"The Lonely" (Season 1, episode 7; first aired: 11/13/1959)
In Which Jack Warden Is Wall-E
“Alone. Yes, that's the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn't hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym.”
― Stephen King
I'm curious how much time has changed our assessment of The Twilight Zone. I don't mean our familiarity with some twist endings, or the change in the acting style, or pacing, or the difference in what we will and won't accept from our television shows. I mean just the ideas of the time the show was written, and how we might perceive certain depths where no such depthswere intended. But then, that's true of all art, really. I resist the school of thought that argues that the author's intentions are irrelevant to the result of their efforts, but that doesn't change the fact that great art is great at least partially because of the room it allows for outside interpretation. Great art, great stories, have to breathe. They have to somehow be more than the individual efforts of their creators. Watching "The Lonely" now, I react a very specific way to the ending, but there's a good chance that reaction wasn't what Rod Serling was going for. I doubt he'd mind, but still, it makes me wonder.
James A. Corry (the great Jack Warden) is the sole inmate of a most unusual prison. Exiled onto an asteroid nine million miles from Earth, Corry is serving out a sentence for murder in a metal shack; there's no one to talk to, and nothing to see but miles of stony ground and, off in the distance, barren mountains. He has a car he built, but no where to drive it; and a chess set he made, but no one to play against. All he has is time, and quiet, and a journal that no one will ever read. This is intended as punishment, but at first, it almost sounds like a vacation. No responsibilities, no bills, sufficient food provided by the state, no irritating crowds or baffling politics to drag down the day. Instead, there's just silence. A whole world of it, and it might've been a relief, at the start. You get to sleep in as much as you like, you get to read forever long you want (funny how this episode got paired with "Time Enough At Last"), but after a while, it isn't quite so easy to sleep anymore, and, especially if you weren't much of a reading man to begin with, the books lose their appeal. You talk to yourself more, your emotions ripple in strange ways, you start seeing things out of the corner of your eye, which is bad; that there's nothing really there to see is so, so much worse.
Twilight Zone episodes have to be efficient. With only about twenty-five minutes to tell a story in (we'll get to the hour-long eps when we get to them), there's not a lot of time for dallying, especially since each week, Serling and company have to reset the premise clock. As quickly as possible, an episode has to introduce the main character, and give us what we need to know about him or her in broad, clear strokes. In "The Lonely," we learn from the opening narration (which serves beautifully as an expository device, a mood-setter and a through-line connecting the series together) that Corry is exiled to his asteroid, and that he's on his own, and from what we see of Corry, we know he's not doing so well. Characterization is mostly done through his response to circumstance. Apart from the never-fully-explained information that he's in prison for murder, and that he claims the murder was in self-defense, there's nothing in the episode to make Corry unique. That's not intended as a criticism—TZ often functions like a short story collection, and in the majority of genre short stories, character is less important than plot. Which doesn't mean that Corry is badly drawn or shallow; Warden does a great job in selling his isolation, and the near manic desperation that comes over him when outsiders come to visit. It also doesn't mean that TZ doesn't have strong characters. It's more that, given the design of the show and its time limitations, characters tend to either be Everyman types (like Corry) or individuals with one clear, dominating characteristic. Like, say, the actress obsessed with her past, or the salesman with the heart of gold. Or, hey, a nebbish who loves to read.
One of the reasons that Rod Serling was able to churn out as much writing as he did, and make sure that so much of it worked, was his gift for structure. There's an elegance to this show, a solidity of construction that remains impressive even today, and "The Lonely" is great proof of the benefits that structure can reap. Everything moves forward logically; sometimes that movement can feel like a trap (especially if the audience realizes where the story is headed before the show wants them to), but here, it serves the ends of a conclusion which, once it arrives, serves as the inevitable result of all that came before. We meet Corry, realize he's going a little crazy; then the supply ship arrives, and the ship's captain, Allenby, has a present for Corry—a robot that looks like Jean Marsh. Corry builds the robot, whose name is Alicia. At first, he's angry at the gift, because this isn't a real person, but she looks just enough like a real person to really screw with his head. But eventually Alicia wins him over, and the two form a bond which saves Corry's sanity. Then Allenby comes back with great news: Corry's received his pardon. He's going home. Only, there isn't room on the ship for Corry and Alicia to fly back to Earth, and when Corry panics, Allenby does the only thing he thinks he can—he shoots Alicia, killing her and revealing the mass of circuits and wiring beneath the so-called flesh. Allenby assures Corry that he'll finally be able to put everything behind him now, and Corry says in a dull voice, "I must remember that. I must remember to keep that in mind."
