The Twilight Zone: “The Self-Improvement Of Salvadore Ross”/“Number 12 Looks Just Like You”

The Twilight Zone: “The Self-Improvement Of Salvadore Ross”/“Number 12 Looks Just Like You”

Everyone wants a better You

“The Self-Improvement Of Salvadore Ross” (season 5, episode 17; originally aired 1/17/1964)

In which being the better man doesn’t make you bulletproof...

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

Here, then, is the latest entrant in The Twilight Zone’s line of angry, desperate men: Salvadore Ross (Don Gordon). On the spectrum between pathetic and asshole, Sal leans farther to the right than most. We first meet him driving a “borrowed” convertible to impress a woman who clearly doesn’t want anything to do with him, no matter how much he yells at her. Getting mad at someone for not wanting to date you is not a good way to make a first impression on the audience. The conversation between Sal and Leah (Gail Kobe) is creepy and laden with the potential for violence—he doesn’t hit her, or even give a clear impression that he wants to, but the way he grabs her arm and demands that she give him what he wants is enough to mark him as a jerk of the highest order. Thankfully, this show being what it is, we can rest assured that his jerkiness will be suitably rewarded soon.

Sal ultimately gets his just deserts, in a way that works a little too hard to nail the perfect ironic landing. But before then, the episode follows a disarmingly simple premise to its logical conclusions, in a way that’s at once thematically illuminating and narratively sound. There are flaws here, but the script (by Jerry McNeely, based on a short story by Henry Slesar) largely holds up; its biggest failing is in the need to shortcut authentic emotion in order to arrive at a specific, and predictably neat, conclusion. The fact that the story is still entertaining even with those shortcuts is a mark in favor of Gordon’s needling, determined performance, and in the story’s willingness to accept an outlandish concept in a gratifyingly practical fashion.

That concept: after breaking his hand trying to force Leah to listen to him, Sal winds up in the hospital, where, after a chance conversation with another patient (J. Pat O’Malley as an old man with a cold who reminds Sal how lucky he is to be young; a pretty typical Twilight Zone message here, “Be grateful for what you have”), he discovers he has the ability to swap conditions with other people, provided those people agree to the trade. As in: Sal suggests he’d rather have the old man’s cold than a broken hand, the old man agrees, and later on, Sal finds that the trade, although meant in jest, has come true. He’s got a minor cold, and the old man has a broken hand. The old man is less than happy about this turn of fortune, but Sal ignores him because, as previously noted, Sal is a jerk.

As supernatural hooks go, this is a good ‘un. Sal’s discovered ability for exchange is just specific and odd enough for it to be plausible that he’s never realized he could do it before now; it’s also entirely possible to believe this is some brand new gift, foisted on him by a capricious, cheerily malevolent deity. There’s no explicit justification for it, but none is needed. The swapping rules are clear and (generally) consistent, and they also serve as a crucible in which to demonstrate the content of our noxious hero’s character. There’s no need for any greater explanation beyond that, and to be honest, any further attempt to make Sal’s experience plausible would’ve killed the episode’s modest but undeniable charms. The story isn’t about how or why he has this power. It’s about what he does with it, and how his choices reveal the limits of his imagination and decency.

Actually, that’s too narrow a take. The real fun of the episode isn’t in waiting for Sal to finally doom himself; it’s in watching how cleverly he uses his talent to get what he wants. Other episodes spend time having the protagonist deny the reality of his senses, either to pad the running time (bad) or to offer a kind of “realistic” take on the sane mind’s descent into unreality. Here, Sal assesses his situation, is briefly astonished, and then immediately sets to work exploiting the trick to his own benefit, and while there’s a definite sense that his exploitation is causing some people pain, it’s hard to judge Sal too harshly for it. Partly because hey, every deal he makes he’s being very upfront about what’s going to happen, and partly because this is the Twilight Zone, and the show is constantly putting folks in situations where agreeing to seemingly impossible arrangements is a good way to get really screwed. Sal is just going with the flow—when in Rome and all that.

