As we near the end of Electric Dreams, we’ve gotten oodles of sterile CGI cities, bizarro apocalyptic noir, and pulpy alien paranoia. But we’ve gotten very little of the ponderous, small-stakes yearning that was Philip K. Dick’s hallmark, which is part of what makes “The Commuter” feel so refreshing. The episode glides along, casually eschewing the trappings of hard sci-fi, and even story logic, in favor of dreamy meditation.
“The Commuter” centers around a train-station agent named Ed Jacobson whose heart aches for his deeply troubled son battling mental instability and violent episodes. Luckily, that station agent is played by none other than the incredible Timothy Spall, who carries the episode with his empathetic mix of a hangdog face, toothy grin, and haunted eyes. Ed’s journey toward relief begins with some familiar omens of the genre. A mysterious young woman (Tuppence Middleton) appears and slowly draws him to the nonexistent town of Macon Heights, a perfectly idyllic place that seems too good to be true. (They even serve cake!) This town is a huge solace for Ed, but it seems that the mysterious woman’s powers go beyond the ability to create a safe haven for his daily stress: When Ed returns home, we discover that his son, Sam (Anthony Boyle), is no longer there.
There’s only one story in this world, however, and it’s that things are not what they seem. After some lovely moments with his wife, Mary (Rebecca Manley), Ed begins to remember his son and the life he had before. It turns out that Macon Heights is not some ideal place made only for him; it’s full of people just like him, all running from some event, some trauma, or some deep unforgivable part of themselves — a part always just beneath the surface. Rather than admit their troubles, Ed and his compatriots smile and run away from them.
As Ed sees the truth, it all cascades into regret. He makes an impassioned plea to the mysterious woman to reclaim his son and his old life. She seemingly refuses at first, telling him how much turmoil is in his future, how much damage Sam will do, and how there will be no joy in his life. She tells him he’s always dreamed of this new life, but he spits back, “Dreaming is not the same as wishing it’s true!” And thus, she grants his wish. Ed returns home to see his son, still troubled, still unhappy, but whole and in front of him. Ed smiles from ear-to-ear, for this happiness is real.
It’s certainly a powerful sentiment. And the episode is brought to life with sure-footed direction, the kind of carefully observed tonal filmmaking that imbues realism into scenes purely through the low-key textures of life itself. But the harsh truth is that I probably just told you the most coherent version of the story, for it unfolds more haphazardly. We never seem to know what Ed knows or doesn’t know at a given moment. When his son disappears, his reactions can seem blatantly out of sync with our own understanding of his journey. For a story where Ed is our only guide throughout, it’s hard to have his emotional state also feel so adrift.
But this feeling is also evident in the way the episode forgoes momentum to deliver meaning in the form of “demonstrative” scenes. There is no real causality, just a lot of sudden scenes that exist to serve one thematic point, then get snuffed out so the next one can appear. It’s not story-based drama; it’s just demonstration. And the simple fact is that, for this particular story to grab us in our bones, we gotta understand more about Ed’s relationship to Sam to really care about it. Sure, he tells us how important his son is. How they have moments of joy. How much he misses him. But their relationship is mostly treated as information, not the kind of quiet drama that means something to us, too. And that’s the trick. That’s always the trick.
Still, audacity will get you somewhere. What Electric Dreams lacks in the visceral shock tactics of something like Black Mirror, it makes up for with a genuine desire to be meaningful, maybe even profound. And in terms of its subject matter, “The Commuter” shows a depth of understanding of trauma and life’s most difficult moments. This is actually the first episode I watched, but it delivered the one moment from the show that’s stuck with me: Timothy Spall looks us in the eye, with quivering voice and glassy-eyed tears, and tells us that we do not stick with people out of guilt. Instead, he shouts to our souls that “This is love!” In that moment, we know it’s true. At least for this man.
And maybe that’s all an episode of television really has to do.