The one thing that’s been most frustrating about the latest Twilight Zone revamp is that so few of its episodes—last year or this year—have fused pertinent social commentary and genuine creep-outs as deftly as in co-executive producer Jordan Peele’s own movies Get Out and Us. The episode “Downtime” though is the first of this series solely credited to Peele as a screenwriter (directed by JD Dillard, who previously made the terrific genre films Sleight and Sweetheart). Peele’s somewhat slyer approach is a refreshing change from some of this rebooted anthology’s more lead-footed entries.
For one thing, “Downtime” doesn’t seem as preoccupied as driving any particular point home. It takes place in a world where people can pay to shape the direction of their own dreams; and the story is about what happens when that technology fails one client. But this isn’t Upload. Peele and Dillard don’t seem to be indicting these characters for anything, or warning viewers about the dangers of The World To Come. Instead, this episode feels like a nightmare, brought vividly to life.
And it’s a nightmare that runs its course in just over 30 minutes. That’s a refreshing change for this new Twilight Zone too.
Morena Baccarin hits all the right notes as Michelle Weaver, a hotel hospitality manager who at the start of this episode has just hustled her way to the promotion she’s long dreamt of. Thrilled to have gotten what she wants—to have “picked the right life,” as someone says to her in a subtle bit of foreshadowing—Michelle settles down for a celebratory mid-day coffee. That’s when nearly everyone around her stops talking and moving, as they all stare slack-jawed at the sky, where a giant metal orb is issuing an alert that “downtime” is about to happen.
Peele holds off on the explanation of what “downtime” means, until about a third of the way through the episode. Instead, Peele and Dillard—and Baccarin—have some fun with a classic Twilight Zone scenario, wherein somebody thinks she knows exactly what her life’s about, before the ground shifts beneath them. The second-most chilling moment in “Downtime” (falling just behind a screeching watch-pigeon I’ll get to shortly) comes when Michelle arrives home to find her loving husband Carl (Colman Domingo) suddenly speaking in an Irish accent, telling her the way to deal with what’s happening is to “wake up.”
Right about then, most viewers will surely have figured out that Michelle got her dream job because she’s literally dreaming. It’s pretty clear too that the “downtime” in “Downtime” refers to some kind of scheduled maintenance to whatever elaborate Matrix-like computer Michelle’s hooked up to. This is confirmed when a couple of customer service reps from Sleepaway—the industry leader in “identity tourism”—arrive to tell her that while her subconscious mind has been enjoying the company’s virtual reality simulation, her actual physical body recently lapsed into a coma following a heart attack.
Oh, and her name is actually Phineas Lowell. And she’s a dude.
The tone of “Downtime” shifts at this point, as the heroine enters a more… well, let’s say existential state of mind. Unsure what to do about a “character” who has continued to exist after her “player” has gone offline—and running out of time to find a humane fix before the whole system resets—the Sleepaway team suggests they force an un-synch. They even send Phineas’ wife Ellen (Serinda Swan) into the sim, to tell Michelle that she’s worried about what’ll happen to her husband if his subconscious doesn’t return to where it belongs.
Michelle responds by taking it on the lam; but it’s hard a bug to hide inside the system that spawned it. It doesn’t take long before Michelle is spotted by the aforementioned (stool) pigeon, which opens its beak disturbingly wide and calls the authorities by making an ungodly racket akin to Donald Sutherland at the end of the 1978 Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. In the end though, rather than forcing her to do anything she doesn’t want to, the highest level of Sleepaway’s “escalated priority customer service”—an agent named Tom, played by Tony Hale—allows Michelle go back to being an excellent hotelier. Ellen even gets to come visit her “husband” from time to time. It’s a happy(ish) ending… so long as Michelle can remain content in the same ersatz universe for eternity.
There are some mild elements of social satire to “Downtime,” as Michelle ends up getting “managed” by corporate lackeys, similar to what she does for her own irate customers. But again, that’s not really what I found the most enjoyable or unsettling about this episode. For me, what makes this such an effective Twilight Zone is that it captures the uneasy feeling of trying to wrangle the elements of a dream into something that makes sense.
For example, a panicked Michelle tells “Carl” she’s sure he’s really her husband because, “You have a crooked big toe and you hide little strawberry candies in the bedside table”—which sounds like something I might say, in a dream I might have. Deep, deep in dreams, the smallest details can seem so convincing. Even though we eventually realize that none of these particulars actually make sense, those moments of tantalizing uncertainty can still make the difference between whether or not we’re grateful to wake up.
- The easter egg clue for this episode from the CBS presskit is the line, “A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children, and the bell of an ice cream vendor,” which is from “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” (Frankly I was expecting “Walking Distance” or “A Stop At Willoughby.”)
- Is the cast for this episode maybe too good? Like, do you really need to bring in the remarkable Colman Domingo for what amounts to a two-minute scene (half of which he spends speaking in an Irish accent)?
- Ellen tells Michelle that Phineas’ first words to her were “don’t break it,” spoken after he saw her touching a fragile antique lamp at a beachside boutique. And Tom’s last words to Michelle—after she signs a waiver saying she accepts responsibility for becoming effectively an NPC in Sleepaway’s “game”—is “don’t break character.” Nice touch.
- Michelle’s joke about the old man and the half-head of lettuce (with its extended bit about how all Canadians are either hookers or hockey players) is meant to illustrate to her retiring “boss” that she has the people skills to take over his job, because she knows how to disarm the disgruntled via inspired improv. But the joke also illustrates how dream-logic works. In dreams, even the non-sequiturs can turn on you.
- Next up: “Ovation.”