Corry's last line is a powerful, haunting conclusion, the sort of last line that elevates everything around it because it doesn't give us anything easy to hold on to. This should be a happy ending, and those aren't guaranteed on TZ. Corry got what he desperately wanted, and what, from all we can gather, he seems to deserve. And nothing that happens in those final moments changes this. Corry doesn't go mad and decide to live out the rest of his days on the asteroid; the robot doesn't somehow murder him and take his place on the ship. He's still going back to Earth. (Although there's something sadistic in the way Allenby keeps pointing out that they have a very small window of time in which to get off the asteroid and head for home. It may be a lifetime of watching shows like this has trained me to expect the worst, but even having seen the episode before, hearing the "twenty minute" deadline made me nervous. It's there to put pressure on Corry and Allenby, and to avoid giving anyone any easy outs, but it almost sounds like a set-up to something even more horrible.) But as happy endings go, there's a brutal finality to this one that makes it difficult to enjoy. Corry isn't happy, and we can't be either.
The problem here is Alicia, and what happens to her, and how we feel about what happens to her. This is why I blathered on above about being curious as to Serling's original intentions, and as to how this episode was taken when it first aired. I loved "The Lonely" the first time I saw it, and one of the reasons I loved it was its brutal, and surprisingly non-heavy handed conclusion. There didn't seem to be any lesson here, any clear moral to take from events. Corry was alone, and then someone new came along and he wasn't alone anymore, and then he had to leave that someone behind to move on with his life, but nobody deserved what they got. Corry was devastated, Alicia was dead, but it wasn't really funny and it didn't have some larger message to teach us. The one thing I hate about criticism, the one thing I've never been much good at, is trying to quantify the ineffable, those moments in art which, when experienced, leave no specific conscious impression; instead, they are about a sensation, about a feeling that lingers for days. It's like trying to break down a haiku into its component parts—you can do it, but why would you need to? What more is there to learn? To me, the end of "The Lonely" was like that. It was the sound of one hand clapping, an acknowledgement of pain without any clear catharsis.
Watching it now, though, I wonder if I read more that was actually there. I wonder, mostly, about how much we're supposed to read into Alicia. After years and years of sentient robots, of androids who are, in their way, more human than human (so to speak), it's natural to assume Alicia has her own sentience and will, that her death at the end is a real death, and not just the necessary destruction of equipment that's outlived its usefulness. And yet, it's possible to interpret this as less bleak. You could read Corry's "relationship" with the robot as simply him falling for his own reflection, something he consciously mentions in his journal, and the fact that, when Allenby confronts her at the end, Alicia isn't able to say anything in her defense, is telling. Maybe all that we saw was just the hallucination of an isolated man, and while it's still painful for him to see that hallucination destroyed, it's not like much else was lost. Allenby's decision to shoot Alicia could be seen as a completely and unambiguously necessary act, as the only way to give Corry his sanity back. You could argue that he wasn't killing anything more human than an overly complicated VCR.
I'm not sure, but I think I'll be sticking with my original interpretation. I don't think this other idea is a bad one, and it certainly wouldn't ruin the episode, but Jean Marsh is so good as Alicia that it's hard to dismiss her as just a machine. In a few scenes and lines, she manages to convey sorrow, joy and her own kind of loneliness, and while that may all be a reflection of Corry's self, I choose to believe that something more is going on. Maybe, in a way, Corry got the rehabilitation he didn't think he needed, by learning to treat an object like a person. And maybe, if you look at it in the right way, this isn't just his story. He gets to leave the rock in the end, but they leave Alicia behind. There's a moment, right before Allenby pulls the trigger, when Alicia looks desperately around for help, like an animal about to be put down, and if you accept that moment as real, it changes everything else. After all, the title of the episode isn't "The Lonely Man." Which is another great part about this show, really. When the stories work, when they're as direct and iconic as this one is, they allow you the room to fill in the margins.
What a twist!: James Corry is in isolated exile, until one day a friend brings him a companion to help pass the time. Then Corry's exile is suddenly reversed, but the only way he can go home again is to abandon his companion. To help him do this, his friend shoots the companion, to remind Corry she was only a machine. Corry doesn't take this very well.
- I love how there's always gotta be that one guy whose a complete dick about everything. In this case, it's Adams, one of Allenby's crew, who takes repeated and sadistic pleasure in rubbing Corry's situation in his face.
- It's also great how we never learn all that much about Corry's case. He claims he killed in self-defense, Allenby seems to believe him, and that's about it.
- So… Corry probably screwed that robot at some point. We all agree on this, right?
