'The Twilight Zone' Explores the Horror of Police Brutality

The Twilight Zone-replay-Publicity still-H 2019
Robert Falconer/CBS

[This piece contains spoilers for "Replay," episode three of The Twilight Zone on CBS All Access.]

With the first two heavily satirical episodes out of the way, The Twilight Zone is showing no signs of stopping its quest to keep up the moral compass of Rod Serling's classic series. With "Replay," which premiered April 11, the series showcases its most serious episode yet as a mother, Nina (Sanaa Lathan), attempts to take her young son, Dorian (Damson Idris), to college but is constantly pursued by a racist cop (Glenn Fleshler).

Creator Jordan Peele and the show's writers — "Replay" was written by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds — are dedicated to the legacy of the original show, and "Replay" riffs on a few episodes. One that immediately comes to mind is "A Most Unusual Camera," in which a bunch of crooks come across a magical camera that allows them to briefly see into the future. After using it for their own gain via betting on horses, the wretches eventually get their comeuppance when the device captures their own deaths. A similar setup appears in the 1963 entry "A Kind of Stopwatch," in which a man discovers a stopwatch that can pause time.

They're not the only Easter eggs for fans of the original series, though, as "Replay" is actually set in the location of another seminal episode about the manipulation of time and fate. In 1959's "Nick of Time," a couple enter the Busy Bee Diner (where Nina and Dorian are introduced in "Replay") while waiting for their car to be repaired, only to find a Mystic Seer machine that appears to tell their future. The devilish figure also makes a brief appearance in "Replay," which fits, as both sets of protagonists share not only a setting but also an obsession with controlling their fates.

In "Replay," however, Lathan's doting mother finds herself with a camcorder that, instead of showcasing the future, can change her past, taking her back to the first moment where she discovered the strange power. It takes place as she's eating in the diner with her son, and as she breaks out the dated tech to record their journey she realizes that it apparently has the power to turn back time. That's lucky, as it just so happens that a highway patrolman with a racist ax to grind also happens to be eating there, and so her battle to save her son begins.

As the pair begin their journey, they're pursued by the cop constantly, and although she's initially reluctant to believe what's happening, Nina attempts to use her confusing new powers to save her son, pressing rewind on the camera and returning back to the diner where they began. There's something truly chilling about the inevitability of the violence that  mother and son face. It doesn't matter how Nina and Dorian behave — whether they try to befriend the patrolman, face him down or attempt to outrun him, he always finds them.

As the episode moves into its third act, the inevitable happens as Nina finally loses control and loses her son at the hands of the murderous cop. At first it seems like she may not save Dorian, but after getting her hands on the camera, Nina tries one more time. At this point, the writers attempt to add a message about not losing sight of where you come from, as Nina has to return to the hometown she left behind.

Eventually, with the help of her estranged brother, Nina and Dorian make it to his historically black college, where along with his classmates they face down and publicly shame the violent man who has been chasing them. But in a very Twilight Zone twist, years later as Nina, Dorian and his daughter enjoy each other's company, the prodigal son steps out to run an errand and never makes it back as he is killed by the police. As Peele reminds us, you can't escape fate (or institutional oppression), even in The Twilight Zone.

The bleak ending is a stark reminder that black people are three times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than are white people. The sci-fi concept of the story may be unrealistic, but like many of the best Twilight Zone episodes, it's just a vessel for delivering a vital narrative, in this case one about the very real fear of losing a child to police brutality and the inescapable nature of that violence.