It’s always entertaining to see someone take a bizarre loophole in causality and use it start a small (very small) business. Sure, all of this is building up to Sal’s final reckoning, when he realizes the only way he can win the heart of the woman he wants is by buying her father’s sense of compassion, but on the way there, it’s neat to see him use his ability so intelligently. He sells his youth to an old rich man in exchange for wealth and a fancy apartment; but while that might initially seem short sighted (in fact, it seems like he’s shortcutting the story to get to the twist ending early—“Salvadore Ross got everything he wanted, except for the time to enjoy it.”), the man has a plan. He starts buying years off the hotel’s younger employees, first one at a time, and then in a whole great lump from a putz on the elevator.

The episode cheats a little here, as Sal makes his offer when he steps onto the elevator, and the money and years have exchanged hands by the time he gets off—the process is significantly quicker than we’ve seen it go down in the past, but it makes for a neat visual, with a once-again youthful Sal leaving a suddenly ancient “young” man in his wake, that it’s worth the fudging.

There are only a couple of serious flaws here, then. The first is that Leah, the object of Sal’s infatuation, isn’t treated much better by the script than she is by Sal; there’s some sense of her finding him attractive and liking something about him (he’s very intense, at least), but realizing that his basic cruelty isn’t something she could live with. Which is fine as far as it goes, but the character is so thin and under-realized that she’s little more than a prop, a MacGuffin that forces Sal to put himself at risk in order to obtain her. The fact that buying compassion from her old man (a transaction she presumably knows nothing about) is enough to win her heart within a day of her telling him she wanted him out of her life for good strains credulity in a way that all of Sal’s “trades” did not.

But then, that’s a problem all around with the ending—everything leading up to the final five minutes is solidly paced, with an efficient, intelligent structure. Then the wheels come off a bit. Not entirely; the logic of the premise still holds up, if just barely. Sal buying Leah’s father’s compassion is in keeping with his other decisions, and the fact that he thinks he can make himself better simply by buying what he doesn’t have makes sense from what we know of the character. There’s a definite lack of foresight in his decision, but that’s standard for the series. I’m also not sure the father (Vaughn Taylor, an actor who’s appeared on the series many times before) would agree to such a sale, even in jest, but okay, let’s go along with it.

It’s just, for the compassion to change things so suddenly and totally for Sal is a jump, and, what’s worse, it’s a jump made so obviously to ensure that that the final sting is as painful as possible that it’s not hard to resent the manipulation. Then there’s Dad’s decision to shoot Sal dead in order to keep him from marrying Leah. It’s too much. Compassion isn’t the only thing keeping us from murdering people. And, as with his daughter, the father character isn’t well-developed enough to distract us from the incongruity of his behavior. The ending works on the basic terms of the show—if you’re a jerk, and you get an amazing ability, you’re screwed—but the sudden violence of it betrays the careful logic of everything that came before. Not enough to ruin the episode, but enough to keep it from being a classic.

What a twist: Realizing that the only way to win Leah’s love is by becoming a better man, Sal buys her father’s compassion, only to have the now merciless Dad shoot him to stop the wedding.

Stray observations:

  • “Self-Improvement” is a decent critique of the idea of fixing your problems overnight. Sal gains age without wisdom, and regains his youth without learning gratitude or kindness. Then he tries to buy his way into being a good man, and, well.
  • The conversation between Leah and Sal near the end, when Sal realizes what he’ll have to do to win her, is pretty good; there’s a subtle implication that Leah’s attraction is more physical than emotional, which is why she tolerates this chump as long as she does.

“Number 12 Looks Just Like You” (season 5, episode 18; originally aired 1/24/1964)

In which we can rebuild you, make you better, faster, prettier...

