Last week, CBS All Access’ Twilight Zone revival dropped its second season all at once, enabling a binge-view that made it easy to note parallels between episodes. Amid the aliens, creatures, magical objects, and alt-reality scenarios, a big theme emerged: there’s no scarier monster than a frustrated man.
The Jordan Peele-hosted Twilight Zone already dug into this topic in the season one episode “Not All Men,” but it was rather heavy-handed — not just with that Twitter hashtag of a title, but also its plot, which was about meteorite-contaminated water that appears to turn a town’s male population into woman-hating, violent fiends. Season two takes a more nuanced approach to its examinations of the fragile dude ego, and the end results are more chilling as a result.
The season opener, “Meet in the Middle” (directed by Mathias Herndl and written by Emily C. Chang and Sara Amini) introduces us to Phil (Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson; much like season one, Twilight Zone season two boasts an outstanding cast and crew). The reason for his lonely life is easily understandable from the very first scene, as we see him petulantly complain that his date’s hair is styled in waves, unlike her profile photo which showed it straight. Later, we see his therapist reminding him that he routinely blames the women he dates for his unhappiness, and that “the perfect woman doesn’t exist.”
But Phil begins to believe that the perfect woman does exist when he starts hearing a voice in his head — Annie (Gillian Jacobs), a stranger with whom he somehow has a telepathic connection, and soon begins to develop an emotional connection with as well. Their “relationship” feels a bit like the bond between man and AI in Her, except Annie is a real person living in a town a few hundred miles away. Though Phil has learned through his crash-and-burn online dating habit that meeting someone virtually (be it through an app, or via one’s sudden-onset psychic powers) rarely provides an accurate representation of how a person is in real life, he pushes that aside and begins to believe he’s in love with Annie, a woman who literally shares his every thought.
At a certain point, “Meet in the Middle” starts to feel less like Her and a lot more like Double Indemnity, the classic noir film about an insurance salesman who falls for an especially manipulative femme fatale. But in between, Phil and Annie briefly “break up” after he learns something unexpected about her life, and his nice-guy mask slips just enough to remind us of the prickly, demanding person underneath — and also make us wonder if maybe the “hearing voices” thing is actually a sign of something more disturbing. The episode never explains the source of the ESP (other than… it’s The Twilight Zone), but otherwise, it answers its riddles by the end, including the horrors that are unlocked when Phil’s finally able to express his full capacity for rage.
Season two’s third episode, “The Who of You” (directed by Key & Peele alum Peter Atencio, and written by Win Rosenfeld), showcases the versatility of its performers, especially Ethan Embry as Harry Pine — a character who is, ironically, an unsuccessful actor. Despondent after yet another crappy audition and the dawning realisation that his relationship with his girlfriend is crumbling, Harry decides to rob a bank. The stunt goes about as terribly as you’d expect until something very Twilight Zone happens and Harry swaps bodies with the bank teller. The episode then morphs into a kind of riff on that 1998 movie Fallen — you know, the one where Denzel Washington chases a serial killer-turned-demon who leaps around possessing random people — as Harry’s soul tries to elude capture, even as Harry’s actual body is handcuffed at the local police precinct.
The story is actually pretty entertaining for the most part; making Harry a trained actor who has to fake his way through different identities is clever, and there’s a fun cameo by Billy Porter as a fake psychic who’s briefly drawn into Harry’s tangled escape plan. It’s the episode’s final twist that may actually twist your stomach in a bad way, when, purely by chance, Harry comes to a final landing in the body of the guy his girlfriend’s been seeing on the side. (Naturally, he doesn’t reveal who he really is.) The body-swap trope is nothing new in sci-fi, but it feels rape-y in this context, and the episode zips quickly past the reveal without lingering on all it implies.
