“The Obsolete Man” (season 2, episode 29; originally aired 6/2/1961)
In which everyone hates a librarian
The world of George Orwell’s novel 1984 is still the most famous dystopia ever created, and for good reason. Even people who’ve never read the novel, or seen an adaptation of it, or even know what “Orwellian” signifies would still be likely to recognize the ominous intonation of “Big Brother is watching you”; even students who snoozed through most of their English-lit core requirements still shudder at the mention of Room 101. There are reasons for this, of course. Orwell was a talented writer, and intentionally or not, in Oceania, with its various ministries and dreams of Doublespeak, he reached beyond allegory, building a consistent, believable world which was both fascinating and horrifying at the same time. Better still, the struggles of Winston and Julia are suspenseful and completely engaging; while both characters were clearly intended to have an “everyman/woman” feel to them, they both come to life well enough, so that the book’s message never overwhelms its value as a narrative. And then there’s the simple fact that few other writers have managed to conceive a ruling power as brilliant and monstrously effective as the government of Oceania. It’s not just that the government watches everyone nearly all the time; it’s that it is a state evolved to crush or subvert every basic human impulse. When Winston begins his petty rebellion, he admits straight away to himself that he’s doomed. His story is powerful because we want him to succeed, even amidst acceptance that success is almost wholly unattainable. And it’s devastating because, despite knowing he’ll lose, we’re still unprepared for how far he falls.
“The Obsolete Man” wants to say some important things about the rights of man, the power of free will, the importance of faith, and the innate corruption of a state that attempts to dominate and subvert the human spirit. It works off the strength of strong performances from Burgess Meredith and Fritz Weaver, and a German Expressionism-inspired visual style created largely at the behest of Elliot Silverstein. But it’s failed by a script that’s as didactic and heavy-handed as anything Serling ever wrote.
The episode takes place in a futuristic fascist regime, where God is outlawed and all individuals must prove themselves worthy of continued existence based on their contribution to the whole. But the government never rises beyond an obvious symbol for everything Serling (and by extension, the viewer) dislikes, and, worse, it’s not a particularly clever evil regime. While Meredith’s librarian doesn’t survive, there’s little sense that he has to be particularly clever to teach the Chancellor (Weaver) a lesson, and Meredith’s character is so saintly, so pristine in his faith and his general wonderfulness that he’d be absolutely intolerable if he weren’t played by Burgess Meredith. (For fun, imagine that Meredith here and Meredith in “Mr. Dingle, The Strong” are the two halves of Meredith in“Time Enough At Last,” split in order to create two inferior episodes.) How much Romney Wordsworth (get it? GET IT?) grates on your nerves is a matter of personal preference, but if it wasn’t for the look of the sets and the caliber of the acting, “The Obsolete Man” would never generate the needed despair to make the condemned librarian seem like a victim who manages to turn the tables on an dictatorial ruling body. This is a system that not only allows its citizens to decide the method of their own execution, it (or at least the Chancellor at the height of his powers) actually welcomes a request to make that chosen execution public. Because hey, nothing says “Keeping the resistance down” like allowing enemies of the state a full and ample opportunity to explain their views in the best possible light.
Whatever its faults, “Obsolete Man” is an intense viewing experience, especially in its last five minutes when everything goes insane. Up until those last five minutes, the episode sketches in its scenario with impressive confidence; regardless of how much the script stacks its deck, there’s little wasted time. We see a stark, dictatorial courtroom, the Chancellor calls out Romney’s name, and then a small, meek man steps into the light. Without putting dialogue into how this particular regime came to power, or what specific ideology it represents, we understand the conflict and the stakes. It’s efficient, and it allows the story to move into its most difficult task, setting up a situation which will allow Wordsworth to triumph while undoing the Chancellor, without having to waste a lot of momentum on exposition. Unfortunately, Serling relies too much on the effectiveness of that initial scene, to the point where it might have benefited from some more specificity. The show has managed to create a convincingly menacing controlled society before (“Third From The Sun” springs to mind; I guess Weaver escaped from a dictatorship so he could make one of his own), but there’s not much in the way of personality to distinguish this world. All the texture in the episode comes from the direction and set design and performance. Everyone does fine work in those fields, but all that effort to promote a fairly thin story makes for a half hour that veers between visuals of stunning clarity and frustratingly banal conversations. The attempted serious discourse on the nature of the human condition lies heavy over every exchange, stifling life just as it tries to celebrate passion.
