“The Shelter” (season 3, episode 3; originally aired 9/29/1961)
In which only one man is prepared for the end of the world
The story of Noah and the ark is a potent one, because it asks readers to imagine a world where only one man was good enough to spare the lives of him and his family. It’s one of the original apocalypse tales, and it posits not just that the end of the world but the idea that the end of the world is in our past, is a thing that we can learn from and attempt to understand. That’s kind of bleak, if you think about it for too long, but what’s even bleaker is how little attention the story pays to all of the people who get crushed by the flood waters and buried beneath the waves. People died to bring about the perfect world God wanted, and they died horribly. And what excuse do we have for ignoring them? They were wicked.
“The Shelter” places viewers firmly in the heads of the people who get crushed by the flood, but it also does its level best to make us sympathize with Noah as well. It’s not an exceptionally complicated episode, and the various moments when the characters stop everything to deliver some grade A Rod Serling moralizing are fairly clumsy. But the middle of this episode, the bits that are all about a bunch of people who live on a quiet suburban street and become convinced the world is about to end—only to realize that but one of them has a bomb shelter—those are all absolutely stellar. Serling’s script does a great job of sketching in the people who live in this little town, then does a similarly good job of pitting them at each other’s throats. This is pretty much an episode that exists solely to have this cast of characters yell at each other, and on that level, it more than delivers.
One of the things that makes that midsection work is the way that it very much seems like it wants viewers to side with those Dr. Bill shuts out of his shelter. For one thing, Jack Albertson—well known for any number of other roles—plays Jerry, the most developed of the shut-outs, and for another, when he rants and raves about how Dr. Bill is just condemning everybody else to death, there’s so much force behind it that it’s easy to believe the show might want you siding with him, in spite of all evidence that Dr. Bill is only surviving because of the foresight that no one else in the neighborhood had, even though they had Dr. Bill spending seemingly most of his time telling them how they were being silly and wiling away their last hours on Earth. Often on The Twilight Zone, the argument goes to the person who’s the most impassioned, and Jerry’s desperation to stay alive gives him the edge over Dr. Bill there for a while.
As the episode goes on, though, it becomes clear that the episode is giving us Jerry as a kind of middle ground. Yes, he’s going to go along with the plan to get that heavy piping and batter down the door, but he’s also not going to descend into calling Marty, friendly, reliable Marty, a semi-American, just because he’s an immigrant. Not all of us can be Dr. Bill Not all of us can have the foresight to make sure that our families are provided for after the end comes. But we don’t have to be Frank, either, and simply dissolve all of our relationships in the fear and desperation. The Twilight Zone was fond of ripping the thin veneer of civilization to shreds, just to show how easily it can be demolished by just about anything, and if “The Shelter” isn’t on the level of “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” well, there’s only a couple of times you get to make an episode like that.
There are a fair number of flaws in “The Shelter.” That first scene at the birthday party is fairly blatant in how it’s setting up everything to come. The party guests are so nice to Dr. Bill that you know the walls are going to come crumbling down, and the moment the first complaint about the doctor’s hammering in the middle of the night comes essentially seals not only what’s going to happen in this episode but what it’s ending is going to be. (I’ll talk about this more with “The Passersby,” but the show is obviously struggling to come up with twist endings that will have real impact by this point in its run, because viewers are so used to its usual bag of ironic twists.) The show has frequently indulged in clumsy exposition, but this first scene feels incredibly underwritten, until little Paul Stockton says that everyone needs to turn on CONDLERAD, and the Cold War paranoia sets in.
The end is also fairly clumsy. It almost plays out like one of the many parodies of the show’s more moralistic endings, with the moment when Dr. Bill says that the bombs didn’t fall, but maybe everything was destroyed anyway seeming particularly dumb. It doesn’t help that the twist here—the bombs aren’t falling, and it will be revealed at the least convenient time for the relationship among the neighbors—is so completely obvious that it’s easy to call from the start. An easy to predict twist isn’t the worst thing this show can possibly do, but it certainly doesn’t help the momentum once the twist hits and we have to settle in to learn all about how American society is based on a series of polite lies.