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

Once upon a time, there was a world where everyone was pretty. No, not pretty—beautiful. This didn’t happen on its own. There was a transformation every citizen went through when they reached adulthood, an operation which turned them from a drab nobody into a beautiful somebody who looked like everybody. It was a happy, cheery place, without worry or care or much interest in reading. (Which worked out well, since most of the good books were banned.) But a place like that needs people who’ll go along with the group, people who realize that harmony and happiness share more than just some letters. The transformation wasn’t required, not officially. When a young woman decided she didn’t want to go through with the process, no one would force her to do it. She just had some wrong ideas, and it was important to make sure she understood how wrong she was. Everyone is better off this way.

As creepy future dystopias go, “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” walks the fine line between pure allegory and all too plausible speculation; the resultant effect is an increasingly disturbing half hour whose ending is one of the darkest the show has produced. A paean to individuality and the dangers of conformity, the story fits well into some of The Twilight Zone’s most familiar themes: distrust of technology’s power to take over our lives, a suspicion of any society that lets the majority run roughshod over the minority, and a vision of tomorrow which extrapolates outward from all our worst instincts today. As well, there’s the added subtext about the demands we put on young women, requiring them to mold themselves into specific, constricting shapes. And it’s got a fine lead character, played by Colin Wilcox, an actress possibly best known for work as Mayella Ewell in To Kill A Mockingbird.

The script, by John Tomerlin (adapted from a short story by Charles Beaumont, who was too unwell at this point to write for himself; he still shares credit with Tomerlin in the episode itself), explains a moderately complicated idea in an efficient, intentionally disorienting fashion. The first scene finds Marilyn (Wilcox) and her mother Lana (Suzy Parker, a model and actress), looking at images of attractive women on a giant screen. There’s no immediate explanation for this, apart from a general idea that Lana wants Marilyn to pick one of the models, and Marilyn is more interested in reading than paying attention. Lana is upbeat, chipper, and airily confident, while Marilyn seems a little sad, a little melancholy; not depressed or even intensely concerned, but more complicated and self-aware than Lana’s blithe happiness.

As the story develops, we pick up the basic idea: Marilyn is supposed to go to surgery soon and get her new body, and she’s not keen on the idea. Scientists decided decades ago that, since so much strife is based on differences in appearance and physical ugliness, it would fix everything if they could just make everyone beautiful. For reasons that suggest themselves (anyone who thinks that making everyone “pretty” will solve the world is someone who probably has a fairly limited idea of what “pretty” can be), this lead to a handful of different model designs, and a world in which it’s entirely possible for you to meet someone who looks exactly like your mother multiple times a day. We only see one male actor in the whole episode, Richard Long in multiple roles—we learn that this male model was “very popular.”

There’s an added bonus that these younger, more conventionally attractive bodies also help stave off disease and offer longer lives, but I’m not even sure that particular carrot is even necessary. If it were possible to look, for want of a better word, perfect, I think that would be a hard temptation to resist, especially if the process was as cheap and as painless as it appears here. Ideals are all well and good, but the chance to live a long life, full of (presumably) great sex and good health, and, just importantly, the constant undeniable sense that you belong to the group, is enough to tempt even the hardiest cynic. Sure, all we see here are white people, and the fact that you’d see so many repeats of faces means everyone would blur together after a while, making individual human contact just a series of hands brushed over bright, smooth surfaces. But we don’t do too great with distant consequences. If someone had come to me when I was 17 and said, “You can be handsome and perfect and never have to feel bad again,” I doubt I could have resisted.

Which is what makes Marilyn such an excellent protagonist, and also makes her inevitable fate all the more painful to watch. Despite her youth, she seems more of a grown-up than anyone else around her, asking painful questions that no one knows the answer to, and only getting upset when she realizes that no one, not even figures in authority who pretend they’re there to help her, is prepared to offer real answers. Her precociousness didn’t come from nothing; her father (and one of Lana’s former husbands; she’s had several since his death, and apparently most marriages in this society don’t last long, a detail which sounds a lot less damning now than it probably did in the 1964) was a reader and a thinker, and he taught Marilyn to question what her elders told her. Dad was transformed just like everyone, but eventually committed suicide because of the process, which means his words carry even more weight to Marilyn than they did when he was alive.

