The Twilight Zone and all the images you see in this recap are owned by Warner Bros Television and based on the series created by Rod Serling
Episode directed by Risa Bramon Garcia
I’ll admit that when I first saw this episode ALL those years ago, I didn’t get it. It wasn’t like Tagged (an episode we’ll get to soon enough) which covered similar ground but ACTUALLY HAD a supernatural twist to it; from what I remember it was just a dude having flashbacks which feels a bit low key for a TWILIGHT ZONE episode. Thinking back on it as I sit here ready to rewatch this story after so long, I may have been too naïve or ignorant to really understand what we was really going on under the hood, so let’s take a look with fresh eyes and see if there’s something to learn from all of this! Is this a classic episode that just failed to connect with me, or will I learn that I was right to be nonplussed by it all along? Let’s find out!!
The episode begins with Marvin Gardens (Wood Harris who’s been in a lot of stuff recently including Dredd, Ant-Man, and the show Empire) who is out on his morning jog when police sirens start to blare behind him. Nervously, he starts to turn around and even begins to put his hands up… but the patrol car just speeds by him. We find out that Marvin is a successful rapper living out his dreams after escaping a life of poverty. He’s got a great and supportive wife (Kimberly Elise), a loving son who he’s a great father too, and he’s even working on an album that will make him even richer than he already is now! Everything is looking great for Marvin… except that he keeps having these hallucinations of a police interrogation where he was beaten mercilessly and told to confess to a crime he didn’t commit and being called Dwayne; a name he doesn’t recognize. Now already, this has got some great ideas that are being conveyed with nuance even if the performances and the LAVISH RAPPER LIFESTYLE comes off a bit cheesy. It appears that Marvin has some past trauma with the police that’s left him with some serious scars which are now manifesting as full on delusions despite the fact that he escaped from all that and he has everything he could ever want. Well maybe another controller for his son’s Nintendo GameCube, but other than that…
While I may not be the BIGGEST fan of his rap skills in this episode (I’m not expert but his flow feels a bit lacking) Wood Harris is putting in a heck of a performance with some well written material. He’s a man desperately trying to reconcile his rap image with the man he wants to be; a loving and responsible father with corny jokes but also struggles with some aspects of toxic masculinity. He’s someone who had to work his way from the bottom and has decided to do everything ON HIS OWN which makes him resistant to seek help despite the insistence of his wife. He makes money and is fulfilled creatively by digging into his past life in poverty while exaggerating his “street cred” (we find out that he never was involved with gang activity or crime which makes the hallucinations that much more suspect), but he also fears ever being forced back into that life either by a bad interaction with the police who will shoot him dead no matter how much money he has or how clean his arrest record is, or even the life he projects in his public image coming back to haunt him as is the case when his son starts playing with a toy gun. It’s all compelling stuff even if it comes off a BIT too much like a soap opera, but I’m gonna put that more on the show’s overall production aesthetic than this episode specifically.
So that’s the setup Marvin finds himself in. He’s having these hallucinations and it’s getting in the way of the life he’s fought hard for so he eventually relents and goes to therapy where the doctor can’t seem to unravel this mystery and can only suggest some pills to help him manage the mental strain. However they don’t seem to be doing the trick as they only get more vivid from there. He’s hallucinating at home, he’s hallucinating on the road, and he’s even hallucinating when at the studio which isn’t doing a great job of maintaining his street cred. The hallucinations by the way are well done and show a bit of edge in another wise lacking production. A lot of harsh lighting against dark backgrounds, cops barely showing their faces in between the flurry of fists and nightsticks (one of the only ones we get a good look at looks a heck of a lot like his wife, and some seriously horrific dialogue where they straight up tell him that they’ll let a cop beat him to death if he doesn’t confess. It’s a pretty terrifying and depressingly just as timely portrait of what often happens to people of color who get antagonized by the police, and wrapping that all into Marvin’s anxiety despite his wealth and relative security sends a devastating message to the audience about what it’s like to constantly be suspected and one unlucky day away from tragedy.
But then we come to the ending which is where things kind of fell apart for me and I’m finally reminded why I was kind of nonplussed about it the first time around. My reading of this episode as I was watching it was that Marvin DID have a troubled life that he’s only okay with confronting to a certain extent, but by denying the worst traumas he forces them to come to the surface as these delusions. That would make for a solid story arc and would be kind of reminiscent of the episode Nightmare as a Child from the original series, albeit with WAY different contexts. Instead, this is what happens. Marvin seems to be putting himself in even MORE denial of his current mental state and proclaims that his family will be moving into a BIGGER house when this album drops and that everything will be peachy keen going forward! We then cut to the delusion where Marvin, AKA Dwayne is unconscious. Still alive thank goodness, but the female officer who looks like his wife informs the other officer (and the audience) that his “mind has snapped”. Not sure how can she tell that just by taking his pulse, but moments after this revelation a cop comes through the door of the interrogation room and says that the REAL killer has been caught and confessed to the crime; proving Marvin’s innocence far too late to be of any good. The female cop reaches inside and pulls out a sheet of paper with the lyrics to the song that we saw him recording earlier. Does this one deserve a Twilight Shock? Alright, I’ll give it to them. TWILIGHT SHOCK!!
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, let’s have Forest Whitaker explain.
“For Dwayne Grant, AKA Marvin Gardens, Justice was just an illusion. So he escaped into an illusion of his own making. Dwayne Grant. Living out his dreams… in The Twilight Zone.”
Yeah, so as it turns out the interrogation room was the real world while the rich successful rapper life was the fantasy. I don’t know, I can see WHY you’d want to end an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE on this kind of note (it has a few shades of A World of Difference or even A Stop At Willoughby to it), but the stuff about being a responsible dad and trying to cultivate an aggressive image while remaining grounded is far more interesting in execution and yet it’s ultimately meaningless because it was all in essence a dream. I guess that SHOULDN’T ruin the good things that I saw up to that point, but like in The Pool Guy it feels like we’ve made the story much hollower in service of a not particularly clever twist. I’m certainly more positive about this episode than I was when I was a teenager, and it’s certainly better than Shades of Guilt by SEVERAL miles, but it ultimately doesn’t live up to its potential. Give this to Jordan Peele for season 2 of his show, and THEN we might have something!