Twilight Zone Sn1 Ep8 “Time Enough at Last”

Original Airdate: November 20, 1959

“Time Enough at Last” is quite possibly one of “Twilight Zone’s” most famous episodes.  If it is not, then the ending sure is and as a result many people may be more familiar with the climatic shot which has been parodied on everything from “Futurama,” “Family Guy,” to “The Simpsons,” and even Stephen Colbert.

“Time Enough at Last” is also the most frustrating of all the preceding episodes in that this episode’s protagonist, Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith, “Rocky”) is hugely sympathetic.  He is an avid reader whose passion is derided at home.  Unable to partake in his ultimate pleasure at home his reading has begun to intrude at work and in social situations.  His boss and wife each conspire against him in vain attempts to prevent him from reading.  His boss actually threatens him over reading on his lunch break!  His wife, however, is truly malicious and aggressive.

Helen Bemis (Jacqueline deWit, “Pocketful of Miracles”) is a bitter woman and I struggled to uncover a reason behind the marriage of these two.  He is a passionate bookworm and she is openly a vindictive woman.  In a pivotal scene it is revealed she has discovered a hidden tome of poetry as she baits him with the lure of reading some of it to her.  As he opens the book he finds every single page most deliberately defaced under criss-crossing bold black marker strokes.  It takes a powerful rage and bitter person to put this much energy into denying someone joy.  She could have just burned the book, or shredded the pages, much less time consuming and a huge amount of less energy expended.  Instead, Helen intended this to be a statement of victory over someone who she shares her life with.  She wanted to destroy her husband with this action.

My heart broke with the power of this scene.  Her sheer vengeful nature makes Henry’s unprofessional nature at work understandable, if not acceptable.  It is this scene that also sets up a scenario where I’m content with Henry getting whatever he wants.  At that point I felt he has paid his dues and deserves his rewards for staying with this woman.  This scene, though, makes the ending a hugely bitterpill to swallow.

In an earlier review I pointed out that the endings of “Twilight Zone” were renowned for being either poetic or ironic.  This time out the ironic ending hurts so much.  As Henry navigates the nuclear wasteland, that he only survived because he was reading in the vault, he struggles with loneliness and the dawning realization of his situation.  Just when things are at their most dire in his mind and he is on the verge of total surrender to oblivion he sights his sanctuary, then shortly thereafter loses his grip on it forever when his valued and necessary spectacles break upon the steps when he stoops to pick up a book.

Rod Serling spared no one from his vicious quill, not even those we feel most deserving of a satisfying ending.  “Time Enough at Last” is an almost unbearable episode, we watch a rather sympathetic chap get beaten up by everyone he tries to make a connection with or should already have one with, then we see a fabulous presentation of the end of the world and his sole survival, we witness his desperation, his terrible surrender, and then finally we get to see his paradise…a world of uninterrupted reading.  In the end, after all of that, it is all brutally taken from him in a last moment of literary cruelty that lingers forever in our culture.  “Escape Clause” was an episode where a man deserving of his ironic fate got it, and we were witnesses.  “Time Enough at Last” is a far superior counter-part where a decent man is treated shabbily by everyone around him and then ultimately by fate, and we suffer as on-lookers.

Henry Bemis is an awkward, yet likable fellow.  This is the hook that snares us and rakes us over the searing narrative coals before leaving us hollowed out and stunned, out of water and gasping for breath.  It is a true triumph of writing by Rod Serling and Lynn Venable, who penned the short story from which it is adapted.  The longevity and pop-culture impact of this episode is an enormous testament to the power of this episode.  While the ending may be the thing parodied through time, it is because of how cruel a climax it is.  “Time Enough at Last” is a brutal, haunting episode that while it may not possess the lasting philosophical queries of an episode like “The Lonely” bears fruit from seeds buried in your psyche long after you have thought you had recovered from the trauma of watching this episode.  Enjoy?



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