“The Encounter” (season 5, episode 31; originally aired 5/1/1964)

In which George Takei gets a sword…

I really wanted “The Encounter” to work. The scenario, which has two characters with every reason to distrust one another trapped in a claustrophobic space on a hot day, is a gripping, tension filled situation ripe with dramatic possibility. Both actors (Neville Brand and George Takei) are excellent, and their subject—an increasingly heated conversation with its origins rooted in racial conflicts still lingering after the second World War—is a potentially powerful one. The Twilight Zone has done some great work investigating the darker currents of men’s souls, and how prejudice and fear warp our ability to communicate. There was every reasaon to believe “The Encounter” could be like that.

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Sometimes it is. As Fenton, Brand is charismatic and unsettling; as we learn over the course of the story, he’s lost his job and his wife recently, and uses the arrival of Arthur Takamuri (Takei) at his house as an excuse to do some bullying under the guise of “just kidding around” chumminess. Arthur (the American son of Japanese immigrants) is looking for some regular yardwork to pick up extra cash, but Fenton browbeats him into sticking around for a beer. Fenton isn’t openly villainous, and his behavior is just the right side of friendly; it’s clear that Arthur is uncomfortable, and this his discomfort is a good indication that he should leave, but it’s also clear why he stays. Fenton is the kind of guy who, intentionally or not, is very good at making someone feel like the bad feelings are all their problem.

This sets up a back and forth between the two men as we wait for the other shoe to drop. Fenton’s casual racism grows increasingly more blatant, but he also has a knack for knowing just when to defuse the conversation and leave the other man feeling confused and ashamed. Scriptwriter Martin M. Goldsmith handles these rises and falls very well for the most part, and he has a clear grasp of what drives men like Fenton; a grasp, and also an empathy for the character that prevents him from being a caricature of white rage. Fenton is aggressive and petulant in imminently human ways, and his most monstrous act—shooting a Japanese soldier who had surrendered to him (that’s where the sword comes from, and the sword is ostensbily responsible for the episode’s supernatural element)—happened during the war. While that doesn’t excuse his actions, it does make them more understandable. He’s a creep, but there’s enough of a person inside him that it’s possible to not want him to die.

Which is good! It’s easy to care about Arthur, given the way the story begins, but it’s important that Fenton never becomes too easy to dismiss. He’s the heavy for most of the episode (in that he’s the one making the most obvious threat, although Arthur keeps waving that sword around), but he’s also lost and in over his head. That’s something that happens a lot on this show, and, when done well, it helps us to find the pathos in an unlikeable character getting his just deserts. They’ve sinned, but they’re also confused and more than a little stupid, and most of us can remember a time in our lives when we knew punishment was coming that we deserved, but couldn’t figure out what we were supposed to have done differently.

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So that’s what works in this episode. Also, the production design is top-notch; Fenton’s home is a creepy, seedy looking place that grows more and more nightmarish as the story progresses. But “The Encounter” isn’t a great episode, and I’m not sure it’s even a good one, for one big reason: it completely fails Arthur Takamuri.

George Takei gives a fine performance, but the character is all over the map. The best I can figure it, the sword Fenton keeps in his attic (which he can’t seem to get rid of) is a cursed object; Arthur translates the inscription to read “This sword will avenge me,” and that’s pretty much what happens. Arthur is turned into a prop, at the mercy of some force greater than himself to carry out an act of beyond the grave vengeance and then sacrifice himself because of it.

Maybe there’s some sort of point being made about the shadow prejudice casts over our lives; or the way cultural roles reduce people to machines acting out age old grudges. But it doesn’t really work, in large part because Arthur never seems like a coherent character. Initially he’s friendly and polite, and just a little bit nervous, and that makes sense—Fenton is a hardcase, and Arthur’s just looking to get some work and leave. But then the sword starts doing something to his mind. There’s this moment when he picks it up and says, “I’m gonna kill him. I’m gonna kill him. Why?” It’s striking and bizarre, and the stunned regret in Takei’s voice gives us a glimpse of a man who realizes something awful is about to happen, and he has no way of stopping it.

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But that glimpse vanishes quickly, and from then on, it’s hard to know what’s going on in Arthur’s head. Empathy for him should be much easier to build than it is for Fenton, and Takei, being a likeable actor, isn’t a complete stone wall or anything. But his behavior vacillates between his regular self and some grim warrior figure, without much rhyme or reason as to why; every time he switches over and threatens Fenton with the sword, the very real drama of two men trying to feel each other out goes away, and we’re left with some muddled ghost story with a contrived, if inevitable, conclusion.

Midway through the episode, Arthur gives a speech about how his father was at Pearl Harbor, working in a shipyard on the day of the attacks, and how his father watched the Japanese bombers swoop down. It’s clearly meant to be an important speech, but since the character is talking about something that didn’t happen to him, it’s less than compelling. And there’s something too generically perfect about the idea, too, as though Arthur is feels compelled to justify his patriotism in the face of Fenton’s contempt.

It gets worse when the real truth comes out, though. The story is a lie, something Arthur concocted to cover for what really happened: his father was a traitor who helped to guide planes from the ground towards strategically valuable bombing targets. This is a big, complex idea, and, though Takei gives it his all, the episode just doesn’t make it work. It plays as a clumsy attempt to present Fenton and Arthur as equally tormented souls, and the equivalency rings false. (At the very least, Fenton is the one responsible for his own behavior, while Arthur is suffering for the actions of someone else.) Goldsmith’s script has a clear feel for the complex shades of self-aggrandizement, self-loathing, and chummy arrogance that make a bigot like Fenton, but there’s no equivalent sense of understanding for Arthur. That character’s torment remains conceptual more than felt, rendering him the Other in a story that’s clearly trying to decry such an effect. The result is an episode that is frequently queasily unsettling and intermittently fascinating, but ultimately falls short of coherence.

