The Twilight Zone: “You Drive”/“The Long Morrow”
Robert Lansing
Robert Lansing

The Twilight Zone: “You Drive”/“The Long Morrow”

The thing we do for love

“You Drive” (season 5, episode 15; originally aired 1/3/1964)

In which you can’t go on, thinking nothing’s wrong

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

For my money, the best scene in “You Drive” is the first. Oliver Pope (Edward Andrews) is driving home from work; in case his frowning, twitchy performance doesn’t tip you off, Serling’s helpful narration establishes that Mr. Pope is, well, a bit of a creep. To put it nicely. Old Ollie isn’t paying attention to the road, and he hits a kid on a bicycle. (In case “kid on bicycle” isn’t wholesome enough, the boy also has a satchel around his neck and is presumably in the process of delivering the evening newspaper.) The accident is awkwardly staged, and the fact that it ultimately proves fatal for the victim is a definite “suspension of disbelief” type of moment—you have to accept it because if you don’t, the episode loses what little bite it has.

But put that aside for the moment, because what makes this sequence work isn’t the accident itself, but the clumsy, ugly aftermath. Oliver pulls his car over, gets out, runs to the boy lying on the sidewalk, not moving. Which puts our protagonist in a dilemma. The decent thing to do would be to track down a police officer, get the kid to a hospital, and turn yourself in for your crime. But that means taking responsibility for an action that will upend your entire life, and not just temporarily; the kid is close to death (it’s possible that Oliver’s inaction wasted critical time that eventually costs the kid his life, although given that there’s a witness to the crime, I’m not sure I buy that), and Oliver’s momentary inattention could mean years of jail-time. It’s the sort of crisis in which we’d all like to believe we’d make the best choice. Oliver doesn’t. He runs, and spends the rest of the half hour trying to ignore his guilt.

This leads to some indifferent diminishing returns, but I’d argue that moment when Oliver makes his choice (and it happens so quickly it’s barely even a conscious decision; more just a response to the nerve-endings sizzling in his skull) is good enough to almost carry the rest of the episode over. “You Drive” suffers from a lack of rising tension, and a painfully slim plot; so slim, in fact, that it has to throw in a pointless contrivance in the second half just to fill out the running time. The only suspense comes from trying to figure out if Oliver’s car, which has seemingly come to life in the wake of the accident, will kill him or convince him to turn himself over to the police. But the car isn’t very scary until the episode’s final minutes, when it finally gets aggressive in its efforts to make Oliver pay for his crime.

What is scary is that shift from a normal, everyday situation (driving home from work, in a bit of a snit) to a life-ruining catastrophe. The boy on the bike gets the worst of the deal, no question, but he’s not really a character in this; our interest is in Oliver, and since we see the story unfold through his eyes, he’s our point of identification. What makes this work at all is that it’s not hard to imagine yourself under similar circumstances. Serling paints Oliver as an asshole, but we’re barely introduced to the guy before he runs over the bike, so his personality isn’t immediately relevant. Instead, it’s the sort of scenario a driver’s ed instructor might use to put the fear of god in his class, and that simplicity gives it an almost elemental power.

Driving a car is, for many of us, a daily activity, and like most daily activities, it’s easy to take the experience for granted. There’s weather to deal with and traffic, but for the most part, the commute is the commute is the commute; after the fourth or fifth week, the route becomes as familiar as breathing, and the focus starts to slip. Not a lot, and not necessarily to a dangerous degree, but, well: speaking for myself, I’ve had times on the highway when I suddenly realized that I couldn’t remember the last seven or eight miles I’d driven. I’m not saying I’m a risk for vehicular homicide, but there’s always that fear in the back of my mind—and I doubt I’m alone. All it takes is a second of distraction, and you can end up ruining multiple lives, including your own.

