A look at nine of Serling’s most personal episodes from his signature television series
If you’re a serious fan of THE TWILIGHT ZONE (and I most certainly am), it’s vital to not only remember Rod Serling’s classic, influential dark fantasy television series and each key episode’s unforgettable and forever-discussed third act twist, but to muse on Serling’s morality and humanity, the likes of which propelled almost every aspect of the show.
Serling was, in effect, dark fantasy television’s premiere auteur and THE TWILIGHT ZONE was first and foremost a vehicle for Serling to deliver provocative parables. He was writer with something urgent to say, someone who deeply cared about the plight of his fellow man. After earning awards and accolades for his pioneering dramatic teleplays in TV’s formative years, Serling’s attempts at deeper comment on subjects ranging from war atrocity to America’s blatant racism were met with censorship. The answer to this nervous sponsor-induced silencing and word-butchering was indeed THE TWILIGHT ZONE, which Serling saw as a way to tell the tales he wanted to tell but cloak them in sugar-coated fantasy pills.
And while some of TZ’s greatest episodes are beloved for their overt horror and science fiction sheen and exploitable elements, several of the series’ finest installments were portals directly into Serling’s soul; haunting stories about loss, alienation, death, regret and a yearning for simpler times.
Here then, are 9 of TZ and Serling’s most haunting, personal episodes.
WALKING DISTANCE (Season One)
The most affecting and personal of Serling’s first season efforts, this one stars Gig Young as a middle aged man who inexplicably wanders back in time into his home town, 30 years earlier. There, he meets his parents and the youthful incarnation of himself. Melancholy, profound and expressionist in its presentation, this is Serling weeping for the sweet days of his childhood long lost and then ultimately, making peace with and embracing the present. Gorgeous Bernard Herrmann score too…
THE LONELY (Season One)
Jack Warden stars as James Corry, as an unjustly convicted man in the near future, imprisoned alone on a desolate planet. While he sweats away his days and battles back his own endless loneliness, an empathetic supply ship captain stopping by on his quarterly run, drops off a crate containing a fully realized android female to keep him company. Initially, Corry balks at this mockery of femininity but, when the robot proves itself sentient and sensitive, he falls deeply in love with “her”. A moody, dreamy, poetic episode about the penal system and the illusion of love, armed with a sad, unforgettable finale.
JUDGEMENT NIGHT (Season One)
Serling was disgusted by war, having endured the horrors of it first hand, an experience that effectively broke his heart, and his body (the writer never properly healed from a severe leg wound in WW2). JUDGEMENT NIGHT is an unnerving tale of a German sailor drifting aboard a British passenger ship in the fog, haunted by a feeling of impending doom. A serious minded comment on how war creates monsters and how those monsters eventually get crushed by karma, supernatural or otherwise. This one is hard to shake.
LONG LIVE WALTER JAMESON (Season One)
Beloved cult actor Kevin McCarthy (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, tons of Joe Dante movies) stars as the titular gentleman, a learned professor dating a young woman and planning marriage. But when the lady’s elderly father finds a century old photograph of Jameson, he begins questioning his future son in law about his true nature. Serling wrote most of the first season of TZ, but occasionally let writers he felt he identified with and whose material were in step with his sensibilities contribute. WALTER JAMESON was penned by the great Charles Beaumont. It’s a melancholy treatise on man’s vain lust for immortality and how such pursuits don’t always yield what we think they will, a theme that Serling himself would explore time and time again. The final moments of this episode are pure visual poetry.
THE AFTER HOURS (Season One)
This revered episode is most famous as the “living mannequin” one, loved for its final twist in which doe-eyed Anne Francis gets lost in a department store and discovers she’s actually a dummy on “shore leave”. But at its heart, this is a disturbing, profound and wrenching comment on identity, on stumbling through a consumer world and not connecting with anything or anyone. Years later, George A. Romero would quote the central theme mined here in DAWN OF THE DEAD, but add flesh-eating zombies.
THE HITCH-HIKER (Season One)
Three years before CARNIVAL OF SOULS, 4 years before Serling would incorporate the French film AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE into the series’ 5th season and decades before SOLE SURVIVOR or the FINAL DESTINATION films, Serling’s THE HITCH-HIKER had the power to disturb viewers. In it, a young woman drives the night highways, constantly met by a smiling, spectral hitchhiker who no one else can see. Disconnected from the world, the woman eventually discovers that she might not have actually survived that recent roadside accident after all. A ghost story of sorts that muses on the same concepts of alienation mined in THE AFTER HOURS and also the inevitability of death, of resigning oneself to the fates. A Serling-penned adaptation of an existing radio play, but one whose central themes hooked the writer and would show up in much of his writing, including the melancholy war-time treatise episode THE PURPLE TESTAMENT.
DUST (Season Two)
In a worn down, frontier New Mexico town, a poor farmer is sentenced to hang for accidentally killing a girl, much to the misery of his suffering family. While the town cries for blood, a repugnant, racist man dupes the man’s elderly father into using whatever money the family has left to buy his “magic dust”, which he claims will cause the town to forgive and to find the love needed to save his son. Of course, it’s just sand. Or is it? A beautiful, tear-inducing episode that is really Serling rallying against the craven, casual racism and classism of capitalism and criticizing the futile, regressive act of answering bloodshed with more bloodshed. Lovely Jerry Goldsmith score too…
DEATHS-HEAD REVISITED (Season Three)
Serling at his angriest. The writer addresses his Jewish ancestry and his oft-visited interest in the Holocaust for this visceral, horrifying tale; a kind of “Tell-Tale Heart” with Nazis and a kissing cousin to season one’s JUDGEMENT NIGHT. In it, a war criminal returns under an alias to Auschwitz, years after the war, to sniggeringly reflect on his glorious, murderous past executing and torturing Jewish prisoners. He soon finds that the dead don’t rest easy and that no matter how hard one tries to ignore it and evade it, the past always has a way of finding you. Horrific, intelligent and deeply affecting storytelling.
IN PRAISE OF PIP (Season Five)
The great Jack Klugman (a TZ regular) appears as a nickel-and-dime grifter who learns that his adult son, fighting in Vietnam, is teetering between life and death. In his grief, he drifts into an abandoned carnival where he meets a version of his son as a little boy. Reflecting on his failures as a father he also reevaluates the beauty of their early years together and begs the fates for one last chance to do the right thing and save his long-suffering boy. If you have children, this one will level you. Serling himself channeled the relationship he had with his youngest daughter Anne for this unforgettable, haunting episode about redemption, one of Serling’s favorite themes.