If I thought The Twilight Zone was a place where misery befell people, it was probably based on this story. Time Enough at Last is probably one of the most well known episodes of the classic series, up there with the likes of The Eye of the Beholder and The Invaders. But it’s a very sad episode and it’s not because of what happens to Mr. Bemis at the end. His whole life is one of misery and in the end, I really didn’t care about this fellow at all.
Henry Bemis is a man who wants nothing more than time to read, but events seem to conspire against him. His wife is a nasty piece of work and his boss is not willing to allow him to read on the job for obvious reasons; he’s a bank teller and shortchanges people because he’s trying to read while working. The president of the bank is unsympathetic, but justifiably so; he has a business to run and Bemis makes that difficult; it’s just a matter of time before people stop banking with his establishment if Bemis keeps giving them the wrong amounts. The fact that Bemis can’t grasp this is the first problem I have with the character. Then he goes home to a monster. She’s not a wife; she’s a domineering beast that thinks of her husband like a child. While she may indeed be a loathsome woman who deserves to be wiped out, I actually find myself blaming Bemis for this outcome too. First of all, be a man, man! I don’t mean be rude or stand up to her, if you read that as some macho comment! I mean be attentive to your wife. She probably didn’t get to be like that overnight. Yes, she hides his books and newspapers, but we’ve been given the evidence already: he doesn’t have the ability to prioritize, preferring to live in his own little world. So yes, she’s a miserable piece of work and I didn’t like her one bit, but I think Bemis is the reason for it. She wants to go out to socialize and Bemis tries to bring a book. She wants to talk to her husband after dinner, but he runs away to read a book. Bemis doesn’t want a marriage, he wants to live in a dream. If this episode were remade today, it might feature a sci-fi fan, unable to disengage from his fandom to be with his family. So as far as I was concerned, there were no likable characters here.
When Bemis decides to take his lunch break in the bank vault, the alluded to H-Bomb from his newspaper goes off, leveling the city. This leads me to comment on some production observations. First, the set design was amazing. The ruined city must have been some set to put together, but it looks great. Second, I don’t know what Burgess Meredith’s eyesight was really like, of course, but he must have had a raging headache from wearing those coke-bottle classes. He’s a class act though, he sells the character completely. It’s just a shame the character is so unlikable with all the effort he invested!
And that brings me back to the character’s arc. Serling’s narration says he’s on an 8 hour tour of a graveyard. Then our “protagonist” finds a gun and thinks about killing himself because of the loneliness. Ok, loads of issues. The man is at best very introverted and at worst antisocial; I lean toward the latter, because he does seem quite willing to engage people if it’s to talk about his books (which just further made me think of some SF fans, who can only talk in terms of their fandom). He didn’t care about the people around him when he had them so what’s he complaining about now? He has no distractions and no need to earn money. Even before he finds his books, he has no need to be bothered by people. But even so, was 8 hours all the genius was going to give it before blowing his brains out? Our reader of massive volumes doesn’t think to explore? Find out if other people survived outside his city? No, of course not, because he really doesn’t care about people at all. He almost deserves what happens to him! Helen, his wife, certainly got what she deserved because, even if he is responsible for driving her to becoming the shrew she is, she takes pleasure in hurting him so her demise was appreciated! And in my book, one Henry might not like to read, I think his fate was deserved too.
See, I’m the sort of guy who drives home at night and sees a car near his house and gets super excited that we might have a visitor. Yeah, I love my writing, my shows and my games, maybe as much as Henry loves his books, but give me people any day, and I’ll take the time to be with them, basking in the glow of their personalities. I didn’t go into this episode wanting to dislike Bemis. I wanted to say, he’s like me; a fan! But he’s not because, once he knew he had the ability to read, the loss of all those he knew melted into the background. I might not blame him for his lack of mourning where his wife is concerned, but surely he had a mom or dad, maybe a sister or a brother? A friend? A colleague at the bank? For me, Mr. Bemis was an unrelatable sort; a sad little man that didn’t belong.
