Despite some mixed results between critics and viewers, I’ve been a champion of The Twilight Zone reboot so far. The premiere episode, “The Comedian”, was a well written and tense introduction while “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” and “Replay” were atmospheric and innovative with their use of technology and social commentary in their narratives. The fourth episode to be presented, “A Traveler”, might be the show’s first hiccup despite a fantastic amount of talent in front of and behind the camera.
“A Traveler’s” biggest problem might be that it is trying to be too many things at once. In a mere 52 minutes, we have small town quirkiness, discussions on indigenous cultures, a mysterious stranger, potential telepathy, Russian intrigue, mayoral shenanigans, inter-office politics, three or four character switcheroos, shape-shifting, UFOs, period-confusing costumes, and, potentially, the end of the world? It is just way too much ambition for what could be a simple, effective tale of paranoia.
The place is Iglaak, Alaska, a town with about as many people as there are miles to reach the actual North Pole. Deputy Yuka (Marika Sila) has “arrested” her brother Jack (Patrick Gallagher) on Christmas Eve. It is purely ceremonial (though Jack is no stranger to the inside of a jail cell). Per a twenty-year tradition he started in the station house, Captain Pendleton (Greg Kinnear) pardons a “stranger” of their crimes and releases them from jail.
Yuka and Jack are of indigenous descent and Jack is always riding Yuka about how she is letting herself become a part of the white man’s world, especially Pendleton’s. Yuka doesn’t actually care for Pendleton that much but enjoys her job and has higher aspirations, so she tolerates Pendleton’s hokey attitude and silly traditions.
Once she arrives at the station and temporarily locks up her brother, a mysterious man, who later identifies himself as first name A, last name Traveler (Steven Yeun), is in a nearby cell. No one arrested the man and no one knows how he got in there but, seeing as A Traveler is charming and well dressed (“for a party”, as he says), Pendleton allows him to be pardoned, per his wishes.
A Traveler says he is an “aggro-traveler”, a group of extreme travelers who go to weird and eccentric places and record their visits on YouTube. A Traveler says Pendleton is a legend in their community and to be pardoned would be one of their ultimate achievements. However, A Traveler starts spilling unknown secrets about the community which causes fast-acting chaos. An already suspicious Yuka is due for a long night as both A Traveler and Pendleton himself may more than meets the eye.
So far, the three prior Twilight Zone episodes had clear, maybe sometimes too on-the-nose, statements to make on today’s culture. Much like the original show, each episode managed to use a fantastic situation, something basically impossible but on the cusp of believability, to speak to us about career ambitions, our increasing paranoid views of other cultures, and police brutality. “A Traveler” does not offer a clear message and while the journey is sometimes fun, The Twilight Zone is a specific type of show where the destination matters.
I’ve read some interesting theories on “A Traveler” from other sources. The AV Club had an interesting take that the episode was about “fake news” culture while Pajiba focuses on the concept of colonization (both historical and quite literal) and “about aliens stealing the land from the white people who stole it from the Innuit, and presenting this story through the filter of the traditions of a white people holiday, Christmas”.
These are both sound theories that I would agree with especially since A Traveler spins a lot of Russian conspiracy theories involving the most powerful man in town (sounds familiar, eh, fellow Americans?) plus the aforementioned relationship between Yuka and her brother and their stance on Pendleton. But high concepts like these need to come with competent delivery and sadly, that is where the episode surprisingly fails.
For one, “A Traveler” is directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, best known for her film A Girl Walks Alone At Night, a film that relies on stylistic atmosphere. “A Traveler” has the technical look of something moody, like a populated town that would show up in John Carpenter’s The Thing’s universe, perhaps, but only dresses up for the part; there is no feeling behind it. The camera is telling me what I should feel of the surroundings instead of letting me actually feel it.
The other surprising misstep is Glen Morgan’s script. Primarily known for his beloved The X-Files stories, which combined absurdity and genuine chills in such perfect harmony, has, as mentioned above, maybe bitten off more than he can chew. Within each development in the story, you can see where a great episode could be born from that singular idea. Instead, it is a smashing together of six or seven legit good Twilight Zone concepts.
The previous episodes of the show had a subtlety to them that Morgan is capable of providing. In “Replay”, for example, we aren’t too concerned with the why of the old camcorder that can rewind time. We only care about how that episode’s hero, Nina (Sanaa Lathan), using that technology enough to save her son from death all while subtly explaining the black experience in America and police brutality.
“A Traveler” seems to want to focus on the gimmick portion, not the message. In the end, A Traveler is really an alien from space (!) and Captain Pendleton’s deal with the Russians to sell military secrets was just a way for the aliens to get in and literally invade the planet. The episode spends too much time selling us a literal why that it forgets to provide us an actual how this affects our human characters who, usually, are substitutes for humans en masse.
And while the writing and directing fail to inspire, the acting is superb, from both established names and unknowns alike. Marika Sila, in only her third credited role, is excellent as the all-business Yuka. Her foil, Captain Pendleton, is played by Academy Award nominee Greg Kinnear, an actor who has been able to play varying roles with subtle shades of either benevolence or malevolence. He needs both for Pendleton and pulls it off well.
The star of the episode is meant to be Steven Yeun, notable for the recent films Mayhem and Sorry To Bother You. Much like the staged atmosphere alleging tension, Yeun’s charm seems artificial. He makes for a handsome stranger but, either from a script standpoint or from his own interpretation, Yeun is not subtle enough to pull off his end of the bargain. In fact, it made me think that Kinnear would have been a better choice due to his unique acting history of playing “aw, shucks” good guys and slimy dirtbags, sometimes at the same time.
Overall, while the episode does convey a “what-will-happen-next” effect on the viewer (nothing is exactly telegraphed plot-wise), it is more because of the jumbled mess of concepts and not some master plan of storytelling. You’ve got a well acted, technically competent episode that lacks any “umpf” with its messaging.
If this is your first episode of the new Twilight Zone, don’t let this be the determining factor in catching other installments. As far as I’m concerned, the show is three-for-four and deserves continued attention despite the hiccup.