“The Silence” (season 2, episode 25; originally aired 4/28/1961)
In which it would probably have worked out better for him if a cat really had got his tongue
What makes a Twilight Zone episode unique? It’s not the only anthology series in the history of television, although it’s arguably the most famous; it’s not even the only anthology series with a genre focus. When TZ premiered in 1959, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with its murderer’s row of killers and their ironic punishments, had been on the air for four years, and going by plot alone, it would be easy to mistake “The Silence,” this week’s first TZ entry, as a story that originated on the same program that once adapted Roald Dahl’s “The Man From The South.” (If the title is unfamiliar, that’s the story about a guy who bets his lighter will strike fire ten times in a row. If he wins, he gets the other man’s car; if he loses, the other man cuts off his finger. As far as pure suspense goes, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect premise.) An improbable bet is involved, between an older man and a young one, and, more importantly, there’s no supernatural or science fiction angle to that bet. Everything that happens here could, if you squint, happen in the real world. Okay, you’d have to squint a lot, and I expect we’ll have some fun poking holes in the sillier aspect of this one, but still, there are no power-granting aliens here; the Devil doesn’t make an appearance, and no one wakes up in Hell or meets a ghost; we don’t even have something as plausible, if still theoretical, as a nuclear war. Just a battle of wills between two men that’s over before it begins.
Still, this feels like the Twilight Zone, even without the special effects. If I’m being honest, I should admit that I’ve never actually seen an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which means I can’t make a direct comparison, but “The Silence” certainly doesn’t seem out of place in this series. Partly it’s because the opening credits set since a pervasive tone that’s possible to watch the rest of the episode absolutely certain that something outre is going on, even when there’s no immediate evidence of it. Rod Serling’s brief presence, along with his opening and closing narration, certainly don’t hurt. But it’s more than just the power of suggestion. Serling’s style is all over this half hour; he wrote the script, and it is jammed full of Serling-esque dialogue, purple phrases stacked on top of each other to form monologues of bitter, dripping contempt. Archie Taylor (Franchot Tone), the gentleman who sets all of this in motion, dominates the first act of the story with a speech of gloriously acidic contempt, and it’s the kind of writing Serling does best, over-written in a way that means you can almost see the words on the page as they’re spoken, and yet utterly effective. The speech also serves the neat trick of immediately and irrevocably reversing our sympathies. In the first scene of “The Silence,” we watch Jamie Tennyson (Liam Sullivan) regale his fellow clubmembers with a seemingly endless speech about how great he is, how brilliant he is, how everyone should follow his lead. He’s instantly annoying, and we soon learn that Archie shares our annoyance, which naturally leads us to being on Archie’s side, especially when the guy decides to bring the smack down. Only Archie goes too far. He’s not just pissed that Tennyson won’t shut up; he despises the other man for everything he represents, for his youth and his callowness and his pretensions. It’s a great scene that works to provide at least some justification for what follows—I’m not sure anything could completely justify the bet Archie proposes, but it at least makes sense that he’d propose it. And it also serves to put us on Jamie’s side, at least for the time being. He may be an annoying twerp, but he doesn’t deserve to be humiliated just because Archie has a case of the grumps.
So the dialogue and the characters have that Serling feel—how about the story itself? Apart from the lack of genre signifiers, the events of “The Silence” aren’t that strange a fit. For one thing, it’s a premise so absurd it belongs in a Silver Age comic book. Archie bets Tennyson that he can’t stay silent for a whole year. In order to ensure Tennyson’s honestly, Archie refits the forming gaming room at the club with all the comforts of home, as well as glass walls and recording devices. For the duration of the bet, Tennyson must stay inside this apartment, where other members of the club can view him at their leisure. Which means the “stay silent” angle is arguably the easiest part of the bet to fullfil. Tennyson doesn’t just have to keep his mouth shut: he has to be willing to give up the outside world for twelve months, including whatever jobs or obligations he might have, as well as his wife. Oh yeah, Tennyson is married; he mentions the lady to Archie’s lawyer, Alfred (Jonathan Harris, far more likable here than he was in “Twenty-Two”), using her need for expensive trinkets to explain his willingness to take the risk. It’s hard to decide who’s more ridiculous here: Archie, who turns a grudge into a sort of revenge by way of art installation, or Tennyson, who puts his entire life on hold for $500,000, the reward Archie offers him for winning the bet. Tennyson needs the money to pay off his debts, but what kind of loan organization is going to take, “Okay, I’ll have your cash, just give me a year to satisfy this guy who hates me” as an acceptable excuse for forbearance?
