Consider a world where no response is the right response, and no behavior is beyond suspicion. Act like this, not like that. Don’t protest that way, but don’t protest that other way, either. Work to earn your way in the world, but don’t be flashy with the money you make. For some viewers, this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum is as foreign as anything they’d see in a Twilight Zone episode. But to others, it’s frighteningly familiar.
Anyone wondering whether the rebooted Twilight Zone would reflect the lived experiences of the people behind the camera … well, you got your answer this week. Not only does “Replay” namecheck Black Panther and Ryan Coogler, Colin Kaepernick, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, but it directly confronts race-based police brutality and the systemic barriers to success that many black Americans have faced and still face today.
In this episode, written by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds and directed by Gerard McMurray, “systemic barriers” takes physical form in Officer Lasky (Glenn Fleshler, all turn-on-a-dime menace), a Virginia State trooper we first encounter when he stops at a diner for chicken-fried steak. Also at the diner are Nina Harrison (Sanaa Lathan) and her son Dorian (Damson Idris), making their way to Tennyson, a fictional HCBU where incoming freshmen Dorian plans to study filmmaking.
Mother and son have an enviably close relationship, and she breaks out her father’s clunky old camcorder, which she used to record his first steps, to document these next first steps. When Dorian slops catsup on his shirt, Nina laughingly agrees to rewind the tape and then is confused when all of a sudden, Dorian’s shirt is clean and catsup free.
That’s right; her dad’s old camcorder rewound the whole moment, not just the tape. And then there’s the Narrator, a fellow diner, there to introduce a fateful drive through the perilous highways … of the Twilight Zone.
Back on the road, Dorian takes the wheel and casually suggests they visit his Uncle Neil, whom he’s been chatting with on Facebook. But Nina has zero interest in revisiting a past she left behind years ago. Then Dorian picks up the camcorder to “interview” her about how Uncle Neil was affected by growing up a black man in America who doesn’t know the rest of his family. This is when Officer Lasky pulls them over for the first time.
In the car, Nina reminds Dorian to be respectful and show no attitude, like she taught him. And at first, Lasky is cordial. He refers to Tennyson as “the black school” and asks if there are any weapons in the vehicle. “We’re just going to college,” Dorian says.
Lasky then notices that the camcorder is still running and orders Nina to turn it off. Dorian argues that she has a right to film, but Lasky lunges into the car for it, and in their struggle, Nina hits rewind.
Wham. Nina and Dorian are back on the road, having just left the diner. Naturally, Nina panics about where the police officer went. Dorian pulls over right away, and immediately ol’ Lasky rolls to a stop behind them.
He’s unmoved by Dorian’s insistence that his mother needs a hospital and barks that their car is positioned improperly on the roadway. Nina thinks fast and hits rewind again, and they’re back in the diner, with Lasky seated nearby, eyeing them.
She hustles Dorian out of the restaurant, and this time she takes the wheel and decides to take a different route, longer “but hopefully safer.” Sweet, trusting Dorian agrees with her suggestion that they find a hotel where they can eat junk food, watch reality TV, and generally have one last night before Dorian’s off to college.
In the room, they watch a woman read the lottery numbers on television, and Nina decides to have a little fun. She stealthily rewinds the tape and resets the moment to extract a promise from Dorian that if she can pick the lotto numbers correctly, he’ll have to visit her whenever he can. Then she nails the numbers and amazes her son.
And that’s when Lasky finds them again, having responded to a “noise complaint” at the hotel. Nina carries the camera with her, and when he steps into the room, the camera focuses ominously on the gun at his hip. When Lasky orders her to set the camcorder on the table, Dorian steps forward, and they end up grappling. In horror, Nina rewinds until they’re back at the diner.
This time, she holds the camcorder as she approaches Lasky and offers to buy him a piece of pie. She does everything she can in their conversation to humanize herself and her son, talking about Dorian’s filmmaking aspirations and telling Lasky, “He’s all I have.”
