The Twilight Zone Episode #8 – “Time Enough At Last” (airdate 11/20/59)
The Plot: A lover of books can’t get a break. At home, his wife henpecks him for reading, and at work they expect him to work instead of enjoying his hobby. Fortunately, a large explosion is about to give him all the free time in the world.
The Goods: It would be difficult to come up with a single episode that encapsulates the themes and skill of this show, but “Time Enough At Last” would undoubtedly make a short list with ease. It is a titan of the series with an unrelentingly pathetic main character played with nuance and vinegar by Burgess Meredith (who is miles away from his cigarette filter, Penguin sneer and his mat-chewing, Rocky-training Mick). It’s a nice reminder that a man remembered for his characters was an Oscar nominee. Meredith disappears into the limp artifice and coke-bottle glasses of Henry Bemis – a man who wants nothing more than a quiet place and a few million hours to enjoy words on a page.
Granted, he’s pretty terrible at his job as a bank teller, but he’s still dressed down with gusto by his boss (Vaughn Taylor), and heading home offers no respite because his bitch of a wife (there are more creative ways to say that, but none as accurate) played by Jacqueline DeWit doesn’t just mock him for enjoying books – she plays cruel pranks on him to prove her sniveling superiority.
Unfortunately for Mr. Bemis, his boss and his wife have nothing on fate.
As proof that the universe runs on the tears of the weak, the big bomb finally goes off while Bemis is enjoying his lunch break inside a sturdy bank vault, killing everyone (presumably) on the planet. He’s face to face with what he’s wanted so long, but he has to slog through the brutish reality of isolation. At the end of his proverbially rope, he finds a library that has mostly survived the blast. Miles and miles of books await him, and he spends the afternoon arranging them as a stacked calendar of his next few years. It would be an absolute shame if something happened to keep him from finally enjoying some simple, literary peace, right?
Hands down, and without hyperbole, this is the most poignantly mean story ever crafted for a 22-minute television show.
There are many reasons why this episode is so effective (and so celebrated). The acting is first-rate. The production design is epic in displaying a world ravaged by Mutually Assured Destruction. The story is thought-provoking and anger-inducing. The twist at the end is the mirror of a moment earlier when Mrs. Bemis hands her a husband a book of poetry, seemingly comfortable with him reading, only to cackle as he discovers she’s blacked out all of the words. For the purposes of the ending of this episode, we’re all Mr. Bemis and Rod Serling is our cackling she-beast of a wife. It’s manipulation that borders on sadist scriptwriting (although it’s important to note that the teleplay was an adaptation of the Lynn Venable short story).
A million words (appropriately) have been written about this episode, and there’s not much to add when praising it. However, there’s one element that stands out when watching it here in 2011: the suicide scene. After Mr. Bemis has wandered a barren new world looking for people he knew (or anyone at all), he briefly contemplates killing himself with a swift, sweet bullet. The ending may be the height of nasty irony, but this moment is the most crushingly effective drama in the entire piece. It has to be. Watching Bemis rationalize God’s forgiveness of the act in light of the circumstances, seeing him press the barrel against his temple and close his eyes, this tragic horror takes him (and us) to the lowest possible point before delivering him (and us) onto the shores of salvation with a library in sight. From the lowest gloom, to the highest optimism, and all the way back down again.
Even writing about it now has me wincing and shaking my head. This episode is damned affecting.
This is CBS in 1959, too. A week after Wally and Beaver got in a mild, wacky argument about a stolen rowboat, Rod Serling put a gun to Burgess Meredith’s head and dared him to pull the trigger. Of course, it wasn’t just for shock value. Mankind killing itself is the central theme of the episode, one married strongly with anti-intellectualism. The one man who seems to care about art, beauty and learning is left alone after the rest of the idiots blow themselves up. Somehow, Serling manages to do heavy-handed with a ballerina’s grace.
What do you think of the episode?
The Trivia: This was one of the best episodes according to Rod Serling. He cited it and the quietly brilliant “The Invaders,” (which we’ll write about 10 weeks from now) as his two personal favorites.
On the Next Episode: A man can’t sleep or he’ll die.
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.