There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
“Mirror Image,” a first-season episode of The Twilight Zone, originally airing on CBS on February 26th, 1960. Written by the series’ creator, Rod Serling, and directed by John Brahm, “Mirror Image” stars Vera Miles as Millicent Barnes, a stressed-out traveler in a near-empty depot, waiting for a late bus. When the cranky old ticket agent complains that she’s been bothering him too much, Millicent sees evidence that she has a doppelgänger at the station — perhaps one of many from an alternate universe, in the process of replacing their counterparts on Millicent’s Earth. Soon, the heroine and another exhausted bus passenger, Paul Grinstead (Martin Milner), are actually encountering these doubles, quietly and creepily smirking at them.
Why watch now?
Because Jordan Peele’s new film Us opens in theaters everywhere this weekend.
The writer-director’s follow-up to his unexpected blockbuster Get Out is another hybrid of deeply disturbing supernatural horror and sly social commentary — although as Peele himself has stated in interviews promoting the movie, this time out, he’s more interested in terrifying audiences than in poking at their wokeness. Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke co-star as a happy, successful married couple who take their kids on a trip to the beach to visit two old friends, played by Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss. Then the family is disturbed in the middle of the night by the arrival of red-clad doppelgängers, who move jerkily, make strange noises, and seem to want to kill them. Where did these people come from? Are they meant to be a metaphor for society’s unwanted… or perhaps for something these relatively well-to-do characters tried to leave behind?
It’s not surprising that Peele’s filmmaking career thus far (which also includes co-producing Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning 2019 feature BlacKkKlansman and co-writing, co-producing, and starring in the 2016 action-comedy Keanu) has been so focused on matters of racial, class, and professional identity. Peele and his longtime writing and performing partner Keegan-Michael Key pushed those kinds of buttons regularly during the five seasons of their hit Comedy Central sketch-comedy series Key & Peele. Few fans of that show though would’ve expected Peele’s work as a filmmaker to be so steeped in the horror genre.
Perhaps Peele is just following in the footsteps of Rod Serling, who made his reputation in the 1950s by penning socially relevant dramas during the heyday of live TV, then grew tired of fighting with advertisers and network bosses over his political content. In 1959, Serling created the science-fiction/horror anthology The Twilight Zone, believing — rightly — that he could get away with saying more about American prejudice, paranoia, and greed if he populated his stories with space aliens and monsters. A great Twilight Zone episode freaks viewers out then makes them think.
Peele is currently co-producing and hosting a new version of The Twilight Zone, debuting April 1st on CBS All Access. While talking about Us, he’s openly acknowledged that the movie was partly inspired by the original show’s “Mirror Image” — more for the central image of nefarious lookalikes than for any specific message. The sociopolitical content in Sterling’s script for this particular episode is actually much lower than usual, although it does work in some matter-of-fact observations about the casually sexist ways people treat a young professional woman out on her own. More importantly, the episode subtly grapples with a common anxiety: feeling like an unworthy impostor who may be due for an usurpation.
Who it’s for
People who enjoy having their spines tingled and bones chilled.
The most memorable moments in “Mirror Image” are frightening in ways that are almost primal, and hard to articulate. After Millicent sees her doppelgänger’s suitcase sitting around the station, she looks into a mirror in the ladies’ room and sees the woman herself, sitting on a bench and staring right at her. Later, Paul is about to lie down for a nap when he sees his double, dashing out of the depot into the dark of night, smiling smugly. There’s something simultaneously infuriating and inevitable about these interlopers. Millicent tells Paul that they’re akin to kudzu choking out healthy plants, in a metaphysical case of “survival of the fittest.” Or — even more unnervingly — maybe Millicent and Paul are the weeds.
Serling never explains exactly what’s happening, or what it means. Instead, he, Brahm, and the cast all work together to emphasize the inherently unsettling elements of this particular scenario: the sparsely populated, underlit bus station, the anxiety of a delayed arrival on a rainy night, the frustration of being condescended to by an unhelpful employee, and the fear of being completely alone in the middle of nowhere when everything starts going awry. This is what the best Twilight Zones — and so many of the best horror movies — do so well, turning ordinary spaces into backdrops for nightmares that feel eerily familiar.
Where to see it
It might be easier to say where not to see The Twilight Zone. This is the rare classic TV show that’s been licensed widely to multiple streaming services, rather than staying exclusive. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video all offer The Twilight Zone to subscribers. So does CBS All Access, where Peele’s new version of the show will premiere.