It amazed me to see One for the Angels because, for the life of me, I don’t think I’d ever seen it before. Besides it being new to my memory, it also was a loud and clear statement of what the current iteration of The Twilight Zone fails at: it doesn’t give us a lot of positivity. One for the Angels is a melancholy tale, but it’s loaded with hope and positivity. It starts off with a mild sense of humor, a quality I don’t consider a staple of The Twilight Zone, and then goes for the heart. You know, one thing I’ve said a lot about season 2 of Jordan Peele’s Zone is that the people there are often miserable, unlikeable. One for the Angels has a few very likeable people in it; even Death is a fairly nice fellow, considering his job!
Lewis J. Bookman, born September of 1890 is a few months shy of 70 on a hot July night. He sells trinkets, ties, toys, and Robbie the Robot wind-ups. (The Forbidden Planet must still have had a following!) And what he can’t sell, he comes home and gives to the neighborhood children. I was initially surprised to see about 10 kids run over to him, for him to give only 2 of them toys, but he’s such a good man, I just assumed he gives 2 toys out each night and the children take turns getting something. At least that was my own unverified rule for this story. Mr. Bookman does not belong in the pantheon of Twilight Zone inhabitants we’ve come to know, having watched the recent version of this series. The Twilight Zone is for unhappy people, isn’t it?
Like my unverified rule, this is a place of rules, though Death lays them out more concretely than my idea of a rule. Death can accept appeals from people who are hardship cases, if they leave behind someone who will suffer from their loss. This strikes me as being most anyone, but perhaps I should have asked for subclauses. Other appeals might be people on the verge of a scientific breakthrough, which at least gives hope to scientists. (This would never fly in The Outer Limits; a series always pointing out the wrongs of science!) And of course, there’s the unfinished business appeal: this is the most ambiguous. One cannot select a random thing, but it has to be something that might actually line up with ones life. Lewis J. Bookman falls into the latter category, wanting to do something “maybe the children would be proud of…” He offers to make a pitch, “one for the angels” before he’ll be ready to die but as soon as Death agrees, Bookman tries to run away convinced he’ll never make a pitch again. So Death has to take another soul, and taking a child is something Bookman won’t accept.
I was teary for the remainder of the episode. I knew Bookman loved the children and Maggie seems to be one he is especially fond of. When she is hit by a truck, he runs to her aid and takes a moment to kiss her on the forehead. Her death is unthinkable to him and he’s immediately regretting his decision to trick Death. Death comes for Maggie at 11:45. He has to collect her by 12am, on the dot. So Bookman makes a sales pitch, that special pitch for the angels, in the hopes of tricking Death into missing his appointment and saving Maggie. And this is why I say I think Death is a good man, at least as portrayed in this episode. He listens to Bookman’s pitch, totally engrossed in the most outlandish tales, even buying things from him, as if Death would carry money and need exotic ties! And, of course, he misses his appointment and Maggie gets to live. Perhaps he tricked Bookman, but isn’t that alright? He collects a debt, saves a child (even if perhaps he never actually intended to take her in the first place) and gives Bookman something to be happy about. Bookman’s death saved his little friend. As a reward, he goes “up there”, he “made it” to heaven.
The episode makes two fantastic points. Bookman says he was never successful, but that is one very happy man. He’s lived in a room for 21 years, but comes home gleefully and waters the plants before making himself comfortable. He takes care of people and things. This episode subtly reminds us that success does not necessarily mean happiness and happiness can be found in the simplest of things. But perhaps he was far more of a success than he realized, just not of a worldly nature. Serling’s voiceover comes in at the end to remind us that Bookman was loved by the children making him “a most important man”. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote of success:
“What is success?
To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!”
Lewis Bookman definitely had the love of children, left the world a better place, and did so leaving behind a healthy child. One for the Angels is a simple story about a very happy, successful man who gives his life for a child and becomes the first hero of The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Lew Bookman is a gentle old man who loves children. Those were the days, when that sentence didn’t carry any negative connotations, and an old man’s kindness to the neighbourhood kids could send him heaven-bound. He thinks so much of them that he gives away his stock of toys, although a stand selling ties and robots does seem like an eclectic mix. It’s not surprising he hasn’t made that “pitch for the angels” yet.
Today, sadly, is the last day Lew has to live, and he is being “stalked by Mr Death” (cue Murray Hamilton looking straight at the camera!). Luckily he’s a clever old chap, and manages to trick Mr Death into giving him a reprieve. So far, this is a jolly fun little comedic farce, but that’s just lulling us into a false sense of security, because then…
“Since you won’t come with me, I’ve been forced to select an alternative.”
The alternative is Maggie, Lew’s favourite little friend, and before he can argue with Death, Maggie has been hit by a car and will die at midnight. It’s an incredibly cruel moment that really packs a punch.
Lew’s solution to the problem only works if you figure out what Rod Serling is tying to get across in the subtext. At least, I’m fairly sure he was. Murray Hamilton’s performance certainly makes clear his interpretation of Death’s motives, either way. Taking this in its most simplistic terms, Lew gets one over on Mr Death for a second time. That, of course, makes no sense. Death doesn’t need Lew’s material goods, and has been around for long enough that he isn’t going to be fooled by Lew’s silly story about a reel of thread taking hundreds of hours of manpower to produce and then being sold for 25 cents or something. But the point is that he’s been around long enough that he isn’t going to be fooled by the original ruse either. No, this is Death being kind, allowing the story to play out in a way that allows Lew to accept his mortality and make his final moments triumphant rather than a defeat. Being Mr Death, there is of course an edge of cruelty in the way he does that, with the choice of innocent little Maggie as the “alternative”, but I think he realised that he was never going to be taking Maggie to the afterlife at midnight.
No, Death knows how this is going to play out, and he plays his part as an easily duped consumer, lapping up Lew’s salesman patter. Perhaps this goes even further. Perhaps this is the moment of self-sacrifice that tips the scales for Lew, and Mr Death is allowing him to prove himself.
“Up there Mr Bookman. You made it.”
Whether you understand or agree with this interpretation or not, it’s certainly a very cleverly constructed half hour of drama, with clever details that pay off later, such as Maggie’s inability to see Mr Death, thinking Lew is playing a game with her. After the accident she is able to see Death, which very neatly tells us everything we need to know about what potentially lies ahead for her. This could have been horrifying, or very frightening, but Murray Hamilton’s business-like performance keeps this firmly in the realms of family viewing, and Ed Wynn’s quiet likeability makes this a strangely cosy viewing experience, considering the subject matter.
One of Lew’s toys is Robby the Robot, so maybe he’s a sci-fi fan. Perhaps that gentle hobby is also grounds for heading “up there”. We’ll all have to hope for the best, when Mr Death comes to visit. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Mr. Denton on Doomsday