Alan Sues (left), Brooke Hayward

“The Masks” (season 5, episode 25; originally aired 3/20/1964)

In which the mask is the window to the soul

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

The tricky thing about a morality play is finding a way to get the message across without becoming sanctimonious. As a little kid, maybe “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” teaches you something about lying; as you get older, it just teaches you that adults can be assholes and if you’re going to lie, maybe try and vary things up. But that’s just a fable, anyway. You can take it apart, but no one seriously expects well-crafted characters and a convincing narrative. The same can’t be said of an episode of The Twilight Zone, and in some of the show’s weaker entries, the effort to get a message across gets in the way of the actual storytelling. That’s not good. It’s perfectly fine to have a point, but we’re here for the fiction first, and we get antsy when it turns into a lecture.

“The Masks” dodges this problem with an ease and efficiency that’s damned impressive at this point in the show’s run. There’s a definite moral angle here; there are good characters and bad characters, and the bad characters are punished for their misdeeds. No gray area here, and no serious chance at redemption. And twist-wise, the build up isn’t all that subtle. Dying rich man Jason Foster (Robert Keith) invites his loathsome daughter and her loathsome family to his bedside to be with him in his final hours. They suck up to him for his money, and he tells them that the only way to ensure they’ll get their inheritance when he goes is to wear one of five different masks he had specially made for them until the clock tolls midnight.

It’s not much of a jump to go from Jason’s constant perorations against his nearest and dearest to the assumption that those masks are bad news. And the set-up makes no effort to hide what the masks are supposed to do, at least in a thematic sense. It’s a clever device—Jason claims that a person is supposed to wear the mask that best represents the “antithesis” of their character, thus forcing each member of the family to tacitly admit their faults even as they supposedly define themselves the opposite. Son-in-law Wilfred (Milton Selzer), who claims he’s “friendly,” wears the cold, calculating mask; granddaughter Paula (Brooke Hayward), who’s arrogant and selfish and obsessed with her own beauty, wears a mask with a stuck up nose and high cheekbones; and so on. The masks (designed, Jason explains, by “an old Cajun”) are cleverly, creepily made. I’m not sure I could’ve described exactly what sin each one was supposed to suggest on sight, but Jason’s explanations lock them convincingly into place, hideous distortions of human features that are at once satirical and innately horrifying.

The twist being that when midnight comes, and Jason dies, each family member removes his or her mask to discover that what was once only inside is now on the surface for all to see.

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Which is cool, and the make-up effects are pretty darn convincing. But while this episode wouldn’t have worked without the effects, it’s also a smart, well-crafted example of how to build to a punchline without stalling or wasting the audience’s time. Narratively speaking, this isn’t a complicated story. The protagonist (Jason) has a plan; that plan goes off without a hitch; and no one involved with the plan (apart from Jason) has any idea of what’s happening until it’s too late to do anything about it. The characters are clearly and smartly drawn. Jason’s vile little family looks like they dropped by on their way to tour Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. These are loathsome, pathetic creatures, and fascinating to because of it: the episode has few overt jokes, but there’s something darkly hilarious about watching the twerps squirms.

That’s important. As satisfying as it is to see these creeps get their well-earned punishment, it’s necessary that it’s as fun to watch them before they suffer as it is after. The actors all embrace their roles with a canny mixture of stereotype and specificity; each character’s sins are obvious almost from their first moments on screen, and yet they are distinct enough as individuals that they don’t become tiresome. The episode shows a deft touch with characterization throughout. Nothing too complex, because too much complexity would rob the story of its power. The less sympathy you have for these yahoos the better. At the same time, they have to have some life in them, because if the whole thing just plays out like one long scold, it would quickly become tiresome. The morality play problem again: we’re here for the story, not the lecture.

About two-thirds of “The Masks” is a lecture; specifically, it’s a lecture from Jason, ranting at his poisonous brood. Yet this never comes off as smug or redundant, because the conflict is rooted in people, and not in some kind of divine judgement. Which makes this less a story about assholes suffering for being assholes, and more a story about a conflict between individuals. The moral element is still there, but by making what happens a choice on Jason’s part (and, to a lesser extent, a choice on the part of his victims, as it’s only their greed that allows him to trap them), Serling’s script avoids the trap of settling into a too obviously archetypal structure. They may be sketched in, and some of them may be monsters, but their humanity is present throughout. You can maybe feel a little pity for the disfigured family at the end, and maybe wonder just why Jason is so hell-bent on punishing them, and the episode allows room for those feelings.

