The Twilight Zone’s second season gets back on track with its fifth episode “Among the Untrodden”. After a couple of episodes of near misses and/or simply ‘meh’ storytelling, “Among the Untrodden” brings back the traditional Twilight Zone milieu, delivering a can’t-miss premise and issuing plot surprise after plot surprise, including the patented TZ twist ending. Most impressive is the episode’s reliance on relative newcomers. Directed by Tayarisha Poe, who has directed one feature film (Selah and the Spades) and featuring a lead performance by Abbie Hern in her first credited role, “Among the Untrodden” is imbued with youthful energy.
Written by comedy veteran Heather Anne Campbell (an Emmy nominee for writing on Saturday Night Live), “Among the Untrodden” takes place in the cut-throat world of a girl’s boarding school, where the popular rule with an iron fist and those on the outside looking in try to avoid the social leader’s aggressive dominance. Not only does the episode involve the politics of high school but also subtly hints at the social science of puberty and adolescence, using the supernatural as metaphor.
Madison (Hern) is the queen of her all-girls boarding school. When a newbie named Irene (Sophia Macy) enters Science class, her nerdy, “loser” nature is fodder for Madison and her foot soldiers of mean. Irene wants to study the potential of psychic ability and nothing could be more hilarious or lame to Madison and company. But during one of Irene’s physic tests, in which the students must “read” the hidden images on flashcards, Madison scores a 0 out of 21 which, based on the law of averages, seems improbable, if not impossible.
Suspecting Madison truly has psychic power, Irene slowly ingratiates herself with the cruel but vulnerable bully. Through continued investigation, Irene discovers Madison can not only read flashcards with her mind but can also see into the thoughts of others and, when desiring something truly in need, conjure up objects. The one drawback to the conjuring is that the needed object can’t sustain itself, turning into dust when its purpose has been met.
Though Irene and Madison form an alliance of sorts, their relationship is still icy, especially when Madison begins using her powers to continue her bullying ways with the student body and staff at their school. But Irene may be carrying a secret that affects not only Madison’s burgeoning powers but could prove deadly for all who cross her.
Much like Jordan Peele’s entry into The Twilight Zone’s second season, “Downtime”, “Among the Untrodden’s” topsy turvy plotlines allow for repeat viewing as little clues and factoids can be picked up on second or third attempts through the material. Unlike “The Who of You” or even the season’s otherwise spectacular opening episode “Meet in the Middle”, the twist at the end of “Untrodden” is entirely deserved and appropriately shocking. But better yet, writer Campbell fakes out the viewer at least two or three times with preemptive twists that lead you away from the final nail on the head.
“Untrodden” is a peculiar episode in that its lead character is so unlikeable. But fitting Twilight Zone tradition, sometimes the worst people find themselves in that titular realm. This plays like a bully’s version of an X-Men story but despite the ice queen nature of Madison throughout a majority of the running time, the ending proves tragic and you can’t help but feel bad for her.
In the end, I never felt cheated by the fake-out twists. The first twist, Irene presumably (and accidentally) falling to her death from a tall balcony while trying to “fit in” with Madison’s crew, is shocking enough. When she survives without an injury, you start to suspect that Madison might not be the only person with superpowers. This, of course, leads to the second “fake” twist in which Irene, after being subjected to a cruel “science” experiment called “The Anatomy of a Loser” at the Science Fair (in which Irene’s “natural habitat” of loserdom is examined by Madison’s cruel friends) releases a sonic scream that, apparently, kills the offensive parties. Madison then suspects Irene had all the powers to begin with and was making Madison think she had them so Irene could just have a friend.
This second twist allows for the repeat viewing situation. You can look over each moment of Madison’s powers coming to fruition and then try to put the pieces together: was Irene present for all of them and, if so, was she truly deceiving Madison? The fall from the balcony seems to support this theory and, for a moment, the audience, or at least myself, was fooled. Irene was desperate enough to be “cool” and fit in that she would fabricate anything just to get to the top of the social pyramid.
Irene, of course, denies she has any powers and that Madison is the real deal. This leads to our final, and real, twist in which Madison and Irene have it out and Madison finally admits that Irene is her true, honest friend, unlike her now deceased classmates who were nothing but power-hungry and cruel. As soon as Madison admits Irene is her friend and Irene reciprocates, Irene turns to dust and disappears. Just like with Madison’s other abilities of conjuration, as soon as an object she desires meets its purpose, in this case, Irene, a figment of the imagination conjured to be a true friend to Madison, it goes away, not to last. So, in the end, not only were Madison’s powers real but Irene was just a conjured specter.
It’s really haunting stuff especially since you so buy into Irene and Madison’s testy relationship. Even more haunting is when another new girl enters Science class at the beginning of another school day shortly after Irene disappears, seemingly conjured again from Madison’s mind, ready to repeat the cycle all over again. So while it is true Madison has spectacular powers, she will always be denied what she craves and really needs: a friend. It is a tragic end that informs, perhaps, why Madison is the way she is.
From a technical standpoint, “Among the Untrodden” is also one of The Twilight Zone’s best produced, with compelling set design by Ide Foyle and beautiful art direction by Marsha McMahen. A fine look to a well-told story is the icing on the cake for what might be one of the best episodes in this reboot of The Twilight Zone’s two-year history.