“Mirror Image” (season 1, episode 21; originally aired 2/26/1960)
In which there’s more than one of everything
Look, I know that J.J. Abrams loves The Twilight Zone, but this is just ridiculous. “Mirror Image,” in a lot of ways, feels like a prologue to Fringe, set in the 1960s. In fact, I daresay that latter-day show could air this episode, intercut with footage from the modern-day actors reading the case file containing the events of the episode, and nobody would bat an eye. It’s the story of an attractive blonde woman who learns there’s another universe, where she has a doppelgänger. Another universe where said doppelgänger is… if not evil, at least malevolent. Another universe that crosses over with our own and attempts to cancel it out. And just when the attractive man she meets at the bus station thinks he’s got the situation contained by having the police haul her off to see the doctor… he starts to see odd things, too.
I wouldn’t claim “Mirror Image” as a “great” episode of The Twilight Zone, but I do think it’s an awful lot of fun. There’s not really enough to the story to support a full half hour, so everything after Millicent Barnes figures out she’s being stalked by Millicent Barnes-B is kind of superfluous (at least until she lays out—in true crazy crackpot fashion—just what’s going on). And the ending is oddly unsatisfying, even if its remains nicely creepy and inexplicable. It’s as if the show felt like taking the dive into full-on, hardcore science fiction, then pulled back at just the last moment. But I still really like this one, and I think a lot of that has to do with our hero, Millicent Barnes, played by Vera Miles.
As I think about this, it strikes me that not a lot of the very best Twilight Zone episodes featured performances by women at the center. For the most part, this is a male-dominated show, and the women are there to fit into the conventional roles of girlfriend or mother or whatever. (One exception: Season two’s terrific “The Invaders,” which features a great Agnes Moorehead performance.) Yes, there are episodes with women at the center—and we’ve covered at least one really good one in “The Hitch-Hiker”—but the show often relegates women to the sidelines, as was common at the time. (Think of how, say, the women in “Third From The Sun” don’t really have a lot of agency for themselves.) Millicent, however, is smart, capable, and decidedly not crazy. And then she steps into the Twilight Zone, and things start to unravel.
What’s great about this episode is the way that Millicent’s sanity is questioned. The show doesn’t have to bother to say that one of the reasons the ticket agent and Paul discount what she’s saying is because a woman’s saying it, and women are always a touch crazy in the head, you know? I have no idea if Rod Serling was even aware of how the condescension the agent and Paul treat Millicent with informs the rest of the episode. I’d say he was, but he doesn’t have a sterling track record with female characters in his other scripts. It’s telling, however, that the only person who seems to give Millicent the benefit of the doubt—even if she clearly thinks what Millicent is saying is insane—is the female bathroom attendant. Everybody else is too busy clucking their tongues and shaking their heads about how Millicent is sick in the head.
She’s not, of course, because she’s on this show. What The Twilight Zone does better than any other show in TV history (and we’ll definitely see this in the other episode covered this week) is take someone who seems completely rational and sane and reduce them to what seems to be a gibbering lunatic over the course of 25 minutes. “Mirror Image” feels almost as if it unfolds in real time—it can’t be long that the bus sits there to wait for Millicent and Paul—and it takes Millicent from the plucky heroine of a “single girl, headed to the big city to start over” story and gradually turns her into someone who’s realized that our universe is at war with another one. It’s an insane notion to put across in under a half-hour—particularly in 1960, when every other show wasn’t filled with notions of multiple universes—but Miles gets it across swiftly and succinctly, and the show’s direction (by John Brahm) does so as well in one brutal image.
Millicent’s gone to the bathroom to wash up, convinced that this business with the ticket agent claiming she keeps coming up to check when the bus will get there or the way her bag shifts places between the check-in counter and next to her on the bench. She talks with the bathroom attendant, who’s also seen her just a few moments ago, even though this is the first Millicent’s been in the bathroom. The attendant clearly thinks she’s a little nuts, but she’s willing to humor her. And then Millicent turns to head out to the main room again, opens the door… and sees herself sitting on the bench in the main lobby in the mirror. There are two of her. The bathroom attendant, standing to the side, doesn’t notice. But Millicent does, and it’s like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. From there, she’s looking for this evil twin. And she’ll only see her one other time.
Brahm only frames Millicent and Millicent-B in the same shot one time in the whole episode. (The other time Millicent sees her twin, the camera pans up from her standing outside of the bus to the malevolently grinning Millicent sitting on the bus, dead-eyed.) But because that shot with the mirror is such a corker, we’re right there with Millicent, waiting for the other ball to drop, for everything to start unraveling. The long section that follows, as she tries to figure out what’s going on and talks with Paul and the older couple about whether they’ve seen the other Millicent is kind of one-note and hits the same beats over and over. (Millicent tells someone there’s another her. They think she’s crazy. Rinse, repeat.) But her growing surety of what’s happened and the way that we know she’s right makes the way that everybody just writes her off as a silly little lady infuriating (again, perhaps in a way Serling didn’t entirely intend). When she’s hauled off by the police(!) and committed, it feels almost like a personal affront.
