The Twilight Zone: “The Night Of The Meek”/“Dust”

The Twilight Zone: “The Night Of The Meek”/“Dust”

“The Night Of The Meek” (season 2, episode 11; originally aired 12/23/1960)

In which Santa Claus is real

There’s something about Christmas that reduces a lot of cynics to a point where they honestly hope to believe in there being a real magic to the day. There have been some great Christmas episodes of TV shows, but the best ones often come from shows that are otherwise skeptical of humanity’s ability to overcome its petty problems and move toward something better, even if that movement only lasts for a day. I wouldn’t classify “The Night Of The Meek” as a truly great episode of television, but it’s surprisingly effective and affecting, even when watched closer to St. Patrick’s Day than the holiday it celebrates. You can sense in Rod Serling’s script that earnest wish to believe that all of this is really possible, that a drunk with his heart in the right place could really become Santa Claus and deliver joy to the kids who need it most.

“Night Of The Meek” is a “real Santa Claus” episode. These used to be fairly common in the world of television—so common that thirtysomething satirized them with its classic “The Mike Van Dyke Show”—but they’ve died off in recent years, perhaps because it’s hard to imagine even a show with closed-off episodes like C.S.I. suggesting that the real Santa existed somewhere within the show’s universe. These days, our dramas almost all give themselves over to gritty realism, even the ones that have essentially nothing to do with being realistic, and the “real Santa” story now exists almost solely on goofy fantasy series like Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Supernatural or Smallville. (Also, to be fair, Santa was a murderous demon on the last two of those series. So… )

But back in the day, the idea that Santa Claus really existed and could be spied on Christmas Eve if you squinted hard enough was fairly common on TV. The Twilight Zone takes a fairly different tack from how most other shows would carry out this story. On other shows, some character who was losing the Christmas spirit would meet some unusual old man, have to help him in some way, then find out that, hey, that just might have been the real Santa! Here, we meet an unusual old man who’s at the end of his rope, watch him help others around him, then watch him find out that, hey, he’s going to become the real Santa. It’s a nice inversion of the usual formula, and it’s a damn sight better than something like The Santa Clause, because it really roots its seasonal ideals in something more powerful than a vague sense of family togetherness.

I think one of the reasons TV writers get all gooey at Christmastime is because the ideals of the holiday appeal to just about everybody’s ideals for humanity. “Meek,” however, goes further than saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if we could all just get along and maybe help poor people once a year?” and suggests that there are people for whom Christmas is exciting but people for whom the holiday is also empty. There are poor kids out there who are about to find out that Christmas didn’t come for them nearly as thoroughly as it comes for the rich kids, and there are people who are out there suffering and can’t be helped by just a few small tokens tossed their way during a time when those of us who are better off feel a little guilty about that fact. “Night Of The Meek” is an episode perched firmly across the class divide of its time (and, honestly, of the present), and it suggests that the only way to honestly address this problem is supernatural intervention.

Let’s face it: If Santa Claus actually existed, he’d do a better job of taking care of the kids of the world than we actually do. Granted, he’d visit one day per year, and it’s hard to say that giving everybody a toy would help kids who are starving or in need of fresh drinking water. But that’s a hell of a lot more than most of us do, this episode argues, and the scene where our hero, Henry Corwin, hands out presents to all of the people around him from his magic bag is one of the warmest in this show’s entire run. He hits up the sorts of people it’s all too easy to forget about at the end of the year, from poor children to bums living in some sort of halfway home. Christmas charity usually comes in the form of giving money or items to some organization that will pass them along. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but Santa, if he existed, would have to look that in the eye and try to spread a little cheer. Corwin, for all of his other problems, is someone who constantly has to see these issues, and that makes him the ideal person to face them down.

There are some problems with “Meek”—filming on video continues to make the show look cheap and rob it of some of its power, and there are too many Serling speeches for the script’s own good—but all of those are wiped away by Art Carney’s terrific performance at the show’s center. Carney was already an acclaimed television actor, and his appearance here likely leant the show additional cachet at a time when it was still mostly a curiosity. Carney takes those Serling speeches in his teeth and makes them work, no matter what he has to do. A patently ridiculous one early on that attempts to explain why Henry drinks and why he “weeps” manages to become incredibly moving in Carney’s hands, and his joy at discovering that he gets to be Santa Claus for one night—and then forever—is palpable as well. This was a show that worked best with a great guest cast, and Carney might be one of the best to ever ply his trade on it.

