The Wunderkind

Episode 5 of season 1 of the Twilight Zone opens up to a man strapped to a hospital bed. We don’t know what’s happened to him and we don’t know what’s wrong.  He is asked the usual questions one is asked when waking up from being unconscious. What is your name? ‘Raff Hanks’. Do you know where you are? ‘No’. Who is the president?

Cut to 5 years ago and Raff Hanks is the campaign manager for Presidential candidate Stevens. Raff is celebrating his success, certain of Stevens imminent election. So certain in fact, he has brought with him the book published about his win entitled “The Wunderkind.”

But Stevens doesn’t win. The failed Stevens yells at Raff that he had listened to his ‘data’, and his ‘polls’, and his ‘high-tech baloney.’ Noted here the absence of emotion in Raff’s toolkit. Cut to two years later and Raff Hanks’ biography is now being used as a coaster in a dark bar, where Raff is drowning his sorrows.

While in that bar, Raff sees a cute TV segment about an 11-year-old who has posted a video to YouTube about running for president. It’s one of those smarmy segments they show you at the end of the news to try and create hope after half an hour of bad news. This 11-year-old boy, Oliver Foley, has captured the imagination of the US public, and now he has captured the imagination of Raff, as he sees an opportunity to get back into the presidential campaign game.

Raff gets in contact with Oliver and his family to convince them that Oliver should seriously run for president. The parents are at first incredulous, after all, Oliver is only 11, and they have looked up Raff and know that he is being an opportunist. Raff doesn’t deny this, and he convinces the parents that Oliver would simply be the front-boy, but also that they will earn enough money from endorsements and book deals to put both of their kids through college, and Raff will be back in the public eye.  It’s a win-win situation, and the parents agree. This exchange points to their individual motivations, the parents wanting to educate their children in a country where university costs are exorbitant, and Raff wanting to succeed as campaign manager. 

The main dramatic question for this episode is therefore;

“Can Raff Hanks redeem himself?”

Can he create a successful presidential campaign with the most unlikely candidate of all – an 11 year old boy?

This motivation is established by first showing Raff’s unquestionable certainty that he will win the Stevens campaign, only for that dream to be squashed. This is then confirmed by leading our protagonist Raff on a new journey to win the presidential campaign for young Oliver, and for himself. Raff Hanks is obsessed with winning.

Raff sees what we see in real life. That the public is tired of politicians. We are tired of not knowing who to trust, and we are tired of being lied to. The fact that it is two barflies who agree that they would vote for Oliver is a suggestion of unclear thinking, a side-stepping of rationale. Having a child run for the head of office represents innocence and naivety, a return to childhood where we don’t have to think so hard, and where things are taken care of for us. The episode clicks back into the hospital room where Raff is in distress. Raff is advised his condition is not stable, and Raff responds;

“I’m not sure it ever was stable. People would have seen what was happening. I saw what I wanted to”

Oliver’s initial YouTube video that gets millions of views starts with the line that he wants “everyone to be nice to each other” and “play video games” and Oliver wants “freedom for everyone, except maybe my little sister”. I find it poignant that even in this childish utopia, women and girls are excluded.

So, Raff is now campaign manager to 11-year-old Oliver Foley. We watch as Oliver gets his sister to help him make more videos for YouTube and Raff helps Oliver increase his campaign via increased production values. It’s difficult as a viewer to not get pulled into the idea of this, of something different. Raff puts this succinctly when he says “We’ve had politicians, where has it led us?”

The instability of the situation is hinted at when Oliver’s parents try to get him to go to the doctor, but Oliver throws a huge tantrum, screaming about how he hates old doctors, and refuses to go. Next in the campaign are the presidential debates, which of course an 11-year-old is going to completely fail at. The speech writer is frustrated at the situation and is subsequently fired. Oliver does in fact completely fail at the debate, unable to string together a coherent sentence, and at one point, crying for his mommy.

This creates the fourth quarter crisis where it seems impossible for Oliver, and therefore Raff, to succeed. Raff is back at the dark bar, drowning his sorrows yet again. His campaign friend Maura comes to visit him and advises him that Oliver’s dog is dying, and that Oliver wants Raff’s permission to post a video on YouTube about it. Once again Raff’s opportunism piques and he realises that a dying dog and a kid who loves him will melt the publics heart. And he is right.

Oliver becomes president.

What is the Twist?

Raff Hanks, what have you done?

The twist is that Raff Hanks succeeds, but his motivation changes. Once he succeeds in making Oliver president, Raff finally starts to question the ethics of his goals in the first place. These questions have come far too late. Has he done the right thing? Who is Oliver? What will become of the United States with Oliver as president?

This is also hinted at when Raff had previously spoken with his friend Maura. She tells Raff that “I was wrong” and he tells her those are his 3 favourite words. Perhaps it is time he spoke them?

Oliver himself has become tyrannical, not only demanding the childish things that were a part of his campaign like the free video games, but Oliver also demands that there be no adult doctors as he hates them.  Raff tries to talk to Oliver’s mother but she is not interested in constraining her child, after all, wasn’t it Oliver who had connected with the people? Raff then tries to discuss the situation with the military chairman, who also has no interest in hearing Raff out and accuses Raff of treason. Finally, Raff decides to go straight to Oliver who is currently playing a spot of golf, remind you of anyone?

Raff approaches Oliver about his presidency, and that is when he finds out that not only was the public manipulated by Raff’s campaign, but that Oliver manipulated Raff directly, faking his dogs’ sickness in order to pull Raff back in. Oliver then tries to hit a hole in one but misses, and he throws the bucket of balls onto the green and demands Raff acknowledge it as a hole in one. Raff refuses this order, and when Raff refuses to obey, Oliver has his guards shoot him. The other twist relates to the medical situation that has been spliced into this episode. We now see that this is after Raff was shot for his treason. The nurse informs Raff the doctor is here to see him, and it is a child doctor. Raff, just like the country, is being gutted.

Does the twist subvert or meet the viewers expectations?

The idea of having a child as president is sadly not a huge stretch for the world coming fresh out of a Trump presidency.  Biden was sworn in today, January 21st 2021, and we in the world are reeling from the relief of getting this incorrigible child out of the white house. I think Raff was a metaphor for the US public who voted for Trump, seeing an opportunity for their own gain and not realising, or not caring, the ramifications that it would have on others. The Trump presidency, just as the Oliver Foley presidency, caused so much more harm than good, and the experiment of having someone who’s “not a politician’ has failed in more ways than we could have ever imagined. Trump was a conduit that unleashed a tidal wave of repressed racism and sexism that was previously hiding behind a thin veneer of social self-consciousness. The attack on the capitol was a culmination of that stupidity, a physical act reflecting the mistrust of our institutions of power and a miseducation of people who should know better, but they don’t. We as a people are vulnerable to projecting idealism onto something just because it’s different and new, but we have to act as adults, not children, and consider the consequences, not just for ourselves, but for us all.

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