The Twilight Zone: “I Shot An Arrow Into The Air”/“The Hitch-Hiker”
C+

The Twilight Zone: “I Shot An Arrow Into The Air”/“The Hitch-Hiker”

“I Shot An Arrow Into The Air” (Season 1, Episode 15; first aired: 1/15/1960)
Or The One Where What Goes Up Must Come Down, Without Really Going Anywhere

One of the reasons I love The Twilight Zone (and, like Todd, it’s in my top ten list of favorite TV shows) is that the stakes are almost always high. The more comedic episodes might downplay it, but generally speaking, if someone winds up in the Zone, they’re right on the edge of something, be it death, madness, or whatever lies between. In the first five minutes of “I Shot An Arrow Into The Air,” the first manned aircraft is launched into space, and then the folks on the ground promptly lose contact with it. (Fun thought: it’s completely possible for “And When The Sky Was Opened” and this to exist on the same timeline.) The aircraft, named the Arrow One, has crashed. Out of the eight man crew, there are four survivors, and none of them know what happened. All they can see for miles in every direction is desert and rocks and rocks and desert. They assume they’re on an asteroid, and that makes every last swallow of water desperately important. Important enough to fight over. Important enough to kill for.

Another reason I love The Twilight Zone is that I’m a sucker for a twist ending, even the not so great ones. I love narrative punchlines, even when they aren’t intended to be humorous, because I like puzzles in my fiction, and I like the possibility of surprise, even when that surprise isn’t all that well constructed. At the same time, I recognize twist endings can serve as crutches, leading to lopsided storytelling in which the first twenty minutes of an episode (or 70 minutes of a movie) exist solely to kill enough time to get to the final five. TZ’s length helps minimize this problem to a certain extent, since there’s only so much meandering you have to put up with even in the worst epsidoes. But that length can also make it tricky to decide where the line is between a story that has enough meat to merit the time, and one that is really just a three pager forced into a thirty page script. Every episode has to justify its own existence, and a good shock ending isn’t really enough.

In concept, at least, “Arrow” has a good shock ending. The Arrow One didn’t crash land on an asteroid. Too bad the stranded astronauts don’t realize their mistake until nearly all of them are dead, murdered by the lone survivor of the crew out of a mercenary (and semi-lunatic) need to conserve supplies. Corey, another in Serling’s standard issue lean-and-hungry men, crests a hill after hours of walking. He’s shot his superior officer, and bludgeoned another man to death, and he’s near madness, convinced he’s doomed to slowly die of starvation and dehydration thousands, maybe millions, of miles from his home. But standing on top of that hill, he sees telephone poles, and road signs. “Oh no, I was wrong!” he sings quietly to himself, “It was Earth all along!” And then everyone has a good laugh, except for the dead people, who can’t. (Note: this is a slight exaggeration. The main fact is that the ship is on Earth, and Corey just murdered his co-workers for naught.)

This isn’t a bad concept, in theory, and it speaks to one of TZ’s major themes: the way fear of the unknown can actually be a more pervasive threat than anything the unknown has to offer. (We’ll actually see a slight variation on that theme in the very next episode.) It also plays off certain basic expectations; the guys at the launch pad say the Arrow One is lost, the ship’s crew all immediately assume they’re off their home planet, and, well, they were in that rocket, weren’t they? When a rocket launches successfully, we make certain assumptions, and we’re nearly always right to do so. And the landscape certainly looks alien enough. Years of science fiction movies have prepared audiences for a variety of other worlds, but desert and rocks is certainly a common staple of the genre, partly because actual science has led us to believe this is what other worlds look like more often than not, and partly because rocks are cheap. Besides, the landscape in “Arrow” is basically the same landscape we saw in “The Lonely.” TZ has established what it’s asteroids look like. Who are we to judge?

