It really speaks volumes to the way Rod Serling crafted his stories. Here we have basically 3 people in one room for 20-odd minutes. You’ve got Millicent, Paul and a station attendant. Maybe you throw in a random woman who helps Millicent, or the couple sitting on a bench, but we’re only going to spend any substantial time with the aforementioned three. Yet in 20 minutes, we are concerned for the woman. We don’t know what her deal is, but we find ourselves drawn to her plight. Why that’s significant is that these days, TV has started a very strange habit of introducing characters that are not easy to warm to. They will develop over a series but from minute one, we really don’t care that much for them. For instance, at the time of my watching this series, I’ve also been watching FX’s Y: The Last Man. I’m 4 episodes in and, barring being intrigued by the story and one character specifically, I really don’t like any of them. I don’t feel for the plight and believe me, it’s bigger than Millicent’s! It makes me question what happened to our skill at writing tv scripts these days.
So how does Serling do it? He shows us an average, everyday person who asks a question in a very relatable setting only to be treated poorly by the station attendant. We’ve just been conditioned to side with her. That grumpy old man was so rude! Now that we care about her, we can find out what the story is. Millicent thinks she’s seen a doppelganger who is trying to replace her. Think of Twin Peaks! She attributes it to delusions, but that’s not comforting and she’s deeply disturbed by it. Then Paul arrives and becomes her knight in a dripping wet raincoat. So now we both like him and still feel for the damsel in distress. And all of this is happening in just 20 minutes.
Oh, sure, by the end Paul treats her like a mental patient and has the cops come to pick her up which I can’t say I agree with but then he goes through the same situation. Beyond feeling the terror of what she was going through, he should also feel like a heel. His finale, running after his grinning doppelganger, is reminiscent of the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There’s something damnably disturbing about it. Maybe there’s a hint of something believable in that moment.
“Maybe there’s someone here who resembles you.” One thing I love about this episode is the setting. We’re in some distant bus station. It’s a deserted place at 2am, which by today’s standards never happens but I remember those days when I was younger and that absence of people is troubling. It all adds to the sense of isolation. It’s terrific. But one thing that it fails at is giving Paul any sense of logic when he mentions that someone in the station might resemble Millicent. Beside her, there are two elderly people, one larger brunette, the crotchety male station attendant, and himself. Who does he think resembled her? How hard would it have been to walk around the station to check?
Still, that isolated setting, the strangely relatable terror and the mystery all serve to make this one very enjoyable story. It also makes me appreciate the skill Serling had with his writing. I just feel bad that the art of writing like that seems to be hard to find these days. Perhaps that skill was replaced by a doppelganger skill that vaguely resembles television script writing. Maybe the only way to get that lost art back is to venture alone into The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Millicent Barnes seems to be losing her mind. She is waiting for a bus, and goes to ask the ticket agent how long he thinks it will be, and he acts like a right grump because he thinks she is pestering him and keeps asking the same questions. The only problem with that is she can’t remember asking him before. Then her baggage seems to be moving back and forth between the bench where she was sitting and the baggage check area, as if it has a life of its own. It’s fair to say that things are getting a bit weird, but not half as weird as when she goes into the ladies’ toilets and catches sight of herself in the mirror… twice. Here’s a screen shot of that moment:
There’s something about that image that made me gasp. I’ve seen a lot of sci-fi, and probably even more horror, but that pivotal moment in the episode sent a little shiver down my spine. It’s just the wrongness of it that makes an impression, I think, apart from the fact that it seems to be a very clever and entirely convincing effects shot for the time. The moment is also helped by the fact that the episode so far played out against the constant sound of a storm in the background, giving an oppressive feel to the whole thing, but also a sense of being trapped. Millicent can’t even really go for a walk outside. The four walls of the waiting room are her prison and there is nothing she can do to make that late bus come any quicker.
When it eventually arrives we get the second moment in the episode that sends a shiver down the spine: Millicent goes to board the bus, in the company of a kind stranger, but is greeted by the sight of herself already sat there. An imposter has taken her place, and that’s scary. What really sells the scene is the way the doppelgänger sits there smiling an evil smile. It’s not just that it’s a creepy image, it plays on fears that go right back to childhood, when we read about grinning, mischievous imps and the like. This is something that doesn’t belong, an intruder from another world, and it wants to steal our lives.
As usual, there isn’t really such a thing as a perfect Twilight Zone episode. Rod Serling was great at the big ideas, but not so great at joining all the dots to turn an idea into a coherent story. Often that doesn’t matter, and this episode falls squarely into that category, although it is probably one that the viewer will think about afterwards, and wonder how the imposter managed to do all the things she did. The early part of the episode gives the impression of some kind of a time loop occurring, or just a simple case of insanity, rather than a mischief-maker moving Millicent’s bag and talking to the ticket seller behind her back. If we are supposed to believe that all really happened, unseen by Millicent, then that’s a leap of faith too far, but I’m happy to accept that this is a representation of the unexplained and the unexplainable. I was less keen on the padding in the middle of the episode, with Millicent spending ages giving Paul a detailed account of the events we have just watched. Her explanation of what is happening, referencing something she read, is also far too clumsy, basically an example of the writer speaking through the character to impart information, with that info-dump process laid bare.
The ending is also a little weak. As much as I think it’s a valid enough ending to show the mischief spreading to Paul, it doesn’t seem quite right that the punchline to the episode doesn’t involve Millicent, who has already been unceremoniously bundled into a police car, a moment that left me wondering what crime they thought she had actually committed to warrant such heavy-handed treatment, without even engaging her in conversation first.
There are a couple of aspects to the episode that seem like continuity errors, but actually help to build the disturbing feeling of weirdness to the whole thing. Firstly, when Millicent and Paul settle in for the night, the ticket agent turns off the lights and everyone appears to leave, and yet in the course of a conversation the lights somehow go back on again and the ticket agent is behind his desk, with no explanation. It’s shot in such a way that you can’t actually identify the point at which the lights go back on, and it’s a creepy moment that goes entirely without comment from Paul or Millicent. Secondly, my eye kept getting drawn to the clock on the wall, which seems to have a life of its own and bears no resemblance to the timings of the events of the episode. I realise this is probably a simple mistake, but it accidentally (I think) adds another subtle layer of wrongness to proceedings. In the end, I think wrongness is what makes this series tick. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street