“King Nine Will Not Return” (season 2, episode 1; originally aired 9/30/1960)
In which the past can take us to strange places…
In 1959, while looking for oil in the Libyan desert, a team of British geologists discovered the wreck of the Lady Be Good, an American bomber that had disappeared in 1943. While the plane had split into two pieces, it was largely intact, except for one glaring absence: there was no crew. The bodies were eventually discovered the following year, but for The Twilight Zone, that didn’t matter. Rod Serling saw the story of the plane’s discovery in the news, and was inspired to write what would become the première episode of his show’s second season, “King Nine Will Not Return.” It’s easy to see why. The setup—plane where it shouldn’t be, no humans around, and the ghost of the second World War over everything—is as pure a writing prompt for the series as one could imagine. The direction in which Serling takes the material is more literal than one might have imagined, but still effective. Perhaps most surprising is how easily “King Nine” could be mistaken for a remake of The Twilight Zone’s first episode, “Where Is Everybody?” The specifics are different, but for much of the half hour, the core idea remains the same: what would you do if you woke up and no matter how frightened you were, and no matter how loudly you screamed—no one was there?
There’s more to this episode, and it finds a way to get around one of “Where Is Everybody?”’s main flaws, but it’s still easy to look at this and be a little disappointed at how it all plays out. Which isn’t to say this is a bad episode. The story doesn’t entirely work, but it’s the sort of episode where the story really shouldn’t be the main focus. “King Nine” is more a piece about mood, and regret, and the lingering agony of survivor’s guilt, then it is about the sand in a man’s shoes in the final shot. This is the twist Serling had wanted for “Where Is Everybody?,” but hadn’t gotten away with, the reveal that what we thought was a hallucination brought on by grief and shame was something more, and it’s, well, a bit silly. It works better here than it did in “Where Is Everybody?,” because it connects with the episode’s larger theme; we’re dealing with Embry’s lingering psychological damage, and for that damage to have some sort of real-world impact can be seen as a way of expressing through a sort of pulpy, ham-fisted symbolism just how deep his wounds go. But it’s still more distracting than powerful, and seems like an indulgence on Serling’s part, just one more piece of information in a conclusion already overloaded with explanations.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Most of “King Nine” works quite well, relying on Bob Cummings (an actor largely known for his comedic work) and his ability to effectively convey Captain James Embry’s fear, concern, and rapidly increasing panic at his situation. The large part of the episode is a one-man show, following Embry as he wakes up in the desert next to the wreck of the King Nine, and staying with him as he searches for the rest of his men, and tries to figure out what went wrong. This is about as primal and direct an expression of the core Twlight Zone idea as can be imagined: lone man in an eerie wilderness, struggling to find his way back home. As such, it’s easy to get suspicious. By this point in the show’s run, we’ve become accustomed to waiting for the twist, and in a scenario like this, there are only so many twists we can get. Either Embry is dead and the rest of his crew survived, or this is all some crazy dream—or, y’know, aliens.
If you watch and read enough genre fiction, you eventually realize (unless you don’t care to think about it much) that, while there’s nearly an infinity of story set-ups, there are only so many satisfying resolutions those set-ups can have. Admittedly, this depends on the writer’s intentions. With surrealists who don’t really give a fig for plausible explanations, conclusions don’t need to make logical sense, so long as they seem to contain some emotional truth. But even then, a story needs to feel it has cohesion, regardless if that cohesion is completely consistent or realistic. (People can argue and wonder over what all of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive really “means,” but it’s not that hard to pick up a clear thread out of the whole thing; even if we can’t be sure exactly why Naomi Watts is so messed up, we get that her heart is broken, she’s did something awful because of it, and now she’s doomed.) The Twilight Zone can flirt with surrealism, but at the core, it’s a cause-and-effect show. The cause doesn’t have to have a clear scientific explanation, but it does have to operate on some clear rules. That means “King Nine” couldn’t end with, I dunno, Embry magically making the plane work, or wandering out into the desert to find the Thunderdome. We need to have an explanation for why all this happened, and that limits our options.
That limit doesn’t making Embry’s suffering any more fascinating to watch, however. Cummings gives it all he has, and while it’s hard to deny a certain level of scenery chewing in his work, it’s hard to blame him for it. Apart from the occasional glimpses he gets of his missing crew, he doesn’t have anyone to play off of, and, apart from the plane and a grave he discovers halfway through the episode, nothing to react to. Instead of having the character talk to himself, a fairly unconvincing dynamic Serling used in “Where Is Everybody?,” Embry’s thoughts are delivered largely through voiceover narration, and the mix between voiceover and occasional desperate shouts (and nervous laughter) works well. The episode runs the risk of one of the habitual TZ problems, the “Just keep doing the same thing until we can get to the reveal,” but between Cummings’s passionate performance, and the occasional glimpses of his vanished friends, things never become too stagnant.
