Monday, November 23, 2009

Dissecting “Time Enough at Last”

A variety of factors prevented me from watching "Time Enough at Last" Friday night as scheduled…. I didn't get to it till late last night (Sunday). I've had most of the day to mull it over, and I think I'm prepared to tackle this beast head on. As I mentioned previously (in Friday's "promo" post), I can't deny this episode's iconic status. Among the 156 episodes that make up The Twilight Zone, it's among the best remembered, the most beloved. I've remembered it well enough over the years, but I can't bring myself to love it. I have some, shall we say, issues with it. I'm going to assume that anyone reading this has seen the episode, so I won't bother with a synopsis of the plot.

First, the positives. It's well directed (by John Brahm, who would go on to direct a total of 12 episodes, more than any other director). It's well shot (by George T. Clemens, a.s.c.). The sets are undeniably impressive (the smoldering cityscape wreckage, the library ruins). It's certainly a visual treat, and provides many frankly unforgettable images.
So what's my problem? First, the characters. I don't give a damn about any of them. We're supposed to sympathize with the Burgess Meredith character, but for the life of me I can't figure out why. Here's a guy who is so obsessive about reading that he's blind to everything else around him. He hides a copy of David Copperfield on his lap and reads from it while counting out money to a customer (he's a bank teller), short-changes her, then drones on about his book without noticing that she's walked away. Christ, man, snap out of it and do your job! It's hard to get too upset with his boss for chewing him out… I'd be chewing him out too. And okay, we can all agree that the wife is an uber-bitch, so maybe on that front it's impossible not to sympathize with him a bit. But hell, he married her, didn't he? If he's not going to stand up to her, then he gets what he gets.
Meredith's performance doesn't help matters either. I'm usually a fan of his work, but this particular performance bugs me (though not as much as his work in season two's "Mr. Dingle, the Strong," an episode which I liken to a barbed-wire root canal). He doesn't draw me in; quite the opposite: he repels me, and it's not just those coke-bottle glasses either. He's annoying, self-absorbed, and idiosyncratic to a fault, as if he's suffering from some mild form of asperger's syndrome.
A couple of logic problems plague the episode. First, our unfortunate hero finds a pistol in a shattered display case from a sporting goods store. And yeah, it's fucking loaded. I'm pretty sure that even in 1959 the guns didn't come pre-loaded. Second (and much more significant), our hero wanders around for two days in the radioactive ruins of his bomb-blasted city, unaffected. Surely he'd suffer from massive radiation poisoning, but he trots merrily along, seemingly unaffected. It seems the hydrogen bomb in this particular alternate universe merely scorches things and knocks buildings over.
After all that (as if "all that" weren't enough), my single biggest problem with the episode is the cruelty with which the protagonist is ultimately dispatched. He discovers the ruins of the local library, gathers up enough books to last him for years, and then…. his glasses get broken. The tragedy isn't limited to the loss of a lifetime of literary joy. We've already seen how bad his eyesight is without them, thanks to a clever POV shot earlier. He's not going to make it off those library steps without falling and cracking his skull and, even if he does, he'll never find his way back to the food supply he's squirreled away. The breaking of his glasses is quite literally a death sentence. And for what? Some vague commentary on the evils of nuclear arms? Jesus, give the guy radiation poisoning if that's your angle. No, this is something else altogether: it constitutes a writer's contempt for his or her protagonist on a quantum level. As annoying as I find him, he doesn't deserve this fate. If it's intended to be some sort of tragedy… well, good tragedy has a point. This…. well, this doesn't. So I guess I do sympathize with him after all, not because of the other characters, or the horrendous fate that befalls him. I sympathize with him because his creator, the writer, clearly hates him and seeks to torment him from start to finish.
It's not Serling's fault either. He didn't come up with this; he merely adapted an existing short story. Lynn A. Venable, the original author, is the one to blame. My God, what a toxic, pointless exercise.
One final note: I'm apparently not the only one to react this way to the episode. As recounted in The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (by Martin Grams, Jr.), Serling responded to an offended viewer's letter with the following: "We were attempting irony and in the view of many of the audience, we created only sadism."


TomW said...

Thank You- I've been feeling guilty about not recognizing this episode as THE Masterpiece for years. It’s on the schedule for every SyFY marathon, and of course, we watch it almost every time. My wife LOVES it – but I have the exact same reservations as you do.

Anonymous said...

"it constitutes a writer's contempt for his or her protagonist on a quantum level"

I've come up with a name for this abuse. We've heard of Gratuitous Sex and Gratuitous Violence. This is Gratuitous Irony.

I've hated this episode ever since the glasses initially broke.


Robinanna neibauer said...

If Henry was Henrietta, would you be blaming her for her husband's cruelty?! It's not Henry's fault that his wife is a bully. What if he stood up to her, then what?! She might have hurt him. I would love to say that if I ever married or dated and my husband or boyfriend did that to me, I'd stand up to him, but I don't know. In an abusive relationship, the abused spouse might believe that it is his/her's fault, thanks to his/her spouse's degradation, insults and attacks to their self esteem. From the little that I can see from his marriage, it is clear that Henry may have low self esteem. Either that, or he loves her and hopes that she will be nicer to him. Two scenes prove that. The first one is when he believes his wife when she plays that cruel joke on him. He believes her because he hopes that she actually loves him, and he wants to share his passions with her. Unfortunately for him, his wife is a cruel, abusive woman, and she was giving him false hope so she could see the hurt look on his face when he realizes what she did. The second one is when he looks for her. That proves that he cares about her and loves her. These points lead me to three conclusions. The first one is that Helen is solely to blame for her cruelty, not Henry. The second one is that abusive marriages can also hurt men, and the man shouldn't be blamed for that. The third and final one is that Helen doesn't deserve a wonderful man like Henry.