Except, in practice, none of this really works. Take those astronauts, for instance. As Mark Zicree points out in The Twilight Zone Companion, it’s more than a little ridiculous that none of the men think to question the fact that this “asteroid” they’ve landed on has the same air quality, night sky, and gravity as Earth. Given that they couldn’t have been in the rocket for very long after take-off, surely their first theories on finding themselves in a strange place would be to wonder if they might not have left at all. The fact that Commander Donlin and the rest forget what happened to them right before the crash reeks of authorial convenience, and it’s made worse when one of the characters specifically points out how similar the “asteroid” is to our world. I’m guessing this was Serling’s attempt to cover his tracks, but it makes the men seem like idiots, as well as drawing the audience’s attention to a question without providing us with a plausible enough cover. I’d seen this episode before, years ago, so I can’t be sure that the twist is as obvious on first viewing as it seems to me now. But then, “Arrow” follows right after “Third From The Sun,” an episode which specifically hinges on making us question locative assumptions. It’d be like watching The Sixth Sense right after Jacob’s Ladder. The specific twists are different, but they’re close enough to inspire certain trains of thought.

All right, so what if “Arrow” does show it’s hand too early? That’s hardly the worst flaw it could have. It’s frustrating to be ahead of characters who really should know better, but if those characters are well drawn, and if the ending is fitting, knowing what’s coming won’t necessarily ruin the entire experience. Even by those standards, “Arrow” is a disappointing experience, an interesting premise undone by slack writing. We’ve got three men trapped in a seemingly hopeless situation. Presumably, the drama should come from watching how these men deteriorate to varying degrees under the pressure of that situation. We don’t need a full-on Lord Of The Flies scenario for this to work—Serling can be cynical about humanity, but he isn’t a nihilist—but there ought to be an arc, a transition from, “Yay, we’re all working together for science!” to “Hey, what’s that behind you, no of course I’m not holding a rock.”

Instead, we get Corey, the selfish murdering creep. Corey starts off the episode complaining about wasting water on the Arrow’s dying navigator, and then he starts killing people. His character arc hit its low-point right after the ship crash, and he has no real place to go. Neither does anyone else, really. Donlin and Pierson are both immediately suspicious of Corey, although neither is able to do much more with that suspicion than yell at him and then be surprised when he has the temerity to kill them. Donlin is especially stupid; he finds Pierson, dying (presumably) from the wounds Corey gave him, so Donlin puts down this gun to investigate. Which, of course, allows Corey to pick up the gun and start spraying bullets. Presumably, we should be horrified by Corey’s willingness to kill, but it’s such telegraphed behavior that it’s impossible to take it as anything but inevitable. The twist ending is supposed to torment Corey with the knowledge that he didn’t need to kill anybody—salvation was just over the next ridge. But the Corey we see wasn’t someone driven to horrible acts by desperation. He was just a creep who needed an excuse.

Maybe that’s the point; maybe Serling is commenting on how we don’t need to go to other planets to find ways to damn ourselves. If so, I’d still mark “Arrow” as one of the weaker entries in the series. The episode drags, and spends too much time explaining the obvious. After Corey kills Donlin, he goes for a long walk, and Serling pops in to narrate the scene in case we were confused as to what was happening. I realize this is for color, but where the narration in our next episode (most of which is done by the character actually experiencing the events) is equally florid, it has a haunting, mesmeric rhythm which the narration leading into the climax of “Arrow” lacks. Once Corey realizes his mistake, he has a bit of a breakdown, which isn’t surprising, but his monologue here is unnecessary. Serling had some of the elements of a great story in this episode, but the end result doesn’t quite work.

What a twist: The Arrow One crashes in an apparent wasteland. One of the surviving crew members murders the other survivors, before discovering that the “wasteland” is just the Nevada desert.

Grade: C+

Stray observations:

  • As he’s dying, Pierson tries to draw a symbol in the sand to let Donlin know they’re on Earth. I get that the poor guy is not firing on all cylinders, but “telephone poles” seems like an overly complicated choice.
  • Rod Serling would re-use the “it was Earth!” ending later on to much greater effect in his screenplay for Planet of the Apes (1968).

