Two more episodes of the new The Twilight Zone, which is to say that I watched the new one from this week and finally got around to watching the first episode. Neither of them are exactly subtle, which is a-okay; I think particularly with “Replay,” there’s a need to not allow the audience plausible deniability with a veneer.
Replay: Lawyer Nina Harrison is taking her son Dorian to the HBCU Tennyson, where he’s going to major in film. They keep encountering a terrifyingly racist state patrolman, and Nina uses an old camcorder to rewind time to try to find a way out of the situation, which escalates with every iteration.
The Comedian: Comedian Samir Wassan basically makes a deal with the devil in order to gain success. The deal is the twist, so I don’t want to spoil it here.
SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING below the fold.
I want to start with “Replay” since I watched that one first tonight and I feel like there was just so much to it. And full disclosure, as a white person I’m sure there are things I missed, and I’m definitely not speaking authoritatively here.
“Replay” is not shy about it’s topic: the murder of black people, particularly young men, by police. The entire episode is about Nina trying to find a way around her and Dorian encountering Trooper Lasky. There’s no questioning Nina’s visceral fear and dread at every interaction with the Trooper. The interactions only start out “mildly” terrifying–Lasky shouting at them and trying to grab Nina’s camera to force her to turn it off, Lasky going after Dorian and pulling his tazer rather than his gun–before reaching what we always knew it was heading for: Dorian shot through the chest in a horrible echo of the ketchup splotch on his shirt from an earlier iteration of the timeline.
I mean basically, as soon as I saw Lasky walk into the diner and Dorian splattered himself with ketchup, I knew he was going to end up dead. And it speaks well of the skill of the director and the actors that I dreaded ever step toward that potential ending. What ultimately saves Nina is reuniting with her brother, whom she walked out on because she wanted to get away from the violence and poverty of her youth. They plan how to get Dorian to safety together, and the final confrontation with Lasky is a standoff between him and Nina, with a large group of black students at Tennyson’s gates recording it on their cell phones. Nina delivers the lesson of the episode: it’s community, and the fact that now Lasky and the other troopers call to help him are now under scrutiny by more than the eyes of their intended victims that brings salvation. It’s a strong message, and I frankly do not give half a shit about things being on the nose.
But then where the episode really ends is ten years later, with Nina’s camera accidentally broken by her granddaughter, Trinity (whom she names from the past at the beginning of the episode) and Dorian heads out to get ice cream. You can still feel Nina’s tension, the fear that he won’t return, and the stinger of the episode is a blip of siren on a black screen. Perhaps change was just a fantasy, or even hard-won victories are temporary. The fact that this final scene is filmed in the sort of golden glow that’s normally reserved for memories or dreams only highlights that feeling.
It was a difficult episode to watch because Nina (played by Sanaa Lathan) has an almost gravitational pull to her and Dorian (Damson Idris) is just so dang… pure. Lasky (Glenn Fleshler) is like the embodiment of banal evil; he’s no muscle-head young cop with an itchy trigger finger, and his ever-spiraling racism is always carefully couched in deniable terms. He never says the n-word; he just implies it when he tells Nina he’s sure she must be from out of town because he knows all of “her kind of people” around here. He calls Dorian, “boy,” and the meaning is clear even if it lacks the full theatrical, contemptuous southern drawl we’ve been trained to expect. He breathes it like a miasma when he insists that Nina’s car can’t possibly belong to her. He looks like a classic movie cop that should be on a desk and stuffing donuts into his face, but he’s beyond fast when it comes to pulling his tazer or his gun. The gun itself is even an interesting character note for the villain; it’s not a standard police handgun like we see the other state troopers have at the end. It’s a revolver with a wooden grip, something that looks like it would be at home in an old Western film.
The most interesting thing about Lasky, I found, was how he goes from being an innocuous (if quietly racist) balding guy to a towering, terrifying figure the moment he puts his hat on. That was some serious actor and camera work, there. It even feels like his paunch kind of disappears when he’s in full hat-on terror mode, like it’s been sucked partially into his body, the mass rearranging so he looks more brick wall than weeble. And the one time Nina approaches him in an attempt to establish mutual humanity, when he’s eating at the diner (hat off), he’s more than happy to open up a little to her… but you can tell her own attempt at sharing just bounces off of him. He’s not interested in empathizing with her, and she can feel it. Then a minute later, his hat is on and he acts as if they didn’t even have a conversation at all.