Then there’s the ending. After Embry gets a vision of modern fighter jets in the sky (he believes he’s in 1943, when the King Nine originally crashed), the already scarce options become even more limited—time travel, dream—and the episode’s concluding scenes go with the latter. Embry’s in a hospital, having collapsed after seeing a news story about the recent discovery of the wreckage of the King Nine in the South African desert. The men looking over him attribute this to a nervous breakdown brought on by survivor’s guilt. Embry was originally scheduled to be on the plane when it went down, but got sick and stayed behind, and he’s suffered for it ever since. Throughout the entire episode, Embry has been driven by his feeling of responsibility for the men in his command, and now we see how that responsibility could create a (hopefully temporary) psychotic break.
It’s the sort of ending that’s initially a little disappointing, but is driven enough by character that the disappointment wears off in retrospect. In “Where Is Everybody?”, the protagonist’s dilemma had little to do with his personality. Anyone would’ve gone crazy in his situation. “King Nine” comes at it from a different angle, and it’s one that helps justify or cover over any narrative flaws. In the end, this episode isn’t really about whatever magic got the sand in Embry’s shoes. It’s about how the past is never really past; and how a glimpse of a newspaper headline is all you really need to go off on a trip into… well, you know.
What a twist: James Embry has had a nightmare. But a nurse finds sand in his shoes, so who knows where he’s been?
- Check out the new intro! Much more intense, and now Serling’s actually popping up on screen.
- I’m not really sure how the twist works if we try and think through it. Say we accept that, yes, Embry really was in South Africa. When did he go there? The doctor says he was picked up after collapsing in front of a newsstand, and no one says, “Well, he vanished from our care for a few hours, but he’s back now.” Did he somehow project himself onto the beach? And if he did, how did he get the sand?
- This episode is also wonderfully creepy at times. I loved the glimpses of Embry’s crew—everyone was laughing at him, and we never get a definite explanation as to why, which makes it all the more unsettling.
- About halfway through, Embry wonders if he’s dreaming or dead. It’s a rare moment of self-awareness for a Twilight Zone protagonist, and the episode is stronger for it.
- “Everything looks tilt, but there’s logic behind it, there’s logic behind everything.”
“The Man In The Bottle” (season 2, episode 2; originally aired 10/7/1960)
In which wishing for a better life makes you a Nazi…
W.W. Jacobs’ short story “The Monkey’s Paw” was first published in 1902, but the core idea of it has been around for ages. (You could say that Macbeth is a proto-version of this narrative. While the protagonist doesn’t specifically wish to be king, he doesn’t exactly fight it, and you get the same result of having it all and paying for it too.) Balance is a key idea in fiction, and wishes are, by their nature, a way of trying to cheat around that balance. You get a lot of money, the presumption is that you worked hard or risked a good deal to earn that cash, but a wish lets you skip the middle step. You can have everything you want with no apparent cost, but while that sort of thing works out in fairy tales, where life is already so dangerous and terrifying that heroes need any edge they can get, it’s only natural to start wondering what the downside is. Where do all these wishes come from? And, considering how much they shift reality to grant the wisher his desires, who knows what the consequences will be?
“The Man In The Bottle” is all about wishes and wishing and getting more than you bargained for, which is no real surprise in The Twilight Zone. People occasionally find happy endings on the show, but the happiness is not really the point; the point is that their expectations (and ours) have to be subverted. Of course, the more times we have assumptions twisted back on us, the easier it becomes to assume that there’s always a trick buried in every promise, always some sort of trap-door in the seemingly solid ground beneath our feet. That’s why, when the genie shows up in Mr. and Mrs. Castle’s pawn shop, with his offer of four wishes and his repeated warnings that “No matter what you wish for, you must be prepared for the consequences,” we know straight away that no good can come of this. The Castles are going to make their wishes, and they’re going to get screwed. The only real question is how badly it’ll go for them, and whether or not they’ll be able to return to their normal lives before they run out of wishes.
