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Jordan Peele Created One of the Best Classic Twilight Zone Episodes With ‘Downtime’
Morena Baccarin starred in one of the most ambitiously weird Twilight Zone tales of the Peele era.
Jordan Peele, the acclaimed filmmaker behind horror hits like NOPE and Get Out, took a swing at one of the most iconic franchises in science fiction back in 2019 with his revival of The Twilight Zone. Though most of his episodes ran closer to the traditional 45 minute to hour-long episode length, he did shepherd one throwback story that hit the same shorter length — and delightful weirdness — of Rod Serling’s original series.
The second episode of the second season of Peele’s Twilight Zone revival, “Downtime,” featured sci-fi A-lister Morena Baccarin (Firefly, Deadpool) as Michelle Weaver, a young woman who works in hotel hospitality. What starts as a relatively normal day turns into a sci-fi mystery that upends her entire existence and changes her life in the span of just a tight half-hour.
After a strange sensation, Michelle steps outside of the hotel to find essentially the entire world in a frozen trance, staring up at a massive red orb hovering in the sky. The weirder part? No one else seems particularly perturbed by it, with passersby casually asking her if she knows how long “downtime” will last.
Cue the fear and confusion.
Though The Twilight Zone has always dabbled in morality plays, cruel twists of fate and cleverly taught lessons, this episode evoked some of the open-ended big idea swings that Serling’s original 1959-1965 series positively reveled in. This episode isn’t out to make a heavy-handed point, so to speak, but is instead simply telling an ambitious science fiction story by dropping us all into a snapshot of a moment via the anthology format. The fact that Peele, who wrote the episode, and director JD Dillard were able to pull it all off in just 30 minutes is even more impressive.
Twilight Zone’s “Downtime” Explained
Michelle runs to her husband for help, but he suddenly “breaks character,” changing his voice and asking about the maintenance, before himself falling into a trance at the sight of the orb. As Michelle terrifyingly learns after a few run-ins with random strangers calling themselves “tech support,” her entire life is actually a giant simulation, essentially a second-life style video game, where people can log in and live out the lives of different avatars. A man named Phineas had been controlling Michelle, but he suffered a massive heart attack and is on life support, leaving Michelle’s consciousness in some untested limbo state with her user unconscious and failing.
They attempt to log her off, essentially, but Michelle panics and runs. The company running the simulation eventually sends in Phineas’ real-life wife Ellen to appeal to Michelle, noting that un-syncing her from the simulation is the only chance they have to potentially save Phineas’ life. Michelle considers, but at the last moment runs again, unsure of what to do and whether or not logging off might end her existence.
"Our sci-fi imaginations are leading us to these questions, these concepts, about who you are in this world and how it sees you," Peele explained in a 2019 interview. "Within this science fiction premise, there’s this through line suggesting there is a true identity. One that isn’t clouded by what we see."
All the while, the orb continues to announce the countdown to the end of maintenance. With only five minutes remaining, Michelle is approached by a window washer who says he is the escalated level of customer support (a manager, so to speak), and informs Michelle that Phineas has been taken off life support — meaning if she chose to “wake up,” there’s nothing to actually return to in that real world. Essentially, the only world she has left now is the simulation. So she reluctantly signs a waiver relieving the company of any liability and chooses to remain.
How does The Twilight Zone's "Downtime" End?
Moments later, the downtime period ends and the world she knows awakens once again as if nothing had happened. As for Michelle, she returns to her life at the hotel trying to return to her routine and purpose. The episode ends as Phineas’ wife Ellen walks in and asks to book a room.
"'Downtime' does what many Twilight Zone's do, it ends with a question mark," Peele explained in an interview when the episode was first released. "I think the intent is for the meaning to be interpreted by each person who watches it. Certainly there’s this idea that who we are goes deeper than who we appear to be in this world."
It’s a lot to digest, but doesn’t try to make any hard statement about the decisions presented and events that unfold. It’s just the story of a woman who has her world ripped apart in a moment, learning the life she’s worked so hard to build is nothing more than a game. It refreshingly lives in that moment of realization and confusion, not in the big ideas themselves. Is she herself real? The answer is left for us all to figure out. Then, just like some of the best Twilight Zone episodes of yore, we fade to black (or in this case, Peele’s Serling-esque exposition).
Classic, and something you’d have to think would make Serling proud.