So, in a basic, direct way, that part of “You Drive” works. But the rest of the episode is such an unadorned, flatly rendered morality play that it can’t sustain the impact of that opening scene. It’s not bad enough that Oliver hit someone with his car; it’s a kid, a teenager who is apparently just an absolutely swell human being, and yeah, he dies. And just to make things worse, the witness that saw the accident mistakenly identifies an innocent man as the culprit—a man who just happens to be Oliver’s rival at work. It’s like if someone’s life turned into a problem out of an ethics textbook. (I am not completely sure such a thing exists, but just stick with me here.)

The Twilight Zone regularly features stories with rigidly apparent structures, stories designed to force a protagonist down a single road, but when the show works (as it often does), this rigidity is a feature, not a bug; it inspires empathy for even its most miserable figures because it shows them trapped in a great karmic system of fate and punishment, without mercy or chance for parole. At its best, the show simultaneously encourages its viewers to take pleasure in its narrative precision, and feel sympathy and sorrow (and occasionally joy) at how that precision affects the characters trapped within it.

“You Drive” is too perfunctory to inspire much pleasure or sympathy. Andrews’ performance is convincingly uptight and snappish, with enough guilt and horror peaking through to keep him from being a cartoon. But he’s not complex enough to be interesting on his own terms, and everything that happens to him after the accident is so by-the-numbers that it’s hardly worth the effort to watch. (It sounds weird to say “gets haunted by his car” is by-the-numbers, but that’s how it plays—like someone stuck a couple of variables into the ole Twilight Zone Plot-O-Matic, and this is what came out.) His wife (Helen Westcott) is perfectly oblivious and nice, but she and the co-worker who gets blamed for the accident (Kevin Hagen) are less people than props that say things to rub the most salt in Oliver’s self-inflicted wounds.

Then there’s the haunted car, which literally is a prop that metaphorically rubs salt, etc. The cause-and-effect is logical enough (in a supernatural sort of way) to make for a coherent story, but it’s such a basic karmic punishment—accidental murder weapon haunts killer—that there’s no thrill or pleasure in watching it unfold. The car never develops a personality or presence, and while some of its actions are eerie enough, that eeriness doesn’t accumulate. It’s just a series of incidents, some of them random (the car blaring its horn and flashing its lights in the garage), most less so (the car stops at the crime scene when Oliver’s wife goes for a drive; at one point, it plays a radio report of the boy’s death over and over again). The final confrontation, which has a seemingly driverless car stalking Oliver over town, is impressively staged and tense, and the fact that the car ultimately takes Oliver to the police station (instead of running him down) saves this from being a complete write-off, but the basic story doesn’t delve deeply enough into either the situation or the people involved to linger in the memory. There’s that initial insight about how quickly a normal day can turn into a nightmare, and then there’s a fun special effects sequence with an actor getting chased by his car. Everything in between is a wash.

What a twist: Oliver thinks he can get away with a hit-and-run. But his car comes to life and eventually forces him to turn himself in.

Stray observations:

  • The driverless car stuff is impressive—I especially like the brief bit at the end with Oliver riding to jail in the front passenger seat, and no one next to him holding the wheel.
  • Another problem with this story is that the simplicity of Oliver’s punishment makes the magic seem too easy. The car comes to life because something has to in order to make sure justice is done; there’s nothing about this hit-and-run accident that makes it different than others, which suggests that either the dead kid had connections, or that every hit-and-run that ever happens will eventually lead to an arrest when the car involved turns in its owner. I’m not asking for wizard or a witch to curse anyone, but at the very least some suggestion that Oliver really loved his car might have been in order.

“The Long Morrow” (season 5, episode 16; originally aired 1/10/1964)

In which I would do anything for love, but I wouldn’t do that...

