I knew this episode of The Twilight Zone mainly from its spoiler-heavy synopsis in the intro to TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE. I’m going to be equally spoilerific here, since the episode is practically a twist ending in search of a story. Nothing, for the most part, happens, until the end. Well, that’s unfair. But so is the show.
Burgess Meredith, struggling to act through coke-bottle-bottom glasses, plays a humble bank clerk who loves to read. But he can’t read at work because he’s at work, and the customers unreasonably expect service, the bank manager expects satisfied customers, etc. And he can’t read at home because of a particularly shrill version of a Rod Serling wife, who HATES BOOKS (her role is greatly enlarged and monstered from Lyn Venable’s source story). This character is completely unbelievable, but slightly fascinating in her awfulness. How did this couple come to get together? A woman whose only personality trait is her hatred of all literature, all printed matter (she’s not even embodying a real cultural phenomenon, she’s way beyond anti-intellectualism or inverted snobbery or philistinism, she’s psychopathic) and a man whose only personality trait is his benign, blinking, myopic love of good books. It would serve them right if they met via a misprint. No other explanation seems possible.
Then, while Blinking Burgess is hiding out in the bank vault to steal a moment with a treasured volume, the bomb drops. The bomb, Dmitri. The atomic bomb.
Burgess is legitimately upset about this. He stumbles around in the wasteland, and though he never worries about his wife (after all, he was at work when she was vaporised, why should he think of her?) he’s certainly unhappy that the world has been destroyed.
In this version of Armageddon, there’s no fall-out to worry about, and plenty of canned food, but Burgess is still inconsolable, alone. It’s only when he finds the city library, its books scattered but somehow unharmed by the blast that seems to have reduced everyone to dust (great writing LASTS) that he cheers up. He finally has time to read, Time Enough At Last, to quote the episode title.
And then he breaks his glasses.
“This isn’t fair!” He protests, in almost inarticulate horror. And it isn’t — the usual EC Comics “poetic justice” which makes nastiness feel good, is wholly lacking. The only “poetic justification” the gag has is that it affects the audience horribly, and maybe that’s The Twilight Zone‘s purpose, its place in the culture of its time — to let us feel unpleasant emotions otherwise somewhat forbidden, unacknowledged anxieties. And if we can’t conceive of atomic holocaust and megadeaths, maybe we can conceive of one blind man surrounded by nothing but books, with all the time in the world.
(Note that the effect is much, much worse than in the story, where the character’s love of reading isn’t drummed so incessantly into our heads, and we aren’t even convinced he does like books — he merely think he might, if given a chance to read one.)
Even Rod seems to have very little to say — how to sum this up? It’s a perfectly constructed trap, an infernal machine of awesome nastiness. Get out quick, move on, nothing to see here.
“The best-laid plans of mice and men – and Henry Bemis, the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis – in the Twilight Zone.”
This one is directed by John Brahm, who usually brought some kind of magnificent simplicity to the design side — here, the wasteland is very acceptable, but the library steps strewn with literature create a strikingly epic effect, on a budget. The combination of Burgess M’s extraordinary appearance and this extraordinary place makes every shot of the ending iconic.