“The Hitch-Hiker” (Season 1, Episode 16; first aired: 1/22/196)
or The One Where It Could’ve Been Worse; It Could’ve Been Rutger Hauer

Urban legends don’t generally bother me. My dad told my sister and I the story about the kid whose stomach exploded after he drank Coke and ate a bag of Pop Rocks, and that was freaky, but it didn’t haunt my dreams or anything. Nor have I shuddered at the thought of albino alligators lurking in the sewers, or babysitters getting phone calls from inside the house. (Funny how “urban legends” are basically just horror stories with the serial numbers filed off.) But there is one of that always gets to me: the tale of the vanishing hitch-hiker. The details change from place to place, but the form stays essentially the same. Once upon a time, this woman who’s your best friend’s cousin’s dentist was driving through strange country in the middle of the night. She (let’s call her Susan) is tired. She’s been driving all day, and she’s hasn’t had a chance to stop for a coffee in a hundred miles. And it’s quiet. God is it quiet, as the radio station spews nothing but revival preachers and staticky folk songs. So when Susan sees a young woman standing on the side of the road, she pulls over. It’s not something she’d do normally, but she could use the company, and the young woman looks harmless. They drive on together in silence. Oddly, Susan feels more alone now than she did before. The radio has stopped working completely. The young woman stares straight ahead. She doesn’t blink. “I’m cold,” she says, and Susan offers her a sweater from the back seat of the car. The young woman takes the sweater and smiles, but it’s a distant smile, a smile you see in old photographs. “Where are you headed?” Susan asks. “Oh, just up the way.” They drive on, and Susan isn’t worried, not exactly. The young woman is a skinny little thing, hardly there at all, and Susan didn’t take those Tae-Bo courses for nothing. Only, it’s cold in the car now, even with the heat blasting at full. The young woman has eyes that float in the middle of her face, and Susan almost recognizes her, but that’s ridiculous. Finally, the young woman nods at a house on the left, and Susan pulls in the driveway. The porchlights come on, and Susan gets out of the car thinking she’ll just stretch her legs, but what she’s really thinking is she wants this to be normal again. She wants to meet this young woman’s parents and have them offer her a hot drink, so she can say no and thank you and be on her way. The front door of the house opens. An old man looks out, blinking, and Susan waves at him, and the old man doesn’t wave back. “Well,” Susan says, “we’re here-” But the young woman is gone. Susan looks around wildly, nearly getting down on hands and knees to check under her car because the hitch-hiker was right there- The old man is watching. Susan tries to explain to him what happened, describing the young woman as best she can, and the old man nods. “Oh yes, this has happened before,” he says. “You ain’t the first. That’s my daughter you saw. She’s dead, sorry to say. There was an accident, thirty some odd years ago. Sometimes she finds people at night, although I ain’t seen her myself since the funeral. Would you like to come in? I can show you the newspaper clippings.” Susan begs off, gets into her car so fast that she can’t find the right key for the ignition and then she can’t make the key fit and the old man comes down from the porch toward her like maybe he’s going to offer to help, or maybe he gets lonely too. Finally Susan gets the engine going and she backs out onto the street without even looking. She drives away, very fast. But it’s still dark. And it’s still lonely. And it’s still cold, and her sweater is nowhere to be seen, and Susan can’t bear to look in the rearview mirror, for fear of what might still be behind her.

