For 12 hours on New Year’s Day I watched the Twilight Zone. The SyFY Channel 3-day marathon has been part of our New Year celebrations since my children were little and my husband was working and we would crawl into bed together and watch until we fell asleep. This year, on that one day (out of three!) I saw a lot of episodes that I had never seen before. Many of them were provocative, or at least eye opening. I cannot imagine network television tackling some of these subjects today.
Here are some of my observations:
Girls and black children played together with the white boys. And the girls were not relegated to stereotypical roles. In Mr. Bevis, when a bumbling goof ball has the neighborhood kids push his car to get it started, there are girls in the group. Girls wearing denim overalls, not skirts with lacy ankle socks and patent leather shoes! And black children. Part of the whole group pushing the car, something they clearly did every day. The same is obvious in The Bewitchin’ Pool. Unhappy children find a portal to a world of love with Aunt T–all unhappy children, including black children and girls.
In Two, Elizabeth Montgomery and Charles Bronson play young enemy combatants who discover each other hiding in the rubble of a deserted city. They are the last survivors of the war between Russia and the US. She is a strong, aggressive soldier, who shoots to kill him and fails. I won’t quibble that the only word she mutters is прекрасный, Russian for beautiful, while looking at a tattered dress in a shop window. She is portrayed as strong and competent, which was highly unusual for 1961.
Mostly, men and women had little use for each other. Men looked to women to be their servants, or to place blame for the failures of their lives. In Person or Persons Unknown David Gurney awakens from a drunken night and before he figures out something is desperately wrong berates his wife for not getting him undressed before he passed out. The least she could have done was taken his shoes off. And if she won’t wake up from all his whining, perhaps a slap on the butt will work.
Women looked to men for their money. In The Prime Mover, Ace Larson takes advantage of his friend’s “powers” to win big in Las Vegas. In theory, he wants enough to marry his long-suffering girlfriend. When she begs him to quit while he is so far ahead, then leaves for home when he won’t, he immediately takes up with a cigarette girl who in turn leaves him when he inevitably loses it all.
When women wanted to break from the mold, when they desire something else, like a job, perhaps, their husbands were pissed off. In The Bewitchin’ Pool, which I discovered was the series finale in 1964, Gil Sharewood tells his wife Gloria that he saw her car at the television station earlier that day and asks what she was doing there. He is none too pleased when she replies that she wants a job. They of course announce their impending divorce and their children run/swim away to Aunt T’s.
Oddly enough one of the only marriages where the husband and wife seemed to care about each other at all (if the episode focused on them), was in my favorite episode The Hunt (which I did not see this year). From Wikipedia: “Hyder Simpson is an elderly mountain man who lives with his wife Rachel and his hound dog Rip in the backwoods. Rachel does not like having the dog indoors, but Rip saved Hyder’s life once and Hyder refuses to part with him.”
From me: Rachel begs her husband not to go raccoon hunting that night, telling him about the bad omens she has seen. During their hunting, Rip dives into a pond after a raccoon, and Hyder jumps in after him. The next morning, Hyder and Rip wake up next to the pond. When they return home, they find a grieving Rachel tending to their burial. I won’t ruin the plot for you, but suffice it to say that Rachel is heartbroken.
Deaths-Head Revisited is an episode about the Holocaust which aired barely 15 years following. A war criminal returns under an alias to Dachau, years after the war, to proudly reflect on his accomplishments. He encounters the ghosts of his victims, who mostly silently and sadly exact their retribution.
According to some websites, the episode was in part written as a response to Adolph Eichmann’s trial in Israel, and reflects Rod Serling’s love of his Jewish heritage. Serling’s closing lines for this episode include “All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God’s Earth.”
In so many episodes, everyone lives in fear (except for the simple-minded who do not seem to know any better). People grapple with an abiding existential dread– of the unknown; of the apocalypse; of an attack by another country or world, or species. I remember this fear. When I was in elementary school we expected Russia to invade or send their nuclear weapons to annihilate us. We expected aliens to land and take over. Or to abduct any one over the age of 12, or under the age of 8, depending on the day. We heard about terrifying events in far away lands with no ability to find out the truth–a strange cloud over France that was making everyone fall asleep.
I remember this dread. I feel it again. It feels just like an episode of the Twilight Zone.