By Sara Netzley
April 18, 2019 at 09:00 AM EDT
Robert Falconer/CBS

Has Christmas music ever sounded more ominous?

An alien invasion tale teases mind-twisting delights this week but loses its way in the final minutes under the weight of its talkative ending. Still, it features a compelling fire and ice (and prankster) dynamic that carries the episode to the finish line.

In tiny Iglaak, Alaska, state trooper Yuka Mongoyak (Marika Sila) is caught between two worlds. One is her Inuit heritage, represented by her brother Jack (Patrick Gallagher), who drinks too much and thinks she’s a sellout for working in law enforcement.

The other is the town around her, populated with people like Captain Lane Pendleton (Greg Kinnear), her jovial boss who reminisces about his ancestors taming the state’s native “bears and Eskimos.”

Pendelton’s tradition on Christmas Eve is to hand out gifts, wax poetic about the Three Wise Men, and pardon an arrestee in his holding cells. This year’s recipient will be Jack, whom Yuka pulled off a bar stool specifically so her boss would have a warm body to pardon. Jack’s fine with it, provided he gets turkey and some pie at the station party.

As they head inside, the siblings spot a bright red light in the sky but dismiss it as nothing. Inside, the power constantly flickers on an off as the nearby Cheney Air Force listening station sucks energy from the town’s power grid. (The camera also settles a little too long on an alien statuette, in case you wanted the episode’s twist foreshadowed for you early.)

The power’s completely gone when Pendleton sends Yuka to fetch Jack, and in the holding area, she’s startled to see a second figure in an adjacent cell. He’s smiley and well dressed, assuming your aesthetic is “dapper 1930s gangster.”

“I want to be pardoned,” he tells her, and then there’s the Narrator, talking about the slippery nature of truth while a festively wrapped gift perches on his lap.

When Pendleton finds Yuka with her gun trained on the stranger (Steven Yeun), he’s as flabbergasted as she is. The man says he’s an extreme tourist who flew over the North Pole on his way to Pendleton’s world-famous pardoning ceremony. He asks to be the next pardon recipient for his YouTube channel, The Agro-Traveler’s Bucket List, where he visits the hardest places on Earth to get to.

Pendleton eats all of this up with a spoon. What, little old him, famous? “I could see it, though,” he tells Yuka. The man, who claims he legally changed his name to A. Traveler, produces his phone, which Yuka confiscates to study. It’s transparent and impossibly thin—“Russian design” with 8K video, Traveler explains—and clearly light-years ahead of today’s technology.

Yuka suggests running a warrant search. Pendleton gives her permission, but he also moves forward with the pardon. Traveler says he’ll post it to his YouTube channel and promises more people like him will flock to Iglaak next year, which Pendleton’s ego cannot pass up.

At the pardoning, Traveler smiles and glad-hands the townsfolk, telling the delighted crowd about his eight-day Trans-Siberian Railway trip and talking up how fearsome Pendleton and Iglaak appear to the Russians and the North Koreans.

Meanwhile, Yuka’s found no warrants, no suspicious reports, nothing to confirm her bad feelings. Foiled, she heads to the buffet table to fix a plate for her brother. There, she’s approached by Traveler, who says that for Christmas, he brought her the thing she most wants. She’s unimpressed, not being a believer in Christmas and all that. She delivers the food to Jack and asks what he thinks she most wants. “Maybe to be one of them,” he suggests. She shoots back that she knows who she is and is proud of it.

Back at the party, Traveler sings karaoke and drives home just how creepy the words to “The Man with the Bag” are in a non-Santa context: “You’ll get yours/if you’ve done everything you should.” Yikes. When Yuka asks for permission to release her brother, Pendleton suggests that he perform a twofer. “Very jolly of you,” she deadpans.

