The Twilight Zone: The Fever

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959Franklin.  I know times were different back in 1960 when the Franklin Twilight Zone aired, but by franklin, was this a tough episode to watch.  Conceptually, The Fever is franklin good because it speaks of the dangers of addiction but franklin it really overdoes some things.  For instance, franklin: how many times do you think that appeared in the script?  I was going to add it throughout this entire writeup but couldn’t stomach the idea.  After 2 sentences, I was done with the idea.  There’s a term for when you say a word so many times that it loses meaning: semantic satiation.  Franklin, by the time the episode was over, was just a word that meant nothing more than the sound of coins clinking in the tray at the casino.  That was actually a really clever use of the sound in the start of the story, but before long, I was ready to fast-forward the whole episode just to stop hearing it.  At least I can understand why this one doesn’t find its way into the repeat performances on July 4th weekend!

Everett Sloan plays Franklin Gibbs, a man who goes on holiday with his wife, Flora.  They make quite the couple, don’t they?  He is a domineering jerk with that one raised eyebrow who can’t enjoy life and is so caught up on morality that he verbally lambasts his wife in front of a crowd telling her she’s not “mature enough” to enjoy herself.  His words are harsh but even knowing she’s not mature enough, he plans to leave her alone for the night.  She rightly states that she’s “not very lucky…” and I immediately thought she was right for having married this fool.  But when Franklin is the one to win some money, he develops an instant night fever that makes him spend loads of money on the one-armed bandit.   The fact that he had a loving wife was not enough for Mr. Morality; he needs something more than a woman.  He needs to feed an addiction he didn’t even know he had. He wants to hear the slot machine chime with the big jackpot; a personal message from an evil entity, “you win again,” but that message is not coming.  And it’s sort of sad really because I couldn’t help but wonder if he allowed himself to enjoy life, maybe he would not have become so addicted.  His wife seems to be able to enjoy herself, once free of him, flitting from machine to machine like a happy little butterfly. 

From a viewing standpoint this was a challenge to watch.  It’s basically focused on a man sweating over a slot machine as the camera focuses on the gears spinning.  Franklin is stayin’ alive simply to win but from the viewers perspective, or more honestly, from my point of view, I was just waiting for the end.  I knew nothing good could come to Mr. Gibb.  The real tragedy is that he’s guilty of the very thing he accused his wife of: not having the maturity to stop himself.  But how long can one watch the same scene over and over while a slot machine menaces a man?  Fans of 80’s Doctor Who might back me when I say that it’s a major mistake to write characters we just don’t like.  Franklin Gibb is a like those Christmas-only church-goers who know how to preach but not live.  I disliked him the moment he appeared for his camera shot for the local paper; he’s instantly despised at the start of the episode and all that jive talkin’ to his wife did nothing to warm him to me.  His words are the words of a fool which make his fate one that we simply don’t care about.  When he plummets from the window, the audio becomes even more obnoxious: “franklin” is repeated by the menacing slot machine over and over while his wife screams “no”, having her hysterical fit!  Franklin… I mean frankly, I would have expected her to throw a party, but he probably left her in such debt that she is more worried about how to pay for his funeral.  I’m sure she as wondering, “how can you mend a depleted bank account?”

I do like that this series from the early days of television had a message about addiction.  This story focuses on gambling but really could have been about any addiction: drugs, sex, gambling, you name it!  If we saw even a glimmer that Franklin knew how to love somebody, I might have cared about him and felt sorry for the loss.  Instead, I was just glad to be rid of him and wished it could have happened 20 minutes earlier.  Supposedly, Serling wrote this after going to Las Vegas and finding himself in a similar situation, but I suspect Rod was a far more likable man than Franklin.

Well, if nothing more this episode helped me in one unexpected way: if you were paying attention, you’ll have noticed that I started a joke, not with his too-frequently repeated first name, but with his last.  Sadly it’s a joke that would only work in The Twilight Zone.  M-franklin-L

The view from across the pond:

Life wasn’t so bad for Flora, once she got over the initial shock of losing her husband. It felt like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. For the first time in her life, she felt free. She could be Flora now, not just one of the Gibbs… the one whose opinions didn’t count. The Gibbs know the value of money. Those words echoed in her head from time to time. She had to scrimp and save now, but she still had her home, and enough to live on, day to day. She was… and the realisation of this gave her a little pang of guilt… happy.

The Fever is not a popular episode of The Twilight Zone and I think the main reason for that is sci-fi fans hate anything they find embarrassing. This episodes commits the ultimate sin in the eyes of many a sci-fi fan, by being unintentionally silly.