I always think of this as a classic, and maybe that’s because I followed the herd but I wonder how many people realize how unlikable Bemis really is. Or is it that it’s a classic because the man gets what’s coming to him. He wished for time and he got it; always be careful what you wish for, eh? But I think it’s because people feel for the man and I don’t get that now. Watch it again, and think it through. He’s not a good man. Ironically, this book man doesn’t hold a candle to Lewis Bookman, the man who gave his life to save a little girl in One For the Angels. Henry Bemis was just a footnote in history, left behind in some sad volume to be found on a dusty shelf in some forgotten corner of The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
This is probably the most famous Twilight Zone episode, certainly one of two. It’s the episode I am most familiar with, and I can’t say I relished the chance to watch it again. I can see why it’s popular, and we’ll get to all the things that make this an incredible 25 minutes of television, but first let’s look at the reasons why this might not be to everyone’s tastes.
The big problem with this is Henry Bemis himself, because frankly he’s an idiot. The love of reading is a wonderful thing, and his enthusiasm is infectious, but anyone who doesn’t get the division between work and leisure time and sits reading when he’s supposed to be doing his job can’t expect to keep his job for very long. I’m amazed that his boss doesn’t fire him on the spot. Is any employer really that lenient? I mean, the guy puts a “next window please” sign in front of his position so he can read instead of doing his job.
But that’s not the worst thing about Henry, because he lacks a backbone. His wife is another reason I find this hard to watch. She’s a monster in human form, a nasty, sadistic bully. She teases him into thinking she actually wants him to read to her, and his overjoyed reaction to that idea shows that he wants nothing more than to be able to share his hobby with his wife, but it’s a trick to get him to open a book she has scribbled all over. How long must that have taken her, to draw lines through every page? And she calls his hobby a waste of time. It’s so frustrating to watch, because you just want to see him have some kind of a reaction to this… any reaction. There is a whole spectrum of possibilities, from challenging her views strongly, to calling her names, to shoving the pages down her throat. I would have happily watched any of those, but he does nothing. Henry is a wimp, and I have no wish to watch 25 minutes of television about a pathetic coward such as Henry. The harsh truth of the matter is that one thing his wife says is exactly right. She is married to a fool.
The second half of the episode then relies on the viewers not thinking about things too carefully. Boy, does this one require a major suspension of disbelief. As the bomb hits, the glass in Henry’s watch breaks but his glasses don’t. That’s fair, because those lenses are thick, but the whole punchline relies on the assumption that those glasses are the only pair in the vicinity to have survived, and yet we don’t see total destruction. A tape player (not exactly the most robust of technology) still has some life in it. Some furniture has survived intact. There must be plenty of pairs of glasses safe inside hard cases or inside desk drawers, waiting to be found. Admittedly, Henry’s going to have a hard time finding them, but it’s not as if he’s got anything else to do. But he’s a fool after the explosion just like he’s a fool before. Just look how he feels around to find the door of the vault before he puts his glasses back in front of his eyes (OK, it makes for a great moment when the blurry camera view sharpens to reveal the destruction), or the way he props his glasses on the back of the sofa on which he sleeps. He’s just asking for them to be broken. We also have to forget about inconvenient things like radiation, although I’m not sure how well that was understood at the time, but also Henry finds tinned food but makes no mention of water.
There are, however, reasons why this is popular, and I think the two big ones are the irony of the ending and the amazing visuals. For a 1959 television show, this is a remarkable representation of a post-apocalyptic landscape, if a little inconsistent in terms of the wider landscape (almost total destruction) and the closer details (furniture and parts of buildings still surviving). In particular, the set design for the ruined library is breathtaking.
As for the irony, it certainly makes us think. In a way it seems like a fitting punishment for a man who wouldn’t stand up for himself, and also functions well as a lesson in being careful what you wish for, but on the other hand it’s incredibly cruel, with the camera pulling back at the end from a broken, crying man. Can we call that entertainment? Can we call it an enjoyable half hour of television? I’m not sure. Maybe I need a bit more time to think about it… RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Perchance to Dream