It’s an interesting thing that my memory of The Twilight Zone was about a series of stories where bad things befall people. I mean, if I’m being fair to myself, it was years upon years since my cousin and I would stay up late during our summer holidays to watch this series. Actually, a scary number of years ago. In fact… it’s sort of depressingly long ago, actually. But even when the series would be on for the July 4th weekend, any time you tuned in, one of a handful of episodes would be on; the same batch as the year before, and they were mostly about bad things happening to people. Escape Clause opens like a comedy and I couldn’t recall when I’d last seen this one. Could it be that we’d have yet another happy episode?
Well, in a word, no. In fact, this was the first episode that I felt very bored while watching. Walter Bedeker is a hypochondriac. He’s a man obsessed with why life is so short. But he belongs in the Jordan Peele version of the Twilight Zone because he’s a man with no empathy which I believe is what leads to his downfall. He spends his days in bed, complaining that he’s dying until Mr. Cadwallader shows up. Cadwallader is the devil and he makes a bargain: immortality in exchange for Bedeker’s soul. Cadwallader knows how these things work out, what with him being the devil and all that, and has an escape clause built in: when Bedeker decides enough is enough, he will be allowed to die quickly of his own free will and forfeit his soul.
Walter tries death by train, bus, poison, major fires, and at least 12 more off-screen accidents. Then he decides to go up to the roof of his apartment complex and jump. His wife goes up with him and falls over the side to her death. Walter casually wonders how it felt, lights a cigarette and goes back to his apartment to call the cops. He claims to have murdered his wife, because he’s an idiot and is actually hoping for the electric chair. But things go wrong and he gets life in prison. As an immortal, that’s going to be a long, long time!
This is an episode that asks us to accept more than the devil offering a man immortality. It asks us to ignore the wider world. We see at least two insurance companies come to sign documents about Walter, so there’s record that something is amiss with him. The cops would probably be able to identify that something was up, even if they never suspect immortality. At the very least, there’s no indication that Walter actually killed his wife, and they go based solely on his word: a word of a man who seems to be determined to die. If nothing more, we should have had the psych eval somewhere along the way.
The thing is: who cares? He’s a waste of a man. Walter doesn’t try anything but death; he never seems to think to try to live. He doesn’t decide to go on a flight to London or a cruise to Bermuda. He doesn’t go ziplining, and he doesn’t go deep sea fishing. I mean, the sheer volume of things he could do without fear is astounding but instead, Mr. Hypochondriac decides to just keep trying to die as if trying to taste something after he’s lost the use of his taste buds. Sure, that might be the point of it: beings of short life appreciate things more because they are short lived. But Walter seems to go from terror about death to an overnight boredom with life. He never seems to want to actually experience his new lease on life. And once his wife died, I couldn’t care less for the man; not that it was a big drop! I had barely liked the guy from the start. When you root for the devil, you know you have a lousy protagonist!
I often say I plan to live forever or die trying. I am not a reckless fellow, probably because I know that Cadwallader hasn’t come make me an offer, but I want to live because I love being around people and sharing ideas with them. Building friendships and having infinite days to enjoy them; that’s what I’d be happiest with. Maybe knowing I could stay up forever and get together with my cousin to watch The Twilight Zone would be nice too! So the idea of immortality is one that would appeal to me immensely, but Walter left me bored and with no concern about his well-being.
I could go on, but really, what’s the point? This episode was a dud, a lame duck, a flat tire. You get the idea. The best we could get of a deeper meaning is: be careful what you wish for. Or maybe, treasure what you have. Actually they are both apt. Maybe if we can appreciate what we have, we don’t need to lose our empathy, for that path seems to lead to very unhappy outcomes. Which is exactly what I remembered of those who found themselves stuck in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
I think most of us know somebody who is a little bit like Walter Bedeker. There is nothing physically wrong with him, and when a doctor tells him that, he accuses him of being a quack instead of being grateful for his good health. He’s never going to be happy, because he’s convinced that he’s dying. In other words, he’s a hypochondriac. Walter is a particularly extreme case because he’s in apparently perfect health, but he’s terrified that he’s about to drop dead, and his poor wife is being run ragged trying to look after him. He’s actually an incredibly selfish man, because he fails to consider her feelings or welfare at all, treating her like a servant. We are simply never going to warm to him as a character, in other words, but one thing he says probably strikes a chord with most people watching:
“Why can’t a man live 500 years, or a thousand?”
