At first, the newest episode Jordan Peele’s rebooted Twilight Zone really wants you to think politics screw up families. But what makes the newest episode so great is that it’s a low-key indictment of bad parenting. In this case, a lack of boundaries coupled with exuberant over-indulgence results in an 11-year-old becoming the President of the United States.
Titled, “The Wunderkind,” the story presents the chillingly plausible idea that a child YouTube star could become a real political figure. This plays out like a sketch from the Lonely Island mashed-up with that Black Mirror episode where a cartoon becomes Prime Minister. It’s disturbing because it’s oddly relatable, but terrifying because it demonstrates what happens when parents aren’t taken seriously.
The political aspirations which drive the plot are floated as both an idealistic notion and a really bad idea at the same time. After screwing up a massive Presidential campaign, down-on-his-luck political data-wizard Raff Hanks (John Cho) decides that YouTube star Oliver (Jacob Tremblay) really could become the President of the United States. The law isn’t changed or anything to make this happen, instead, the parents are are the proxy candidates. “Your name will be on the ballot, he’ll be in the one in charge,” Raff says charmingly. And though the dutiful parents hesitate, they do go along with all of it at first.
The episode doesn’t really focus on Oliver’s parents, but what’s smart is that they’re not presented as manipulative stage parents. Instead, the cut-throat, so-sweet-its-cynical presidential campaign is largely the kid’s idea but informed by Raff’s political know-how. In fact, when Oliver bombs in his first primary debate, the parents actively seem to put a stop to the campaign. Still, they direct blame toward the campaign manager, which, is mostly fair. Oliver’s parents are indulging their kid the same way other parents might encourage a child’s interest in fencing or dance or soccer. When we do this, we entrust our kids to a defacto caregiver. Most of us don’t drop our kids off with political data analysts, but when Oliver’s parents angrily tell Raff “we trusted you!” it’s really hard to blame them. The spookiness of the Twilight Zone premise has carried these people away. It’s not really their fault. They’re trying to be good parents, right?
Wrong. When Oliver’s campaign hits the skids, the parents participate in one of his YouTube videos to drum-up support for their dying dog. True, the video is Oliver’s idea and encouraged by Raff, but it’s basically the tipping point that allows him to win. And once he’s in office, Oliver decides to start fulfilling his campaign promises, starting with free video games for every single kid. His mom (Kimberley Sustad) half-heartedly tries to stop him, but it’s too late. The kid president is willing to ruin the economy to get what he wants. Later, when Raff realizes his political schemes have gone too far, he appeals to Oliver’s mother. “He’s not the real president, you are. It’s time to intervene.” But, by this time, Oliver’s mother has gotten comfortable with everything. Her child is happy. That’s all that matters. The problem is, of course, because Oliver is an “unpunishable child” (it’s treason to talk about getting rid of him) his mother has given up her authority as a parent. It all happens with good intentions, but the episode posits that if we try to be buddies with our kids and to give them the world, the rest of the world and other people’s families could suffer.
In The Twilight Zone, the stakes around parental boundaries are about global stability, and how an inability for parents to set boundaries, could destroy the world. But, those stakes are just as high for real parents, too. We might not sit by placidly while our kid orders people to make ice cream sundaes in the White House, but all of us, on our worst days, allow little tyrants to run the world.
The Twilight Zone airs new episodes on CBS-All Access on Thursdays.