially similar to him, hm. Justin doesn’t even seem to really understand that this is all something he did when he’s the only one left conscious on a plane that’s falling out of the sky, thanks to the drunk, burnout “pilot” that murders the real pilots and takes over the cockpit–courtesy of the code Justin’s given him.
That really gets highlighted at the end of the episode, when he picks up the podcast and it lets him know that everyone is alive… except that he was never found. He’s triumphant, elated. Even surrounded by the wreckage he created with his actions, he’s certain that the disaster was inevitable and only through his intervention did everyone survive. Even as he’s about to get beaten to death by the furious surviving passengers, all of whom are well fucking aware that he did cause the crash, he’s desperately insisting that he’s the savior.
The Twilight Zone is aways strongest when it’s coming square at social commentary, and this is one hell of a parable. I think we’ve all witnessed a Determined Savior at some point in our lives, the person who is absolutely certain that they’ve got an inside line and if you’d just listen to them, you’d agree that they understand what’s going on better than anyone else. That even when they’re, say, tearing your school system apart, they’re really saving it by destroying it. The guy that knows just enough to let him think he knows everything is frustrating to deal with and dangerous. And I don’t think it’s just casting coincidence that Justin is male, or white, since the greater social privilege someone has, the more damage they can do while barreling around. (Seriously, if one of the Sikhs had started causing a scene on that airplane like Justin did, would they have gotten away with that many warnings before the air marshal cuffed them?)
Aside on the air marshal: Justin initially assumes his drunk burnout friend is the air marshal, because of course he does. The podcast doesn’t specify a name or anything else. His disbelief when he’s zip-tied by a black woman (“You’re the air marshal?”) is palpable.
I think it’s also an important point that one of the first things we see Justin do on the plane, before it even takes off, is willingly give up his seat in “privileged class” (LOL RIGHT THERE) to a family of non-white people that wants to sit together. The episode is communicating in that moment to us as viewers that Justin is not a bad guy, and that Justin also views himself as a kind and generous person. But you can be a good person who makes kind gestures and still do the very wrong thing through an unwillingness to question your own motivations. When Justin wakes up on the beach after the crash, the first person he sees is the child he gave up his seat for, and his reaction is immediately to go back to his certainty that he saved this kid and everyone else. He gave up his seat in “privileged class” but definitely does not give up his privilege, which he uses to drive an airplane into the ground.
By the end, you can’t really blame the other passengers for mobbing him. If Justin had just listened to a goddamn one of them, they wouldn’t be in this mess.