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

How well “The Long Morrow” works for you is a function of how much you’re willing to suspend disbelief (there’s that damn phrase again) and ignore simplistic characterization in order to make the heartbreaking ending work. It might be exaggerating to say you need to be a romantic to enjoy this, but a desire to feel the full emotional impact of true love thwarted wouldn’t hurt. The episode’s visuals sit in that sweet spot between impressionistic theater staging and TV minimalism that the show so often used to its advantage, and the lead performances (Robert Lansing, Mariette Hartley) do everything in their power to sell the weight of both their characters’ passion for each other, and the agony of being betrayed by that passion. The feeling behind all of this is sincere. But the plot itself is a bit mucked up, and once again we have a script (by Serling) that’s more about setting up a twist than it is about telling a well-rounded story.

Let’s start with the ending first, since I’ve made such a big deal about it. Commander Douglas Stansfield (Lansing) is an astronaut about to go on a long mission to an unexplored galaxy. He’ll be gone forty years, but he’ll spend most of the trip in suspended animation (represented here by the actor lying in what looks like a giant ice cube—it may not be precisely scientifically accurate, but it looks neat), so he won’t actually age. Everyone on Earth will, though, which is why Sandra Horn (Hartley), the woman Douglas met and fell in love with just before his trip, decides to go into suspended animation herself, so that they’ll still be the same age when he returns. But because this is the Twilight Zone, Doug doesn’t find out about Sandra’s decision, so he decides to stay out of cyrosleep for the whole time he’s gone. He comes back home an old (and somewhat disturbed) man, while Sandra is as young as she was the last time he saw her.

This is narrative cruelty at its sharpest, introducing us to two likable (or at least decent and non-evil) characters, showing us the one thing they want most in the world, and then finding the most painful way to punish them for that desire; not through any fault of their own, but because love makes you take big chances, and sometimes those big chances can backfire horribly. The irony is so biting that it borders on sadism, but the more I think about it, the more I think that viciousness works.

Because there’s no sense that either Douglas or Sandra is being punished for some sin, or that we’re supposed to laugh or roll our eyes at their stupidity. Serling even creates a character to tell Douglas how amazing he is for sacrificing everything for love. (Apparently Sandra’s youth means that she doesn’t get the same praise.) Douglas’s decision to send his one-time lover away at least allows him some small measure of agency; it’s sad, but at least he gets the dignity of making a choice. (A choice she herself is robbed of. Neither lead is as well-developed as they might’ve been, but Sandra definitely gets teh shorter straw.) If there’s any real moral here, it’s one that the show has used before: that progress, no matter how well-planned and designed, doesn’t have much room for human feeling. Hell, Douglas even finds out that the mission he was on was rendered superfluous by technological developments back on Earth while he was away. Science marches on, crushing anyone foolish enough to stand in its way.

So that’s fine. But while the kicker of an ending makes for exactly the sort of “anecdotal twist” that has ensured the show its long pop culture life, the rest of the episode doesn’t hold up by comparison. It’s much strong than “You Drive” and stands as one of the better episodes of the fifth season (at least so far), but the contortions required to deliver a conclusion of maximum pain put the rest of the half hour on edge. It works, but there are plenty of times you can hear the gears shifting; and worse, it relies on an audience not asking questions to a degree where, if you aren’t willing to accept things at immediate face value, the whole concept falls apart.

A major concern is the romance that’s supposed to drive the emotional arc of the story—the squishy, soft, “human” side of things, set against man’s boundless ambition and the vast, uncaring universe. The actors do their best, but Serling’s meet cute has all the chemistry of a stagnant pool, and the dialogue never really makes the love affair more than an intellectual variable, a concept that’s necessary in order to make the rest of the equation fall into place. To be fair, trying to create a connection so strong that it can inspire two different people to make huge sacrifices for someone they’ve just met is tricky business, but this set-up never comes across as organic. The design is too obvious, and the actual chemistry too slight; the ending still works on the basic “Holy shit, that would be awful” level, but it never feels really intimate or personal, in the way it would if these two were more than archetypes.