“Good-looking boy,” Lesky agrees. But that doesn’t stop him from following the Harrisons to the parking lot and demanding proof of ownership for that nice car Nina’s driving. She’s incensed, but Dorian scrambles to produce his phone, where he has a photo of the vehicle’s pink slip.
When he steps out of the car with his phone in his hand, the outcome that every previous encounter has been driving toward finally happens: Lasky draws his gun and shoots Dorian in the chest.
Nina drops her camera in anguish and experiences a dream flash-forward of her grown, happy son playing with his beautiful children. Then she wakes up outside the morgue, where she’s escorted in to identify Dorian’s body. She pleads with the coroner to find the camcorder that may have been brought in with her son’s body, then clutches it as she stares at the sheet-draped figure on the table, begging the camcorder to take her back.
It rewinds to the diner, where Dorian is alive and whole again, and they bump into Lasky during their hasty exit. He watches them go with a cold smile.
Back on the same road, Nina breaks down in tears at being unable to escape Lasky, so Dorian takes them in the one direction they haven’t tried yet: Nina’s childhood home.
When they pull up, she identifies the place where one of her brothers was shot and killed, and then her surviving brother, Neil, steps outside to greet them. Neil chides Nina for not coming home when their father died, and in the next breath, accepts her story about the camcorder’s magic, suggesting it’s an artifact that their ancestors brought from the motherland.
Nina tells him that even with the camcorder, they can’t escape the police officer chasing them, no matter how they change their route or their behavior. “They always come. The question is, what are we gonna do?” Neil asks.
Neil, whose wall is decorated with a Black Lives Matter poster, points out that positive change only happens when people unite, so he suggests they take Dorian to school together. And he’s been documenting the neighborhood of old as gentrification takes over, so he knows all the secret routes they can take to elude Lasky and deliver Dorian to Tennyson.
While Lasky prowls above ground in his vehicle, lights flashing, the family follows a hidden path and emerges from a tunnel adjacent to the grounds of Tennyson. They walk toward campus hand-in-hand, and then there’s Lasky, gun drawn, determined to keep Dorian from making it onto the college grounds.
Neil positions himself inches from the gun, and Nina joins him, holding the camcorder. More state troopers arrive as Nina starts recording, the other Tennyson families standing behind her with their own phones out to capture the incident.
Despite the presence of so many witnesses, Lasky sneers, “Don’t you watch the news?” and Dorian urges her to rewind and try again. But Nina. is. DONE. She tells Lasky that his days of abusing his authority and harassing, intimidating, shooting, and killing them are over, and her son will go to college.
“You’re the one who’s really afraid,” she tells him. And then, with the community at his back, Dorian walks through the gate onto campus, having avoided the hazards that could have prevented him from attending college.
In the final scene, we jump 10 years, where Nina, with tasteful gray streaks in her hair, visits with Dorian and his daughter. Nina still has that camcorder, but when the child starts to play with it, she drops it, and it breaks apart.
Aghast, Nina crawls after the pieces, but Dorian stops her with a simple, “Just let it go.” She nods in agreement, and he leaves the house to fetch ice cream, stepping into a future she can no longer rewind.
The final sound we hear is the short, ominous cry of a police siren, which concludes the episode on an unsettlingly ambiguous note.
The Zone Zone
- This episode certainly utilized the classic Twilight Zone’s practice of burying social commentary under a layer of the fantastical. And while the final confrontation with the police may have lacked a bit of subtlety, it nevertheless worked as a strong piece of storytelling.
- All praise to Sanaa Lathan for every emotional beat she conveyed in this episode: pride, rage, love, terror, frustration, fearlessness. She carried this episode on the strength of her performance in moments both big and small.
- Did that clunky early aughts camcorder bring back fond memories, or do you give thanks to Steve Jobs every time you pull your cell phone out of your pocket?