Every New Year’s Day, I take great pleasure in returning home, getting back into my pajamas, making a bloody mary, and watching the Twilight Zone marathon – a tradition that, thankfully, has not been ruined in SyFy’s periodic attempts to appear “hip” and with it and “what the kids are into” (see: current spelling of network name).
The Twilight Zone, by virtue of its cultural ubiquity, is like the Beatles of television: Even though most people can agree “Hey Jude” is one of the “best” Beatles songs, I doubt it’s many people’s favorite.
Likewise, everyone more or less agrees that episodes like “Time Enough at Last” or “Eye of the Beholder” are the “best” ones – the ones that most accurately represent what The Twilight Zone is supposed to be about – but with each passing year, I find that while I admire the craft, they’re nowhere near my favorites.
The list varies year to year, but two that I make sure never to miss are a little less culturally familiar, I guess: “Mirror Image” and “The Howling Man.” Maybe because they’re NOT perfect examples of the Twilight Zone ethos. They’re both a little more off-kilter, and a little more fun as a result. OH YES THERE ARE SPOILERS:
The actual story in “Mirror Image” is pretty slight: a twitchy, nervous young woman (please note: twitchy, nervous young women make up roughly 85% of the Twilight Zone universe), sitting in a bus station, keeps getting mistaken by other passengers and clerks as someone else, someone they just saw a minute ago. Eventually a calm, rational, helpful man (who make up about 15%*, and boy, they always get it worse) gets involved, and… apparently there are doppelgangers out there who take sinister delight in inconveniencing these two.
That’s it. That’s the story. I mean, sure there’s the “This world is bigger and weirder than you can imagine” TZ conceit, but usually that comes with a hard-earned lesson, or some emotional pay-off. The only lesson here is “If you ever spot someone who looks like you, hang onto your luggage, because he will probably steal it just to fuck with you.”
And I LOVE that.
My other favorite, “The Howling Man,” actually addresses an issue I sometimes have after watching an episode: What the hell happens to these people afterwards? I mean, Rod Serling pops up, goes “Hahaha I’ve destroyed their entire worldview, see you next week,” and then there is never, ever any follow-up. Except here**.
“The Howling Man” tells itself via flashback, as the narrator – looking and sounding absolutely bugnuts – looks directly into the camera to tell us about the time in his youth when, hiking in central Europe, he came across a castle run by weird monks, who eventually reveal that the wild screaming down the hall is the Devil, whom they’ve captured and locked up. Well, our calm, rational, helpful man (see?), reasonably assuming these monks are out of their minds, goes to see the prisoner – who looks like a scared guy imprisoned by insane monks. He releases the guy, who – SURPRISE – is, in fact, the Devil, and morphs back to standard Devil-mode as he walks off, leaving the guy with his worldview blown and, one can assume, some massive guilt.
Except in this episode we don’t HAVE to assume – because now we’re back to the present, where our madman narrator provides his own epilogue: to atone for his fuck-up, he’s been tracking the Devil all over the increasingly dangerous world, and he FINALLY DID IT. He’s trapped in this hotel closet by the monks’ staff of truth – and for god’s sake, DON’T OPEN THE CLOSET, CLEANING LADY I HAVE BEEN TELLING THIS STORY TO.
You can just guess what happens next.
So while it might be obvious that the answer to the question, “How does someone go back to their life after they’ve been Twilight Zoned?” is “They don’t, they become raving madmen,” I still appreciate that there’s an episode you can point to as proof.
Which is not to say I don’t also make time to watch “Little Girl Lost” or “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Because even overplayed Twilight Zones beat the hell out of trying to explain five minutes of the Mummers to my girlfriend.
*Numbers are made up, because I didn’t feel like factoring in the percentages of creepy children, quick-witted elderly folk, and astronauts.
**Unless you count that last TZ series hosted by Forest Whitaker that had an episode with adult Bill Mumy’s similarly-powered child, and…no, I don’t.