Rod Serling was one of the most celebrated writers of the 20th century, having received Peabody, Golden Globe, and Hugo awards, as well as a record number of Emmys for television writing. He was also an exceptionally moral man who, through his words and actions, fought for equality for all people and for peace among all mankind. His words have a way of shining a light on how horrible we can be to one another while simultaneously conveying his ultimate faith in the goodness of humanity.
There are two Serling penned episodes of The Twilight Zone that I want to talk about today, specifically The Eye of the Beholder and The Obsolete Man. Spoilers ahead for TV episodes that aired over 55 years ago.
In The Eye of the Beholder we are introduced to Miss Janet Tyler, a woman whose head is covered in bandages as she waits in a hospital bed to discover if the doctors have been able to fix her face that has been hideously deformed since birth. We learn that this is Miss Tyler’s eleventh visit to the hospital, the doctor’s eleventh attempt to make her look “normal.” This will be her last visit, because The State mandates eleven attempts and no more. Should this attempt fail, Miss Tyler will have to relocate to an isolated camp where she can live with “her own kind.”
Her doctor is particularly troubled by Miss Tyler’s case, and openly questions to the nurse why people can’t be allowed to be different, though he quickly backs away from that line of thinking because it is treasonous. Whereas the doctor questions the ethics of The State’s handling of those that do not conform to the norm, Miss Tyler longs to simply fit in. Her earliest memory is of another child screaming in terror at the sight of her face, and presented with the possibility that this latest procedure is yet another failure, Miss Tyler asks if it’s possible to be put to death. Though The State does allow for the execution of those with deformities, the doctor explains that there are many conditions that must be met and that Miss Tyler doesn’t qualify.
Of course the procedure was a failure, and when the doctors and nurses remove the bandages they recoil in disgust shouting “no change!” as we see the Hollywood good looks of Miss Tyler. For the first time we see the – to our eyes – hideously asymmetric faces of the “normal” looking people. Miss Tyler runs in terror as we hear The Leader delivering a speech on television about conforming to the glorious norm of society.
“Well, we know now that there must be a single purpose! A single norm! A single approach! A single entity of peoples! A single virtue! A single morality! A single frame of reference! A single philosophy of government! … It is essential in this society that we not only have a norm, but that we conform to that norm. Differences weaken us. Variations destroy us.”
Miss Tyler runs into a man as “hideously deformed” as her, a dark haired fellow straight off the poster for a romantic comedy. Mr. Walter Smith is the leader of one of the special towns set aside by The State for people like Miss Tyler and himself. In one of the more confusing endings of the series, Miss Tyler and Mr. Smith head off for the segregated village, seemingly to live out their lives in peace.
The Obsolete Man presents us with the trial of Mr. Romney Wordsworth, played by the always remarkable Burgess Meredith. Mr. Wordsworth has been judged by officers of The State to be obsolete, and the purpose of the trial is to pass final judgment upon him. When asked his occupation Mr. Wordsworth responds that he is a librarian, which causes an uproar in the courtroom and causes the judge to question if he has received legal council and knows his rights. The judge informs the accused that since there are no more books (implied here to mean that there is no more fiction, as all seem to be able to read) then there is no purpose for a librarian. Similarly, since The State has proven that there is no God then a minister is likewise obsolete. To this Wordsworth burst out in anger that there is a God, saying “You can not erase God with an edict!”
The judge insists Wordsworth is obsolete to which he responds that no man is obsolete. The State has no purpose for those without “function,” but Wordsworth is a human being, and insists that he has value for that sole reason. The judge launches into an eloquent destruction of the profession of the librarian as being trivial (“You’re a dealer in books and two cent fines”) and without purpose (“Words, Mr. Wordsworth, that have no substance and no dimension… like a vacuum that you make believe has an existence by scribbling index numbers on little cards”), all the while Wordsworth stands there on the brink of tears.
Romney Wordsworth then delivers my absolute favorite line in all of The Twilight Zone.
“I don’t care. I tell you I don’t care. I’m a human being. I exist, and if I speak one thought aloud that thought lives, even after I’m shoveled into my grave.”
Predictably, Wordsworth is declared obsolete and is to be executed within 48 hours. This is a sophisticated society, thus Wordsworth is allowed to choose the method of his own execution. With a smile he requests an executioner that will be honor bound to not divulge the method of his execution, which will be carried out at midnight that very night in his home. He also requests to die “with an audience,” which the judge happily agrees to. “We will show the people how this obsolete man – this librarian – dies.”
We rejoin Wordsworth in his book filled room a little after 11 pm. There is a knock at the door and the judge enters, having been invited by Wordsworth to show up at this time. After a short exchange the television cameras installed to capture the execution begin broadcasting live. The judge recounts that they have televised mass executions where thousands of people were killed, which has “an educative effect on the populace.” He reveres Hitler and Stalin as having the right idea but not going far enough, thus The State eliminates any “undesirable” people from the populace before they can “breed a core of resistance.”
As the judge goes to leave, Wordsworth reveals to him that there is a bomb in the room, set by the executioner at his request; a quick yet unsettling method of execution. This is when the judge discovers that he has been locked in by Wordsworth, who tells the cameras that we will now see how a leader of The State and a humble librarian die. Wordsworth removes his Bible from a safe – possession of which is punishable by death – and begins to read aloud. The judge calmly tries to escape, but The State will not rescue him or cut the video feed because it would show weakness on their part, so he sits quietly and smokes a cigarette as Wordsworth reads.
Hearing the Bible read aloud in a calm voice that is at peace pushes the judge over the edge, and at the last moment begs “in the name of God” to be let out. Wordsworth releases him “in the name of God,” and the judge escapes just before Wordsworth is blown to pieces. The next day the judge reports for work and is immediately rendered obsolete for “disgracing The State” and executed on the spot by a mob of State officials.
These two tales, both penned by Serling, are thematically connected. In the first we have a woman that wants nothing more than to fit into a society that by accident of birth she is excluded from. In the other, a man chooses to follow his own path in life, embracing his passion and his love for God, despite the fact that doing so marks him for death. Neither can have the object of their desires because they live under governments that view deviation from a specified norm to be a blight to be purged from society.
Like half the United States of America, I’m in shock after the 2016 presidential election. America has elected a fascist to the highest office in the land, a man who supports a national registry for Muslim Americans, who proposes empowering police across the country with the power to stop and search anyone at anytime for any reason they see fit, who has appointed a white supremacist to his cabinet as his “Chief Strategist”, and who is naming his children as key policy advisers. Emboldened by his victory, hate crimes in America in the seven days following the election exceeded the number typically reported in a five month period. At the highest levels of government and in the deepest pits of the gutters, the America of 2017 will be far darker than any of us thought possible.
Most of my core morals come from stories, because stories are an effective way to induce empathy. Tales like The Obsolete Man give me confidence that one person can make a difference if they stand up for what is right. Yet The Eye of the Beholder reminds us that a person can more easily accept the norm of society and be relocated by The State to a place outside society. The choice is ours to be the librarian standing up to The State, or the patient calmly allowing The State to alter her being.