Thursday, July 5, 2007

2.06 "The Eye of the Beholder"

Season Two, Episode Six

Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Douglas Heyes

The Eye of the Beholder, as in where beauty is, is one of The Twilight Zone's most well-known and beloved episodes, and not without good reason; it's well-written, impressively executed, and packs a legendary twist, even though on repeated viewings it can be a bit tiresome—just take those damn bandages off already! While ostensibly it's a simple fable, an allegorical reaffirmation of the old adage's veracity, it plays out more as a thinly-veiled critique of American racism, specifically the policies, in certain quarters, of segregation.

Janet Tyler (the voice of Maxine Stuart, later the body of Donna Douglas) is introduced with her face wrapped entirely in bandages, and she remains obscured in this manner for the bulk of the episode, a formidable acting challenge that the lovely-voiced Stuart handles finely with Olivierian gesturing. She's lying in a hospital bed, where she has received "injections" meant to alter her appearance; we learn from the dialogue that she is hideously ugly (one nurse histrionically declares if she had the patient's face she would, "go bury herself in a grave somewhere") in a fictional and assumedly futuristic society that won't tolerate such physical aberrations. If the injections haven't taken this time—this is her ninth attempt—then she is likely to be shipped-off to live with other people as ugly as she. Though, at least while in public, the nosocomial staff argues that this is awfully generous of the State, Tyler protests, apostatically shouting, "the State is not God!" and insisting they have no right to cut her off from ordinary society and the sweet smell of garden flowers.

While the phrase "the State" sounds like Communist argot and may hint at Cold War patriotism, enough to trick the censors, it's ultimately misleading and the phrase is better understood with an "s" at the end, as in those United; similarly, though the appearance of "the Leader" on ubiquitous television screens during the finale hint at fascism, and Hitler specifically in the speeches about the need for homogenous appearance (akin to racial purity), it's clearly meant to bring to mind the ranting of racist Southern politicians, namely the rhetoric of certain Senators and governors and thusly, exaggeratedly, likening Strom Thurmond to Das Fuhrer. Aired in 1960 in the midst of the struggle for Civil Rights in America—six years after Brown v. Board of Ed and four years before the Civil Rights Act on the one hand and George Wallace's presidential candidacy on the other—The Eye of the Beholder functions as a cautionary tale about the character of Dixiecrat domination, about the inevitable consequences of segregationist policy—a profoundly unjust world of arbitrary distinction, as demeaning to the US Constitution as a George W. Bush presidency. The episode's original title, A Private World of Darkness (which still appears at the end of the version in syndication) takes on a weighty double meaning when "darkness" is understood as a description of the color of one's skin.

When Janet's bandages are finally removed—slowly and with unbearable suspense in a nearly five minute sequence—it's revealed that she is in fact Donna Douglas, an undeniable beauty, and the self-declared "normal" doctors are mutilated monstrosities, porcine-faced deformities by our usual human standards. (Credit is due to the episode's careful choreography under director Douglas Heyes, who cleverly bathes the episode in shadows and successfully prevents the great revelation until the very end.) As in another episode, The Masks—except here on a cultural, rather than just an individual, level—the characters' subficial ugliness of character is determinatively manifest right on their faces.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 43 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.


G said...

Interesting interpretation of a simple TV show. It would seem that many things are in the Eye of the Beholder.

Elisson said...

A great episode, but, unfortunately, as with many of the "Tricky Ending" TZ's, one that lends itself to lampoon after numerous viewings.

Oh, to remember what it was like to see it for the first time! I remember being scared to death that the "normal" people would be far more hideous than they were. Overactive imagination, I suppose.

[This is a mere nitpick: it's "Der Fuehrer," not "Das Fuehrer."]

Anonymous said...

Way to work in a swipe at Bush in a TV show review. A 48 year old TV show at that.

Anonymous said...

Any mind so twisted that it is compelled to concoct a pretext for bashing Bush in the midst of reviewing a decades-old TZ episode indicates an emotional disease far more serious than anything depicted by The Master himself (ie, Serling).

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