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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

2.12 --- The Road Less Traveled

Directed by : Wes Craven
Written by : George R. R. Martin
Starring : Cliff DeYoung, Margaret Clenck
First aired : 18th of December, 1986.

One particular evening, Jeff McDowell (Cliff DeYoung, The Hunger, F/X), while watching TV with his wife Denise (Margaret Clenck, Hard Choices), is disturbed by their little daughter Megan, who comes down from her bed believing there is a man in her room. Jeff escorts her upstairs to reassure her there is noone there, encourages her to go to sleep, but a flick of the light switch brings Jeff a vivid vision of warfare. He is shell-shocked to say the least, however the vision disappears with another flick of the light, and he dismisses it as a one-time thing. Denise does notices he is under stress, though.

Next morning, we learn why Jeff is so tense. Through conversation with Denise, Jeff mentions that he dodged the Vietnam draft and fled to Canada - a decision which still haunts him to this day. Just before they serve lunch, Megan appears from upstairs and mentions the "man" again. Denise takes her to the bathroom above to wash her hands, and is shocked to see that there indeed is a strange man in their house - a scruffy looking fellow in a wheelchair. Jeff rushes upstairs to check it out, but all he finds is another vision of war, this time even more livid : he suddenly finds himself in the middle of a swamp, dodging bullets with fellow soldier. He awakens on the floor crying from terror, with Denise having to calm him down.

The second vision makes Jeff certain that he is the cause of these troubles, and that the man in the wheelchair, whoever he is, is there to haunt him and trouble him. He decides to leave home for a while so his family can be safe, but Denise rebuffs him, saying that they went to Canada together and they should face it together. Jeff agrees, and no sooner than he turns to embrace her is struck by another Vietnam recreation. This time it's too much for him, and he flees to the car and drives away.

The following day, Denise receivs a phone call from Jeff, sounding strangely distressed, who asks her to return home to see him. Minutes after, Jeff walks into her office, and is amazed to see the secretary saying how she forwarded his call (which he never placed) and how Denise left to see him ! He storms out, but it's too late for Denise, who finds the secret on her own - the man in the wheelchair is Jeff...or, at least, what Jeff would have become if he went to Vietnam. The "real" Jeff arrives to the scene a bit later, and is equally shocked. Slowly, the wheelchair Jeff unveils his story - according to him, in 1971. when Jeff fled to Canada, they separated as personalities. While one had a good life afterwards, the other went to NAM, got his legs blown off by a landmine, his Denise died in a motorcycle accident, and is currently dying in a hospital
. As he was resting on his deathbed, he thought long and hard how would life be if he made a different choice, and by sheer willpower morphed himself in Jeff's real world. He reassures Jeff he has no intentions to hurt anyone - he was just curious.

Jeff is engulfed with guilt and sorrow, and wants to help "himself" share some memories he would have had if he never went to war, believing that the flashbacks he suffered go both ways. The other Jeff denies, saying that if they touched their hands he would inherit all the Vietnam nightmares. But the real Jeff agrees, knowing that in some way it was his fate. They touch hands and tap into each other's minds, one reliving the terrors of battlefield, the other his marriage and other happy things. As the magical seance winds up, wheelchair Jeff's legs have grown back, and he stands up and embraces his counterpart...with them morphing back together into one person. Learning the value of life they had so far, Jeff and Denise hug themselves.

***

Wes Craven, how have we missed you. Absent since season 1's brilliant Dealer's Choice, the 80s master of terror returns to the Twilight Zone, delivering what was possibly his finest Zone entry - a tale of sorrow and redemption of one Jeff McDowell.

Carefully conveying George R.R. Martin's thoughts onto TV screen, Craven creates an unpleasant atmosphere in the first two thirds of the episode, as the McDowell family is struggling to find out who/what is this thing which haunts them. The final third is where the redemption part kicks in, as Cliff DeYoung slips into the skin of his alternate self, a dying cripple. DeYoung's performance is exceptional in both roles - as the dodger Jeff, he looks awfully discomforted and traumatised by memory. As the veteran Jeff, he looks as good as Tom Cruise's Ron Kovic, his creaky voice adding an extra chilling effect.

I'll let you know that the recap above might not be as accurate as it should - this is my vision of story (the script leaves it somewhat open for interpretation). I don't think I'm too far off, though. At any rate, the past few episodes of this generally sorry second season were at least entertaining, so I'm hoping this run of success continues.

The Trivia from Another World : in the opening scene, Jeff and Denise are watching The Thing from Another World on TV. Apparently, the new TZ staff really loved this Howard Hawks classic, as this is like the third or fourth plug it receives on the show - on previous occasions, we heard the line "Watch for the skies" make is entrance, and now the film itself is shown in the episode. Can't blame them though - that's one great movie.

***

In case you wonder why are there no TZ awards, I'm saving them for the end of season 2. Only 21 episodes here.

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