The season’s ninth episode, “Try, Try” (directed by Jennifer McGowan and written by Alex Rubens), is a remarkable two-hander starring Kylie Bunbury (of the upcoming Brave New World) as Claudia, a museum-loving grad student, and Topher Grace as Mark, a guy who’s stuck in a Groundhog Day-style time loop. Over thousands of do-overs, Mark’s been trying to woo Claudia, using the little tidbits of knowledge and awareness he picks up each repeating day. At first, she’s charmed by this nerdy random who somehow shares some of her silly secret fantasies, like climbing into a canoe in one of the exhibits. But his weird tics — knowing precisely when a passer-by is going to drop a pack of gum, blurting out lines from Claudia’s favourite movie — soon begin to feel calculated and sinister, and his endgame for Claudia is anything but sincere.
And, yep, it turns out Mark is a sociopath, and maybe even a psychopath if he’s pushed close enough to the edge. Granted, being trapped in a loop might drive even the kindest soul crazy, but you get the sense that Mark hasn’t been trying to improve himself in the manner of Groundhog Day’s cynical Phil Connors. Instead, he’s narrowed his daily objective to a single goal — Claudia — for purely selfish reasons. Fortunately, the version of Claudia that we meet (and, hopefully, the others that we don’t) is not in the business of placating arseholes; Mark’s bloody nose is her self-defence handiwork in the photo above.
Before anyone worries that the entire 10-episode season — which feels more polished than season one, though the overall story quality is about the same — is overstuffed with problematic men, fear not. To evoke the season one episode title, not all men in The Twilight Zone are villains. The main character in the whimsical “A Small Town,” directed by Alonso Alvarez-Barreda and written by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due, is just a quiet guy (Damon Wayans Jr.) trying his best to help his struggling village and is not above using a magical scale model of the place to be a sort of cosmic puppeteer.
And, as it happens, many of the season two episodes aren’t invested in male-centric stories whatsoever. In “Ovation,” (directed by Ana Lily Amirpour and written by Chang and Amini, from a story by David Weil) a struggling singer played by Jurnee Smollett (Birds of Prey, Peele’s upcoming Lovecraft Country) learns the price of sudden fame the hard way. “Downtime” (directed by J.D. Dillard, written by Peele) follows a woman (Morena Baccarin) who realises she’s not actually a super-successful hotel manager, she’s an avatar for a coma patient whose consciousness is trapped in virtual reality. And “Among the Untrodden” (directed by Tayarisha Poe and written by Heather Anne Campbell) is a delightfully atmospheric blend of Mean Girls and The Craft, imagining that the weird transfer student and the popular queen bee at an all-girls boarding school discover they have something supernatural in common.
Elsewhere in the season, there’s a gruesome, tentacle-laden creature feature penned by X-Files alum Glen Morgan (“8,” directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead, who also made the excellent low-budget sci-fi film The Endless), and “A Human Face” (directed by Christina Choe and written by Rubens), about a couple (Jenna Elfman and Christopher Meloni) who receive a distressingly familiar visitor during an alien invasion.
And then there’s “You May Also Like,” written and directed by Osgood Perkins (Gretel and Hansel), which happens to be the season finale and the standout episode. In an upscale suburban neighbourhood that feels like it stepped directly out of Restoration Hardware’s dystopia collection, a housewife (Gretchen Mol) who’s suffered a recent loss starts having out-of-body experiences and comes to believe they have something to do with the arrival of “the egg” — an item that everyone’s thrilled to obtain even though nobody knows why it exists, who’s handing them out, or what it’s to be used for.
If you only watch one episode of The Twilight Zone season two, make it this one; not only does it faithfully conjure the tone of the original series’ uncanniest episodes (and feature a drop-dead cameo by one of the original series’ stars, some guy by the name of George Takei), it vividly presents a bleak yet imaginative world that’s about to meet its end in the most vapid way possible. Considering how often we’ve heard people compare the events of 2020 to The Twilight Zone, “You May Also Like” offers a reminder that things can always get worse.