"Time Enough At Last" (Season 1, episode 8; first aired: 11/20/1959)
In Which It Is Not Fair
There's a test that optometrists sometimes use. It involves eye-drops, which I've never been a huge fan of, and the drops make everything blurry. The doctor uses the drops on you, she checks your eyes to see what effects the drops have on them, and then she sends you home. Only, the drops don't wear off right away. That's the horrible part. It's been years since I've gone through this, and I'm sure, looking back, that I got my full sight back after half an hour, an hour tops, but at the time, it seemed like forever. I'm used to wearing glasses. Got 'em when I was seven, have had a pair ever since. (There was a brief dalliance in high school with contacts, back when I had the delusion of vanity.) So I'm used to occasionally not being able to see so well, but those eye drops, they took away any control I had over my sight. They made my glasses useless, and they made reading impossible, and that was terrifying. If you have glasses, you know the feeling, eye drops or no; how claustrophobic the world becomes when it goes foggy and indistinct, how isolated you feel. It's not something you think about very often, but there's always that fear, floating in the back of your mind. What if it gets worse? What if I wake up one day and I can't see anything at all?
"Time Enough At Last" was, and is, one of the most upsetting episodes of television I've ever seen. This impact may not be true for everyone. This is one of TZ's best known episodes, and even if you've never seen it before, the odds are you've seen it referenced, or parodied, or heard it described. (Insert obligatory Scary Door quote here.) It's played, for the most part, for laughs, and if you strip the story down to its basic elements, it sounds like a goofy, if somewhat dark, comedy. A nebbishy man has a boss who doesn't like him and a wife who despises him. He loves to read, but no one else around him thinks that books are worth the time. Then, one day, his city—and probably his whole country, and maybe the whole world—is destroyed in massive nuclear war. The nebbish, who liked to spend his lunch hour in a bank vault, where he could read in peace, survives, but no one else does. This is very sad, but on the plus side, the nebbish now finally has the time to read all the books he could ever want. Only he breaks his glasses. Fin.
It sounds like a joke, right? Or like something you'd see presented as an example of "irony" in a literary studies textbook. If "The Lonely" is a haiku, "Time Enough At Last" is more like a limerick, all broad gestures and big laughs. At least, on the surface. The episode is based on a short story by Lynn Venable, and going by The Twilight Zone Companion, that story wasn't much more than the outline described above. And yet, adapted for the set by Serling and brought to life by Burgess Meredith, "Time" is a painful, unforgettable shock, something that gives us an unsparing, direct look at the unfairness of life, and then refuses to provide us with any sort of catharsis or relief. This is an episode in which millions of people are killed, and yet the one moment that really hurts is the sound of glass, shattering on cement. There are lots of great television shows which have managed equally horrifying moments, which have found other ways of getting inside the viewer's head and wrecking the place, but there's a hateful, beautiful simplicity to what happens here that, I think, only The Twilight Zone could've managed.
A big part of the praise goes to Burgess Meredith, who plays Henry Bemis, the book-reading nebbish. Meredith would appear in four TZ episodes, and he makes his debut on the series here, in a storyline that needs someone who can be both a little pathetic and instantly endearing to work. When he's introduced, Meredith is giving a bank customer bad service while trying to sell her on the wonders of David Copperfield; she's not interested, but what's marvelous here is that Bemis is, honestly, not going a good job. He short changes the woman, so distracted by his love of Dickens that he can't keep his mind on the business at hand, but you end up the scene firmly in Bemis's corner. At least, I did, an while "Time" does well to surround Bemis with some awful, awful characters, the amount of sympathy he generates—which is crucial for that ending to be sufficiently brutal—is due largely to Meredith's stammering, sweet, occasionally wry performance. There is nothing subtle about this episode, no shades of gray beyond those already on the television screen, and to make that work, you need in an actor who can capture the protagonist's nerdy fumblings without turning him into a walking joke. Meredith does this with aplomb. He's basically a human puppy through most of the episode, and it's impossible not love him.