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What a twist: Fenton and Arthur finally come to physical blows, and Fenton ends up falling on the sword; Arthur holds the sword, screams “Banzai!” and throws himself out the attic window, presumably to his death.

Stray observations:

  • The front door jamming shut is necessary for the story to progress, but Fenton’s apathy about the situation is strange; it’s never clear exactly how much either man is in the grip of the sword’s spell. It is also unclear why Fenton’s house appears to be a staircase, a front door, and an attic.
  • Due to complaints from Japanese-Americans about the subject matter of this episode (specifically, Arthur’s confession about what his father really did at Pearl Harbor), “The Encounter” was kept out of American syndication deals.

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“Mr. Garrity And The Graves” (season 5, episode 32; originally aired 5/8/1964)

In which it’s an application of scientific principles…

Oh hey, it’s a comedy episode of The Twilight Zone. So this should be fun. There are a few whacky music cues, a lot of scenery chewing, some gags about spousal abuse that are actually more frightening than they are funny, and a story whose shape becomes clear almost immediately. But I loved it. I know, I’m just as surprised as anyone. While the show has bungled supposedly humorous episodes before, Serling can still knock one out of the park, and I’d mark down this entry as a solid triple. There’s no particular emotional resonance, but it’s clever, frequently amusing, and well-constructed. The gags have a certain amount of bite to them without ever becoming mean, and if the ending suggests something more horrible than the story seems prepared to deal with, well, that’s not always a terrible thing for an ending to do.

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There are a few reasons this one works. The setting, while familiar, is clearly defined and established with a decent amount of grace. Happiness, AZ is a town that’s just starting to come into its own. After years of lawlessness and violence, the locals are finally managing to settle down and lead peaceful, upstanding lives. This comes at the cost of the 128 people in the town cemetery, 127 of which (we’re informed) died of unnatural causes. (The 128th, a large abusive woman named Zelda, apparently just up and died without any help from anyone.) So while “Happiness” is basically just the same Old West set we’ve seen on the show several times before, it has a history and a personality to it. The people here are comfortable enough with their current lives that they can look back on recent history with a certain amount of undeserved nostalgia.

That’s where Jared Garrity comes in. John Dehner is another of the episode’s most important assets. The cast is stocked full of character actors making the most out of stock types (the cowardly sheriff, the sycophant, the town drunk), and the episode takes great pleasure in giving each of them a chance to show off their scenery chewing, in the best possible way; there’s a cynicism running through the whole half hour, but it’s a genial, almost friendly cynicism that invites us to like these idiots even as we laugh at them. Garrity helps to make this possible; the majority of the story is a long con designed to bilk gullible idiots out of their cash, and Dehner’s showmanship makes that con delightful to watch even once you realize where it’s headed. The character stands out even before the actor opens his mouth, with his magnificent plaid suit and debonair air, and Dehner makes sure his presence dominates throughout.

The other big reason this works where other comedic episodes have faltered is that the stakes are clear throughout; while the townsfolk may comical to us, their concerns are very real, and there’s a hint of menace to Garrity that increases as the story goes on. The menace never precisely manifests (even at the end, when the dead actually do rise from their graves, Garrity has no idea what he’s done), but it keeps the conversations from lapsing into genial blathering. Garrity’s claim that he can raise the dead is a bit spooky from the start, in no small part due to the fact that this is an episode of The Twilight Zone, and not, say, Gunsmoke. On this show, we know that any suggestion of the supernatural has a very good chance of coming true.

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But while Garrity’s “abilities” create the sort of suspense necessary for a comedy tale like this one, it’s the townsfolks’ relationship with their dead that makes the episode really work. Serling’s script (based on a story by Mike Korologos) isn’t particularly subtle, but he does a fine job is first establishing the hypocrisy of the locals’ (they spend most of their time on screen mourning the people up in the cemetery, when they aren’t marveling over Garrity’s strangeness), and stripping the lies away once Garrity’s scheme becomes plausible. Interestingly, no one in Happiness ever suggests the possibility that Garrity might be lying; the con is such a well-constructed one that they don’t really have time to. First he shows up, then he brings a dog back to life, and then he does his business at the cemetery, and waits for the money for role in.

The genius of all of this, I think, is that we’re allowed to laugh at the scenes of Garrity strong-arming people into paying him huge sums of cash to make the dead stay dead, while at the same time having sympathy for those people and their fears. Pretty much everyone in this story isn’t as sharp as they think they are, and that includes Garrity himself, who leaves town so proud to have tricked everyone so thoroughly, only for his “trick” to have real world repercussions. The whole thing has a feel of a good old-fashioned country fable, a sort of tall tale that wouldn’t be out of place over a warm stove in the dead of winter. The implications are frankly terrifying if you worry about them too long (those risen corpses seem too intelligent to be zombies, but they aren’t exactly fresh as daisies; and at least two of them are already planning to do serious harm to characters we met earlier on), but that works to the episode’s benefit. It’s a light-hearted romp about lying, theft, spousal abuse, and the living dead. It goes down easy—but it lingers.

What a twist: Garrity was running a con: the “dead” dog was a trained pet, and the ghostly man coming down the street was an actor on Garrity’s payroll. But after he leaves, the dead in Boothill Cemetery dig themselves out of their graves.

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Stray observations:

  • I also love that Garrity himself doesn’t suffer for his actions. It makes the whole thing more fun.
  • That said, the shot of the bodies rising from the dead is impressively scary. If I’d seen this episode as a kid, it would’ve scared me for life.

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Next week: We take a visit to “The Brain Center At Whipple’s,” and I hope you’ll “Come Wander With Me.”