I’d say all of this adds up to the appropriate level of absurdity that we’ve come to expect from The Twilight Zone. And there’s an ironic ending, of course; while Serling’s penchant for twists has been slightly exaggerated over the years, it remains one of his most recognizable traits, and the plot of this episode has “This will end badly for everyone” stamped on it from the moment Archie makes his pitch. Of course, the Zone isn’t the only place that traffics in heavily in dramatic irony, but there’s a certain flair here that seems distinctive, in that we don’t just get one twist—we get two. The first is heavily telegraphed. Over the nifty montage of Tennyson waiting out the months in his glass cage, we get hints from Alfred that Archie’s finances aren’t doing so hot, and Archie himself becomes increasingly worried that Tennyson will actually last the entire year. He’s so worried that he starts tormenting Tennyson in his cell with innuendos and rumors about the man’s wife—the wife, who, it just so happens, hasn’t visited Tennyson once since the bet began. (The lady never gets a chance to defend herself, and given what Tennyson said about her earlier, we’re probably supposed to infer that she’s unfaithful and cruel, but come on; “Honey, I’m going to leave you for a year, so good luck, but so long as I’m gone the full year, we’ll have money in end. Only if I fail, we’ll get nothing.” is not going to bring out the charity in anyone.) When it’s revealed in the final moments that Archie is flat broke and can’t afford to make good on the deal, it’s not a huge surprise. No, the surprise comes when Tennyson writes a note explaining that he had the nerves to his vocal chords severed before the year began, to ensure he would make good on his end of the deal.
Ouch, really. Oh sure, in the minutes and hours afterward, it’s easy to pick apart how foolish all of this is, and how dumb Tennyson would have to be to screw himself over this thoroughly. I mean, I get that he’s desperate to get out of debt, but to willingly cripple himself for payment he won’t have for a year, if then? We’d need higher stakes for this to make sense. But the first few seconds after the reveal are good ones, because we end up feeling bad for both men. Archie is a dick, sure, and Tennyson is something of a fool, but there’s this sense at the end that if the two men had just handled things a little better, if Archie had been just a little less prone to prejudice, and Tennyson had been just a little less desperate to prove himself, they might have actually gotten along. That, as much as anything else, is what qualifies this as a Twilight Zone episode (although not quite a great one), the way the twists don’t serve as an excuse for mordant humor, but rather create a moment of curious, reflective regret. Serling has sympathy for both these men, as he has sympathy for nearly all his creations. That won’t save them from their doom, but it at least means they’re allowed some measure of dignity, in all their human foolishness.
What a twist: Tennyson manages to go a whole year without speaking, but Archie doesn’t have the money to pay him for the bet. Which really sucks for Tennyson, seeing as how he got an operation to render him permanently incapable of speech.
- This is a very well made, well acted half hour (I particularly enjoyed Tone’s voice), but it just doesn’t hold together well enough in retrospect to make it a classic. In addition to all the objections listed above, if we’re willing to accept that Tennyson was desperate and stupid enough to get that particularly nerve severed, what doctor would be willing to perform such an operation? Especially since Tennyson started the bet the day after Archie introduced the idea. He would’ve had to make his decision, find some back alley surgeon who could do a reasonable job for very little money, and then somehow make sure the bandage covering the wound was so small that no one would notice it back at the club. Frankly, I find phone calls from the dead a lot more plausible.
- That said, I love how casually Archie explains the set-up in his big speech. He makes the whole thing sound so obvious and normal that you’d have to be a fool to object, and that goes a long way towards making this idea work.
