Amazing that after so many years, I still remembered this episode so clearly. Mostly, that’s because of the punchline. One mistake in my memory was that I was certain the “guide” was named Cadwalader, so when he was introduced as Pip, I was surprised. Not nearly as surprised as I was by the phone that had only 3 characters to select though! I mean, real estate might not have been an issue, by why would you need 2 P’s when you could just use the same one twice?
But enough about that. The fact is, this is one episode that I always appreciated. Unfortunately, I do take issue with it due to the very dated use of vernacular. Pip is a large fellow, but Henry Francis Valentine keeps calling him Fatso or Fats. I found that offensive, and maybe that’s a symptom of an overly sensitive world we’ve developed but I still think it’s just being aware of people’s feelings. Overly-sensitive? Maybe but why risk hurting someone? Admittedly, Valentine is there for being the sort of guy who enjoys being mean, but that didn’t make it right. (Although based on what we learn about Pip, I doubt he minded!) Nor was it comfortable hearing him referring to the cops as “screws”.
There’s one thing I noticed when watching The Twilight Zone this time around: Serling gives his characters full names. Go back through the season and look at how many people have a first, middle and last name. These are slightly more developed characters and yet they live for no more than 25 minutes in our world before we move on to the next story. To add to the sense of realism, Valentine has a nickname, Rocky and he has a rap sheet a mile long, full of his cruelty and misdemeanors. This is a man who believes he ended up in heaven by mistake only to learn that he has landed in “the other place.” It’s a chilling realization for him, but it should come as no surprise to the audience. Rocky is a bad guy! And it illustrates a terrible punishment for his behavior: even the things he always wanted sour to him now. It just goes to show that evil begets evil.
There is one thing that made me laugh, having remembered the “punchline” to the story well in advance of seeing it this time. While Rocky is talking to Pip, still under the misconception that he’s in heaven, he says he thought this place was for schoolteachers. Pip chuckles and replies “oh, we have some school teachers here!” Now, by today’s standards that might be more accepted in TV but it stunned me in this. Anyone who watched season one of SyFy’s outstanding Resident Alien might have picked up on a similar comment about a teacher with a mustache. While overt in Resident Alien, I think people accept that sort of thing more today.
Personally, I still like this episode and I think that was just down to the surprise the first time I watched it. It’s not the sort of episode that is easy to watch again once you know the punchline, but thankfully, it’s been decades! Still, it had an added edge to it this time. Recently I worked with a guy who reminded me of Valentine. Not that he had a bad rap sheet; he was a nice guy, but he spoke the same way. He was loud and had that curt way of speaking, brusque, boisterous and rather than saying “fatso”, he would say “boss” all the time. Imagine my surprise at a realization like that. I never watch this series expecting to see people I recognize from real life, especially a former colleague. Thankfully it was just in his manner of speaking and nothing to do with his personality. It also made me wonder how much of my day is spent in the real world and how frequently I make side trips into The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Be careful what you wish for. I think that’s the theme writer Charles Beaumont was going for with this episode of The Twilight Zone. Rocky Valentine has been a criminal all his life, even during his childhood to a certain extent, and he blames that on the world around him rather than on his own choices. It’s very clever that the writer shows him winning in a casino in the afterlife, because he thinks the odds were stacked against him when he was alive, so he gets to experience the reverse of that, with the odds always stacked in his favour. Does that give him what he always wanted? No, because the grass is rarely greener on the other side.
The twist in the tale is pretty obvious from the start. There are only really two possibilities: either it’s heaven and he just doesn’t fit in there, or it’s “the other place”. The strongest indication of which one it is comes when Rocky asks to visit some friends and Pip tells him that’s not possible. Heaven couldn’t be that lonely. And yet Rocky completely misses the point (and I wonder if the writer does too, as the one thing that demonstrates that Rocky’s world cannot be heaven goes largely unspoken) because he complains of boredom rather than loneliness.
The big problem with this scenario is that Rocky gets bored far too easily, and that his purgatory is far too lenient. I get the irony, but I don’t think it quite works. Pip goes out of his way to accommodate any wish Rocky can think of, and the bit that’s really silly is the pool table. When that appeared I was thinking that would amuse me for a while, and then the balls all pot themselves. Pip had just suggested arranging for a robbery to be staged and Rocky to get caught, so surely Rocky could ask for the pool table to obey the laws of physics. The answer might be no, but Pip is very accommodating, and Rocky doesn’t even ask, nor does he ask for any other distractions Pip might be able to offer. How about a television, for a start? There also doesn’t seem to be any issue with creating large quantities of fake people. If Rocky is bored with women after a month, considering he doesn’t even have to stick with the same one(s), his libido is oddly low to say the least. So it’s ironic, yes, but the point is made weakly because he fails to explore all the possibilities and then get bored. There was a stronger ending available to the writer, very easily, and that was to show what the word “eternity” means. Why not return to Rocky after hundreds of years have passed for him, or even thousands, or millions, and show us a man who is bored of playing games and has tried everything a thousand times, and then show how his (after)life has become meaningless. That could have worked, but a month? And I think there is another unspoken problem here: if Pip gave Rocky random chance to play with, I don’t think he would last more than a month more before he was unsatisfied again, because there is a bigger problem with his lost soul.
To make sense of this episode you really need to switch off the empathy centres of your brain when you watch. It’s already hard to care about what happens to Rocky one way or the other, because the man’s a complete imbecile, and I’ve mentioned before that a television show with nobody for the viewers to care about lacks any hook other than curiosity value, which is rarely enough. But to appreciate this one you need to go beyond not caring about Rocky, and also avoid the temptation to place yourself in his shoes. Few people watching would react to Rocky’s situation in the same way as Rocky, because we’re not idiots, but that doesn’t mean the narrative is necessarily at fault, apart from that one month thing. It’s important to remember that this is Rocky’s own particular purgatory, giving him what he thought he wanted all his life, which still leaves him with an itch he can never scratch. He committed crimes because he thought he was taking what the world should have given him, and when the world actually gives him all that stuff he discovers that none of it would have filled the emptiness in his soul after all. I’ll join the dots that the writer never quite joined: money can’t buy him happiness. Friendship, love and kindness might have done. But as Rod Serling would say, this is a “portrait” of a man who could never understand that. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Nightmare as a Child