Episode four of "The Twilight Zone" on CBS All Access echoes a classic episode and explores the destructive power of stoking the flames of fear in a small town.
On a cold Christmas Eve in a small jail in Alaska, the local police captain (Greg Kinnear) is getting ready for his favorite yearly tradition: pardoning a prisoner. This festive setup opens up the fourth episode of Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot, and once again presents an opportunity for a parable of our times, as on this most magical of nights a mysterious man (Steven Yeun) appears in the bowels of the prison, causing a young indigenous policewoman, Yuka (Marika Sila), to question her allegiances.
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After dragging her own older brother Jack into the jail so that he can be this year’s sacrificial lamb, Yuka is shocked when she goes to retrieve her sibling, only to find a new face in the adjoining cell. Yeun’s enigmatic stranger proclaims to be an “Aggro Traveler” named A. Traveler who tries to find the most extreme places to visit, and apparently all he wants this year is to be pardoned by the infamous Sheriff Pendleton.
“The Traveler” at first plays like one of the more frivolous and fun entries into the series so far — until Yuka convinces the sheriff to pardon the new arrival as well as Jack. At first Pendleton complies, but Yeun’s traveler quickly reveals his true nature, pitching a paranoid story to the local townsfolk about how Jack has actually been stealing from them. It’s a smart heel turn that opens up a conversation that was just as relevant now as when the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” aired in 1960.
Using paranoia and fear as ways to control and intimidate is a tactic as old as time, and “A Traveler’s” narrative hones in on that in an efficiently effective way. Yeun’s slick, suit-wearing stranger immediately strikes at the divisions in the small jail, causing a near-riot simply by revealing a few well-placed secrets. After the townspeople almost kill each other, they’re sent home, leaving no one but Yuka, Pendleton and A. Traveler himself.
In the iconic first-season entry of The Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” Rod Serling explored the ways fear could be harnessed and exploited as a way to disrupt and destroy a so-called civilized society, showcased through a blackout on a small suburban street that quickly descends into chaos as neighbors begin to suspect each other and tear themselves apart. The final act reveals an alien spaceship controlling the blackout, with the invaders commenting that a simple shift in the normal and regular routine of humans can drive them wild with paranoia and fear, and how easy it will be for them to exploit this to take over the world.
“A Traveler” takes that thread and pushes it to the extreme with Yeun’s arrival prompting the town to fall apart, leaving Yuka as the sole voice of reason while Capt. Pendleton becomes ever more susceptible to the stranger’s manipulations. Yuka chases down her boss in an attempt to save the day, but is almost taken in by the fevered machinations of the new arrival until lights fill the sky. The viewers already know that Yeun is, in fact, an alien after he revealed his true nature to Jack in the cells, but for Yuka and the rest of the people on Earth, it’s a realization that comes a little too late.
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Though the ending here may be a bit obvious, the overall parable still feels relevant and timely, with the story of an unknown quantity entering a society and taking advantage of the fears, bigotry and distrust that live there, setting up a new status quo that will undoubtedly be far worse for everyone. Despite the outlandish alien reveal, the analogous nature of this particular story fits the current political climate of 2019 scarily well.