For the Game of Thrones generation, the idea of a genre TV series that wraps all of its plots up within a half hour is borderline unthinkable. Or it would be, if The Twilight Zone didn’t get a cable marathon on an increasing number of holidays. While The Twilight Zone seems to be presenting a bunch (156, to be precise) of unconnected stories, there are some thematic common threads. This summer marks the 52nd anniversary of the airing of the show’s final episode: Let’s talk about What We Talk About When We Talk About The Twilight Zone in Dowsing Rod.
The natural progression after Death (for some, anyway) is the Devil. In our last installment, I argued Mr. Death is The Twilight Zone’s only recurring character, and I stand by that. The different devils we see in the series are quite distinct from one another, although, I would argue, they each serve as similar commentary.
Let’s start with the one where Catwoman’s the Devil and the guy who makes a deal entirely deserves every bad thing he gets. By the way, that is 100% how I would have pitched this episode if I were Rod Serling. In “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville,” Julie Newmar’s horned Miss Devlin puts an interesting twist on the usual Faustian formula. Right off the bat, she makes it clear to Feathersmith who and what she is, and when Feathersmith tries to sell her his soul, she laughs, informing him “we got a hold of your soul some time ago,” instead demanding cold, hard cash. Not only does this convey just how cartoonishly evil Feathersmith is, but it also shows that money is the only currency he has – it’s like those cross stitches say, rich and wealthy aren’t the same thing.
When Feathersmith goes back in time to build what he refers to as his “empire” from the ground up once more, to experience the satisfaction that is “the getting, not the having,” as he says, he runs into some problems. He drives a hard bargain, picking up some oil-rich land he knows becomes a black goldmine later in the century for a mere dollar an acre. When he’s unable to tap the oil reserves because no one’s invented the right drilling mechanism yet, his plan starts to fall apart because, as Miss Devlin says when Feathersmith fails to pre-invent it himself, he is “a taker instead of a builder, a conniver instead of a designer, a user instead of a bringer.” Feathersmith is fatally self-centered, short-sightedly doing all he can for his own personal gain. When he does think of how his actions affect others, it is only in terms of how badly he can hurt them. This is a major theme for Serling’s Devil-dealers.
We see it again in “Escape Clause,” when asshole hypochondriac Walter Bedeker is granted immortality in exchange for his garbage soul. Before becoming immortal, Bedeker leads a miserable life, complaining of phantom ailments and crying foul if anyone – especially his poor, overworked wife – gets more attention than he does. After becoming immortal, his life switches from Merriam-Webster’s 2A definition for miserable to 2B. He immediately sets out to use his unkillability to torment others, jumping in front of buses and trains to commuters’ horror, then milking the transit companies’ insurance for money. He even makes his wife fetch ammonia for a cleaning supplies cocktail he downs in front of her as she screams, and that’s before he straight kills her, as her terrified begging with him to not jump off the roof of their high rise causes her to plummet to her death.
He doesn’t use what the Devil – or Mr. Cadwallader, as he calls himself here – calls “added time” to any great effect. In fact, he quickly gets bored. Immortality takes “nothing ventured, nothing gained” to a new level for Bedeker. And this comes back to that short-sighted arrogance we’ve seen before, in Feathersmith. Feathersmith and Bedeker think they can outsmart Old Scratch and get a sweetheart of a deal, consequences be (literally) damned. Bedeker’s hubris goes full apotheosis when he turns himself in for his wife’s murder in hopes of getting the electric chair, just to try a new fatal activity.
What the smug asshole doesn’t realize is that other people work hard all day and try to do the right thing, like, say, saving even an awful client from the death penalty. Bedeker, facing an eternal life sentence in prison, pulls his chute and dies on the spot. Unfortunately, his wife’s still dead because he sucks. At least the janitor Feathersmith was shitting on got to be extremely rich once Feathersmith fucked up the timeline. (No attempt was made to reach the Serling estate for comment on whether Feathersmith is in fact Voldemort’s biological son.)
Our last Fauxst (I clearly did not sell my soul for the ability to make good portmanteaux) is easily the most well-intentioned of the bunch, and he doesn’t even make a “deal” with the Devil, per se. There is that whole thing about the road to hell’s pavement, though. When American Wereidiot in Europe David Ellington meets Satan, Lu seems to be making a pretty reasonable request: Please let me out of this room where Aaron from DeMille’s Ten Commandments with an egregiously fake beard (John Carradine) has locked me. That’s a favor you’d do for just about anyone. But Brother Jerome’s beard has told Ellington what’s going on (we’ve locked up Satan, please do not let him out).
That’s where things get Miltonian. Should Ellington rebel against the Word of [a Guy Loosely Associated with] God, and instead side with this silver-tongued stranger who hardly looks evil at all just yet? Eventually, Ellington answers that question with a resounding “hell yes” that also works if you put a comma in the middle of it, and then World War II happens because some people lack critical thinking skills.
And, see, that’s Ellington’s sin. It’s not that he rebelled. Twilight Zone episodes are rife with endorsements of rebellion – my favorite of which being “The Obsolete Man” – and, while this episode was written by Charles Beaumont, there’s no reason to believe “The Howling Man” would break with that tradition here. Ellington’s problem is that he made a moral judgment call based on rhetorical appeals instead of actually assessing the situation – that if the Howling Man were a mortal prisoner, he easily could have knocked the Staff of Truth off the door and walked right out and totally not grown horns and a Dracula cloak and flown out the window. In fact, the escaped Satan’s explicitly stated role in World War II may be harkening back to this issue, where wicked rhetoric was allowed to usurp judgment, but in the end, each individual is responsible for their own actions.
Ellington’s arrogance and short-sightedness is less egregious and more sympathetic than Bedeker’s or Feathersmith’s by a mile, but in the end, he did decide he knew better than everyone else in the situation, despite his limited information and virtually nonexistent attempts to look into it. “The Howling Man,” as a high watermark for the entire series, is the most nuanced take on what it means to work with The Twilight Zone’s Satan. It is to place your needs, your judgment, your desires ahead of those around you, whose needs, judgment and desires matter, too.
Dealing with the Devil is something that can only be done by a person who has abandoned hope of fulfillment – whatever form that fulfillment takes – via earthly means. In warning against deals with the Devil, The Twilight Zone is urging us to look to one another, not only in terms of collateral damage for our choices but also in how we can be better to and for one another. While these particular episodes don’t explicitly speak to this, I think it’s fair to say that in The Twilight Zone and in real life, we can accomplish much more together than one mere mortal ever could, no brimstone-tinged contract needed.