“Shadow Play” (season 2, episode 26; originally aired 5/5/1961)
In which you row, row, row your boat
Why do we care about stories? No, check that, let’s take the risk and make this personal: why do I care about stories? Because on the universal level, I can come up with some theory that’s vague enough to be comprehensive, and poetic enough so you’ll ignore the vagueness. Why some shapeless, faceless “we” care about fiction is only important if you’re putting together a montage for an awards ceremony. Why I care about is, at least to me, a little more interesting. Because I care a lot. I remember seeing a character killed off in Scream 2, and being so upset I couldn’t sleep right for days; not because of the gore, because the death unsettled me in a way I couldn’t shake off, even when I realized it was absurd. At times, I find myself more emotionally invested in the fates of television and literary characters than I am in what happens to the people around me. This is somewhat excusable, since the people I care about are hardly ever in the sort of dire straits Walter White or Paul Sheldon stumbled into. It’s the immediacy of fiction, the relevance of it, that gets me, because it’s relevance that has nothing to do with current events or obvious aspects of my current condition; I’ll read or watch TV to escape depression or stress, but the fiction I enjoy doesn’t need to be about either of those sensations for me to appreciate it. I love stories because I only get to live this life, and I want to live more, and I care about the people inside the stories because… I don’t know. I just do. Intellectually, I can say, “This is made up and doesn’t matter, really,” and I know that’s true, but when I find something that works, knowing doesn’t matter.
I love “Shadow Play,” because it exploits the way we care about stories in a simple, brilliant way; I’m not sure how much of this was intentional, and how much of it was just, “Hey, let’s do some more crazy shit with dreams,” and I don’t really care. This is a story which should’ve been almost bearably absurd, and yet it works. The tension and foreboding the permeates the entire episode should become less import the more you think about what’s going on, not because there are plot-holes or unintentional inconsistencies, but because the central truth of the twist means that none of this matters. Adam Grant (Dennis Weaver) is sentenced to die, and he’s understandably upset about it. But instead of arguing his innocence or calling for his lawyer, he’s claiming that this is actually all a dream, his dream. He has the same dream every night: he’s sentenced to death for a brutal murder, he goes on Death Row, he sits in the electric chair, and somebody pulls the switch. This happens again and again and again, and nobody ever believes him, because seriously, would you? Most of the suspense of “Shadow Play” comes from wondering if the people in Adam’s dream will realize he’s telling the truth (I suppose we’re supposed to have our own doubts, but c’mon; this is The Twilight Zone, not the Law & Order Place), and, no joke, it’s a definite downer when they put the pieces together just a few minutes too late. The call from the governor comes, but the switch has been pulled, Adam is gone, and the whole process will begin anew the next night.
This is not played for laughs, and yet… Well, it’s not funny, exactly, but when you think about it, there are no consequences at all to Adam being “electrocuted.” Oh sure, it means he’s still having the same crummy dream, which is probably stressing him out in the real world, but going off the information we’re given, this isn’t like the situation in “Perchance To Dream.” Adam isn’t worried he’ll die in the real world from what’s happening while he sleeps. It’s just, he really, really, really doesn’t want to get electrocuted again. He describes his familiarity with the process to one of his cell-mates on death row, and it’s a terrific scene, with Weaver’s manic intensity focused in on a single point, laying down each awful detail of the walk from the cell to the chair, what the chair looks like, what it’s like to sit down and feel the cap put over your head and the straps tied down. There is absolutely no doubt at all that he’s legitimately out of his mind about having to go through all of this, and it explains why he’s so desperate to make someone believe him. Nightmares get under your skin in a lot of ways, but I almost always come away from mine with a sense of inescapable doom—I’m not frightened of a monster I can see, but of the knowledge that there are monsters, and they are coming, and I won’t be able to defend myself. The scenario here is just a variation on that, and view from Adam’s perspective, even if we (and he) know that he’s not really going to die, it still makes sense that he will do everything in his power to change this cycle.
