Monday, May 21, 2007

3.16 "Nothing in the Dark"

Season 3, Episode 16

Directed by: Lamont Johnson
Written by: George Clayton Johnson

Exceptional episodes of The Twilight Zone generally fall into two categories: the allegorical, usually realted to a larger and specific American issue like war or racism, and the philosophical, which tend to offer sapient insights into broader profound topics, such as death. Nothing in the Dark is an example of the latter; Gladys Cooper, a marvelous actress known for her work on the English stage (and some supporting roles in American film and television), plays Wanda Dunn—as in done—an old woman terrified of dying, or more specifically of Death himself in anthropomorphized form. According to Serling's opening narration she has fought 1,000 battles with him and always won but, of course, as The Seventh Seal has taught us, not to mention all the real-world cemeteries, Death is not the kind to accept such defeats graciously and move on.

Cooper's character lives "cooped-up" in a small, decrepit basement apartment to which she never opens the door—not for the gas man, not for the man from the city, not for nobody. They're all elaborate ruses, she's sure, a series of pretenses for Death to get in and get her. So when a young and dashing Robert Redford appears outside her door, as a police officer who's been shot, she is faced with quite a dilemma. Can she just leave him to bleed to death? Surely allowing someone so handsome, and a cop no less, to die is a capital offense and would result in her death anyway, at the hands of the courts. "It's not fair, it's not fair," she sympathetically and repeatedly rues, ultimately surrendering to compassion—she takes the wounded man in and nurses him to health.

Redford is nothing but unthreatening and gracious for her help, so Wanda begins to trust him. Not to mention she touched him but did not die. But as anyone who's ever seen The Sting knows, that Redford fellow's a con-man who ought never be trusted. Of course, Wanda had no access to a movie made over a decade later, not even in the twilight zone, and so she makes the fatal mistake of letting him recuperate in her apartment. Just then a man forces his way into the apartment, almost killing Wanda by scaring her half to death and she collapses into unconsciousness. When she comes to, the man identifies himself not as Death but as a contractor for the city who has orders to tear down her building, which has been declared condemned.

The contractor's scene is an extended double entendre, clever to a fault as every line has a double meaning that'd lead you to believe that he is the long-awaited Mr. Death. The cleverest of these come in his grand speech about why he does what he does, also giving the episode some spiritual heft: "I just clear the ground so other people can build," he defensively asserts, implying it's the way of the world. The "old make way for the new."

While taking small swipes at the heartlessness of urban "renewal", Nothing in the Dark, written by the man who went on to pen Logan's Run (another rumination on age and death), is essentially one long comforting and saccharine assuagement, as the protagonist makes her way from an overwhelming fear of expiration to enlightened understanding and acceptance. (spoiler alert) "It's not me you're afraid of," Death, revealed to be Redford, tells Wanda, "it's the unknown," and though he created an elaborate scam to get into her apartment, he's gone to such great lengths in order to show her that death isn't such a scary trip after all, and Death's not such a bad guy, just misunderstood. Well, sure death won't seem so frightening when Redford the Dreamboat is the Glam Reaper; when he beckons for Wanda to take his hand and come with him, her reluctance seems absurd—I would do anything a young Robert Redford asked me to do without blinking an eye.

But the episode also functions as a warning about how being overly preoccupied with death and dying results in a life not worth living, trapping us in a "box" like the cramped flat that Ms. Dunn inhabits. As Bertholt Brecht once cautioned: "Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life." Though the episode's a tad cloying, Cooper's tender performance lends Nothing in the Dark some genuine pathos; besides, it's remarkably rare and somewhat refreshing to, nowadays, see something on television asking us not to be afraid. As Serling closes the episode: "There was an old woman...who had discovered in the minute last fragment of her life that there was nothing in the dark that wasn't there when the lights were on." So take a deep breath America and relax.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 1 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.


Anonymous said...

Good review. However, I do not think that Wanda’s motivation in saving Redford was due to his good looks, or fear of legal consequences. I believe she was strictly motivated by compassion. Did capital crimes or the death sentence influence her decision to render aide? I don’t thinks so. How about incarceration? I doubt it. She has spent years in self-incarceration.

Did Death come to her doorstep hoping that his good looks would persuade her? No. His youth, his injury and his “unthreatening and gracious” temperament were the keys. Wanda had cheated death so many times that he had to pull out a few tricks hidden up his sleeve. Redford’s good looks just happened to be eye candy for the female viewers.

It’s been awhile since I’ve seen “Nothing in the Dark”. Guess I’ll need to watch it again!

H. Stewart said...

I think you're right that she lets him in out of compassion, that bit about Redford's good looks was just meant to be jokey, not a serious explanation of her motivation.

James said...

A good review. Although I don't find this episode "cloying" or "saccharine", except in comparison to the cynical, ruthless "reality" of today's so-called entertainment. One of Redford's few performances in which we he doesn't seem to be constantly making us aware of his own "hunkiness".

Instead he comes across as perfectly gentle, comforting and persuasive. Ms. Cooper is perfect as the embodiment of all our cowering and hiding from what is unavoidable and should be accepted and sometimes welcomed.

I just watched this episode on SciFi this morning and find it as fresh and engaging as when I first watched it with my own mother more than 20 years ago.