It’s also hard to understand why Sandra and Douglas make the choices they do. Their time together is brief, and while that means that they’re still in the heady flush of infatuation when Doug leaves for space, we don’t know enough about either to know why such an infatuation would drive them to make such drastic sacrifices. And it’s a sacrifice on both sides. Doug’s is the more obviously painful, given that he spent forty years alone in space to be with someone, but Sandra’s decision to put herself away for the entire time he’s gone means that she’s also given up her place in the world, for no greater reason than love. There’s a curious monomania to both characters: Doug, in assuming that Sandra (who he’s only know for, what, a week? Two? Maybe a month) would still be available, and even alive, after four decades; and Sandra, in thinking that this one man was worth risking everything she had (including her life) and giving up her friends and family to be with.

Okay, so people make grand gestures for love, and pop culture tells us over and over again that these gestures are beautiful and noble, even if they always seem a bit silly in retrospect. (Maybe it’s just another way to deny death, by being bold and idealistic in the face of the inevitable: that love crumbles and fades with time, and that every connection that overwhelms us in the present will one day be just another name on a contact list with suspect origins.) I’m not a huge cynic. While Serling’s script doesn’t make as convincing a case for Doug and Sandra’s relationship as it needs to, it’s still possible to overlook that—to view their situation as what it’s meant to be, and not as what it actually is.

There are a few other concerns, though. Namely: when a man is sent on a forty year mission to outer space, and that mission is planned with the idea of keeping the man in suspended animation for the majority of the trip, how the hell is he supposed to have enough food and water to keep himself alive if he chooses to stay awake the whole time? Four decades worth of supplies is a lot of supplies, and it wouldn’t make sense to weigh down a ship with that much if you were sending a lone man in cryo-sleep. In Sandra’s case, it’s surprising that she was able to find someone willing to knock her out for so long (I guess there was some experiment that needed volunteers?), but at least she was still on Earth, which means it would’ve been easier to adjust her plans. The idea that Doug could just decide to unplug himself (how the hell would that work, by the way?) and somehow stay remotely sane and alive is more of a stretch.

Ah, but I know, I know; nitpicking isn’t really a useful form of criticism, and besides, the show isn’t supposed to be taken as documentary truth. But given that “The Long Morrow’s” biggest concern is how much effort Serling has to go through to justify its conclusion, pointing out some story sloppiness along the way isn’t completely out of bounds to me. It’s not that I need Serling to get space travel correct (or as correct as he could have at the time). It’s that a twist like this works best when it creates the illusion of arising naturally out of the circumstances; the characters made choices that were entirely justified by who they are, and it’s only in retrospect that those choices turn out to be disastrous.

Still, the impact of this is strong enough for me to consider it a success with some reservations, rather than a failure with a few positives. There’s a sadness at the core of everything that happens that suggest a deeper theme than technology-induced nightmares. Maybe at heart this is a story about our desire for connection, a desire so strong that we’re willing to sacrifice all that we have when we think we’ve found it; and how those sacrifices can so easily serve to make the distance between us that much larger.

What a twist: Douglas steps outside his hypersleep chamber so that he ages the entire time he’s away, believing this will leave him at (roughly) the same age as Sandra when he comes back to Earth; but Sandra puts herself in suspended animation the whole time he’s gone, so she’s still young and he’s an old, old man.

Stray observations:

  • Another necessary plot complication: the fact that Doug’s communication goes on the fritz almost as soon as he leaves Earth. It’s always suspicious when an ending like this requires more than once coincidence to work. (That said, the fact that Doug’s mission turns out to be superfluous is a nasty, but terrific, piece of business. His return doesn’t even seem like that big of a deal to anyone, in stark contrast to the pep talk he got from the project head at the start of the story. You’re going to be a hero, Doug! Oh, and all it will cost you is true love, most of your life, and also no one will care in the end.)
  • “You may call it Stansfield’s Mount Everest.” I love the brazen melodrama of Serling’s dialogue; everyone talks like they’re getting paid by the word, and it’s absolutely brilliant.

Next week: We check in on “The Self-Improvement Of Salvadore Ross,” and find out why “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.”

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