Follow Me On
The Woman in White Marble

{Click Marble or visit Books in the main menu}

Dis-Ease: Living with Prostate Cancer

{Click or visit Books in the main menu}

« Notes from Billings, Montana, 1819 | Main | The Politics of Past Grievances and Suspicious Truth in the Beantown Tavern »

Twilight Zone, Morality, and the Unimaginable

For the past couple of years I’ve been slowly going watching all the old Twilight Zone episodes, though I must confess since Trump’s election I’ve been watching them with greater frequency. Last night I watched Episode 26, Season 5, entitled “I am the Night – Color me Black.” More about that below.

Created by Rod Serling, the series ran for five seasons from 1959 to 1964. All the original episodes were filmed in black and white, which gives them a certain gravitas today, sometimes not deserved. The stories ranged wildly from sci fi to fantasy to psychological drama to comedy. Almost always, these different genres were used to make an explicit social and/or moral point. And if we the reader were to miss that point, Serling was always there at the end to spell it out for us. His opening and closing monologues are still a delight to watch.

Of course, one of the joys of watching the Twilight Zone today the anticipation of seeing now established stars in their not so famous younger years. There are a lot of them (the following list is not exhaustive):

  • Robert Duvall in “Miniature”;
  • Vera Miles in “Mirror Image”;
  • Carol Burnett in “Cavender is Coming”;
  • Don Rickles in “Mr. Dingle, the Strong;
  • Jack Klugman in “A Came of Pool”;
  • Burgress Meredith in “Time Enough at Last,” “Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” “The Obsolete Man,” and “Printer’s Devil”;
  • Elizabeth Montgomery in “Two”;
  • Peter Falk in “The Mirror”;
  • Lee Marvin in “The Grave”;
  • Rod Taylor in “And When the Sky was Open”;
  • Dennis Hopper in “He’s Alive”;
  • Roddy McDowell in “People are Alike All Over”;
  • Cloris Leachman in “It’s a Good Life”;
  • Burt Reynolds in “The Bard”;
  • Charles Bronson in “Two”;
  • Ron Howard in “Walking Distance”;
  • Veronia Cartwright in “I Sing the Body Electric”;
  • Jonathan Winters in “A Game of Pool”;
  • Martin Landau in “The Jeopardy Room”;
  • Sydney Pollack in “The Trouble with Temptation”;
  • Dennis Weaver in “Shadow Play”;
  • Leonard Nimoy in “A Quality of Mercy”;
  • William Shatner in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “Nick of Time”; and of course,
  • Robert Redford in “Nothing in the Dark.”

We all have our favorite Twilight Zone episodes but surely these must be on the best of best list:

  • “Walking Distance” October 30, 1959;
  • “The Lonely” November 13, 1959;
  • “Time Enough at Last” November 20, 1959;
  • “The Hitch-Hiker” January 22, 1960;
  • “The Monsters are Due on Mable Street” March 4, 1960;
  • “Eye of the Beholder” November 11, 1960;
  • “Game of Pool” October 13, 1961;
  •  “It’s a Good Life” November 3, 1961;
  • “A Quality of Mercy” December 22, 1961;
  • “Miniature” February 21, 1963;
  • “In Praise of Pip” September 27, 1963;
  • “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” October 11, 1963.

As I said, I’ve just watched “I am the Night – Color me Black,” Episode 26, Season 5 written by Serling, which means I have ten more episodes to go (the series finally ends with the 156th episode, “The Bewitchin’ Pool,”). Here is the opening narration of “I am the Night – Color me Black”:

Sheriff Charlie Koch on the morning of an execution. As a matter of fact, it's seven-thirty in the morning. Logic and natural laws dictate that at this hour there should be daylight. It is a simple rule of physical science that the sun should rise at a certain moment and supersede the darkness. But at this given moment, Sheriff Charlie Koch, a deputy named Pierce, a condemned man named Jagger, and a small, inconsequential village will shortly find out that there are causes and effects that have no precedent. Such is usually the case—in the Twilight Zone.

