The Twilight Zone: Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959Meet Jackie Rhoades, a 34 year old… let’s be honest: neurotic wimp with no personal hygiene and a whiney voice to boot.  What is it with Rod Serling?  I remember loving The Twilight Zone but lately I’ve watched a litany of episodes featuring characters who NO ONE could like.  I remember a quote I’d read once which made me laugh: “You make God sick!”  I mean, could there be a more brutal put-down??  But that’s Jackie Rhoades.  Hell, he can’t even spell his last name right.  And for a guy who spends the episode saying how hot he is in the room, he ends the episode by putting a coat on to go out.  This man is a wimp and the audience has 25 minutes to deal with him.  And by the way, I’m a germophobe so watching this guy shove his fingers in his mouth throughout the episode was sickening!  What it came down to is: I didn’t care about Jackie one little bit.  He’s not a sweet little fellow who gets bullied but rather a man who grew up making bad decisions.  I almost want to write it off as a product of the time, but what does that says about the era of my parents?  No, I don’t see it as a statement about anything other than a really lousy character.

What really bothers me is that Jackie acts big when he’s got a phone between him and his “boss”, George.  (And by God, why did he feel the need to say the man’s name twice per sentence anyway?!)  But when confronted with the man in person, he wimps out.  Interestingly, George is more likeable than the lead character but when you’re in the negatives, it’s easy for a zero to seem like a good rating!  To compound the lack of character in this episode, the plot had nowhere to go.  Jackie never leaves that $4 room because duh – it was in the title.  We’re going to spend those 25 minutes in a claustrophobic nightmare with a guy no one wants to be around.  There really was only one way to do this story so, even accepting that this was from decades ago, it still feels like a weak story.  Yeah, great, we get to see Jackie’s strong side hidden in the mirror but all that tells us is what a total loser Jackie has been in his life, succumbing to peer pressure and breaking the heart of a girl who actually loved him.  He could have gone either way, his mirror image tells him, but he chose the wrong path time and again.  It takes being told to kill a man to finally break the weakness meaning this guy had a conscience, but it really took an act of murder to break him out of his wimpy shell?

Now where the episode takes a minor turn is when Jackie’s alter ego does come out.  I still didn’t like the man because of all that I’d learned up until then but I did suddenly like the actor because he does play a totally different role.  I get it though: we’re taking a look at human weakness; the frailty of the psyche.  That’s usually fun but typically you have a character you like as the protagonist.  And the claustrophobic setting doesn’t make it much better.  Typically a tight set like this can be used to excellent effect, but again, you want to take that trip with someone who is, at the very least, interesting.  Jackie isn’t likeable or interesting.

The best shot in the episode is the opening when we have a top-down view of Jackie and Rod Serling comes in for the opening narration; the camera is still looking down but Serling is walking straight at us.  In fairness, Joe Mantell gives a solid performance especially considering how different his two characters are.  But the episode never quite rises above the most basic storytelling because we know what’s coming.  We get an end sequence where Jackie, now John, emerges and beats George up before tossing him out of the room.  He then empties the gun George gave him earlier, and throws it at George’s retreating form.  Sure Jackie… er, John… does unload the weapon before tossing it but it’s not as if George couldn’t reload it and come back for revenge.  So sure, kudos to the performance, but not sure that Serling is doing himself or his audience any justice with his characters.  John ends with the line, “Now maybe we can stop biting our nails.”  Yeah, maybe, but I’ve already been put off.  That’s a bad habit anywhere you do it, even in The Twilight Zone.  ML

The view from across the pond:

Rod Serling was asked by CBS to bring down costs and this episode was his response to that request. It has only two actors, and it all takes place in one small hotel room. I am normally a big fan of the closely-contained, stripped back approach to drama, which has resulted in some amazing, claustrophobic episodes of other drama series, particularly Doctor Who, but this really does look cheap.

It also doesn’t play to Serling’s strengths as a writer whatsoever. He is the master of the twist ending, and his episodes often feel horribly padded, because he has one simple idea which doesn’t even stretch to fill the modest 25 minute running time. Give us nothing interesting to look at and hardly any actors, and that padding becomes a loser talking to himself for what feels like an eternity.

For the first ten minutes that happens quite literally, before something TZ-ish finally happens. Then we have the whole point of the episode:

“Me and the mirror, we’re having a talk.”

They talk for a long time, with endless debating about their past, which is tedious, pointless, and adds little to the story. Jackie is a loser, and it doesn’t help that the main character is completely unlikeable. His mirror twin is the opposite side of his personality, presumably deeply buried inside him. At times it is all quite comedic, and I’m not sure it was supposed to be, with the mirror twin saying “Jackie! Now Jackie!” from the preponderance of mirrors, including one inside the closet. That scene made me laugh, and I don’t think it was supposed to, as the rest of the episode was free from any intended comedy.

There is no twist to this one really, just a logical progression of the story. The mirror twin wants to take over Jackie’s life and become Jackie, and that’s exactly what happens.

“I want to live with all the guts and goodness you left behind.”

The crime boss being beaten up is no surprise, and it’s mildly satisfying although entirely unrealistic. A well-aimed punch would not have stopped a man like that from taking his revenge, and the coda we never get to see would be Jackie/John leaving his hotel to be dragged into the nearest dark alley and killed. That would have been bleak, but at least it would have been a functional twist in the tale and a much more realistic reflection of the consequences of the action Jackie/John takes. You don’t get to walk away from years of petty criminality and cowardice with a kick and a punch. Instead we get a childish fairy tale version of the world, within four walls of a dirty hotel room.

The one thing this episode has going for it is the way it makes us think. That’s something TZ nearly always does well, even with the weaker episodes. We come away from it with questions. What exactly was the mirror twin? Was he really just a different side of the same man’s personality? I have seen this one described as a story with a happy ending, but it’s not nearly as simple as that. It depends on how you interpret what we see; is it a man who has finally found his courage, or is it a man who has been trapped inside a mirror and had his life stolen away from him by some kind of an opportunistic monster wearing his face? Serling gives us an ending that is happy when viewed metaphorically, but horrific when interpreted more literally. Considering Jackie seemed completely incapable of turning his life around, it really does just come across as a different person walking off with his life, to do a better job than he could. The name change tells us everything we need to know. That man isn’t Jackie any more. A happy ending? No, I don’t buy that. This one is a horror story, from beginning to end.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: A Thing About Machines

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, The Twilight Zone and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Twilight Zone: Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Whatever our actual takeaway from this episode should be, it certainly has points to make on how each of us can have another side to ourselves with the question of which side finally takes over. It can feel rewarding enough when the psychologically empowered side wins out and finally defeats the bully. But when the cowardly side has to be conquered as well, quite agreeably it might be too cruel. And speaking as someone who seriously disapproves of harshly forced methods on helping an individual with problems, it makes more sense when a person truly wants to be helped. So this raises an obvious question. Does the cowardly Jackie in some sense actually want to be helped? Is that why the strong Jackie appears in the first place? I might think so if this episode had somehow dramatized that much more clearly. But for a brilliant performance by Joe Mantell with the clever mirror effects, it’s still a watchable episode. It could have been interesting if Jordan Peele chose to do some sort of remake of this one knowing his own Twilight Zone style. Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

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