I’m engaged in a noble project with my twelve-year old daughter: watching every single Twilight Zone episode and ranking them. We watch and run them through a rubric to give them a score from 0 to 7. The episodes are graded in three categories: Concept/Plot/Characters (4 points), Tone (1 point), and The Twist (2 points).
The episodes this time were from Volumes 7 and 21 of the DVD collection.
Mirror Image (Season One, 1960)
I think this is probably the Twilight Zon-iest episode there is. I don’t mean it’s the best TZ episode (though it’s certainly not bad). I mean, if you held a gun to somebody’s head and asked them to come up with a Twilight Zone plot on the spot, you’d probably get something like this:
It’s a stormy night, and the last bus to Cortland, NY, is running late. Millicent Barnes waits impatiently in the nearly empty bus terminal. Finally, she walks to the counter and asks the ticket agent if he has any idea when the bus will arrive. With some irritation, he tells her that the answer’s the same as it was ten minutes ago. Indignantly, Millicent insists it was the first time she asked him.
Upon returning to her bench, she notices her suitcase is gone. She goes back up to the ticket agent to ask if he saw who might have taken her bag. He claims that she brought her bag up already and points to it behind the counter. Now Millicent is getting really irritated, and heads to the restroom to freshen up. While she’s at the sink, the door to the terminal opens and she thinks she sees a woman who looks just like her, sitting on the bench. She rushes out, only to find that no one’s there.
A young man named Paul Grinstead notices she’s in distress and asks if she’s okay. Millicent tries to explain that there’s someone who looks just like her in the terminal who keeps interfering, but it comes out all jumbled. She tells him that she once read about the possibility of parallel worlds, that through some accident a person’s doppleganger from another plane of existence could enter our world, and would have to kill that person to survive in our realm, and that she believes that’s what’s happening to her. At first, Paul thinks Millicent must be crazy, but soon he sees hints that maybe she’s telling the truth… or is he just being kind?
Concept/Plot/Characters—Like I said, the Twilight Zon-iest of all possible concepts. Not a whole lot to the plot but it’s executed nicely and the characters are believable. One weak point is that Millicent’s bizarre and extended explanation of doppelgangers is too on the nose, and there’s no reason to think a practical young woman, as she’s been presented as up to that point, would read much about esoteric theories of parallel worlds. (3 points)
Tone–The episode does a great job of building a paranoid, pressure-cooker atmosphere. (1 points)
The Twist-–One of those episodes where you think you’ve seen the twist, but then it gives you another one. My belief is that Rod Serling didn’t think the first one was weird enough so added the second to make it more Twilight Zon-ey. Unfortunately, the second twist is a bit under-explained (though it obviously relates to Millicent’s theory), but maybe it doesn’t have to be? Maybe the twist doesn’t have to tie everything up in a bow and can get by on being spooky and unexpected. Sometimes things are scarier if you don’t completely explain them. I’ll give it not quite full points, but close. (1.5 points)
Total=5.5 points (Pretty Good)
My daughter and I agreed this Twilight Zon-iest of all episodes is Pretty Good.
Dust (Season Two, 1961)
In an impoverished Old West town, Luis Gallego drunkenly mis-steered his wagon and killed a little girl. It was an accident, and he’s not a bad guy; just worn out from lack of work or prospects, with little to do but drink. But now he’s been sentenced to hang. Sykes, a traveling peddler and con man, stops by the town jail to taunt him.
The sheriff, disgusted by Sykes’s behavior, tosses him out in the street, where Sykes encounters Gallego’s father begging the little girl’s parents for forgiveness, for only they can release Luis from his death sentence. Sensing an opportunity, Sykes offers Luis’s father a vial of magic dust that will turn hate to love. All the elder Gallego must do is sprinkle it over his targets. He can have it for the low price of only one hundred pesos. How can he pass up this opportunity to save his son? After Luis’s father rushes off to sell his possessions and get the money, we see Sykes fill the vial with plain sand from the ground. He plans to cheat Mr. Gallego, taking advantage of his vulnerable position…doesn’t he?
Concept/Plot/Characters—Not a bad concept, and I admire the way the episode presents the characters as fully rounded: the desperate man sentenced to death, his grieving father, the unscrupulous peddler, and the saddened sheriff who nonetheless will do his duty to the law. Unfortunately, the way it plays out, this episode is more intent on teaching us a lesson about capital punishment than entertaining us. (2 points)
Tone–This one is really heavy-handed. (0 points)
The Twist-–The twist is highly predictable. I bet you know what it is just from reading my short description. (.5 point)
Total=2.5 points (Okay)
My daughter and I both felt this one was just Okay. Not nearly as bad as the other episode we’ve seen about execution, I Am The Night-Color Me Black, but like that one, quite heavy-handed. Both were scripted by Serling. We get it Rod, you think capital punishment is bad!
The Hitchhiker (Season One, 1960)
Nan Adams is a young lady driving from New York to Los Angeles for a vacation. After getting her car fixed following a tire blow-out in Pennsylvania, she sees an old man hitchhiking along the road, but she feels creeped out by him and doesn’t pick him up.
Later, after stopping for gas, she sees the hitchhiker again, but the gas station attendant didn’t notice anybody. But there’s the hitchhiker again, after she stops at a diner. In fact, the hitchhiker seems to there whenever she stops on every roadside through Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas. She declines to pull into a hotel to sleep as she’s afraid the man will be there, and as she becomes more anxious and sleep-deprived, her interactions with service people become increasingly unhinged. Is there truly someone there, or is she going crazy?
Concept/Plot/Characters—The idea here is simply but effective. The acting is great, especially a sailor Nan picks up at a gas station who’s returning to his base in San Diego, and who gradually realizes Nan is either mentally unbalanced or impossibly seeing the same man hitchhiking over and over again across the country. Can he find a way to believe her? (4 points)
Tone–This episode pours on the paranoia and doesn’t let up for a second. (1 point)
The Twist–Just a bit predictable, but powerful and satisfying nonetheless. (1.5 points)
Theme–Cars, Death Personified
Total=6.5 points (Excellent)
My daughter suggested this was on the line between Pretty Good and Excellent. I agree and feel it inclines to the Excellent side. Quite similar in theme and tone to the Mirror Image episode (reviewed above), which aired only a few weeks after this one in 1960. But I think The Hitchhiker is sharper and more focused, and thus gets the edge in the ratings.