The story is simple. A man, Jagger, has been convicted of murder and is to be hanged at 9:30 a.m. The man he killed is portrayed as a “bigot,” a cross-burner and murderer. Thing is, there seems to be unease about his conviction. Sheriff Koch can’t sleep the night before the execution. The town’s newspaper editor, Colbey, claims that Jagger’s conviction was due to prejudicial policing and bias reporting. Deputy Pierce claimed Jagger’s shot the man from across the room, but there were powder burns on the victim. And while Pierce looks forward to the hanging, Koch and Colbey are feeling guilty. The Twilight Zone Twist? It is morning, but the sky is as dark as night.

While standing before the gallows, Jagger is confronted by Rev. Anderson, an African American. Anderson points out that he and Jagger are of different faiths and different colors, but he says that Jagger “stood up for me and mine. You spoke for us and God help us you killed for us.” The town’s people are yelling for Jagger’s hanging. He walks up the steps of the gallows, turns and shouts that he will not give them the satisfaction of saying he is sorry for killing the racist. Jagger’s looks at the noose and the good reverend speaks again. Jagger turns back to Anderson and the crowd and shouts he has too much hate to keep it held in. It is at this point that the episode reveals the point of the narration. It is not about murder or false convictions. It is not about racism and justice. It is simply about hate. After further questioning, Anderson announces to the crowd that Jagger is indeed guilty, but not of murder, of hatred, to which Jagger says, “It’s important to get with majority, isn’t it.” Anderson responds, “That’s all there is, the majority. The minority must have died on the cross 2000 years ago.”

Jagger is hanged. Anderson turns to the crowd declaring that the darkness is hatred, which resulted in killing and death. The blackness, the darkness, all around is the hate. As the preacher ceases to speak, it gets even darker so that the people could “hardly see anything.”

The show ends back in the sheriff’s office with Koch, Pierce, and Colbey listening to the  radio news reporting that batches of darkness were descending across the United States and elsewhere.

“I am the Night – Color me Black” is a typical Twilight Zone morality play, and while the plot has some complexities (why did the sheriff and the newspaper man feel guilty if the murderer admitted his own guilt?; why the railroaded conviction for that matter?), it doesn’t matter. The racism, murder, injustices were just means to get to the point, which is simplicity itself. The point is purely that hatred is bad, very bad. And of the viewers of 1964 happened to miss it, Serling was there to spell it out for them. His closing narration:

A sickness known as hate. Not a virus, not a microbe, not a germ—but a sickness nonetheless, highly contagious, deadly in its effects. Don't look for it in the Twilight Zone—look for it in a mirror. Look for it before the light goes out altogether.

As I have been watching episode after episode over the last two years, it struck me that the Twilight Zone now seems naïve and moralistic, and perhaps that is why I have enjoyed viewing them so much. Perhaps, the episodes take me back to a time when I imagine things were more simple, less tarnished, more clear. The moral lessons were black and white. There was no grey area to be concerned with, and Serling was always there to make sure no greyness was imagined by the viewer.

Interestingly, I don’t remember thinking the show as naïve and moralistic when I first watched it. So, is it society or me that has changed? Or, of course, both?

Is it because I am now older and have been bruised and disappointed enough that morality tales lack the depth needed to address my life, but, nonetheless, entertain me with a longing for simpler times? Or is it that society itself has rendered the past shallow? Clearly, the past was never as naïve as our nostalgic interpretation would have us believe. Serling wrote “I am the Night – Color me Black” as a response to the assassination of John Kennedy. But surely, as we were watching the Twilight Zone for the first time we could never have imagined that the United States could elect to the presidency a man so utterly incompetent and devoid of any moral and ethical integrity as Donald Trump.

If Serling had written an episode depicting a fictitious president doing exactly what Trump has been doing since taking office, it would have been considered a satire or comedy, but certainly not realism. If realism is the attempt to make art and literature resemble life, then Trump is simply unimaginable. After all, the recently fired FBI Director just told the world under oath that the president of the United States of America is a liar and cannot be trusted. If you every meet with him, be sure to document the encounter when you're done. Perhaps find a notary public. Do they have notary publics in the Twilight Zone?

Copyright © 2017 Dale Rominger

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>