I realize it sounds like I wasn’t into this episode, but that’s not true, because I really was. Like “The Passersby” (which I was very impressed by), it’s an episode that builds to some moments of raw, terrifying power, then wraps things up with an unconvincing ending. It’s easy to harp on the ending, ultimately, because it sticks out. But at the same time, the middle section of the episode is so powerful that it doesn’t really matter if it all ends with Dr. Bill telling us that, hey, maybe we’re all monsters. The middle of this episode is straight-up paranoid craziness, and it does a wonderful job of putting viewers in the minds of both those in the shelter and those outside of it. When the neighborhood families worry that they’re all going to die, it’s easy to sympathize. But it’s also easy to understand why Dr. Bill is so dismayed by the notion of his shelter breaking down. The moment when the two groups come together thanks to that ad hoc battering ram is immensely powerful—and then the episode throws that all away.
What a twist!: The bombs that are falling aren’t actually bombs. They’re satellites. Too bad the president doesn’t tell everybody this in time for the neighbors to not utterly destroy their friendships!
- Larry Gates is one of those character actors who popped up in a million roles like this in the ‘60s and ‘70s, usually as a Bill Stockton type figure. Jack Albertson, of course, played Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, then went on to win an Emmy for his work on Chico And The Man. He also won an Oscar for The Subject Was Roses, which I’ve never seen.
- One of my favorite bits of the episode’s midsection is the part where the group is talking about going over to the next street but not letting anybody know they have a shelter, because it’s this street’s shelter. It’s a nice example of how quickly something like this becomes “community property” in the minds of those who don’t even have it.
- In researching this, I came across a link that said this was one of the top politically conservative episodes of The Twilight Zone, and I can sort of see that. After all, Dr. Bill is a model of self-sufficiency. At the same time, the solution he proposes—which is meant to sound quite sensible—is that the neighbors pool their resources and ride out the attacks in the Stockton basement, which is at least within spitting distance of socialism, so.
“The Passersby” (season 3, episode 4; originally aired 10/6/1961)
In which you’ve got to move on down the road
“The Passersby” is a knockout, until it isn’t. I’m not the sort of person who’s all that into the idea that the post-Civil War South is a place that needs to be valorized—honestly, I get it, but it’s not like we do this with any other wars—but the episode’s beautiful direction and unexpected story got under my skin in a way I wasn’t expecting. And then Abraham Lincoln shows up to say he’s the last casualty of the Civil War, and it’s not bad, exactly, but it is about one step too far. There was something beautiful about the notion of a woman trapped in this house for eternity, trapped in a burned out husk because she can’t find her way to forgiveness or moving past her bitterness or letting go of the past. There was also something great about imagining her husband waiting for her at the end of the road, unsure if she’ll ever come along. And then Lincoln comes along to talk her out of her stupor, and we’re off.
I don’t even know that this is me wishing there had been a darker ending. It’s just that Lincoln, in terms of deux ex machinas, is a pretty damn weird one. It makes sense in the context of the era and the story, sure, but it feels like the show working too hard to put one over on the audience, to include something that will send the episode off on a brighter note than where it was. Plus, I’m not sure why Lincoln’s able to accomplish the task of sending Lavinia off to join her husband when her own husband couldn’t do that, mostly because he seems to accomplish this entirely because he’s Abraham Lincoln. It’s the Twilight Zone equivalent of a Simpsons guest star who drops in for an “ironic” ending that wraps everything up as quickly as possible. Only here, I think we’re supposed to more or less take Lincoln seriously. It’s a weird note to end on, and I guffawed when he showed up.
This is not to complain about the episode, which up until that point is tremendous. In particular, I’m amazed by how beautifully directed it is by Elliott Silverstein. The image of the Civil War’s dead shuffling by this house along that long, dirt road could get old, but it never stops being haunting, and just when you’re getting a little bored with that image, Silverstein adds in some haunting fog and lanterns, giving everything an added eerie glow. It helps that it’s right around this point when you’ve pretty much confirmed what you’ve always suspected: All of these people are ghosts—probably even Lavinia and Ebbie—and they’re on their way to some afterlife that will hopefully offer them more comfort than this life. The episode seems at first like it might be just about this, like we’re waiting for the twist that everybody’s dead to drop, but Serling’s script and Silverstein’s direction more or less confirm this for you around the 10-minute mark, without coming right out and saying it, which allows the episode to visit darker emotional territory.
