“Two” (season 3, episode 1; originally aired 9/15/1961)
In which one is the loneliest number…
The more TV you watch, the more you start to notice how different writers find ways to deliver exposition. The most obvious way is the opening credits narration: The Twilight Zone does it, Quantum Leap did it, I’m sure we can all think of a half a dozen others if we put our minds to it. There’s having an actual narrator in the context of the episode; there are text crawls; there are news broadcasts. Most popular is the in-character info dump, when someone tells someone else information both parties should already know. (Leading to hilarious clunkers like, “Well, John, since your wife was kidnapped by the Martians last year, you’ve been living in my kitchen ever since…”) There are lots of different ways to get information to the audience, and it takes talent to make sure the delivery goes unnoticed; ideally, whatever we need to know should be expressed in an organic fashion, something that appears natural to the events at hand, and not force into it from outside. It’s a tricky business, especially for genre shows, which often have unusual environments and distinct rules to get across, but it also raises the question of just how much exposition an audience really needs. Most writers give too much. We become infatuated with our own creations, and think that anything we can dream up is worth telling, when most often, the less a reader or a viewer knows, the more engaged they become. You should always give people a little less than what they think they need. It forces everyone to use their imaginations.
Take, for instance, the dearth of exposition in “Two,” the terrific premiere episode of the Zone’s third season. Rod Serling gives his usual spiel, letting us know there was a war, and a city was destroyed (maybe even a whole country), and that this is the sixth year since the battle. As is often the case with Serling’s introductions, the details are less important than the mood. There’s an old line critics like to throw out about a location being so vibrant and distinctive it’s as much a character as the people with lines; while that’s a hard thing to parse, I’d argue that the “twilight zone” is, itself, the lead of The Twilight Zone, with Serling serving as an avatar/guide. The speeches he gives set the tone that makes these disparate tales possible. And given how little actual dialogue there is in “Two” (it’s mostly monologue, really), that tone is important. Things need to be a trifle off, a little mysterious. Otherwise it’s just a woman in a ragged uniform wandering through a wasteland.
Admittedly, that’s not a bad hook, as hook’s go. But it’s impressive how much the episode takes its time, and how little specific information we get over the course of those 24 minutes. There’s a man and a woman; we never know their names. (The man is played by a young Charles Bronson, the woman by an also young Elizabeth Montgomery, who is brunette here and very far from Bewitched. Both actors are excellent, and the smile Montgomery gives at the end really nailed me.) We know that there was a war, and that the man and the woman were soldiers in that war, on opposing sides. Bronson was on the defense, Montgomery was with the invaders. It’s the future, because when Montgomery fires a rifle at Bronson, the gun shoots (kind of goofy) laser bursts. There was a bomb, a long time ago. It exploded.
That’s about it. You can fill in the blanks if you want, but it’s not necessary. Sometimes allegory can seem forced and self-consciously arty; when done poorly, it turns individuals into ideas, and reduces the complex textures of human experience into simplistic blacks and whites. “Two” is done very well. The lack of information helps to make the man and the woman universal (to an extent), but actors’ performances and the script’s design ensures they never become generic. The man is tired of fighting, and lonely; the woman is also lonely, but still nervous and potentially violent. They slowly, patiently, warily establish a relationship. And it all feels specific somehow, and rich, and moving. The silence, that lack of immediate data, forces us to pay more attention, to read more into the gestures. The woman admires a dress, finds food, and when the man arrives, they immediately fight. The man wins, but after eating and looking over various newspapers, he starts to leave—then comes back, goes through the woman’s things, and finally wakes her up with a bucket of water, to offer her what’s left of what he’d stolen. You can follow his thought process by just looking at what he’s looking at. The magazine with the photo of a beautiful model on the cover. The newspaper headline that just reads “EVACUATE CITY.” The man has a few bursts of speech (he’s “terribly, terribly sick of fighting”), but for the most part, we’re left to do detective work from moment to moment, piecing to together why these do strangers act the way they do.
