dark fantasy tv reaction

Review: ‘The Twilight Zone’: ‘A Traveler’ explores paranoia and Russian interference

Originally published at People’s World

Editor’s note: A review and analysis of Jordan Peele’s “The Twilight Zone” episode four. Spoilers ahead.

“Truth can take on many different forms, depending on how you look at it.” – The Twilight Zone

Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone is currently airing weekly on the streaming service CBS All Access. While last week’s episode “Replay” had a heavy and serious tone, dealing with police brutality and racism, this week’s episode, “A Traveler,” has a more obvious cheerful holiday flare with darker themes interwoven throughout. The fourth episode uses themes in the original Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” such as paranoia and suspicion, to speak to our current political climate of corruption, Russian election interference, and human nature.

The episode stars Steven Yeun (Sorry to Bother You), Marika Sila (Lucifer), Greg Kinnear (You’ve Got Mail), Patrick Gallagher (Captain Marvel), and was written by Glen Morgan (Final Destination 3). Sila plays Sgt. Yuka Mongoyak, a small town cop up in the Arctic Circle, who on Christmas Eve discovers a mysterious traveler (Yeun) in the town jail claiming to be a travel vlogger. When Mongoyak’s boss, Captain Lane Pendleton (Kinnear), pardons the traveler, things go from mysterious to terrifying, as the traveler plays on the townspeople’s paranoia and fear, making them turn on one another.

“A Traveler” keeps the mystery of who the traveler actually is until the very end. This does well in building the atmosphere of fear and paranoia in the episode for the viewer, as well as the characters, as it becomes a guessing game on the traveler’s true identity. Is he just a travel vlogger, an FBI agent, a Russian spy, or some kind of otherworldly creature? Throughout the episode, many of these possible options are presented, but even the audience isn’t let in on the secret until the very end when the major twist is revealed. This helped in building suspense, although with this episode being heavy on dialogue and lighter on action than “Replay,” viewers may feel an occasional lag in the pacing of the story.

Yeun gives a chilling performance as Traveler, (what he actually calls himself in the episode), making it easy to believe any of the so-called truths he presents over the course of the story. Yeun goes from welcoming to menacing with ease, making for a standout portrayal. Sila portrays Sgt. Yuka Mongoyak with stubborn complexity, as the character tries to figure out who Traveler is while not falling into the paranoia that the mysterious guest is spreading in the town. The moments where she has to defend her position as an Indigenous woman and cop to her brother Jack, who questions her pride in her heritage, adds another layer to the character as well. Yuka has pride in her town and is trying to protect it while dealing with the duality of working within a system that often oppresses the Indigenous people there.

The atmosphere of mystery is maintained, but there are times when the plot and pacing feel scattered. The highlight of Yuka’s heritage is important to touch upon, yet it feels almost thrown in as quick messaging rather than being integral to the overall plot itself. The mass hysteria and paranoia that Traveler sews in the town are only seen in the few attendees of the small holiday party that Captain Pendleton holds at the precinct. This leaves viewers unable to see the mass impact of Traveler’s work and the power that knowing the secrets of the townspeople has in turning them against one another.

“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” which originally premiered on March 4, 1960, dealt with a small town that descended into chaos as neighbors began suspecting each other of being hostile aliens from outer space. As it turned out, the aliens from outer space were indeed the culprits, but instead of an outright invasion, the invaders had sewn the seeds of suspicion and paranoia by using the disruption of electricity to the town. They made it so the humans turned on themselves, leaving them vulnerable and distracted. “A Traveler” plays on this same sentiment as Traveler foments doubt and suspicion between Pendleton, Yuka, and some of the townsfolk in order to find the main power source on land in order to invade Earth.

“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” premiered at a time when society was still feeling the ramifications of McCarthyism. In the 1950s, U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy used his position of power on Capitol Hill to accuse people of subversion or treason against the government without regard to concrete evidence. His accusations were often pointed towards those that were activists, socialists, communists, and others seen as going against the systemic status quo of capitalism. “A Traveler,” although set in 2019, is also occurring during a time where suspicion of subversion and treason in the United States is high, as the many ways in which the Russian government may have interfered with the 2016 elections to benefit Trump are revealed. This has caused an atmosphere of suspicion that “A Traveler” highlights on The Twilight Zone.

Traveler often mentions Russia and patriotism as he draws the officers into believing his story or distrusting one another. He also plays on rumors, or “fake news,” in order to get the townspeople riled up. When he presents himself as a travel vlogger, he plays on Pendleton’s ego in being seen as a savior and patriotic leader. When Traveler changes his story to being an FBI agent, he plays on Yuka’s desire to rid the town of police corruption that Pendleton may be involved in. Finally, when he presents his true form of extraterrestrial alien, Yuka’s brother Jack surmises that the world may be better off with Traveler’s kind in charge as the aliens seemingly begin their invasion. Traveler played multiple sides to cause distraction and vulnerability. This could be seen as a commentary on our current political climate.

Although Russian interference has been proven to be an actual issue, one could also present a case that it is has been used as a distraction from other attacks on democracy in the United States. Russian interference did occur in the 2016 presidential elections, but another tactic of oppression was also enforced in plain sight—voter suppression, largely targeting working-class voters of color. This voter suppression resulted in many citizens being unable to exercise their right to vote, thus stripping them of their political voice.

One could say that the internal “monster” of voter suppression is often ignored in the mainstream press for the more sensational revelations of the outside threat of Russian interference. Pendleton and Yuka were so focused on their own versions of the truth, possible Russian influence—and personal gain—that they never stopped to see the more obvious threat right in front of their eyes. Yuka had her idea of truth, Pendelton his, and Traveler manipulated each in order to serve his own purpose. Who or what the actual monster is in “A Traveler” is left open to interpretation, depending on which side the viewer leans towards, which isn’t very different from how truth and “fake news” is differentiated in our own reality.

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