The Twilight Zone in its first three episodes has delivered a variety of genres: “The Comedian” is a mildly supernatural parable; “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is a mystery; and “Replay” is political allegory. It is fun to see the show bouncing around different avenues to deliver its storytelling. But now The Twilight Zone has entered truly bonkers territory with its science-fiction laden fourth episode “T Traveler,” and the confidence I once had in being a moderately intelligent person has been shaken by this episode’s refusal to hold the audience’s hand.
“The Traveler” takes place in the State Trooper station of a small Alaskan community. It is Christmas Eve and Captain Lane Pendleton (Greg Kinnear) is hosting the station’s annual Christmas Party. Every year – to boost his own ego – he pardons one of the criminals in the jail to spread seasonal joy. Since nobody is in the jail on Christmas Eve, Sergeant Yuka Mongoyak (Marika Sila) arrests her brother Jack (Patrick Gallagher) simply to provide Captain Pendleton a pardonee for the party. Yuka locks her brother in the cell and returns to the party until Pendleton gives her orders to release him.
When Yuka comes back to release Jack she discovers a stranger (“Adrian Bryant’s Pick for Sexiest Man Alive” Steven Yeun) has entered Jack’s neighboring cell. The man claims to be a hit YouTuber named A. Traveler. A. Traveler, well, travels across the world to create video content covering his adventures across the globe’s greatest natural and man-made feats. Captain Pendleton’s pardoning ceremony is one such feat in the eyes of the YouTube community, according to the stranger. As A. Traveler’s praise for the Captain grows more extreme (he once claims that Russian agents say they will never invade the U.S. because they’d have to get through Captain Pendleton), Pendleton consents to giving the well-dressed stranger the greatest gift of all: a trademark Pendleton Pardon.
A. Traveler joins the Christmas party after being released and proves to be quite the guest. He sings karaoke, he praises each officer individually, and he does his fair share of flirting. But as Yuka grows more suspicious of the conspicuous guest, he begins to exhibit alarming behavior. He outs the dirty laundry on some of the officers’ disorderly conduct (a la excessive drinking and refusal to pay child support). Pendleton’s attitude on the man turns sour after his draconian escapade. Yuka, similarly distressed, attempts to ally with Pendleton to discover the mystery behind the well-dressed visitor.
“The Traveler” is very concerned with the questions about truth and agenda. All of the characters, including our main protagonist, are made to be untrustworthy. While Yeun is the antagonist-lite of the episode, Pendleton is also quite shady, bemonaed by Yuka and Jack as a self-indulgent prick. He opens the Christmas party with a speech about how his Christian ancestors tamed the great, uninhabited land of Alaska. The tension between his alpha-colonialist sentiments and Yuka’s resentment of Inuits (as well as other Native American groups) being pushed to the ass-end of his – and America’s – cultural narrative creates a fascinating dynamic between the two characters: Pendleton is the worst of America’s patriotic tendencies, and Yuka seems to want to usurp him at any point she can. Sadly, this specific duality is rarely explored beyond the episode’s first twenty minutes.
A. Traveler utilizes their division to his liking. He lauds Pendleton as the epitome of American values (in many ways, he unfortunately is), but tells Yuka that soon she will be rightfully in charge of the post. Between his hypocritical attitudes to the two and his repeated lies concerning his identity – one moment he is a YouTuber and the next moment he is an FBI agent – we learn A. Traveler has many secrets hidden beneath his charming grin. But the episode seems to be asking us if trusting Pendleton or Yuka is any more reasonable than trusting A. Traveler. Motives inherently infect institutions, and believing in any one person’s agenda can be very dangerous.
“The Traveler,” despite its interesting questions on individual exploitation, is a tonal mess. At some points it desires to be a governmental thriller, but when it settles into that groove it moves into a mild but contextually jarring science-fiction world where natural laws as we understand them are tossed away. The cast does as well as it can with the material – thankfully neither the script nor the direction dampen Yeun’s astronomical sex appeal – but their performances get lost in the mixed messaging of the story. While it is a nutty episode that I cannot stop thinking about, it does not build to a wholly satisfying experience.
That is as much as I can say without spoiling the end. But I can’t not talk about the absurd direction that this episode takes in its last few moments. So after this point there will be spoilers for “The Traveler.”
[ONCE AGAIN: SPOILERS FOR “THE TRAVELER” FOLLOW]
In the early moments of the episode we see a pink star overlooking the State Trooper station as Yuka and Jack make their way in. They are both perplexed by the sight, but shrug it off as a harmless anomaly. The moment they resume marching forward the star zips away into the forest line. What we now see as a U.F.O. is a not-so-subtle hint that this episode is about aliens. I was well primed, then, for Steven Yeun to be an intergalactic troll.
What I was decisively not prepared for, however, was that this intergalactic troll would be a meddler in international affairs. A. Traveler reveals that Pendleton has sold the location of the nearby Air Force base’s power grid to the Russians. He insists that if Pendleton does not act quickly, the Russian agents currently on their way to confirm the location will be sabotaged by the American agents that the Traveler have tipped off. Pendleton will be exposed as a treasonous agent and will be put away for the rest of his life, if he is lucky enough to not have started a full-scale war between the two countries.
Pendleton rushes to the grid to stop the Russia/America conflict, but then there is no Russia/America conflict. A. Traveler lied so that Pendleton would lead his alien army to the grid for them to invade. When Yuka is left alone with A. Traveler after Pendleton leaves, he reveals his scheme to her while also revealing her abdication of her duties in favor of taking down Pendleton. A. Traveler has lied to her repeatedly and she has pressed him on those lies, except for when he promised Yuka that she would take over Captain Pendleton’s job very soon. That lie she accepted. Once the promise was made, Yuka, became much more hands off, and therefore complicit in a scheme she could have obstructed. The Traveler still leaves the opportunity to take Pendleton’s job (assuming his demis) open to her, under the condition she submit to his authority.
Deciding that she will not cave to A. Traveler’s plot, Yuka rushes to stop Pendleton from revealing the location of the grid. She arrives to find Pendleton fully aware that A. Traveler was lying. He also exposes her corrupt ambition for wanting to overthrow him. “It’s only a lie if we choose to believe it,” he says while staring down the bullet of Yuka’s shotgun. Alien ships soon fly over the two of them, and the credits roll.
Admittedly, I have a hard time making out what the episode is trying to say. As mentioned above, it seems to be delving into ideas about how we exploit our personal agendas at the expense of progress. Both Pendleton and Yuka are at war with each other over conflicting interests; all it takes it the Traveler to raise their conflict to its full potential. Pendleton’s knowledge, though, muddies the waters for me. I don’t believe it is meant to be an optimistic ending – one that would be saying man can be aware of his flaws enough to know when he is being played – given that the aliens do invade. His last line, though. I don’t know what to make of it.
I am going to have to revisit “The Traveler” again to make sense of the whole ordeal. I am unsure if it is admirably ambitious or remarkably silly. Regardless, trying hard toward a great goal and failing in art is much preferable to playing it safe. Of course, it may have hit its target. I may just need to give myself more time to find out what that target is.
The Twilight Zone’s first episode, “The Comedian,” is free on YouTube for those without a CBS All Access subscription. All other episodes will only be available on CBS All Access.