I’ll have to admit to you, kind reader, that I didn’t get this one. I was pretty confused and I like to think I’m a fairly intelligent guy. But this week’s episode of The Twilight Zone went to goofy town and I don’t think I came back unscathed. If there is one thing that this second season of Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone has done is that it has subverted my expectations. However, I don’t think I entirely mean that in a good way in this analogy.
While season one certainly had its speed bumps, it also had some stone-cold classics that really reached into the soul of our nation and spoke to it on an ethical and philosophical level. Even in its failures, it tried hard to say something. This second season has felt more like a Twilight Zone rip-off then The Twilight Zone itself, providing creepy, good looking episodes but with little thematic umpf to propel them as something other than polished genre fare.
After the brilliant first two episodes, The Twilight Zone’s second season has been more about the gimmick, trying to convince you of a selling point before delivering on its promise. Yes, some have turned out fun, like the previous episode “Among the Untrodden”, but none have really sold home a theme. The second season episode “Ovation” didn’t even bother with a Narrator-led epilogue, a staple of the show’s educational-like premise. And despite a chilling setting and masterful set design and cinematography, The Twilight Zone may have reached the lowest point of its brief two year run with “8”, a sea-monster-on-the-loose Alien/The Thing wannabe whose ending is so bizarre and purpose so confusing that one has to wonder why this made the list of acceptable stories for this legendary IP.
Orson Rudd (Joel McHale) and Channing Carp (Nadia Hilker) represent the American portion of a multi-national science expedition in the arctic regions of the Earth studying the discovery of new undersea species sometime in the not-too-distant future. Their recent find, a never before seen Octopus named Dee Dee, is found with a cost: two of the crew are found drowned and assaulted by it before being taken in for study.
As Rudd and Carp relay their true intentions, finding this species of Octopus to use for pharmaceutical research, the Chinese member of the crew, Ling (Michelle Ang), seeks to protect the Octopus from harm or abuse, standing for the cause of science and exploration. Or is she? As the crew face off against each other on how to carry out their own missions, Dee Dee has ideas of its own and plans its escape.
Written by The Twilight Zone’s executive producer Glen Morgan, one must assume the writer was in his X-Files headspace, the show he is most popular writing for, when putting this episode together. Put Gillian Anderson or David Duchovny in this setting and nothing would seem out of place. And that is the major problem with the episode: it isn’t The Twilight Zone. It’s a seriously well done mock up of an X-Files monster of the week, with a little bizarre mythology logic thrown in, at best, and a bad The Outer Limits (the ’90s version) at worst.
The Twilight Zone has its own internal logic much like The X-Files does but “8” seems to forget which logic to follow. The Twilight Zone purposefully tried to be as ambiguous as possible, famously stating the titular zone was “the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition”. One goes through a TZ episode wondering what is real but there always seems to be the possibility that what we are seeing and feeling is grounded in some sort of reality; that the weirdness will eventually be explained with reason.
But “8” has a super-intelligent octopus that can hack into Chinese phones and…honestly, I can’t really say much else to make sense of it. Considering the ending involves this hyper-intelligent octopus somehow changing its genetic code by re-sequencing its DNA after writing its own computer program…and then forcing that evolution on all of its octopi brethren…which then leads to world domination is…something. And I’m not making that up. If the episode stuck to a simple monster-on-the-loose episode, at least we’d be in the stupid-fun category.
Like previously mentioned, the episode isn’t a total loss. Deftly directed by duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the episode fulfills the horror tropes and delivers some epic kills, including one in which the killer octopus rips the eye out of one of the crewman’s socket (yet the episode still retained a TV-PG rating!). The set design is exquisite and the cinematography is deliciously creepy; it certainly makes me want to avoid water for the time being.
But, in the end, just like many of the episodes that came before, there is too much style and not enough substance to make the half-hour worthwhile. The theme is unrecognizable and any narrative promise is drowned by underwater hijinks from the screenwriter’s typewriter. All dressed up with nowhere to go, The Twilight Zone gets sunk yet again.