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The opening scene sets the tone for much of what works here. It’s a small scene: two of Jason’s servants (Bill Walker and Maidie Norman) have a quick conversation that serves to establish that their boss is a sick man, and that his relatives should be arriving soon. It’s clear that Jeffrey the butler (Walker) and the unnamed maid (Norman) don’t much care for the relatives, but they do care about Jason’s health, and in more than just a “ugh, I don’t want to find another job” kind of way. So that’s some quick expository work out of the way. But what makes the scene so important in its moderate, unassuming way is that in just a minute or two, we get a decent sense of what these two characters’ lives are like. The maid is never seen again, and Jeffrey spends the rest of his screentime in stoic butler mode, but in that quick chat, they’re clearly people who are more than just roles filling space.

It’s hard to know how much to chalk that momentary empathy to the script, and how much to chalk it up to direction. Serling’s humanity is one of his greatest strengths as a writer, but he typically expresses that humanity through eloquent, impassioned prose and strong dramatic stances. There’s no bombast in that opening scene, and while Jason spends a large part of the episode speechifying on his children and grandchildren’s follies, his poor physical health routinely undercuts any impression of grandstanding. And besides, this is his daughter and her family he’s yelling at. If she turned out poorly, he can’t be entirely innocent of blame.

Ida Lupino is the only actor to have starred in an episode of The Twilight Zone (“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine) and also direct one; she’s also the only woman director in the history of the series. “The Masks” is fortunate to have one of Serling’s stronger scripts, but Lupino’s direction is key—stylish without ever overstating the style, and with a refreshing sense of perspective throughout. (The acting is also terrific, which isn’t surprising; actors-turned-directors typically get great performances out of the people they work with.) While Jason and his family play out their minor tragedy, the episode occasionally cuts to (presumably stock) footage of the city of New Orleans, alive with Mardi Gras celebrations. That, along with the opening scene, suggests a larger world, and provides valuable texture for everything that follows. The final shot reveals the horror of what happened without over-emphasizing the event. There they are, huddled on the staircase, their features warped into a grotesque reflection of their venality. They aren’t dead, and they’ll be rich after this over, but their lives as they know it have ended; the episode neither gloats nor bemoans this fact. It’s simply what happened. How we take it is up to us.

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What a twist: The masks Jason had specially made disfigure the family members (apart from Jason) who wear them, until their faces match their sins.

Stray observations:

  • I wonder why Jason’s face didn’t change. Was it because he accepted death? Did he offer himself as a sacrifice to whatever power makes the masks work? Was he just such a decent guy that he didn’t deserve the punishment? Doesn’t really matter, although I could see a version of this in which his face is distorted as well; just the price you have to pay to get the job done.

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“I Am The Night, Color Me Black” (season 5, episode 26; originally aired 3/27/1964)

In which the sunshine goes away today, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

The title about says it all, doesn’t it? “I Am The Night, Color Me Black” has a reputation as being an example of Serling at his preachiest, and that reputation is deserved. This has some of his worst indulgences: lots of big monologues, lots of purple dialogue, an attempt to make some sort of grand commentary that overreaches itself and in doing so crosses the line into self-parody. The episode attempts to pass judgement on all the “hate” in the world, which is at once a noble goal, and a painfully quixotic one. The scope broadens so wide that by the end any power the metaphor might have is lost in diffusive excess. This isn’t just about racism, or civil strife, or greed, or lust for power. It’s an attempt to say something about everything that in the end means nothing—a generic plea for tolerance that fails to account for the complexities of human conflict.

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The sincerity is there, though, and at times, you can feel Serling struggling to articulate his intentions. That makes this difficult to laugh at, even as it fumbles. Hell, as far as visual metaphors go, a town where the sun never rises isn’t a bad idea at all, and from the start, the episode feels not just covered in darkness but drenched in the stuff. Indoor scenes are like trips through a leaky submarine, where the air is saturated not with water but with the night. Everyones sweaty and on edge—there’s an almost tactile impression of cloying heat, clammy humidity, the kind of hot weather where sunset doesn’t offer any relief. The nightmarish feeling never really lets up, and it helps to give even the loopier bits of the script a patina of authority. The story never coheres into the sort of powerful, direct commentary that Serling is striving for, but Abner Biberman’s direction at least makes sure that it looks impressive.