Those fans of course need to lighten up a bit, and the mistakes here are in fact marginal ones. The moving slot machine near the end could have been fixed by not actually showing it moving, maintaining the idea of a man being pursued by his addiction without the absurdity. The first instance of the machine saying “Franklin” is accompanied by jaunty music which makes it seem like a joke of an episode at that point, as if nobody making this was taking it seriously enough, and yet gambling addiction is a serious topic. When Franklin hears it for a second time from his hotel room it does sound creepy, and that moment in the episode works much better. Later in the episode, we get the machine calling his name once more and again with the misplaced jolly music, but by then Franklin is a broken man and the incongruity works. It’s not so funny any more.

Many Twilight Zone episodes only have one idea, and most of the time that works fine with the 25 minute format, but here is does feel a bit stretched, especially once we get to the point where it’s just endless shots of a desperate man feeding money into a one-armed bandit.

“Boy, when they get hooked, they really get hooked, don’t they.”

It also doesn’t help that Franklin is a total jerk, one of those hideous dictators of a husband, who treats his wife like dirt while she puts up with everything he throws at her. That makes it impossible to feel much in the way of sympathy for his plight, but at the same time there is no pleasure in seeing the bully dismantled so thoroughly, especially as we know that his wife will suffer so much from his actions. It’s her money he’s wasting as well, and of course she doesn’t get a say.

“Flora will you kindly shut your mouth.”

But it’s an episode that deserves far more credit than it gets. As an exercise in showing the dangers of gambling, I think it works very well indeed, with the path to addiction explored in detail. First comes the casino making the Gibbs “feel important”. Then Franklin gets a win on a machine with his first try. His reluctance to play the machine at all is fascinating, and brilliantly acted, because he actually looks scared of pulling the lever for the first time, as if he knows deep down that he doesn’t have enough self control to stop once he has started. Then comes the excuses, to fool himself and others that he has a very valid reason for continuing (it’s “tainted money” and he’s “going to get rid of it”). What we are lacking is a key moment when Franklin moves on from getting rid of his winnings to gambling with his own money, and that’s an unfortunate oversight, but then we get the addiction in full flow, with a desperation to get back what he has lost.

“How can I stop? I’ve lost a great deal of money. You said it yourself. I’ve got to win it back.”

Perhaps the best quote of the episode is the one that literally describes the machine but also functions perfectly as a description of the gambling industry as a whole:

“It’s inhuman, the way it lets you win a little and then takes it all back.”

This episode is over 60 years old, but I think now, more than ever, we need cautionary tales about gambling like this one. The gambling industry in the UK is a £14 billion monster, almost doubling during the 2010s. When I was a child, I used to watch a lot of snooker on the television. Like many sports, the main sponsors were all cigarette brands, until the government decided to stop that from happening, in the belief that it could encourage smoking. That seemed like a wise decision, but today the major sponsors are now betting companies. I still can’t quite believe that nobody in power looked at what was happening and realised what they had done; the law of unintended consequences at its most stark. And the irony was that as a child I had no idea what the word “Embassy” meant in the “Embassy World Championships”, or “Benson and Hedges” in the “Benson and Hedges Masters”, but I’m pretty sure I would have figured out what exactly was being promoted by the various sponsors with “bet” in their name, or worse still a simple banner for a company whose trading name is simply a website address for gambling away your money online.

“It’s an entity. It’s a thing with a mind and a will of its own.”

We’ve allowed that thing to proliferate, and the fate of Franklin might look silly, but it’s a warning to the curious. Don’t put that first coin in the machine.

Flora had kept that coin, the one they had found in her husband’s dead hand. She didn’t know why she kept it really, but the loss of his last coin to a malfunctioning machine had affected him so deeply that it would have felt like a terrible betrayal to spend it, or throw it away, which had been her first though. Something had made her pick up that coin from its resting place beside the urn today and she held it in her trembling hand, unsure what she was doing. “Flora”. The word was distant, gravelly, almost mechanical. “Flora”. She heard it again, louder this time. Slowly, the front door swung open. “Flora”. That strange, inhuman smile somehow drew her forward. She hesitated for a moment, and then deposited the coin in the machine.  What had she done? It had taken Franklin’s last coin. For some reason, that notion horrified Flora. She reached for her purse, and took out a coin. She had to get Franklin’s coin back, whatever it took… RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Last Flight

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, The Twilight Zone and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Twilight Zone: The Fever

  1. scifimike70 says:

    The Fever certainly qualifies as one of the most disturbing Twilight Zone episodes I’ve ever seen. I applaud both Everett Sloane as Franklin and Viva Janiss as Flora for giving such strong realisms to their performances. As a cautionary message about gambling addictions, it reminds me of the day when I tried to play Roulette and gladly walked away after losing one dollar. Years later, when my family was visiting a casino in Quebec, I tried my luck with slot machines which thankfully turned out better. But I still quit right after that. I remember James Coburn in the 90s promoting how we can find the safest slot machines. But the closest that I occasionally settled for were simple lottery cards that I bought at convenience stores. I made some good money from them. But I’ll always be grateful for Rod Serling’s wisdom via The Fever. Thank you both for your reviews on this one and I’m sure that many people who struggle with gambling addictions will greatly appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

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