Then there's Serling's script. As mentioned, "Time" isn't subtle, but in a half hour show, subtlety is overrated, and what's impressive here is the way Serling fleshes out what is, at heart, a very mechanical plot. The whole point of the episode is to build to the ending, and yet, if you were to accomplish the impossible and watch it without knowing what that ending was, you'd never realize you were waiting for a punchline until the punchline arrived. There are only a handful of ideas that need to be gotten across to make the breaking glasses work: Bemis loves to read, nobody lets Bemis read, everybody's dead so Bemis can read, oh wait, ha ha ha. But Serling uses the time to endear Bemis as thoroughly to the audience as possible. The writer isn't just looking to be clever, he's intent on breaking your heart as thoroughly as possible. So we get lectures from Bemis's awful boss on how reading is pointless, and we get a speech from Bemis's hateful wife about how she refuses to let any husband of hers ("How many husbands have you got? You've only got me!") avoid being social. Again, none of this is subtle. In fact, the Boss and the Wife (who have names, but don't need them) take a overt pleasure in tormenting poor Bemis at every turn, as though they aren't really characters in their own right, but representations of a hidden author's need to ruin his hero's life. And somehow, it still works. This is manipulation at its most blatant, but that doesn't stop it from being effective (kinda feels like that mention of Dickens at the beginning wasn't unintentional, y'know?), because it's entertaining, and because it seems to be setting us up for a much different conclusion than the one we get. By all appearances, most of "Time" looks to be building towards those few moments of triumph Bemis experiences right before the final twist—it's possible to imagine this episode as ending early, with Bemis free to wile away his remaining years in literary bliss. Then it… doesn't do that.
The episode is split roughly into two parts: the first part introduces us to Bemis and his frustrating, perpetually irritable world; the second part destroys that world, and leaves Bemis to fend for himself. As is often the case on this show, the explanations are minimal but sufficient. Bemis goes to hide in the bank vault with his lunch, he sees a story in the newspaper about H-Bombs, and then the vault shakes and the world ends. When Bemis comes to, he finds a city in ruins. "Time" starts out in the comedic vein (and it's one of TZ's few successful attempts at comedy), but here it shifts into pathos, as Bemis wanders, alone and terrified. I haven't seen this episode in years, and I was surprised watching it now how much time we spend seeing Bemis struggling to deal with the enormity of what's happened. In my memory, the bombs hit, Bemis exits the vault, realizes what's happened, and makes an immediate beeline for the library. But in the episode, he goes home to see if his wife has survived, and he grows increasingly despondent about his isolation. Much like James A. Corry, Bemis understands the horror of loneliness, and "Time" doesn't shy away from that horror. In testament to Meredith, and Serling's script (and John Brahm's direction), we get a clear, unblinking picture of a man pushed out to the end of his rope, and this is one more reason why that ending is so awful. Bemis isn't happy that everyone is gone, he doesn't gloat over his good fortune. If he did, than this would be a fable with a rote comeuppance: be careful what you wish for, that sort of thing. But no, he sits there in some abandoned lot with a gun pointed to his head, fully intending to pull the trigger in his misery. Then he remembers the library, and, for a moment, has hope.
That's how they get you in the end, isn't it? That hope-in-midst-of-despair is a killer. The first time I watched this, I was a teenager, and it haunted me for years. Bemis's last line has been quoted and requoted half a million times, probably, but it still doesn't change the essential power of it, or diminish the episode's final, brutal sucker punch. For a while, I tried to tell myself that Serling was just making a point about pathetic little men who hide away from the world, how their refusal to get involved is what leads to chaos and catastrophe, how Bemis deserved what he gets at the end because he spent so long in that vault. But that's not true at all. "Time" is on Bemis's side from the very first shot to the very last, and there's never even the suggestion that he needs to change who he is, or that he's in any way responsible for his fate. If anything, if "Time" does have a message, it's that the world of the Anti-Readers will find a way to get you in the end no matter what you do, but even that is stretching. Really, all that matters here is the terror of losing the only window you have left on the world, and the unflinching, inarguable simplicity of the cruelty of chance. It's not always a fun story to tell, but it's one that needs to be told, every now again: it is not fair. The sound of those glasses breaking is an ugly one, but the worst sound in the episode is one you never hear but know comes next: the flat finality of a gunshot.
What a twist!: Henry Bemis wants to be left alone to read. One day, the world is destroyed, and he finally has the time to read as much as he wants. Then, because God and Rod Serling are dicks, his glasses break.
- "The thing of it is, though, the thing of it is, I'm not at all sure I want to survive." I love how Meredith delivers this; it's as whimsical a "To be or not to be" variant as I've ever heard.
- There was a long time when I tried to convince myself that Bemis's situation wasn't really as awful as it seemed—he could maybe find some replacement lenses somewhere, right? But no; everything looks wrecked, and even if it wasn't, Serling and Meredith make it very clear how close Bemis is to the edge before he finds the books. This is not a man in the mood to MacGyver something up.
- This episode makes the subtle point that a society that doesn't value reading (and the way the Boss says "reader" it's practically a racial slur) is doomed to destroy itself. Makes sense to me.
Next week: Todd faces another one of Twilight Zone's classic unfair endings with "Perchance To Dream," and then gets back on board the good ship Poetic Justice for "Judgment Night."