The other thing that really struck me, watching the episode, was the escalation of violence. First, Lasky goes for the camera. The next two encounters, he’s pulling his tazer when Nina hits the rewind button–though the second time has its own escalation because he’s smashed Dorian’s face into a glass picture frame for having dared to assert that he and Nina don’t need to show the trooper ID for no reason. The gun doesn’t come out until Nina is the one who confronts Lasky. Her losing her calm is more than understandable; at that point she’s unsuccessfully tried to flee from Lasky several times. She’s bought him pie and tried to make him see that she and Dorian are people just like him. She’s used up the last dregs of her grace under pressure, fatigued from trying to shield Dorian in each unsuccessful timeline. And then when the fear and the anger at how unfairly they’re being treated gets the better of her… it’s Dorian who suffers for it.
It’s a hard episode to watch.
“The Comedian” is also not thematically subtle, and I feel like it was also a bit longer than it needed to be. Particularly watched after the relentless dread of “Replay,” I felt like the punches from “The Comedian” were a little too spaced out.
I’ll also disclose that I don’t know a hell of a lot about stand-up comedy, but I really did identify with a lot of what it was saying as an artist. Just the whole idea of having to put some raw part of yourself out there, offered up as a sacrifice–and if that sacrifice is accepted, it no longer belongs to you. Not quite as final as literally erasing people from reality, however, but that touches on a darker side of things that reminds me of a piece I read (and can no longer find) about the horrible mill that is confessional nonfiction that particularly women tend to get pushed toward. The sort of thing where you’re expected to dredge up the most lurid aspects of your life (or make some up) for the short-term entertainment of others, and then have to keep scrambling to find more parts of yourself to sell before you’re forgotten. I think there must be a racial dimension to it as well, about the performative expectations placed on artists of color (be “authentic!”) in particular; Samir is Indian and his rival comedian Didi is black.
Because anyway, the bit where I said “literally erasing people from reality” is the twist of the episode. Thanks to the devil apparently being a stand up comic (played by Tracy Morgan) and Samir making a deal with him, people will laugh when Samir tells stories about those he knows, who are somehow personally important to him… and then at the end of the set, that person has been erased from reality. Which means Samir then has to come up with a new person to offer up at his next performance… which is honestly another thing that really hit home from me when it comes to that metaphor of art. There’s the whole “originality” bullshit thing I’ve complained about before, and the obsession over needed things to constantly be new, which I think that takes aim at. He can only use a joke once, and it turns into a soul-destroying scramble where he constantly has to come up with entirely new stories.
I thought the most interesting but also “didn’t quite work for me” aspect of the episode is where Samir basically goes full Death Note and starts using his power to erase people he deems as bad from reality. It strains the episode’s device, to say that someone he barely knew in high school is still important enough to him to count as a sacrifice–even if they were a terrible person who maybe deserves to get erased from reality because they’re a murderer. And minor people he can only ferret out by reminding himself they were in school together are close enough to count, but not the guy with the Nazi tattoos on the bus.
We only really see the effects of his interference with actual time twice; first when he erases a drunk-driving asshole comedian who killed two people, thus giving himself the Death Note-esque idea in the first place, and second when he erases his girlfriend’s mentor, causing her to have never had a successful career and thus destroying his relationship with her. But if most of the people he was erasing were, say, murderers and pedophiles, the moral line at the end where he views himself as superior to them… kind of falls flat. The problem wasn’t Samir thinking he had higher moral ground than a guy who murdered his own girlfriend; the problem was Samir decided that gave him the right to unilaterally act… which is not really a point Rena can make in their final confrontation since she doesn’t actually know what his notebook really means. The punch does land, at least, when he admits that he has started viewing people as only fuel to burn on his course to success, just looking at their value to him as sacrifices.
Which is another lesson to all artists, really.
Ultimately, compared to “Replay” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” this episode doesn’t feel as strong or as tightly put together. It’s still pretty solid as an offering in the Twilight Zone, though.
Easter eggs noticed in these episodes:
- In “The Comedian” there’s a “Lasky Street” that I think Samir lives on? But that refers to Trooper Lasky in “Replay.”
- In “Replay,” Lasky’s license plate reads 1015, a reference to the flight (and other recurring numbers) in “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.”