It’s tremendously well done, and a great example of how important stillness can be to drama. About halfway through the episode, the man decides to stop off in an old barber shop and give himself a shave. It’s an odd gesture, but if you’ve got all the time in the world, odd gestures become a little less odd, and a little more necessary. So he soaps up some lather and gets to work with a straight razor, and the woman comes into the shop, curious and but suspicious. After a moment of eye contact, the man tosses her the soap, and she starts to wash her face. And you realize that’s what happening is that both the man and the woman are making an effort at civilization again. They’re cleaning themselves up, reconnecting with what it was like to be human, and not an animal, and they’re doing it primarily because they met each other. This plays out over the rest of the story, as the man finally changes out of his uniform, and finds some preserves, and the woman puts on the dress she likes (which the man went and stole out of the store window for her), and they walk off together, dressed like a picture from Weddings Wasteland.
Which is a little heteronormative, to be sure, but it works. There’s almost no real plot in “Two,” but it’s never less than gripping, because Montgomery Pittman, who wrote and directed the episode, makes sure that we’re always following what the leads are thinking, and that the stakes of the immediate crisis—will these two get over their differences and become friends—are always clear. There’s a great bit when the man is poking around the outside of a movie theater, and finds a skeleton with a gun, and the woman immediately finds her own gun, and all of a sudden it’s a stand off. Up until that moment, things had been going well, but then, there’s the chance someone might pull a trigger. Without overplaying it, the actors and the director never let the audience forget how difficult it is for people to come together, even in a situation where there’s no obvious reason for them to want each other dead. The woman almost kills the man when she goes into an army recruiting office to change, and sees the posters hanging on the wall, reminding her of the war, and of the danger the man might represent. It’s interesting that the woman is the more violent of the two, the harder to win over, but it makes sense; she’s a woman in a war zone, and that makes her more of a target.
Everything ends happily, thank goodness, as the pair of soldiers walk off in new uniforms, probably to look for a library with a Russian to English Dictionary. (Montgomery’s only line in the episode is the word “pryrekrasnyy,” which is Russian for "pretty.") It’s hard to say what the future will be, if the land is too irradiated to support life, if there are other roaming gangs about, but it’s hard not to be optimistic. As the man and the woman, who look a bit like a bride and groom, leave, Serling gives one of his kindest closing thoughts in the series: “This has been a love story, about two lonely people who found each other, in the Twilight Zone.” We don’t know any more than that. And we don’t need to.
What a twist: Love is more powerful than prejudice, history, and laser guns.
- I tried to figure out what the canned food was. Chicken? It looked like a drumstick, anyway.
- Universe Magazine: what the future reads!
“The Arrival” (season 3, episode 2)
In which there is no there there…
“The Arrival,” Rod Serling’s first episode for season three, starts well. After a quick cold open introducing us to a mystery plane, and a man named Mr. Sheckly (Harold J. Stone, who is excellent), an FAA investigator tasked with solving the the mystery, we see Flight 107 land with no one on board. Again, I’m reminded that one of the incidental pleasures of watching this show now is seeing everyday routines depicted in ways that don’t really happen today; I’m not sure what makes this particular landing seem so distinctive even before we find out the plane is empty, but something about the size of the plane and the men who guide it home, the simple mechanisms of the exit door ramp—it’s all distinctive and appealingly tactile, giving you a sense of place before the craziness starts in earnest.
So: no one’s on the plane. No luggage, no passengers, and, most inexplicable of all, no pilots. Enter Mr. Sheckly, who finds the answer every time, as he makes a point of telling everyone at the airport before he interviews them; he’s so insistent, in fact, that it’s obvious early on that a certain someone (name rhymes with “Beckly”) is gunning for some kind of ironic comeuppance. But up until the final reveal, “The Arrival” is weird enough, and creepy enough, to move long at a good clip. Sheckly questions the staff, confirming what we already know, and then he and a few other men go to study the plane more closely. The sequence inside the hangar, with everyone throwing out theories and Sheckly taking one more look inside the plane’s passenger compartment, is fun, and more than a little eerie, especially the shadowy shot of all those empty seats. It makes you wonder, if something did happen to all those people… well, you hope it was painless, but there are no promises.