And then there’s the denouement. Paul, retiring for a short nap before the next bus arrives in the morning, thinking he’s done the right thing, sees that his bag starts to shift places, too. And then he sees somebody running out of the bus station, heading into the dead of night. He follows the man out into the darkness and sees just enough to know that… it’s another him. And then we get the episode’s strange, eerie final sequence, as Paul-B runs just ahead of our Paul, the two images stitched together in post-production with an effect that should look cheesy but instead enhances the oddness of what’s happening. Paul-B races ever forward, creepy grin plastered on his face, while Paul-A remains stuck behind him, slowly losing it in the same way Millicent just did. In this way, the episode uses the goofy effects of the time to its advantage: Paul-B might be on the same street, but in terms of the shot, he’s in another universe. Paul-A can never hope to catch up, can never hope to outrun his hysteria, because he’s forever trapped in the back, racing forward toward nothing and nowhere.
What a twist!: After Paul sends Millicent off to the mental hospital, he is confronted by his very own Paul from another universe.
- I find Martin Milner as Paul a little dull, but Miles gives one of my favorite Zone performances. I also really like Joe Hamilton as the cranky, old ticket agent who really wishes this stupid woman would just leave him alone.
- I really don’t understand how Millicent-B gets around and plays all of her tricks with nobody seeing her. Logistically, this episode doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I suppose that’s fine on a show like this.
- Brahm films the portion after the ticket agent turns off some of the lights in the lobby with a real sense of how public places become unexpectedly eerie in the dark. The bus depot is open, but it also feels like it contains menacing shadows that no one should ever have to encounter.
- Speaking of bus travel, the episode also gains something (in modern eyes) for focusing on a type of travel that nowadays seems fairly quaint. Is there any way a modern-day Millicent wouldn’t take a short flight to Buffalo?
- Must everybody from the other universe smile so creepily?
“The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” (season 1, episode 22; originally aired 3/4/1960)
In which there are many Maple Streets, all over this world
How do you even approach “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”? Maybe more than any other episode Zack and I have covered this season (the sole possible exception being “Time Enough At Last”), this is one of the foundational texts of what The Twilight Zone was. This is an episode that’s still taught in classrooms for segments on hysteria and prejudice, an episode used to show the kind of madness the country descended into during the Red Scare in history classes. It’s one of the few episodes that will turn up on just about every top 10 Twilight Zone episodes lists (indeed, no less than Time put it in the top five), and it’s one of the few episodes pretty much everybody knows, solely because the basic structure of it has been so thoroughly devoured by pop culture as a whole. If there’s anything new to say about this episode, I certainly don’t have it in my head. All of the usual bromides—great episode, delves into prejudice and paranoia, gut-punch of an ending—apply.
But let’s try, shall we?
There’s a rich tradition in science fiction of stories I guess I’d call “mob stories.” And by that I don’t mean stories about the Mafia or anything like that. They’re stories about ordinary citizens who are confronted by the unusual and are eventually reduced to their basest instincts because people feed off each other’s negative energy and refuse to listen to reason. They tend to be awfully cynical about the human race. But they’re usually right. As this episode was airing, I jokingly asked my wife if there was any way, in this situation, everybody would start to think an angry old drunk was speaking the truth just because he was speaking loudly and forcefully, and she instantly reeled off five or six more examples from recent human history than I had already been thinking of. In times of trouble, people don’t want to hear soothing words of wisdom; they want to hear somebody who shares their rage.
That’s hard for me to hear sometimes. I’m an optimist, and I want to believe that when the chips are down, people will listen to the calm, logical guy who’s speaking carefully and thoughtfully about what’s going on and how we should prepare for it, not the guy who’s just shouting loudly and incoherently. I also want to believe the calm, logical guy won’t lose his cool. “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”—well, most mob stories, really—suggests that neither of these things are true. Steve tries to be the good guy who stands up to the craziness, but by the time suspicion has turned to Charlie (who, granted, has just shot somebody), he’s all too ready to string Charlie up as well. Steve—calm, rational Steve—had a boiling-over point as well, a place where his fear and suspicion would get the best of him. It just took longer to get there.
There are plenty of cynical Twilight Zone episodes, of course, but “Maple Street” might take the cake for just how little faith it has in the human race. As the two aliens pack up their things to go, clearly trusting that the people of Maple Street will kill each other with only the slightest provocation, they suggest that Earth’s invasion will be easy because the world is full of places like this, places where removing technology and comfort will make it all too easy to turn people against each other with only a few simple parlor tricks. (And, to be fair, it’s hard to imagine the Maple Street denizens turning against each other if certain of their appliances or cars don’t eerily start working out of nowhere at various times in the episode, so the aliens do give a slight push to get the ball rolling.) The mob’s anger and fear switches targets slowly at first, the bullseye first painted on Les, then only gradually moving to Steve. But as the half-hour goes on, the target switches faster and faster. Now the shadowy figure walking down the street, now Charlie, now little Tommy, now everybody. And soon, the streets are filled with mass hysteria.
