“Where are we? What the hell is going on?”
(Imogen Heap, “Hide and Seek”)
(Imogen Heap, “Hide and Seek”)
50 years ago tonight, five disparate souls found themselves in the middle of nowhere… quite literally. It’s an utterly blank room with curved walls, which stretch up twenty, maybe thirty feet high. There are no doors, no windows. A deafening gong sounds every so often, shaking the entire room and knocking the unfortunate occupants to the floor.
And then there’s the matter of our five characters. They are enigmatic and generic: army major, clown, ballerina, hobo, bagpipe player. They know what they are. But who they are, and how each of them arrived in this small pocket of nowhere… these things remain hidden, from both themselves and us.
Rod Serling’s teleplay for “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” is adapted from an unpublished short story by Marvin Petal called “The Depository.” The episode consists mostly of our five human question marks trying to make sense of their surroundings, and ultimately agreeing on a plan of action that may mean escape, enlightenment, or both. Whether the ultimate revelation is satisfactory will depend on the viewer’s requirement for a neat, tidy ending. I state this because, while the denouement does explain much of the mystery, it does so superficially; the deeper questions are never really answered and, further, an entirely new mystery is brought forth.
They could be damned souls. The giant cylinder they’ve been dropped in could in fact be a hell of sorts. The answer we are ultimately given certainly doesn’t preclude this possibility.
Like “The Lonely” and “The After Hours” before it, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” serves as a meditation on identity; specifically, the uncertain line separating that which we perceive to have identity versus that which we define as an object. Dialogue from the episode, along with Serling’s closing narration, suggests that love is the key factor in this type of determination. Corry loved Alicia, which made her more than a robot. Our five characters may be blank slates only because they are, for the moment, unloved. Perhaps they are intended as walking, talking metaphors for loneliness. In this light, the damnation angle seems a bit harsh.
Our hero makes it to the top, only to discover the impossible truth of his existence.
Lamont Johnson’s direction is effective (given the essential nothingness of the setting), but what really elevates the episode is the interplay between William Windom and Murray Matheson as the army major and clown, respectively.
An action figure rendering of the Clown by Bif Bang Pow! was scheduled for May 2012, but it’s been delayed. Rumor has it that he’ll reappear in set of all five characters… which presents an awesome packaging option (toy donation barrel! Oh damn, there’s a spoiler….).
OMELETTE DU HOMAGE
J.J. Abrams’ TV series Felicity (1998-2002) paid loving homage to “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” in the episode “Help for the Lovelorn,” which was shot in black and white and directed by… you guessed it, Lamont Johnson. I can’t recommend the series, as I avoid these types of romantic dramas like the plague, but this particular episode is quite well done.
As of this writing, "Help for the Lovelorn" is available on Netflix streaming. Thankfully, Abrams has gone on to bigger and better things (including TV’s Lost and the big screen Star Trek reboot). He wrote the Felicity episode in question, so he must be a TZ fan. Hey, I wonder if he reads this blog….? Okay, probably not.
A RENEWED SENSE OF (RE)PURPOSE
The gigantic semi-cylinder that comprises the main set would appear on TV again in my second-favorite series of all time: The Outer Limits (in two episodes: “The Inheritors, Part 2” and “The Probe”). Thanks to Martin Grams Jr.’s gloriously exhaustive The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic for this tidbit. Oh, and speaking of The Outer Limits.... well, stay tuned.
"Five Characters in Search of an Exit" is certainly one of the more bizarre excursions into The Twilight Zone, and I like it a great deal. It did rank in my top 40 favorites two years ago, but didn't quite make the cut when I narrowed it down to 20 earlier this year. Might need to do some revising to that list yet again....