“The Hitch-Hiker” isn’t about this story, exactly, but it is certainly aware of the legend. The episode, like “Arrow,” and like any number of Twilight Zone episodes, by playing off our assumptions. We see a woman driving alone menaced by a supernaturally persistent roadside stalker, we come to certain conclusions, much like Nan, the heroine of the episode, does. Partly that’s because we’re sympathetic to Nan, and because she’s increasingly terrified, we’re scared for her sake. And partly, too, it’s because the basic model of the chase works within familiar scary story parameters: beautiful lady menaced by a man who seemingly won’t take no for an answer. (Although there’s nothing sexual about what happens here. For a spectral, never gone for long stalker, this hitch-hiker is very non-threatening.) But the main reason this episode is so deeply creepy, even after you know the twist-ending, is the same reason why the urban legend I described above is creepy. There’s something in us that doesn’t trust hitch-hikers. They could be serial killers or sex maniacs or really boring religious fanatics. Worse, even. A hitch-hiker is a pure representation of inviting a stranger into your life, into your personal space, when you’re most vulnerable. It’s saying, “I’m going to trust you as a fellow human being, even though I have no reason to do so.” And who knows what happens next?

In a way, this episode falls into the “one beat” story problem I’ve criticized in the past. Nan Adams is driving cross country. Before “Hitch-Hiker” begins, she has a blow out while doing sixty miles an hour, but she’s fine, and the car is fine. A mechanic changes the tire for her, commenting on how lucky she was that the accident was so minor—and then Nan sees the hitch-hiker. He makes her uncomfortable right from the start. We won’t know the real reason she’s so uncomfortable for another twenty minutes, but, of course, we don’t really need a reason. We already have one. He’s a sad, rumpled little man, but his weary, mopey face is made unsettling by the sheer nature of its lack of visible violence. He’s like Droopy the Dog, only less of a bastard. (Huh. So that’s what those Droopy the Dog cartoons were really about.) Nan avoids him, and drives into town so the mechanic can put a new tire on. Before she leaves, she sees the hitch-hiker again, which is odd, him just showing up out of the blue, miles from where she first saw him. It’s a trick he keeps pulling on her again, and again, and again. Each time she sees him, drives a little faster, and each time she gets that much closer to outright hysteria. But she can’t shake him, no matter how hard she tries.

That’s it, really. We get some worried narration from Nan as she’s driving (narration which helps establish her point of view; it’s not the subtlest method, but given that she spends most of the episode by herself by necessity, it works well enough), and a few different scenarios to play on her fear, but once the threat of the Hitch-Hiker is established, there are no new twists till the end. We don’t learn anything about the rumpled man, and we don’t really learn anything about Nan herself. She seems nice enough, if a little on the brittle side, but then, I’d be brittle too if I was in her shoes. “The Hitch-Hiker” is based on a short story by Lucille Fletcher, and Serling’s biggest change to the original version is changing the gender of the main character. According to the Companion, Fletcher didn’t think the change added much, but I disagree. There’s something more vulnerable and immediately frightening about seeing a woman chased by a man, and it helps to give the episode an extra edge it might not have otherwise had. We don’t absolutely need to be as frightened as Nan is for this episode to work, but that extra edge of danger works to the story’s credit, and helps keep the final twist a secret until the big reveal.

Primarily, this is an episode about mood, not plot, which is why the one-track nature of events doesn’t ever become dull. In a longer episode, this wouldn’t have worked; once we realize the main trick “The Hitch-Hiker” can pull (namely, that the Rumpled Man always comes back), each successive reappearance inspires diminishing returns. Here, though, twenty minutes and change is just the right length to seriously freak out an audience without testing their patience. The direction makes the most out of the Rumpled Man’s persistence, presenting him while rarely drawing attention to him, making him seem a constant part of the landscape. (One of my favorite shots comes early on, when the Rumpled Man’s face suddenly fills the screen, making the direct eye contact with the audience as if to say, “Oh hi. Be seeing you soon...”) Nan starts off fairly confident and chipper, but the more often she sees her follower, the more that confidence starts to crack. She asks for questions and help from the few people she sees, but no one can really do much for her, and there’s no way to change the fact that she’s ultimately alone. That’s another key element: Nan is on her own, and she doesn’t even think of trying to contact someone from her “real” life until the final minutes of the episode. She manages to pick up a sailor for a few miles, but even he can’t help her in the end. He abandons her when he finally can’t take her terror and her panic and her willingness to run dudes down with her car. For the first time, we start to wonder if maybe whatever’s happening might not have more to do with Nan herself than we initially realized. And of course it does.