There’s stuff that doesn’t make a lot of sense here. For instance, why doesn’t Pete Van Horn call out to the others to announce himself, instead of just walking forward and getting shot? (Then again, Charlie probably would have shot him anyway.) And Jack Weston’s performance as Charlie is occasionally a touch broad, especially when compared to the way the others in the cast believably build the terror they’re in. Plus, there’s just the fact that the characters have to jump to believing in aliens awfully quickly to fit all of this in a half-hour, even with the fact that all of their electrical items and cars stop working. Tommy suggests spacemen, and everybody just sort of goes along with it, rather than suggesting Russians or something. (The tone here reminds me, in some ways, of Ray Bradbury’s “Zero Hour,” which has some similar themes in terms of the darkness lurking inside of suburbia.) The episode’s not perfect, after all.
That doesn’t matter. It works incredibly well, even with the patchy spots. And the reason for that, I suspect, is that it takes the reverse tack of a lot of mob stories. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” was probably the most famous speculative fiction mob story before this one, and that’s a story that predicates its whole idea on the fact that the mob is an annual thing that forms, with a surprise ending about what happens once they do. Many other mob stories show us the aftermath, what’s happened years or decades after the mob has picked its scapegoat and gone through with its terrible actions. (Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” also comes to mind.) But “Maple Street” puts us right in the mob as it’s forming, showing how individual people with all of the best intentions in the world can let go of their freedoms and their sanity in the name of security. If Charlie—the big, loud drunk—is the one who can make us feel safe, well, we’re going to go off and follow Charlie. In the end, it’s feeling safe that’s more important than being good or following proper American processes and values.
This is all obviously very close to Rod Serling’s heart. He writes “Maple Street” with a kind of intensity and closely-observed character development that he doesn’t always lavish on his scripts. It’s remarkable just how much he’s able to develop in a very short time. He believably builds the Maple Street neighborhood. He plants little plot bombs that detonate just when you’d almost forgotten them (like Pete Van Horn leaving the neighborhood on foot). He creates a host of characters that we get to know very well, even if none of them are terribly complex. He gives us a plot with more twists and turns than your usual episode of Twilight Zone. (It’s easy to think, given how many of these first season episodes have hit the same beats over and over, that we’re going to be stuck on Charlie and Steve arguing over Les for far longer than we actually are.) And he drives it all home with a theme that seems obvious in retrospect but sneaks up on you as you watch. Serling could certainly be didactic—and the ending here is, just a little bit—but he earns it here. This was one of the most pressing issues of Serling’s time—hell, of our time—and he firmly asserts that nothing’s worth feeling safe all of the time. It’s never worth it to give up your reason.
Serling doesn’t have a lot of hope, ultimately. It’s easy to see Steve as the man he imagines himself to be in this scenario, and even Steve succumbs. We’re all animals, underneath it all, and if someone pushes our buttons long enough, any one of us will give in to that animal nature just hoping that we can make it stop. Deep down, we’re all looking for a scapegoat, “Monsters” suggests, and while some of us will jump to that right away, it’s possible they’re just more honest than the rest of us. If you’re in the dark long enough, you’ll eventually lash out at whatever comes toward you, no matter how long you’ve known them or thought them a friend.
What a twist!: There are indeed aliens, but they’re not on Maple Street. They’re observing from afar, remarking on how we humans are all so easy to manipulate and make kill each other. Thanks, guys!
- I like the way the angry accusations of weird behavior go from staying up late and looking at the stars to building a radio set downstairs. It’s all stuff with perfectly logical explanations, but even knowing the setup of the episode, you catch yourself saying, “Hey, wait a second. Why was he building a radio?”
- I’m wondering if any of you had never seen this episode before or heard of it. I’d be curious to know if the twist packs a punch or is too easy to guess. I don’t believe it was a surprise to me when I first saw this episode as a teenager.
- When the mob picks up stones to hurl at Charlie, I read it as a possible homage to “The Lottery,” actually.
- I love the way Charlie’s wild-eyed, trying to find anybody to blame for the weird behavior of his house, finally settling on Tommy. Weston’s a little over-the-top early on in the episode, but he’s great here, as you see him consider turning over everybody, even his wife.
- I guess I didn’t ask the question every good English teacher asks his or her class about this episode: So just who were the monsters of Maple Street? (All together now: “The humans!” Then feel a cold chill at that notion.)
- The direction of this episode, by Ronald Winston, is suitably chilling and gorgeous. I particularly like his use of candle and lantern light after night falls.
- The parody of this episode just about writes itself: “We weren’t proud of the way we stoned the boy, but, well, it had to be done.”
Two weeks from now: We’re taking next week off for the holiday, but Zack will be back Dec. 3 with Twilight Zone getting meta in “A World Of Difference” and encountering eternity in “Long Live Walter Jameson.”