All of this is building to the episode’s strongest single moment, when the shadowy figure of a Union lieutenant rides by, and Ebbie starts to remember just what brought him to this point. Silverstein shoots the figure entirely in silhouette for quite some time, and it’s not immediately clear just why he’s doing it—outside of needing the encounter to feel especially spooky—but once Ebbie swings his light up in the man’s face and reveals the scars of the molten metal that burned him to death, the gambit becomes much clearer. Yet Silverstein’s choice works on more than just a simple plot level. There’s also good reason to leave this figure as a dark shadow on the horizon, because he’s a figure for Lavinia to pour all of her rage and anger at what happened to her husband in the war into. The moment when she fires at him and nothing happens is the episode’s best bit, and it’s terrific how well Serling’s script works in tandem with Silverstein’s images.
I don’t want to undersell the script either. There are some really beautiful passages in there, and what initially seems like just sort of a riff on “Southern folks hanging out on a porch and talking about things in slow, drawling accents” reveals depths that don’t seem present at the start, as happens in all the best episodes. In particular, I like how the true conflict in this episode has nothing to do with the war or with Jud returning or even the fact that everybody’s dead. The true conflict has to do with the whole idea behind ghosts, with the idea that if enough people have unfinished business, the whole world can become suffused with phantasms, doomed to wander until they find some sort of emotional closure. The men moving along the road are at least moving toward something. Lavinia stands to be trapped in a life that no longer exists—hell, in a house that no longer exists—and the stakes of that only slowly become apparent.
They burst forth in the scene with Jud, who’s become weirdly accepting of his fate. He knows he’s dead, and he’s ready for whatever’s next, because it has to be better than this long, lonely wandering, particularly if he can have his wife at his side. Ebbie, who stopped for just a spell, feels the same, and the fact that he has a pre-existing relationship with Jud makes it almost seem like he functioned as a kind of messenger to prepare Lavinia for what’s to come. There are some rich ideas about acceptance and grief running through this storyline, and if Lavinia had come to the realization that she needed to be with Jud more than she needed to hang onto the past on her own, then I wager this would have been a classic, spoken of in the same breath as many of the show’s finest episodes.
Instead, Lincoln pops in, and it almost works. It’s a very good episode, but it falls just short of being a great episode, and that has to do with the ending, full-stop. Yet even as Serling’s script is wrapping up in such goofy fashion, Silverstein’s camera is keeping things from flying too far off the rails. The image of Lavinia racing down the road, calling her husband’s name, heading into the mists, followed by the figure of Lincoln, in his famous hat, who diminishes slowly as he walks away from the camera. It’s a lovely little image to close the episode on, even if it tops off a weird, weird story point. There’s a weird, unbridled joy in these final few moments of “The Passersby,” and it’s a joy that can’t be hurt by our 16th president.
What a twist!: Everybody’s dead, but you figure that out pretty quickly. Then Abraham Lincoln shows up. Yeah.
- The use of the traditional folk tune is beautifully haunting, and James Gregory (perhaps best known for his work on Barney Miller) makes lovely work of it.
- For some reason, Joanne Linville really reminded me of Sally Field, which made it all the more amusing when Lincoln showed up at the end.
- So at this point in the show’s run, the basic types of Twilight Zone twists are so ingrained in the audience’s mind that it’s very difficult for the show to come up with genuinely surprising twists. The choice of “The Passersby” to be a more blatantly emotional episode that doesn’t rely on a huge twist is one of the reasons it works so well, but it also sets up a few potential twists it then doesn’t follow through on, to keep us guessing. In particular, it dangles the idea that Ebbie and Jud are one and the same in front of us, then doesn’t bother with that, which keeps things fresh.
Next week: Zack plays “A Game Of Pool,” then watches as Peter Falk plays a Central American in “The Mirror.”