The big twist (and it’s odd how, writing these reviews, I’m always reluctant to give the twist until closer to the end of the review than the beginning, even though these writings are predicated on the assumption that you, the reader, have already watched the episode for yourself) is that the Hitch-Hiker isn’t trying to kill Nan, because she’s already dead. She died in the car accident we didn’t see, the accident we thought she walked away from without a scratch. The Hitch-Hiker is, in fact, Death, looking to lead Nan on to the next world. It’s a great twist, because it’s a twist that affects character and story, and changes the entire meaning of the episode while still following the episode’s internal logic. It explains why the Rumpled Man was never actually that scary on his own terms. He wasn’t a danger, because Nan had already past the point where any danger could affect her. The final moments of the episode, when Nan, having learned in telephone call to her mother that she died six days ago, gets back in her car and sees the Hitch-Hiker waiting in her back seat, aren’t supposed to be terrifying. There’s a comfort in his expression, and “I believe you’re going my way?” is an offer of friendship, or at least commiseration.

In light of this, it’s worth asking if the rest of the episode still holds up if you know how it ends. I think it does. Re-watching “The Hitch-Hiker” for this review, I found myself wondering about all the people Nan meets as she’s trying to get away from the Rumpled Man. It doesn’t seem to make sense, given that she’s basically a ghost who refuses to admit she’s a ghost. Does the the gas station owner she wakes up really talk to her at his window? Did that sailor she picks up spend a hour riding in a ghost car? There are different interpretations, but for me, I think everything we see in this episode, right up until the very end, isn’t really happening; or, at least, it’s not happening in our world. Nan refuses to accept she’s dead, so she creates a place for herself where the truth is a monster (albeit a friendly one) and the road is her only hope of escape. But she can’t keep this up forever, and reality keeps poking in, like when her car stalls on the train tracks, nearly “killing” her. Or the nagging, persistent sensation that something is wrong.

As for whether or not all of this is still scary, even with that surprisingly warm conclusion, well—in the urban legend I recounted at the start of this review, there’s no real danger to Susan. In fact, hardly any variants of the Vanishing Hitchhiker endanger their protagonist, at least not on a physical level. The violence has already happened before the story really begins. But it terrifies me, still, just like “The Hitch-Hiker” still unsettles me, for all its humanism. In both stories, the point isn’t physical danger. The point is the inescapable reminder of our own mortality, of the way death is present for every moment of life, and there’s no real way to escape that knowledge. Nan isn’t frightened in her final moments, because she’s become what we fear, and what we can’t help someday becoming. And all we can do is watch as she drives past, and wonder who’ll be waiting for us one day by the side of the road.

What a twist: Turns out, she was dead the whole time. 

Grade: A

Stray observations:

  • So, that opening paragraph is a wee bit on the indulgent side. Think of it as my way of saying Happy Halloween. (And if you hated it, Happy Halloween anyway, and I promise I won’t make that a regular thing.)
  • This episode is also a great example of one that prepares us for the final reveal without ever completely giving the game away. When Nan panics and drives through a roadblock, we never see her dealing with the construction on the other side, because for her, it doesn’t exist. (And “Cheaper than a funeral” is a funny line, given the eventual context.)
  • Both Inger Stevens (as Nan) and Leonard Strong (as the Hitch-Hiker) do fine work here. It’s also fun seeing Adam Williams pop up as the random sailor.

Next week: Todd deals with a crippling gambling addiction in “The Fever,” and then gets into time traveling wackiness in “The Last Flight.”

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