The lights flicker again, and tensions among the partygoers start to ratchet up over the Air Force’s greediness, despite the mayor’s promises that they’ll be separate grids by next Christmas. Then Traveler suggests that Jack doesn’t deserve a pardon, having stolen snowmachine tools and stashed them in his trunk. Yuka defends him, but Pendleton sends a trooper to check his car.

Ah, but Traveler’s not done, and he starts, as the kids say, spilling the tea about “you people,” offering things he couldn’t possibly know. One Iglaakian’s way over her two-drink limit, another’s behind on child support, there are infidelities galore, and the mayor cheated one of his constituents out of a contract in favor of a Russian company.

A brawl ensues. Pendelton kicks everybody out, and now he’s got questions about what Traveler’s doing in Iglaak. Traveler, who lied about Jack’s theft, now claims to be an FBI special agent, there to root out corruption. As Yuka escorts him back to a call, Traveler promises to put her in Pendleton’s position once he’s removed.

Nobody answers the Anchorage bureau phone, so Pendleton and Yuka head back to holding, only to find Traveler putting his hat on to conceal…something. Something that looks a lot like antennae. (Jack describes the brief glimpse as snail-like, and he’s not wrong.) Traveler’s displeased by this rudeness in the face of his kindness and promises “irreversible remorse.” He removes his hat to reveal a perfectly human head, then spills Pendleton’s big secret: treason.

You see, Alaska State Trooper Post 151 guards the secret point at which the Air Force facility connects to the town grid, which is an exploitable national security weakness for a hostile invading force. And Pendleton sold it to the Russians. As Traveler explains the situation, his voice morphs into something not quite human, and his diatribe is interrupted by Jack drawling, “You can’t handle the truth” with deft, drunken comic timing.

Now Traveler claims to be from the National Reconnaissance Office and warns the Russians are on their way to sabotage the facility as they’re speaking. Hearing this news, Pendleton bolts, leaving Traveler to ask Yuka if he’s headed to tip off the Russians.

Yuka, who was immune to all of Traveler’s earlier lies, finds herself believing him now when, as he points out, it stands to benefit her. He effortlessly frees himself from his cell and tells her their intelligence indicated this was a vulnerable area on a vulnerable day, but they needed help locating and removing the grid connection before their invasion.

This spurs her to action, and she runs to her vehicle to chase Pendleton, catching him at the connection point. She steps out of the vehicle armed, and Pendleton asks, “You brought a Remington shotgun to a Russian invasion?”

She tells him he’s under arrest for selling secrets, and Pendleton just laughs, realizing that she chose to believe the lie. Then he and Yuka look up to see an invasion of red-light spacecraft in the sky.

Alone with Traveler, the highly adaptable Jack asks him to magic open his cell, too, and Traveler complies. See, Jack’s decided that things might be better with “you guys” in charge, and he and his new alien buddy happily chow down some pumpkin pie, side by side.

The Zone zone

  • The juxtaposition between Sila’s cool, deliberative outsider and Kinnear’s blustery good-old-boy fueled this episode, while Yeun’s otherworldly affability keeps everything off-kilter. Hey Hollywood, cast Sila, an Inuit actress and hoop performer, in more things!
  • It doesn’t get much more Alaskan than a pardon with a long-handled ice-scraper standing in for a sword.
  • Anybody else get a kick out of seeing former Walking Dead cast members in roles that let them shower and wear clean clothes?
  • Good grief, how many classic Twilight Zone shout-outs did you catch in this episode? Many of the character names reflected people involved with the show on both sides of the camera (Lupino, Houghton, Tourneur, Matheson, Constant), and we saw a Talky Tina-like doll, a ventriloquist dummy, and a gremlin-like toy in the station bric-a-brac. Any other references I missed?
  • Did they write some of those carols specifically for the episode, or were those just extremely deep cuts in the cannon? I swear, one of them sounded like a loosely rewritten version of “Santa’s Super Sleigh.”
  • Yuka deserved better. #JusticeForYuka

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