“Meek” works because of Carney, yes, but it also works because Serling really seems to believe in his own sentimental hogwash, and that makes the audience believe for a little while as well. In reality, Santa Claus doesn’t exist. In reality, it’s too easy to forget about those who are poor or needy. In reality, even Henry can only help those who need him most one night out of the year. But every year, we gather together to insist that things will be better in the next year, that we will try harder to acknowledge those who need our help most. Every year, we eventually fail in one way or another. But that doesn’t mean there’s no good in insisting we will all over again when the darkest nights of the year roll back around.

What a twist!: Henry Corwin finds a magic bag, and he becomes the real Santa Claus, just like he hoped might happen. Imagine that! Santa Claus a drunk!

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • This episode was remade for the mid-’80s version of this series, starring Richard Mulligan. I’ve never seen it, but now I want to.
  • I’m trying to think of other fundamentally sympathetic portrayals of drunk people in recent media and coming up a little short. Usually, drunks are that way because they refuse to face up to some weakness within themselves (at least in popular media), but Henry drinks to blot out the fundamental weaknesses in the world. It’s an interesting idea for a character.
  • I love the Christmas carols used on the soundtrack, particularly the twinkly music box chimes used to play many of them.
  • I talked about Carney at length above, but John Fiedler is also terrific as his boss, Mr. Dundee, the one who closes out the episode thanking God for miracles.
  • Margaret Eby wrote movingly about this episode back during our Advent Calendar series last year. You’d do well to read her take as well. (Plus, the clip there features the alternate ending from the DVDs, rather than the one on Netflix.)

“Dust” (season 2, episode 12; originally aired 1/6/1961)

In which there’s magic in them thar hills

I’d never seen “Dust” before watching it for this review (at least, I have no memory of it), and it’s a decidedly odd episode of television. I tried to read the Wikipedia plot summary to figure out a way to succinctly describe its events, but it makes the episode sound confusing (it’s not), instead of uneventful, though possessing a powerful climax. There are a lot of great ideas here, ideas about racism and mob rule and simple mercy, but the show works its damnedest to undermine them at every turn, through some odd production choices and a weird uncertainty about just what it’s trying to accomplish. Putting this another way, it’s hard to take the machinations of the episode’s central character seriously when he’s accompanied by what sounds like what the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys dubbed the Porkarina. (You know, the instrument that scored everything that happened on Green Acres.)

Rod Serling scripted this one, and he’s playing around with the archetypes of the TV Western, the genre that was the crime procedural of its day. Westerns were more popular than most other things on TV, and it seemed like the audience wanted more and more of them. The most popular ones—the Gunsmokes and Bonanzas—provided simple morality plays the audience gobbled up, to the horror of the medium’s critics, who wondered how they could increasingly ignore the sorts of anthology dramas that had been an important part of the “golden age of television.” By the time “Dust” aired, most of the anthologies were on their way out, while the Western showed no signs of slowing. So it made a certain amount of sense for this anthology series to find ways to do a sci-fi or fantasy twist on the Western occasionally, as it did in season one’s “Execution” and in this half-hour. “Dust” attempts to do a more straightforward tale than the earlier episode’s time-travel story, but this one isn’t any more successful.

The story, I think, has more characters than we really get to spend time with over the course of the half-hour. We have the conflicted sheriff, who knows what justice is but doesn’t like the raw excitement of the crowd at doling it out. (He reminded me of Atticus Finch, a character from a book that was then a bestseller.) We have the greedy peddler, who’s willing to trick anybody into giving him their money. We have the grieving parents. We have the father who’s desperate to save his son. We have said son, who made a big mistake that cost him his life. We have the bloodthirsty townsfolk. We have a bunch of poor kids. Setting up an entire small Western town is what’s necessary for this episode to work at its optimal level, but it proves beyond the scope of Serling’s script. We get a solid characterization for Sykes, the peddler, and maybe the sheriff and the kid’s father. But other than that, we have a bunch of people who are shuttled in and out as the script needs them. It causes things to feel busy, something that becomes even clearer when you try to boil down the events of the episode into a paragraph or so.

