Originally published at People’s World
Editor’s note: A review and analysis of Jordan Peele’s “The Twilight Zone” episode five. Spoilers ahead.
“Do you know who the president is?”- The Twilight Zone
Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone is currently airing weekly on the streaming service CBS All Access. Episode 4 of the new series, “A Traveler,” merely hinted at the tumultuous political climate of the current White House administration, while the latest episode, “The Wunderkind,” throws out subtlety completely. The fifth episode gives a scathing view of the political arena, Donald Trump’s rise to power, and the dangers of rhetoric and falsehoods when it comes to picking our leaders in government. Some may find the episode to be too on-the-nose in what it is addressing, but the bold comparisons paint a frightening picture, as the scenario presented isn’t that far off from our current reality.
The episode stars John Cho (Star Trek into Darkness), Jacob Tremblay (The Death and Life of John F. Donovan), Kimberley Sustad (The Romeo Section), and Allison Tolman (Castle Rock). Cho plays Raff Hanks, a driven political campaign manager down on his luck after an embarrassing election loss by his previous client. Raff sees an opportunity to redeem himself through Oliver Foley, an 11-year-old YouTube sensation who has gone viral because he wants to run for president of the United States. What starts out as a way to redeem his reputation as a star political strategist soon descends into a dangerous situation, as Raff bites off more than he can chew in placing a person in power who has no business being in it.
“The Wunderkind” lets viewers know early on that things don’t end so well for Raff Hanks. He’s a tragic figure, and self-proclaimed opportunist, who saw the political arena as a game of chess rather than one of real-life stakes. The episode does well in going back and forth among humor, dread, and satire. There are moments when it is downright parody, as many of the things Oliver (Jacob Tremblay) does sound very similar to what our current president, Donald Trump, does.
Cho does a fine job of portraying a driven professional who wants to win, no matter the cost, and who is too blinded to see the catastrophe he has a key hand in causing. Tremblay plays well as the spoiled young child who doesn’t understand the concept of ‘no,’ and is all too eager to be all too powerful. It’s a chilling performance, because Tremblay plays Oliver as innocent and naive one moment, before switching to a side (always just under the surface) that is much more sinister. Cho and Tremblay have solid chemistry that shows in the changing dynamics of their relationship.
Due to the fact that we are shown early on that things don’t go well for Raff, the episode feels like it drags to get to the climax. We already know the twist, that Oliver will become president, and although the moments that sound very much like Trump’s rise to power can be entertaining (and a bit depressing), the episode might have packed more of a punch had it been about fifteen minutes shorter.
There are a number of themes this episode delves into. One is the political theatre of the elections process and the media circus into which it can descend. Oliver is already known as an internet vlogging star. The idea of him being a young kid who wants to make America great is eaten up by the mainstream media in the episode. Often ignored is the fact that he doesn’t know policy just because he has a cute dog and “quirky” ideas for how to fix the world. Raff explains during the episode, as Oliver’s popularity skyrockets: “I made him headline material.”
Oliver’s exposure in the news reminds one of reports about how Donald Trump benefited from heavy news exposure despite the “overwhelmingly negative” tone of election news coverage. The Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy study showed that while news coverage was overwhelmingly negative, and not often based on policy, Trump received fifteen percent more overall positive coverage than his opponent, Hillary Clinton. One could argue that Oliver, like Trump, delivered the kind of sensationalized news that much of mainstream media has now attached itself to.
Another theme explored is the jaded public sentiment regarding politics, and the ways in which this cynicism can be taken advantage of. Throughout the episode viewers get various clips of everyday citizens speaking to reporters expressing how they identify with Oliver because he “tells it like it is,” and that he simply wants to “bring us back to basics, back to what makes this country great.”
Oliver makes large promises through his campaign of jobs for all, less wars, and less Star Wars movies. He was a candidate that played into the public’s disillusionment with politicians, bureaucracy, and hardship. Although Oliver was clearly not qualified to deliver on any of his promises, many were so desperate for something different than the status quo that they were willing to take a chance and vote for him. This doesn’t seem far off from what many in Trump’s base expressed when giving their reasons for supporting him.
The most chilling, and close to home, theme is perhaps the one that explores what happens when power is abused in high positions. Oliver does become president in the episode, and he becomes the very nightmare we knew he would. Raff says in looking back on the campaign, “It all started out so well… I saw what I wanted to,” but even that isn’t true. Things never started off well in this scenario. Oliver should have never gotten the attention and exposure he did in the first place. What started off as a publicity stunt of a campaign soon snowballed into a very real threat to democracy. Sound familiar?
Eventually, and all too late, Raff grows a conscience, but by then Oliver is too drunk on power, and the people in his administration are too afraid to speak out. This leaves Raff as a lone warrior for truth. He stands alone, he falls alone, and then is accused of treason for not agreeing with Oliver about a golf game. Raff is injured and ultimately tried in the court of public opinion, where Oliver’s White House administration spins a story painting Raff as the enemy.
Raff created a monster, and then handed over to him the highest office in the land.
In Peele’s closing monologue he states, “Society is a fragile ecosystem. Razzle and dazzle people with the right lies, and eventually they’ll go blind to the madness right in front of their faces. Raff Hanks made a living selling the American dream, but once sold he created a true nightmare he couldn’t buy back.” These words are truly haunting, as they are a very real reflection of the current troubles we face with a White House administration that at times comes off as a farce itself. That’s the real terror that goes beyond The Twilight Zone.