That’s pretty much how all of this plays out. At first the Castles don’t believe the genie (played by the vaguely disreputable Joseph Ruskin—just the way he lights a cigarette seems threatening), then they do, and then they don’t learn their lesson after their second wish, their first big wish, backfires. First, Arthur Castle (Luther Adler) casually asks for his broken display window to be replaced. Magically this happens, and Castle decides to set his sights a little higher. Now he wants a $1 million in five- and 10-dollar bills, which he gets. (Who would ever wish for that much money such small denominations? Also, that pile on the floor seems awfully small.) He and his wife, Edna (Vivi Janiss) give much of the money away, but before they can make plans for a long vacation, a man from the IRS shows up demanding back taxes on their new wealth. The taxes leave them barely breaking even, and so, for his third wish, Arthur decides to be as specific as possible. He wants to be powerful, the head of a foreign country, someone who can’t be voted out of office, and comes from sometime in the past century.
Even if you weren’t aware of The Twilight Zone’s regular fascination with World War II—like if you’d somehow missed both the first season and the previous episode—it still isn’t hard to see where this is going, and that’s a problem. “The Man In The Bottle” grasps the two main appeals of this kind of story: seeing how everything goes wrong, and trying to figure out how you’d game the system if you were given the same opportunity. Most anyone who's read “The Monkey’s Paw” or seen one of the countless adaptations or homages to the material has wondered how they’d handle themselves under similar circumstances. Sure, you know the wishes are designed to have nasty consequences, but that doesn't stop you from believing there must be some perfect wish that could protect you and get you what you wanted without having your son die or zombies or what have you. Once Arthur understands (or thinks he understands) what’s going on, he spends time trying to make his third wish as airtight as possible. As his wife tells him again and again to let it go, he keeps pushing, until he thinks he’s figured out the formula. Which, of course, he hasn’t.
It’s always easy in these stories to second-guess the protagonist’s choices, but even taking that into account, it’s a little goofy how eagerly Arthur paints himself into the Hitler corner. From the story side, this episode plays out each and every step entirely as expected. From the moment the genie warns the Castles about “consequences,” you know they aren’t going to heed his warning, and that they’ll end up learning to be grateful for what they have, no matter how much they want more. Predictability isn’t always a bad thing, and it could be that the repeated use of this structure has dulled me to its charms, but even being generous, “The Monkey’s Paw” had been a staple of popular culture for over half a century before “The Man In The Bottle” aired, and there’s nothing that this version says that the older version didn’t already cover.
We’re left, then, to appreciate the atmosphere, the characters, and the quirks around the edges. Fortunately there are enough of these to make the episode worth watching, even if it’s not a classic. The Castles make for likeable heroes, and the episode is probably at its best in the early going, when it’s establishing their shop, their relationship, and Arthur’s fundamentally decent nature. The episode opens with an elderly woman trying to sell a wine bottle as a “family heirloom,” and regardless of what happens afterwards, the scene is so perfectly evocative of both characters—the woman is near to crying, Arthur is reluctant but clearly unable to let her go without giving her something, even though he can’t really afford it. Both Adler and Janiss are good at doing the kind of warm caricature work that this kind of comedic episode requires, and, as mentioned, Ruskin is excellent at being perfectly cordial and somewhat demonic. And, as the silliest of silly reveals, Arthur’s “I’m Hitler!” is a great laugh-out-loud moment, a mugging, sweaty gag which, intentionally funny or not, is very entertaining.
What keeps “The Man In The Bottle” from greatness isn’t its occasional implausibility (Wow, that IRS guy showed up fast—does he work for the genie?), but the episode’s ultimately flat storyline, a lot of shtick and menace that doesn’t tell us much we don’t already know about the characters or surprise us with its cleverness. It’s fun to enjoy the bits and pieces of this that are exceptional, but the sad fact is, they only serve to distract from some fairly pedestrian storytelling. In the end, the Castles wind up right back where they started, no better off then before, although maybe with a new appreciation for not being the most evil dictator of the twentieth century. The audience is right there with them. I don’t need to be reminded to be glad I’m not Hitler.
What a twist: Arthur and Edna Castle find a genie in a bottle, but it turns out he’s basically a dick.
- I always thought the most difficult part of getting rich via wish would be figuring out what to tell other people when they ask where the money came from. I guess you could work that into the wish, just as the Castles could’ve worked taxes into their next wish. But no, they had to go big. (Seriously, how could you think wishing to be a dictator would ever work out well?)
- “I’m Hitler!”
Next week: Todd finds himself “A Nervous Man In a Four Dollar Room” and confesses he has “A Thing About Machines.”