This The Twilight Zone review contains spoilers.
The Twilight Zone Season 2 Episode 5
Remember the opening of Ghostbusters? After that poor librarian got her socks knocked-off by the library ghost, we meet Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), and he’s testing two people for psychic powers. Venkman was using something called Zener cards, known mostly for their use in testing psychic abilities. In the opening of Ghostbusters, the Zener cards are a punchline: Venkman is faking the results to make the “wavy line” guy look bad and to flirt with a woman. But what if the Zener cards weren’t a joke? What if the opening of Ghostbusters suggested a totally different type of story: A young woman pretends not to know the answer to every Zener card, even though she totally does.
“Among the Undtrodden,” is a standout in the second season for the new Jordan Peele-produced Twilight Zone. Written by Heather Anne Campbell, this episode inverts a classic trope of super-powered creepy children. In the 1961 original Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” Bill Mumy played a kid who could “wish you to the cornfield,” if you crossed him. He was a dorky, outwardly awkward kid, who had a dark secret. But, in “Among the Untrodden,” the notion of an awkward or dorky kid getting mind-powers is made much, much smarter. This episode isn’t about the more conventionally nerdy Irene (Sophia Macy) finding that her mind powers will help her fight back against bullies. No. The first five minutes might make you think that, but the true premise is this: What if one of the popular kids had mind-powers? What would happen then?
From the moment the viewer realizes that the person with the mind-powers is pushy, stuck-up, mean-girl Madison (Abbie Hern), the episode gets tense and stays that way for the rest of its 40-minute runtime. Not only are you worried that Madison is going to crush Irene’s innocent spirit, but you’re also super-worried what this Queen Bee is going to do with her newfound psychic powers. For the most part, she’s just about as awful as you might expect. Telepathic blackmail is totally the kind of power a teenager would actually leverage, and if you teach kids, have kids, or are otherwise afraid of kids, this episode plays into a common nightmare: If kids — especially teenagers — knew your secrets, how fast would they use that information to get what they want?
In Madison’s case, the answer is pretty damn fast. That said, she’s not pure evil, and part of what makes this episode so exceptional is that you really start to feel for budding friendship with Irene. Madison doesn’t like to see Irene trying so hard to fit in and be “cool.” You can tell she feels bad for her awkwardness, and the performances from Macy and Hern sell their relationship. Awkward high school friendships are a trope even older than all the sci-fi tropes in The Twilight Zone, but “Among the Undtrodden” works with these ideas because the way all these teens behave feels not only contemporarily accurate but also, universally true.
And, just when you think you’ve got the whole episode figured out, the big twist comes, and when it comes, it keeps you guessing for the last 10 minutes of the episode until another twist comes. After the rest of the mean girls pull a prank on Irene, she screams, shatters glass, and seems to put the three bullies in a coma. Wait?? WTF? Irene has powers, too? Well, maybe not, because then Madison accuses Irene of just puppeteering her, of making it seem like Madison had powers when it was just really nerdy Irene the whole time. But is that true? Your mind ping-pongs between these two possibilities up until the last minute, all the while, playing with tyour biases towards the different tropes. Maybe the popular girl has been duped? Why did Irene have to transfer schools in the first place?
In short, this tension, this longing to know which version of the story is true is what makes the last few minutes of this episode so fantastic. I don’t even want to type out what the final reveal ends up being, because it’s just that damn good. Because when the true, final twist occurs, and everything both fades away and snaps into place in your brain, a true, new classic of The Twilight Zone has just ended.