Nevertheless, let me try. A boy named Gallegos got drunk and ran over a little girl. The sheriff had to lock him up, of course, but now, he also has to hang him, something that Gallegos’ father protests passionately, even though he knows the town is both bloodthirsty and against his son. (Left mostly unstated here is the racial component: The townspeople are white; the Gallegos family is Hispanic. This informs the episode nonetheless.) The sheriff is ambivalent about all of this, at best, knowing that justice must take its course but not terribly happy with just how excited everybody is to see that happen. Sykes returns to town with a rope to hang the boy with, and he also sells Gallegos’ father a bag of “magic dust” that’s actually dust grabbed from the ground. The dust will open up the hearts of the townspeople, Sykes says, and the father is happy to pay 100 pesos for it. When the time comes, he sprinkles the dust over the crowd, but the townspeople just laugh at him. Then, the brand new rope breaks, as it shouldn’t have, and Gallegos’ life is saved. The parents of the girl he killed decide he’s suffered enough, and he goes off with his father. Sykes laughs and tosses his coins to some small children, affected by the magic as well.

Now, when I put it that way, it’s not so hard to understand, I suppose. But I’ve also done a key thing here: I’ve ordered the events chronologically. The episode itself centers on Sykes, so it starts with him returning to town with the rope, which means it needs to fill in the identities of everybody else and the necessary back-story frantically. There are way too many infodumps here, and that gives the early portions of the episode a breathless quality. It also doesn’t help that the episode centers on Sykes, who’s literally the character with the least connection to this whole scenario. Even the bloodthirsty townspeople have more of a character arc than Sykes does! Sykes just tries to swindle everybody out of their money, then has those efforts blow up in his face. Then he laughs about it a bit and wanders off to presumably swindle other people.

What saves this episode are the performances—which are uniformly excellent—and the genuinely powerful ending. If the first two-thirds of the episode are often over-busy and filled with too many characters who don’t matter to what’s going on, the end of the episode is stark and powerful precisely because it gathers everybody in the same place. This is a show that almost always works when it’s at its simplest, and here’s a fantastic example of that simplicity in action. Sykes’ dust proves to be “magic,” but not in the way he assured Gallegos it was. What opens the hearts of the townspeople—or, rather, the parents of the dead girl—is the plea of the old man to open themselves up to the idea that there might be magic, that they might see how much he will hurt. And those parents do know how much he will hurt because they hurt too. There’s a connection here, born of human emotion, and it’s something Sykes will never really understand.

There’s a way to make an episode about an opportunist who stumbles into the Twilight Zone and doesn’t realize just how powerful what’s going on around him is. And Thomas Gomez offers up a hell of a loathsome performance as Sykes, a man you find yourself loving to hate. But at the same time, everything here that’s so powerful and true is shunted off to the side, so that we might spend more time with Sykes, that it’s hard not to wonder what this episode might look like if it were a little more direct. “Dust” closes powerfully enough that I’m loathe to just write it off, but it’s a shame to see the shadows of something that would have been even more powerful, just off to the side.

What a twist!: The dust Sykes sells the old man isn’t magical after all—but maybe it is. The brand-new rope Sykes sold the sheriff for the hanging snaps, and Gallegos is spared.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

  • Random connection: In the mid-’90s, there was a full-motion computer adventure game called Dust. I remember it being pretty awful, but it was also a Western. I don’t think it has any other connection to this than my mind linking the two.
  • There’s some really powerful filmmaking in the closing moments of this episode from director Douglas Heyes. I particularly love the use of camera angles to make the father seem small and insignificant and Sykes seem looming and powerful, and the final tilt down from the frayed rope to the gallows is wonderful as well.
  • John Larch, who played the sheriff, tended to play a lot of law enforcement and authority figures. He was the chief of police in Dirty Harry, for instance.

Next week: Zack uncovers another eerie link between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (okay, not really) with “Back There” and “The Whole Truth.”

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