What follows is a man making a deal with the devil, in the form of “Mr. Cadwallader”, a perfectly pitched performance from Thomas Gomez, with a hint of menace without being overtly evil; this is something that is very important to make sense of Walter agreeing to the deal. Cadwallader has to come across as convincing; a smooth talker… well, smooth enough to win over a man like Walter, anyway. We’ve already seen a man trying to make a deal with the grim reaper, so it’s a bit odd to be covering such similar ground so early in the series, although the tone of the piece is very different. There is no hope here for Walter.
If we were unsympathetic towards him before, we certainly can have little sympathy for Walter after he does the deal. The world is full of wonders to explore, but Walter is immediately bored, trying to get his kicks out of testing his immortality to the limits, jumping in front of a train or drinking poison. When he confesses to killing his wife (although it was an accident), I was wondering why on Earth he would want to spend eternity in prison, so the punchline of the episode was pretty obvious from then onwards. The writing made little sense at that point, because Walter simply wanted to test out the electric chair, but (a) there were surely other ways for him to get electrocuted, and (b) even if he got the death penalty, what did he think was going to happen to him when execution didn’t work? Did he think he would be allowed to go home?
This is one of a few leaps of weird logic in the episode, and I think that’s a symptom of the 25 minute format. This is a story that desperately needed to be less truncated to make more sense, and also make us care a bit more about Walter’s fate. Instead, it places the viewers in the position of gawping at something nasty, and there’s not much pleasure in that. There are some important points being made here, but they are buried too deep and we have to guess at their meaning to some extent. I think Walter’s illogical behaviour is a result of losing that “crumb”, that “little piece of his makeup”, his soul. Just look how he has no emotional response to the death of his wife. But it could also simply be because he is still the same monster of a man he appeared to be when he was showing no concern for his wife’s exhaustion earlier in the episode. And I think there was a great little pun hidden in amongst Cadwallader’s lines, which should perhaps be spelt as follows:
“I subscribe to your views wholly, Mr. Bedeker, I mean holy.”
But we’re playing guessing games because everything is so rushed. Something the episode perhaps leaves us to ponder is the decision Walter made. I wonder how many people would make the same choice. And here’s where the 25 minute format really spoils things, because the win for Cadwallader comes too easy. Never for one second does Walter consider that the presence of Cadwallader, and his desire for Walter’s soul, is positive proof of the afterlife. I don’t think many people would trade away their soul for even thousands of years of extra life, knowing what’s eventually waiting for them. Cadwallader’s very presence in the room makes the heating rise…
And that brings us to the “escape clause”, which is another logic-defying moment. Walter does know what awaits him, right? He’s not even going to entertain the possibility of escape from prison, even far into the future? It doesn’t fit very well with a man who was obsessed about his own survival to the exclusion of all else, but once again we can only assume his mind is clouded the moment he signs that piece of paper. He’s no longer quite the man he was before. He’s missing something. His actions are… soulless.
“You say I won’t miss it?”
“You’ll never know it’s gone.”
Maybe he really never knew. Or maybe he just never understood that there’s more to life than life. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Lonely
For one of the most common television and film themes, being careful what we wish for is the kind that may find a most fruitful home in The Twilight Zone. David Wayne (The Andromeda Strain and Batman’s The Mad Hatter) has what it takes to make Walter watchable enough for the benefit of the lesson to be learned. Although I shudder to reflect on the scene where he most callously causes his wife to fall off the roof. Because he made a desperate deal with the Devil, the consequences for his soul are inevitable, even when he finally in his jail cell settles for death as the ultimate cure for his hypochondria. As a message that nobody ever truly gets away with anything because sin is its own punishment, I appreciate that Serling made the subject one of the most commonly relevant for The Twilight Zone.
Thomas Gomez is also splendidly cast as Cadwallader, as he also was as Sykes for another Twilight Zone classic called Dust, a personal favorite whose Junkyard review I look forward to reading.
Thank you both.
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11th November for Dust 🙂
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Thanks very much, Rog.
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