The first sign of trouble comes when Sheckly hits on a possible explanation: “mass suggestion.” Which isn’t a terrible idea, exactly, but it’s a little deflating after all that spookiness, and it’s also more than a little hard to swallow. Sheckly notices that various reports from the airport staff keep contradicting each other when it comes to details about the plane’s interior: this guy said the seats were blue, that guy said they were red, and so on. He’s also been unable to shake the feeling that he’s seen the names on the passenger manifest before. So he asks everyone what number they see painted on the plane’s tail, and they all give conflicting reports. Ergo, he decides the plane isn’t really there at all; it’s just they’ve been hypnotized into believing they see plane, allowing their minds to fill in the rest of the details. To test this theory, Sheckly proposes to stick his hand in one of the plane’s propellers while the engine is running. It’s a terrifically suspenseful moment. There’s no way in hell that we’re going to see a man get his hand cut off on the show, or even the suggestion of such a thing—Sheckly’s proposal is so crazy it has to be true, in some way or another. But the sight of him walking over to the engine, watching it, getting up the nerve and sloooowly reaching forward, is tense stuff.
You may have noticed that none of the other men with Sheckly try and convince him not to stick his hand in the propeller. It turns out this is because none of the men actually exist, at least not in the hangar as Sheckly imagined them to be. As soon as he goes for the propellor, the plane disappears, along with the man running the engine, and when Sheckly brags to the others about being right, they vanish too. And that’s pretty much where the episode goes off the rails, although it’s not immediately obvious, but that’s where Serling’s gift for invention finally deserts him. The downside to coming up with a great mystery at the start of a story is that you need a pay-off which manages to deliver on the initial promise, and the pay-off is much, much harder than the set up. Anybody can come up with a weird or striking idea. The trick is making sure you have a next step, so that idea doesn’t seem like a cheat. That empty plane is seemingly full of possibilities, but it also presents a serious danger to a writer who doesn’t have the punchline to the story already in mind. Serling was a man of voluminous talent, but even he had his limits, and this script shows what happens when he hits them.
It almost works. The twist is, there was no disappearing Flight 107; at least, not in the present of the episode. Seventeen or 18 years ago, the real Flight 107 disappeared, the passengers, and the pilot, and the whole damn plane, into the fog, and Mr. Sheckly was never able to find out what happened to them. So now, he’s apparently had some kind of nervous breakdown, and spends five minutes doing the usual There’s No Elephant In This Room Shuffle (you could do a supercut of characters in The Twilight Zone failing to grasp the obvious, but it would run too long and nobody would believe it) before wandering out into the night, crying and begging for Flight 107 to come home. Stone, as mentioned, is terrific, and he does his best to sell the transition from calm-and-collected Sheckly to the utterly broken man we see at the episode’s conclusion. To the extent “The Arrival” is effective is largely due to his performance, and the general spookiness of the visuals; there are few shows on television that have been as good at depicting what haunting loneliness looks like.
But ultimately, this is a dud, because that ending doesn’t play. It’s a too obvious patch job, the work of someone under a deadline who hits a wall and doesn’t bother changing direction. Because there’s no sense of the reality underlying this, the real story inside the hallucination. Was the scene with the plane landing something Sheckly imagined? It must have been, though there’s no reason for it to be there. Has Sheckly been breaking down all this time? I doubt it, since he supposedly had some kind of a career in the years since the original flight vanished. So why the hell is he snapping tonight? That could’ve been a story right there. For a twist like this to work, it has to come as a surprise, but still feel possible—the carpet can be pulled away, but there should still be flooring underneath. Instead, the last 10 minutes are like a completely different episode, one with only a passing connection to what came before it. There are some interesting possibilities, a few great shots, and some fine acting, but “The Arrival” is otherwise a plane waiting for a pilot.
What a twist: The empty plane never existed; poor Sheckly is suffering a nervous breakdown over the one case he could never solve.
- The airport’s P.R. man (the version in Sheckly’s head) is worried Sheckly is going to take away the airport’s franchise for misconduct. That’s a neat little detail.
- There are a fair number of Twilight Zone episodes set around airports and airplanes, aren’t there? Somebody should do a paper on the changing perceptions of aerial transport in popular culture.
Next week: Todd takes cover in “The Shelter,” and happens to meet “The Passerby.”