This does raise the question of just how much sense of self people have after they get made over. Given how happy all of the post-transformation people seem to be, and how eager they are to convince Marilyn to submit, there’s a definite sense of malevolent intent throughout. But it’s difficult to know just how conscious that malevolence is, and if it’s being managed with the specific purpose of keeping everyone in line. If Dad still had enough individuality to want to kill himself, why would he need to kill himself? We don’t see a single post-transformation individual demonstrate even a hint of doubt or uncertainty about what they’ve become. Was Dad just so great he managed to hold onto some small sliver of himself, just enough to know that his whole life was wrong? Or are there people outside of the impressionistic structures we see here, pretty people who hate themselves for their predictability?

It’s not all that relevant, really. Again, this is that line between allegory and speculative fiction, and if it occasionally needs to fall back into fable-esque territory to make the story work, that’s fine. The threat Marilyn faces is more compelling if it never completely settles into rigid lines. She’s not rebelling against a hideously authoritarian culture, at least not on the surface. She’s fighting back against people who insist, in soothing, reassuring tones, that they only want what’s best for her. I found myself thinking of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby from time to time, which also captures that vibe of a vulnerable woman trying, and failing, to resist immediate social pressures. Shhh, it’ll all be all right, just do what we want and you’ll be happy. It’s your duty, after all. It’s only what’s right. The feminist subtext, while not as sharp as it could’ve been, is still effective even today. But it’s a subtext that can assumed by anyone who’s felt the world trying to bash away their rougher edges.

The episode’s condemnation of restrictive roles is also reminiscent of another Levin novel, The Stepford Wives, to the point where I half expected a reveal at the end where we find out that all the post-transformation bodies are robots. As is, I’d say the transformation, and how Marilyn winds up going through the process against her best wishes (in that she tries to escape, and somehow inadvertently stumbles into the room where the doctors are already getting ready for her sugery), are the episode’s only serious weaknesses. I appreciate that a certain vagueness is inevitable, but apart from the unmistakable sense that the Marilyn we see at the end is not the Marilyn we knew, it’s hard to pin down exactly how wrong this is supposed to be. Is she going to kill herself in a few years like her dad? Is everything that made her distinct gone? What’s left in its place? It’s that allegory idea again. As a fable of repression, it’s perfect. As an actual practical story, it’s a little fuzzy in spots where clarity might have led to a stronger effect.

But this is nitpicking. (Well, okay, the episode also flags a little in the mid-section, as Marilyn is shuttled from person to person—all of whom are played by Long—and it’s just a lot of talk in gray rooms.) Overall, “Number 12 Looks Like You” is powerful, heartbreaking stuff, one where the inevitable tragedy of the ending serves to underline the horrors of the system the episode is railing against. Differences can’t be resolved by subtraction, and only a society that embraces its contradictions can really thrive. Everything in this future looks shiny, flat, and shallow. Marilyn doesn’t deserve her fate, and her sense of self and individuality make her ultimate turn into another member of the Revlon Borg all the more frightening. No one was mean to her, no one shouted or demanded anything. They just removed her options one by one, because they knew how to make her happy. And in the end, she was.

What a twist: Marilyn resists the procedure, but she’s transformed anyway, into a Number 8—just like her best friend.

Stray observations:

  • “Am I very homely now?” “No, darling, not to me.” This is some brilliant manipulation really. Throughout the episode, no one ever seems really evil about what they’re trying to do, and Lana comes across as someone who’s honestly trying to be supportive, but has no way to give her daughter what she really needs.
  • “What you need is a glass of instant smile.” At first, I thought this was a colorful metaphor, but it’s an actual thing. So, some strains of Philip K. Dick, then; a bunch of plastic people downing drugs to keep themselves in the right frame of mind.
  • “What’s so terrible about being beautiful? After all, isn’t everybody?”
  • Uh-oh, Shakespeare’s been banned. Never a good sign, that.

Next week: We put on our “Black Leather Jackets” and sign a letter “From Agnes—With Love.”

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