Wordsworth is a librarian (gasp!), and he’s been deemed obsolete by the state and sentenced to execution. The government doesn’t much care for books or people who read them, and poor Wordsworth must pay the price. But he turns the tables on his captors by using their rules against them, putting the Chancellor in danger, and demonstrating the hypocrisy of those in power, and the way the system will destroy even the people who believe themselves most committed to its survival. As a concept, this is fine, and as a premise, the idea of the Chancellor being trapped in a room with Wordsworth, forced to endure hellish seconds while he awaits the explosion that will kill them both, it’s exciting. This is Hitchcock’s definition of suspense made literal; the only difference is, the characters know as much about what’s going to happen next as we do. The Chancellor slowly panics on live television, while Wordsworth takes out his Bible (owning one is a crime punishable by death) and prays. In the final seconds, the Chancellor breaks, begs to be allowed to escape, and Wordsworth lets him go, beaming. It doesn’t entirely matter that he dies seconds later. He’s already won.
But while there’s suspense in waiting for that bomb to go off, there’s no question that the Chancellor will crack. Fritz Weaver is great in the role, but the compressed time frame of the script, even with a to-the-point beginning, doesn’t give him much time to believably transition from, “I am in the right and you are pathetic, just as all who value things which I do not are pathetic” to “OH PLEASE GOD LET ME OUT OF HERE.” He never breaks character, but the speed of the Chancellor’s fall robs the episode of much of its dramatic weight. There’s a painful smugness to too much of this, a suggestion of assumed winners and losers that makes it difficult to identify or care much about Wordsworth (beyond the obvious fact that it’s impossible not to like Meredith). The reason 1984 is so effective is that you believe from beginning to end in the power of Big Brother and the forces which use him as their shield. Winston is beaten and destroyed in the end, but even before that end comes, there’s no doubt he’s in some serious trouble. The government in the novel is legitimately frightening. The government in “The Obsolete Man” looks like something that sprang up in a college-theater program: visually impressive and intensely earnest, but there’s not a lot of thought behind it. Given the character names and the setting, it’s probable Serling wanted to make this as much a parable as he could, but the episode rarely strikes the iconic resonance it needs to. Most of the time, it’s hard to hear the lines over the sound of the writer patting himself on the back.
I’d be remiss, though, if I left out the episode’s climax. After the Chancellor escapes Wordsworth’s apartment, he returns to the court to find he’s been replaced. While it was the case that Wordsworth received a year long trial to determine his obsolescence, the (now ex-) Chancellor has been fast-tracked. But for reasons which go unexplained, he doesn’t get to pick his method of execution. Maybe the ruling power wised up about giving its victims that much control, or maybe people in positions of authority receive harsher sentences. It doesn’t matter why, though. As the Chancellor tries to escape his fate, the jury of peers who earlier sentenced Wordsworth to his fate turn on him, blocking his exit like some kind of obscure dance move. They moan, and the moaning gets louder and louder till they’re shouting, and finally they grab their victim, drag him across the table, and descend on him as he begs and screams. It’s a far more upsetting sequence than anything which precedes it, and for the only time in the episode, what’s happening on screen becomes less of a lecture, and more of a fever dream.
I’m not sure how much Serling was responsible for this conclusion (it was designed, in part, based off of one of the director’s nightmares), but it’s a fitting way to close out the second season of The Twilight Zone, and a fine temporary conclusion to The A.V. Club’s reviews of the show. “The Obsolete Man” isn’t the best episode of this season, but it is undeniably a product of Rod Serling’s imagination, with its dependence on broad irony and science fiction symbolism for effect, and it’s message about the resiliency of the human spirit, and the power of reading and faith. Over the course of two years, Serling had carved out a distinctive segment of the television landscape, and while it’s easy to criticize individual episodes for relying too much on their master’s voice, the writer’s strong voice is one of the main reasons all this craziness holds together. It doesn’t matter if the setting is new each week, if we dabble in horror or the western or comedy, if we never watch the same character twice. Different writers have worked on the show, bringing their own perspectives and styles, but Serling dominates, for good and for ill. The best way to appreciate the series might be as a rich expression of one man’s view of the world; even the most sluggish and tedious episodes are part of that overall design. In its second season, the show took some risks—some worked (“The Eye Of The Beholder” and “The Invaders” are classics) and some didn’t (not every episode on video worked, and even those that did worked largely based on their non-visual strengths), but the overall impression is one of a solid, smart collection of genre tales which are greater than the sum of their parts. Maybe that’s why “The Obsolete Man,” even at its best, comes across as beside the point. We already know the power of belief. We’ve seen 64 other examples of it in action.
What a twist: The Chancellor thinks he’s the one in control, but he really isn’t.
- All right, so you can pick any kind of execution? I wonder how many “death by snu-snu” requests they have to field.
- “I’m a human being!” “You’re a librarian, Mr. Wordsworth.” I want this in a cross-stitch to hang over my desk at work.
- In the interest of full disclosure, as a non-believer, I’m not susceptible to Wordsworth Bible passion, but that didn’t really affect my view of the episode. Really, what he does is a testament to any kind of faith; to the simple belief than men can be more than beasts.
Coming soon: The return of The X-Files!