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 Lou Diamond Phillips
We’re back with another episode of everyone’s third (okay fine, fourth) favorite version of this series! The lack of impact behind some of these episodes has been a major stumbling block as very few of them seem to resonate as well as even the middling episodes of the original series, but I think they might have swung too hard in the other direction with this one in what seems to be a less than ideal way to redress the issue. Is this a case of a good idea with a few sour notes in it, or are we sailing right past that into the realm of really bad taste? Let’s find out!!
The episode begins with a very dingy looking high school classroom (the windows are really tiny, way high up, and I’m pretty sure they have steel bars on them) where a bunch of disinterested looking teenagers are taking a written test on Romeo and Juliet. One kid named Ben just turns in a blank sheet of paper which is pretty bad considering it’s worth a third of his grade, and when the teacher picks up the test of an unnamed kid, she reads aloud “Romeo and Juliet killed themselves because they were asshats”. Now if that was the ONLY sentence perhaps I’d be as dejected as the teacher feels, but frankly, I’ve heard worse opening arguments for a critical analysis of a creative work; just look at this site for examples of that! Anyway, the teacher in question is Rachel Stark (Samantha Mathis who played Princess Daisy in the Super Mario Bros movie) who’s had just about enough of this nonsense and is planning on quitting her job next week but sadly she’s in an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE which means those plans are going to get derailed. This is another example of an episode that LIBERALLY lifts from an episode of the original series, but I’ll give them credit because the premise is much more malleable and can fit into all sorts of interesting contexts. The episode in question is The Purple Testament where a GI in the Pacific theater started seeing a glow across the faces of men who were going to die soon, and this episode follows the same basic idea; she sees a screaming man on the bus light up like he’s about to tell a ghost story, and then he drops dead of a heart attack then and there. Aside from the fact that she just saws someone die right in front of her, this revelation has put her on edge a bit as she saw a similar light on the face of one of her students who was riding a skateboard. Her boyfriend the school gym coach (Reed Diamond) thinks it’s some sort of latent guilt she’s feeling for planning to quit her job and essentially giving up on the kids, but when she learns the next morning that the skateboarder had died… well, it seems like there’s more at stake than an unfulfilled work life.
I don’t know, I guess they do a decent job with this scene as you’ve got the one punk who makes a bad joke and goes to the principal while another says something heartfelt to the teacher. It’s kind of sappy but I guess that’s better than failing outright to feel anything. After school, she goes to the hospital to test her Dr. Sleep skills on someone there and sure enough, the person with the light on their face dies an hour later. So what do you do with that information? Repress I guess which seems to be what she plans to do, just keep her head down until she can quit, but THEN we get to the iffy part of the episode as she heads back to school and almost EVERYONE there has a light on their face.
Let’s not beat around the bush here; a school shooting is about to go down and I don’t know about you but the show that thought to do blackface for an episode about racial equality might not be the best equipped to handle such a weighty subject. She tries to tell the principal (Peter Bryant who later went on to play Principal Weatherbee in Riverdale, so I guess you can count this as typecasting) who doesn’t believe her and instead decides to have her leave on the spot instead of waiting out the rest of her time there because… I don’t know, actually. Well okay, she TRIES to explain the light on the face thing to him which granted sounds like utter nonsense, but honestly, it STILL feels remiss of him to NOT look into it considering what’s at stake! Without any real choice in the matter she starts to pack up her stuff in her classroom when she gets a visit from Ben (Kyle Labine from Freddy Vs Jason), the quiet student who turned in the blank test, who says he liked her as a teacher and that it’s “probably a good thing” that she won’t be there this afternoon. Well gee, I wonder who the shooter is gonna be! Normally I would have expected the show to think they were being subtle here, but Rachel actually figures it out right away and finds a bunch of notebooks in his locker with murder pictures in them, which at least is better than if they had gone SUPER tasteless and put Marilyn Manson or ICP CDs in his locker. Right then the school’s fire alarm goes off and everyone scampers outside, but Rachel knows what she’s looking for and sees a rifle barrel hanging off the roof of the school. She runs back inside to get to the roof but stops as she notices something reflecting in a nearby mirror. Uh oh!
Despite the promise of death waiting on the rooftop, she bravely runs up there to confront Ben, which I GUESS is the culmination of her story arc; that she… still cares I guess, even though she wanted to quit? Feels a bit slapdash to me (and a situation like a SCHOOL SHOOTING is hardly one I’d try to hang character growth on) but in any case, she tries to talk him down which doesn’t work so she just shoulder checks the dude off the roof. Good plan I suppose, except she falls off as well! Ben dies moments later (the light was on his face of course), and her boyfriend tries to help her while the ambulance comes. Then she says that she sees something. He asks what it is, and she says… THE LIGHT. The end.
Before I start bloviating all over this thing, let’s hear what Forest Whitaker has to say.
“Rachel Stark didn’t ask to be special. She didn’t want to be a hero. But sometimes fate reaches out a cold hand to tap your shoulder… from The Twilight Zone.”
Yeah, cool story. Okay, so the problem I have with The Purple Testament in the original series is how passive a tale it is. Lieutenant Fitzgerald’s gift comes for seemingly no reason and the story ends for seemingly no reason, and sure there’s a certain power to the fact that he was just an unwitting pawn in some greater power he will never understand, but I felt that the twist as it were was almost inevitable and his decision to face it uncontested didn’t really connect with me. There were some powerful moments like when his squad all gathers around him practically begging to find out how many of them won’t be coming back, and I really liked the part where the one person he trusted, his commanding officer, shows bravery in the face of his own impending doom and how Fitzgerald could do nothing to stop it, but I still kinda wanted someone in the story to do something DIFFERENT because of this strange gift; to react to it instead of stoically ignore it. In that sense, this episode is an improvement because Rachel’s determination to stop something horrible, even in the face of her own death, is at least an admirable and somewhat satisfying way to resolve this kind of story. The problem is the details, and just how blunt they are with everything here. A school shooting just feels kind of tasteless for a show like this to call back to a mere four years after the Columbine shooting, and it’s ultimately just a device for the rest of the story. It could have been ANY bad thing to happen (an earthquake, a fire at the school, etc), and the fact that it IS a school shooting is not addressed to any significant degree. He’s got a notebook full of scary pictures and he’s quiet, but that’s it; no examination of his home life, no apparent motivation other than hating people, and the bullying on screen consists of like one dude saying something tough to him. Even if you want to argue that we SHOULDN’T focus on the killer in these situations as it only serves to glorify them, well it’s not like the victims are given any time either as we barely know any of their names and absolutely nothing else about any of them. All of that along with the cheesy depiction of the high school, the silly looking deaths (a lot of unconvincing head drooping) and that TERRIBLE final line from her, I’d be hard-pressed to ultimately recommend this episode despite appreciating that they TRIED to take something from the original series and make it relevant for a modern audience. Perhaps TOO relevant in this case, but at least it was better than Method Man’s take on Miss Cleo.