Rod Serling didn’t create The Twilight Zone purely out of a love for science fiction and fantasy. He created it partly out of frustration with the limitations placed on him when he tried to tell stories set in the real world. In 1957, Serling saw his script for Noon at Doomsday, a story inspired by the lynching of Emmett Till, get watered down by a worried sponsor until it ended up saying little about racism or the state of civil rights in the American South. But couch a similar story in fantasy, he figured, and you could get away with it.
The original Twilight Zone seldom hesitated to tackle tough issues, and with its third installment, “Replay,” this new incarnation confirms it plans to carry on that tradition. Written by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, the former editor-in-chief of The Source, and directed by Gerard McMurray (The First Purge), the episode features a camcorder with the ability to turn back time, but with one apparent limitation: It can delay a fatal encounter between a mom trying to take her son to college and a racist police officer determined to stop them — but it can’t delay it forever.
Sanaa Lathan plays Nina, a woman who’s worked hard to get her son Dorian (Snowfall’s Damson Idris) to college, and now just needs to take him the last few miles by driving him to his freshman orientation. To memorialize the event, she’s brought the old-fashioned camcorder she used to record his first steps, a device Dorian, an aspiring filmmaker, derides as obsolete. But a slip of the finger makes Nina aware of its other properties. Asked to tape over an embarrassing moment in which Dorian squirts ketchup on his shirt, she instead rewinds time. The ketchup accident never happened, or at least no one but Nina remembers it.
She doesn’t notice, however, that she and Dorian have an observer in the roadside diner where all this occurs. A cop named Officer Lasky (Glenn Fleshler) watches disapprovingly. The ketchup on Dorian’s chest particularly catches his eye, and maybe gives him ideas, since it looks like a blood spatter. McMurray, whose work on The First Purge established him as a director to watch, leans into such moments. It’s not a subtle visual, but it’s an effective one. The same goes for the story, which makes its points forcefully, viscerally, and — thanks to the premise of the story — repeatedly.
Nina and Dorian first encounter Lasky on a lonely stretch of country road. Dorian’s driving a little too fast and playing around with the camcorder, and that’s all the excuse Lasky needs to pull them over. “Just like we always talk about: No attitude. Just be respectful,” Nina says, and it’s obvious she’s been preparing him for just such a moment his entire life. But it doesn’t matter. Lasky spots the camera, freaks out, the situation escalates, and Nina rewinds to give her son and herself a second chance.
But that doesn’t matter either. The situation plays out again, only with even worse results. If it wasn’t obvious before, it’s obvious now: Lasky is just looking for an excuse to take Dorian down for no apparent reason beyond the obvious: He’s a young black man getting above his station.
And so it goes throughout the episode. No matter what choices Nina makes as she repeats the recent past, Groundhog Day style, it always ends with the cop finding them and trying to do them harm. Where the earlier episode, “The Comedian,” suffered from a metaphor that slipped away from the story, “Replay” doesn’t fall into the same trap. For Dorian and Nina, the last mile is the hardest mile, and the forces of racism and white supremacy they’ve eluded so far now seem determined to put up a roadblock they can’t slip around. The system is set up to keep them in their place.
The episode would be relentlessly depressing if it didn’t also provide an out, albeit not an easy one. After Nina learns she can’t escape Lasky by taking a different route, or by trying to befriend him and make him see her as human, or any other approach, she reluctantly agrees to visit her brother Neil (Steve Harris), who still lives in the neighborhood she hoped she’d never see again. But the neighborhood has secrets of its own, and by reconnecting with it, and with Neil, she’s able to help plan an alternate route. Because even though he never got out, Neil understands exactly what Nina’s talking about. “They always come,” he tells her. “The question is what are we going to do.”
So they plan to move through the side streets, alleyways, and tunnels of a neighborhood that’s starting to lose its local character to gentrification. And they make it, but the final inches prove just as daunting as the miles that preceded them. Lasky tries to block their way when their destination is in sight, and it’s only a crowd recording the incident that defuses the moment, if that’s even the right word. Lasky stands down and goes away. Dorian goes to college.
It’s a happy ending, made even happier by a coda that reveals his success. But there’s a dark grace note at the end. The camcorder breaks, and when Dorian leaves to pick up ice cream we see just the faintest reflection of what appears to be a siren on Nina’s face. Dorian may not have escaped forever, just for a while, and the problem that plagued him remains loose in the world.
Apart from the sound of a siren after a cut to black — which plays like an unneeded touch — it’s a perfectly executed twist that removes any sense that the problem the episode depicts has been solved, or that it can be solved. It can only be pushed through, and even then not everyone survives the pushing. It’s also a fitting ending to a beautifully played, skillfully executed, and thoughtfully scripted outing that taps into Serling’s desire to make meaningful statements about the state of the world and draws inspiration from some of our most alarming headlines to make one — and the awful sense of déjà vu as the same situations play out again and again. This is the best episode the new Twilight Zone has yet produced, and by a good margin. With luck more will match it.
Science and Superstition
• This is also the first episode that feels like it needs to be as long as it is. Even at 44 minutes, it’s paced better than the 35-minute “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” and, especially, the nearly hour-long “The Comedian.”
• If that bobbing devil’s head in the diner looks familiar, that’s because the same devil’s head, placed atop a fortune-telling machine, tormented William Shatner in the Twilight Zone episode “Nick of Time.” Delicious pies or not, diners remains some of the most dangerous stops in the Twilight Zone.