It’s a season of misgivings in Iglaak, Alaska on the latest episode of Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone when a state trooper outpost receives an unexpected guest on Christmas Eve. Sergeant Yuka Mongoyak (Marika Sila) is hauling in her drunken brother Jack (Patrick Gallagher), a man fed up with all things Yuletide. Yuka explains that the captain has an annual tradition of pardoning one prisoner on Christmas Eve. Fortunately for Jack, he’ll be the only inmate at the ambling precinct. Or will he?
To her surprise, Yuka finds someone else in the holding cell. Someone who shouldn’t be there. She brings her concerns to her superior, but the captain welcomes the trespasser with little trepidation. After all, there’s a party going on, and there’s always room for one more in The Twilight Zone.
“…there’s always room for one more in The Twilight Zone.”
The fourth episode of Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone, “A Traveler,” starts with the Mongoyak siblings arguing about Christmas en route to the small town of Iglaak. Jack protests the festive music being piped in through the car speakers. Yuka explains it’s “just one night” of the year, but her brother dwells on how the “Qallunaat” force their ways on indigenous people every day. In his inebriated state, Jack draws Yuka‘s attention to the northern lights above them. He calls his sister a “sellout” all the while talking about their ancestors dancing in the heavens. Yuka continues driving, bearing little reaction to her brother’s criticisms of how she works for someone like Captain Lane Pendleton (Greg Kinnear).
Back at the police station, Yuka and Jack notice something bright and peculiar in the night sky before entering the building. The sergeant assumes it’s a low-hanging satellite, then escorts her brother inside to a holding cell for the time being. The Christmas party has already begun, and the news of Jack’s arrest is welcomed with cheers. Captain Pendleton‘s yearly tradition of pardoning one inmate would have been uncelebrated had Yuka not provided a participant.
When she goes to fetch Jack from his cell for the ceremony, Yuka discovers another prisoner waiting in the wings. This stranger is dressed in a suit and hat, and he says he wants to be pardoned. Yuka is nervous about this man—who claims he legally changed his name to “A. Traveler” for his YouTube show—but Captain Pendleton is easily wooed. Leaving Jack to sleep his stupor off, Pendleton and Yuka bring A. Traveler (Steven Yeun) out to the party. Sergeant Mongoyak remains suspicious of their new pardonee, but her commanding officer thinks he’s harmless.
With the party in full swing, everyone but Yuka is merry. She’s too preoccupied with finding out who this Traveler guy is. The collective gaiety comes to an end when Traveler accuses Jack of stealing. To worsen matters, Traveler divulges the townspeople’s sordid secrets with startling accuracy. Back at the holding cells, the troopers interrogate Traveler after a rousing scene where Pendleton swears he saw antennae sprout from the stranger’s head. Jack believes him, but Yuka is unsure. Traveler diverts attention from himself by exposing Pendleton—he’s been colluding with the Russians, selling them classified information about a covert military shed. And now, Traveler‘s “people” are going to intercept the Russians as they look to sabotage that location.
Wrapped neatly and adorned with a Christmas bow, “A Traveler” is a high-minded, self-contained narrative about the power we give to myths big and small. We have a main character who is forfeiting her own integrity so that she can fit in, and then a subplot about lies told by those in power. On top of all that, there’s a looming threat to humanity that may or may not be real. So it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish between fact and fiction here in The Twilight Zone.
Director Ana Lily Amirpour‘s flair for tension-building in her first feature film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Midnight was impressive. She brings that same forte to “A Traveler,” an episode all about uncertainty. Although something like this is more conventional than her debut, Amirpour still conveys artful disorientation with tilted closeups, or having her characters walk down dimly lit and stylishly framed corridors. In hindsight, one of the most aesthetic moments of the whole episode was Captain Pendleton‘s drive to the military shed. The use of what sounds like an affected percussive siren to drown out the car in motion is trademark Amirpour.
“A Traveler” is reminiscent of a few existing stories within the Twilight Zone franchise. Foremost, episodes “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up” and “It’s a Good Life” from the classic series come to mind. The first has police searching for an alien hidden among a diner’s patrons; the latter focuses on a young boy whose mind-reading power causes chaos. There are also minute influences—intentional or otherwise—from genre films like John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, and Brian O’Malley’s Let Us Prey. Notwithstanding, Glen Morgan‘s script shouldn’t be written off as unoriginal. A well-crafted convergence of familiar ideas is more of an art than people realize.
“A Traveler” is at its most effective when constrained to the outpost scenes. However, this is a solid entry steeped in complex subtlety. The message about Yuka putting her Inuit heritage second to assimilation is overshadowed by the alien invasion plot. Yet within that, we find a reflective rendering of the real-life problem of “fake news” that has undermined truth in today’s society. The story may retread themes found in the second episode, but this one has far better results as well as a noteworthy performance from newcomer Marika Sila.
Like in previous episodes, “A Traveler” has some easter eggs! Did you catch them? Here are just a few:
- One character’s surname of Matheson could be a reference to late writer Richard Matheson. In addition to several of his stories being adapted by Rod Serling, Matheson wrote some original ones specifically for the classic show.
- The title character from the episode “The Dummy” is seen on some gift wrapping.
- The Christmas tree includes ornaments resembling the gremlin from the 1963 version of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and Talky Tina from “Living Doll.“
- The character Ida Lupino is a nod to the actress of the same name. Having directed the episode “The Masks,” Lupino was the only female director in the original Twilight Zone series.