For me, a good western is as rare as a good dental visit. It’s not impossible, but it’s a pretty uncommon experience. (Tombstone, for instance, is a good visit to the dentist; it’s a damned enjoyable western!) Unfortunately, my expectations of this episode were not high when it started the moment I realized it was going to be a western, complete with bar maids, singing, drinking, and gun fights against a particularly squeaky Martin Laundau. I am a big fan of the Victorian era of England and far prefer stories about that time period. Give me Sherlock Holmes over a western any day. But you know what blows my mind time and again? Those two eras are more or less the same. The infamous gunfight of the OK Corral, for instance, was in 1881. Jack the Ripper was 1888. They are so drastically different, it’s hard to believe that these events are contemporaries. Talk about being pulled into the Twilight Zone. But I found myself enjoying this episode more than I’d expected. There are two reasons for that: the western is just a setting but more importantly, the outcome of this story puts us at 3 for 3 with positive endings.
Ok, don’t get me wrong, Mike Ferris does have a breakdown in Where is Everybody, but note what he says as he’s brought out on the stretcher! He looks up at the moon and says “next time, it’ll be for real! We’ll be up there, in a little while.” He’s broken from the experience, but his indomitable human spirit is ready to go at it again. Then Lewis Bookman dies in One for the Angels, but not before proving to himself that he can be a success and in the process, he saves a little girl’s life. She may never know what he did for her, but that doesn’t matter. In the end, Bookman knew. And now in Mr. Denton on Doomsday, we come to Al Denton, the town drunk. His story takes place in a western setting, but this isn’t a western; it’s a life lesson.
First off, Denton has lost any self-respect he ever had. It comes about from the day he killed a kid. It’s not that he’s a bad man, but he was challenged by a 16 year old gunslinger and he rose to the challenge. Let’s face it: in a challenge like that, it’s live or die. But that doesn’t help the revelation and it makes it no less harsh: he killed a boy. It leads him down a path of self-destruction. I know people who have lost their self-respect; it brings them down; they lose a part of themselves. If not fixed, it can lead to a life of emptiness. I wish I had a solution for a good friend of mine who has gone down a bad path. Alas, life is seldom a magical story. Anyway… Denton hits the bottle. Then one day, Henry J. Fate steps in and gives Denton a chance to stand up to the bullies. (This involves some pretty silly shooting and a most ridiculous wrist shot, but I think we can turn a blind eye to that!) When Denton makes a difference against the bully, he rapidly starts to reclaim his pride. He goes for a shave and starts to clean himself up. But Henry J. Fate has something in mind with his magic elixirs. He tells Al he will be the fastest draw in the west; but he fails to mention he will give another elixir to another gunslinger.
Whether the elixir was anything at all doesn’t matter; perhaps it was just the dose of confidence the two gunslingers needed, but when they fight, they both suffer a shot to the hand. They walk away; alive, but unable to shoot a gun again. “You’ll never be able to shoot a gun in anger again.” If only we lived in such a world! As Serling says, Fate helped one man crawl out of a hole and another from falling into it. Sure, they have hand injuries, but they’re alive, and they live to tell the tale.
The character of Fate had me worried. Some episodes of The Twilight Zone might have chosen to play Fate as an evildoer, but it’s always a nice surprise when the writing gives us a positive character instead. I had only vague memories of this story but I didn’t recall if Fate was going to be angel or devil. Perhaps I should have noted the name: Henry J. Fate. Who better to offer an elixir than Henry J, considering this takes place somewhere in the 1800’s! You see, somewhere in England, in that same era, there was another Henry J. One Henry Jekyll, the good side of a very famous duo! I have little doubt that Serling knew what he was doing when he named Fate. Had his name been Edward H. Fate, we might be looking at a very different episode.
So that’s 3 for 3 with Denton coming in as the next success of The Twilight Zone. He goes away, not in anger but as a legend. His final battle injured him and another man; they will never be challenged again, but he ends with a sense of pride; he pulled off the unimaginable. He overcame two villains: a dangerous gunslinger and a far more devious villain: alcoholism. That’s a success to be proud of even in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Westerns are by far my least favourite genre, so when I saw the setting of this episode of The Twilight Zone, my heart sank. I needn’t have worried, because within seconds my attention had been commanded by the horrifying opening scene of a man being bullied, who has already been robbed of all his dignity in life by his alcoholism.
“Why do you have to drink so much?”
“I really don’t know. I just got the habit one day and kept to it.”
Al does know, of course. His dignity appears to be returned to him when he finds a gun, and I was concerned about what kind of a message this story was peddling, until Al admits what turned him to drink: he used to be the best shot in town, and killing people who came to challenge him make him seek solace in the bottle.
This is such a clever, tightly-plotted episode. Al is tempted to drink again, but this time it’s a magic potion. That allows him to cheat, giving him the edge in a gunfight, and when his first opponent for a long time turns up for a shoot-out, it should win him the contest… except the other guy has the same potion. Just when this was looking like being one of those TZ episodes with a cruel twist of fate at the end, the effects of the two potions cancelled each other out, causing the contest to be a draw, and damaging the hands of both competitors in the process. What would be a curse to most people is a blessing to Al. He can never fire a gun again.
This is interesting in many ways. When I said at the start that I didn’t like Westerns, what I really meant was I hate them with a passion. It’s a gut reaction, to the world’s stupidest macho culture of seeing who can shoot a gun the quickest. So on the one hand this episode left me shaking my head at this culture once again, where you have to be crippled in order to have a chance at life. On the other hand, the message of the episode is one of pacifism. Not for one second does this glorify the violent Western traditions. In fact, the standard tropes of the Western genre are so thoroughly rejected that the gunfight takes place indoors (surely this is the ultimate statement by Serling, refusing to conform to the standard methods of glorifying the stand-off) and most importantly nobody dies here.
The pacifist message is clearly the main theme, but bubbling under the surface we have a slightly confused look at alcoholism. I mentioned earlier how alcohol was a means of escape for Al, and that came at the price of robbing him of his dignity. The way he is so easily tempted by the potion represents, I think, how common it is to lapse back into an old addiction. This is a story told in fast forward, as it’s only 25 minutes, but basically what’s happening here is a man recovering his dignity, no longer needing the bottle, and then the first time life gets tough again his willpower evaporates. It might be a magic potion rather than a bottle of rum, but it’s clearly suppose to represent a lapse. The reason I say the message is confused, is that the lapse is the thing that ultimately saves Al’s life. Without drinking the potion he would have lost the gunfight and died.
So what do we take from that? Maybe that life doesn’t follow a logical pattern. Sometimes mistakes and lapses have consequences, sometimes they don’t. Remember the peddler’s name is Fate. This is “the night fate stepped in”. However hard we try, every so often we just need a bit of luck. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine