Imagine, if you can, a world in which women constantly lived in fear of men’s violence and sexual aggression, one where even a seemingly friendly interaction could sour into harassment with little warning and the nightly news was filled with stories of angry, alienated loners taking out their frustrations with semi-automatic weapons. It’s … not hard at all, right? It’s almost harder to imagine a world in which that wasn’t the case, which is part of why “Not All Men,” the latest episode of The Twilight Zone, has to go to such extremes to push the episode into the realm of science fiction, turning a seemingly idyllic small town into a place straight out of a Purge movie after a meteor taints its water supply, giving it the pale look of diluted blood and bringing out the worst in its male residents.
Or, so it seems. Though the episode’s final twist, that the meteor has had no discernible scientific effect at all, has all the subtlety of a rim shot, it also stays true to an episode made all the more memorable by its refusal to let anyone off the hook. “Not All Men” amps up the everyday nightmares of male entitlement to their violent extremes, an escalation made all the more effective by an opening set before the meteor’s effects have fully taken hold (or “taken hold”).
Taissa Farmiga stars as Annie, a young professional just getting started at a new job and eager to say yes to everything she’s asked. That includes whatever task her supervisor lays on her, and might explain, at least in part, why she agrees to a dinner invitation from Dylan (Luke Kirby), who asks her to join him to watch the meteor shower. But the dinner’s not purely a business obligation. Annie seems charmed by Dylan, and after a brief pause to check out a downed meteor, she’s receptive to his advances — at least for a bit. When Dylan grows too aggressive, she decides to cut the evening short only to be met with resistance, gaslighting (“Are you thinking I’m trying to fuck you?”), and some not-so-subtle hints of force. As she walks away, she sees him explode into rage. When she arrives at the office the next day, Annie’s arms are still sore from where he grabbed her. What’s more, she learns that she’ll be working directly for him for the foreseeable future.
What’s to be done? Seemingly nothing. Her CEO is a family friend who joins her for her sister Martha’s (Rhea Seehorn) birthday party the next night. But at least there she gets to witness a happy marriage. Martha and Mike (Ike Barinholtz) joke, finish each other’s sentences, and apologize for interrupting one another. True, Mike pats himself on the back for being “woke” a little too easily, and it’s a little gross when he assures Annie that “there’s still some good men out there” using himself as an example. But he still seems like an okay guy, and Mike and Martha’s son Cole seems to be turning out great. They must have figured something out.
All that takes a turn as the evening progresses. Annie teases Martha about how handsome Dylan is, but when Annie tells her what’s happened, she understands. “I’ve been on a million shitty dates, just like everybody, right?” Martha tells her. “And a few of them were a little more than shitty.” But unease soon turns to panic. When a motorcycle-riding creep follows them home, they watch in horror as Mike murders him. When they return to town, everyone’s gone insane. Well, not everyone. As Annie points out, “It’s just the men.”
Scripted by Heather Anne Campbell (who co-wrote last week’s space drama “Six Degrees of Freedom”) and directed by Christina Choe (director of the 2018 feature Nancy), “Not All Men” takes place in the same sort of heightened reality as Twilight Zone executive producer Jordan Peele’s Get Out, one in which thoughtless slights become microaggressions that quickly become nightmares, and in which there can be no real parity when one group — here men, (almost) all of them — has so much more power than the other. It also half-reverses “The Screwfly Solution” by Raccoona Sheldon (a.k.a. Alice Sheldon, but best known by the pen name James Tiptree Jr.), a 1977 story in which a disease really does drive men insane, and leads them to murder women, murders they try to explain with organized, rationalized misogyny. (Shades of incels to come.) In both cases, the line between whether it’s chemistry or psychology that makes men behave so primitively looks awfully blurry. But whatever the case, it’s women who pay the price.
The episode begins subtly and ends in flames, but Choe’s assured, unsettling direction and the performances, especially Farmiga’s and Seehorn’s, keep it focused. Like “Replay,” it’s one of the best outings of the new Twilight Zone, and also like “Replay,” it has considered the way its fantastic scenario connects to a social phenomenon to the smallest detail. The subliminal misogyny of the office has erupted into the open. Annie’s eagerness to please and reflexive “yeses” in the opening scenes give way to a defiant “no” in the final moments. If the men won’t change, and look for even the flimsiest pretext to reinforce the status quo, the change will have to start somewhere else.
Light and Shadows
• Excellent use of “Hello” by Lionel Richie, a not-terribly-threatening pop song whose meaning shifts in context. “I’ve been alone with you inside my mind.” Shudder.
• The opening owes a little bit to 1958’s The Blob doesn’t it? And so does the general setting, a small town that’s nonetheless home to a big business and whose main street remains the center of its social life. Maybe that still exists in the Twilight Zone.