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‘The Twilight Zone’: ‘Six Degrees of Freedom’ and human salvation

Originally published at People’s World

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

“Who or what can we trust if not ourselves?” – The Twilight Zone

Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone is currently airing weekly on the streaming service CBS All Access. Episodes one through five of the series have all focused primarily on earthly issues, mainly to do with the United States. Aside from the last-minute alien plot twist in “A Traveler” all of the stories have focused on everyday human beings dealing with issues that are reflections of socio-political problems faced in our current times. Episode six, titled “Six Degrees of Freedom,” has the series taking on a more cosmic flare as the focus is on a group of astronauts trying to stay sane and alive under tragic circumstances. The themes of this story are perception of truth, human salvation, and self-destruction.

The episode stars, Dewanda Wise (She’s Gotta Have It), Jessica Williams (2 Dope Queens), Jonathan Whitesell (Once Upon a Time), Lucinda Dryzek (Holby City), and Jefferson White (House of Cards). It was directed by Jakob Verbruggen (The Alienist), while written by Heather Anne Campbell and Glen Morgan. The small cast play a space crew on the first human flight to Mars. Just as their shuttle is about to make its historic liftoff catastrophe strikes planet earth, forcing them to make a life-altering decision, and face the consequences of it. Just as the ship is about to take off, nuclear war breaks out on earth. The crew make the tough decision to liftoff as opposed to staying on earth where death is assured. They then decide to complete the journey to Mars, choosing the to most likely die on the new planet once their food and fuel runs out (in perhaps four years), versus returning back to earth which they are certain will no longer be inhabitable due to the nuclear war. Feeling like they are on a course for a slow suicide mission, the small crew goes through a number of emotional trials and tribulations.

The beginning and end of this episode is action packed and high stakes. It’s all the things that happen in the middle that lack engaging pacing and direction.  At the heart of this story is a group of human beings trying to see the silver lining in their approaching destruction. When that is focused on there are some really superb moments of acting among the cast. Dewanda Wise as Commander Alexa Brandt does well in conveying a leader who has lost her way, trying to find some semblance of purpose when everything she’s known is seemingly lost. Jefferson White as the brilliant scientist Jerry, who soon figures out that all is not what it seems when it comes to the crew’s mission, also gives a standout performance that toes the borderline of genius and insanity.

The episode does well in hiding the inevitable twist that is to be expected in Twilight Zone stories. A positive way of looking at the fact that the twist is hidden is that the viewer gets to just sit back and enjoy the story unfold. A negative way of looking at this would be that most viewers halfway through the episode may be wondering what is the point.

For most of the hour-long episode you’re watching a crew go through the mourning stages of a life they think was destroyed on earth. There’s lots of melodrama, but none of it actually takes off to be more than a soap opera in space until the end. The twist ends up being that crazy. Jerry was right, in that the mission was a test by extraterrestrials to see if human beings were worth saving from their own demise. It’s an interesting twist, but nothing leading up to the reveal, save the first and last ten minutes of the episode, laid the groundwork for such a climax.

When dealing with the perception of truth, which is a minor theme in this story, the episode becomes reminiscent of the classic Twilight Zone episode “I Shot an Arrow into the Air.” That episode, which aired on January 15, 1960, dealt with a space crew that crashed on what they thought was another planet. They end up, in being desperate to survive, turning on one another, when eventually only one crew member is left after having killed some of his other crewmates. The twist in that episode was that the crew hadn’t crashed on another planet, but in Reno, Nevada, and if they had worked together they would have soon seen that help was only a few feet away. “Six Degrees of Freedom,” has moments of strife between the crew, and it almost makes you believe the story will unfold the same way, but quickly subverts those expectations.

A major theme the episode touches on is exploring the Great Filter theory. The Great Filter theory is a theory that tries to answer why humans have yet to make contact with other advanced beings, despite the vastness of the cosmos. The Great Filter theory suggests that there must be some sort of filter(s) that inhibits life from surviving beyond a certain point that would allow them to then make contact with other life forms. There are a total of nine filters in this theory, and currently humankind is said to be at number eight. Within the episode Jerry speaks to if humans are worthy of surviving the Great Filter, or if the final step, of space colonization, is the one step that will be their end.

This is a relevant theme because it is explained in the episode that the reason why the crew is even going on a mission to Mars is because humans have used up most of earth’s natural resources, and is in the midst of environmental and climate disaster. This, in turn, has made it so the government is looking to colonize Mars in order to give humans a second chance. This doesn’t sound too far off from our own reality, as certain special interest groups and government officials would rather talk about establishing a Space Force to colonize the galaxy, rather than dealing directly with the environmental issues that would make us need to leave our planet in the first place.

When this major theme is delved into, in the midst of Jerry’s rants and the eventual ending, the episode opens a chance for viewers to have interesting discussions. Socio-political topics in our society all culminate into a larger picture of what exactly is the future of mankind. All of our decisions, from how we treat our poor to how we treat our planet, are puzzle pieces that come together to reveal a picture of our longevity – or eventual demise. In that regard, although this episode may seem otherworldly, it does dive into some very human issues of survival and the purpose of existence. It isn’t the strongest of the episodes thus far, perhaps because it tries to tackle such a large topic in a short time, resulting in uneven storytelling, but the attempt is a formidable one.

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