All right, so we know why the dreamer hates the dream; why do we spend so much time with the people who aren’t him? None of them actually exist. The episode goes to great pains to point out how they’re all reflections of people Adam has scene in the waking world; this guy is a priest he knew as a kid, this guy is a prisoner he saw in a movie once. In fact, “Shadow Play” is constantly poking holes in its reality. Adam points out inconsistencies at every chance he gets, from the cliched nature of Death Row—there’s even a guy with a harmonica—to the fact that he was someone tried and sentenced on the same day, which can’t possibly be legal. While there may be some effort to keep us all in doubt as to the true nature of what’s going on, there’s never any illusion that this scenario has many, many holes in it, and unlike, say, the plot convolutions in “The Silence,” these are are holes we’re supposed to notice. Adam reminds us that none of this is real, the episode itself reminds us (by showing the distract attorney’s wife cooking steaks in the oven, only to have the DA find a chicken when he checks for himself), and it soon becomes impossible not to know that all of this is made up. And the more we’re aware of that, the more we think about how this is all a TV show, and these are all actors reading from a script, and it’s all a game anyway.
So, again, why spend so much time with the dream people? And why is it that part of the suspense in this episode comes as much from wanting these people and their world to survive as it does from wanting Adam to not have to sit in that chair again? It’s a very risky move, and if it weren’t for Weaver’s committed performance, Charles Beaumont’s excellent script, and the apocalyptic tone that direct John Brahm makes sure runs through the entire half hour, the scenes with Hank the DA and Paul the reporter would come off as padding or pointless. Instead, they add to the general confusion and almost meta theatrics of the episode. Serling’s narration at the end strongly indicates that we’re supposed to start wondering if we ourselves are being dreamed by someone, and that’s not a bad question to leave the viewers with. A little Alice-ish, but not bad. After all, these secondary characters are all presumably functions of Adam’s subconscious, but they act as though they believe themselves to be real. There’s a fun bit where Adam tries to bargain with Hank, promising him that if they let him live, he’ll dream about them every night. So, y’know, who’s dreaming you, maybe we’re all someone else’s fantasy, hold me closer tiny dancer, etc.
This sort of thing never interests me much—I think, therefor I am, is good enough for me—but that doesn’t stop me from loving this episode, or loving those scenes with the men in Adam’s dreams. For me, it goes back to that idea of why I (or anyone else) would give much of a damn about made up people, and made up fates. “Shadow Play” pushes this conceit almost as far as it can go, by giving us a situation which is incredibly thin (“Man has nightmares, does not like them”), treating it like the end of the world, and making it work. Those final shots, as Hank tries to place a call to the governor, how the governor grants the stay of execution but doesn’t get the message to the prison in time, and how it all starts over again for Adam, with different characters in different roles, are quietly devastating when they really shouldn’t be. You can argue it’s because we’re sad that Adam will have to go through another awful night, or that this says something about what’s going on in his head, that he’d create a dreamscape so resistant to change, and I’d agree; but I think it also comes down why we enjoy stories and give a damn what one made up person says to another. We want to believe, and that has a cost.
What a twist: The prisoner on Death Row claims it’s all in his head, and he’s right.
- It’s great how much of what happens here has clearly happened before; Adam predicts when Hank will arrive (and he’s only a few minutes off), etc. I wonder how many times he’s been that close to the governor’s call?
- I usually get bothered by movies or shows that pull a “It’s all a dream!” twist while having multiple scenes without the dreamer present, mainly because the dreamer doesn’t seem to have any awareness of what he should have been witnessing; those stories rely on the dreamer being unaware this is all in his head. It works here, though, because Adam knows exactly what’s going on, and it’s entirely possible to believe he’s seeing all those other scenes.
- “It’s tan. It’s all tan.” The speech Adam gives about his own execution is great, and one of the things that helps make this whole thing work.
- “It doesn’t make any logical sense.” The Twilight Zone motto, folks.
Next week: Todd tests “The Mind And The Matter,” and asks “Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up?”