Anyway, that plot: a man has been convicted and condemned to die for murdering another man. Over the course the episode, we find out that the victim was a horrible bigot (unless “cross-burning” just means he lit fires when he was angry), and the “murder” was actually an act of self-defense. The condemned, Jagger (Terry Becker) was railroaded through a combination of prejudicial policing and smear-happy reporting, and now that the date of the execution has finally arrived, some of the parties responsible are feeling guilty about the whole thing. The seemingly never-ending darkness probably doesn’t help allay their fears. The phenomenon appears to be localized, which makes the guilt even harder to shake. It’s just a lousy day for everybody. (Well, Deputy Pierce, played by none other than George “Goober fuckin’ Pyle” Lindsay is enjoying himself, because he’s a dick, but even he’s on edge.)

What’s weird is that we don’t see Jagger for a few scenes, and by the time we do see him, I’d built up a picture of the guy in my head. More specifically, I’d built up a picture of him as a black man. Terry Becker is white, and while the actor is fine (here’s one of Serling’s Desperate Men, albeit this one is slightly more heroic than the rest), his race is one of the first signs that this episode can’t live up to its convictions. A story about cosmic forces trying to balance the injustice of an African American man who gets wrongfully executed in a southern town for defending himself against a white bigot? That’s says something. That has teeth in it. It’s not subtle, and it goes heavy into message territory, but fiction that’s willing to be direct about its point can have incredible impact, especially when it’s railing against a very definite, and very relevant, real-world issue. If Jagger had been black, that would’ve taken courage, and it could’ve addressed a still agonizingly critical problem in the American justice system.

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As is, it’s more of a shrug. Jagger is just some complicated dude who is angry a lot of the time for no clear reason; which sets up the ending of the episode (in that there are no real heroes or villains, exactly, just a lot of hate everywhere; before he’s hanged Jagger admits to enjoying killing the other man, which apparently makes him as guilty as anybody), but is hard to get worked up about. The dead’s man racism is just used as proof that he was a creep, and any chance at something specific is lost. I suppose it makes sense, given the “twist.” The darkness isn’t a matter of cosmic balance. It’s a visible symbol of an intense emotion, a blanket condemnation of rage without any consideration of the causes and reasons for that rage. It’s like a politician lecturing a community about riots—nobody’s going to object if you say “Violence is bad” and “Hatred is bad,” but such broad statements ignore and underplay the context that creates violence and hatred. Telling people to love one another is a perfectly fine idea, but expecting that will serve as a solution—expecting some sanctimonious preaching that pretends everyone is equally to blame for the problems in the world will fix everything—isn’t ever going to do anything but help sustain the systems of inequality that got us here in the first place.

Speaking of sanctimony, this is all getting a bit much, eh? But there really isn’t a lot more to discuss. The episode looks neat, the acting is fine, but the script offers impassioned homilies in the place of direct critiques, and the result is well-meaning but flat. According to Wikipedia, Serling wrote the episode in response to JFK’s assassination, and that makes sense—there’s a cry of anguish underlying every scene, a desperate wish that everything would just slow down and that people would be decent to each other and stop screaming and killing and everything else. That’s a recognizable human impulse, and one that it’s easy to sympathize with. But it makes for sloppy, ineffective writing. The speech Reverend Anderson (Ivan Dixon, who is black, and in a position of moral authority over the town, which is something, anyway) gives at the end, which establishes what the “darkness” is right before the radio announces that it’s turning nighttime all over the world—it plays like one more paean to the men already in authority. Be nice, please. Stop shouting so loud. Everything will change if we all follow the rules. We promise.

What a twist: The permanent night is just humanity’s hatred finally taking visible form.

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Stray observations:

  • I’m not sure how the hate-night works. Like, why does it get worse after Jagger’s execution? And why does Dallas go dark—are people in the city wandering around hating on things in response to the President’s assassination? Again, the impact of the episode is diminished in part because it’s just so unfocused. The whole thing feels very first draft.
  • The effect of things getting even darker in the town was striking, though. Very claustrophobic.

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Next week (updated): Because my schedule has gotten too busy (I’m in a show!), Twilight Zone reviews are going on hiatus for a few weeks. We’ll be back to stumble through the rest of season 5 soon enough.