The Midnight Sun takes a long time to open; about 6 minutes before we have any real information at all. All we know is that Norma (the lovely Lois Nettleton) lives alone, paints and it’s blisteringly hot out. I recognized this episode right away; it’s one of those that shows up during marathons and as much as I always remember it, I have to admit: it’s pretty basic. I mean, here’s the thing: rewatching The Twilight Zone with a critical eye really does draw attention to the fact that Serling was an ideas-man, not necessarily a writer. That’s not to take away from many of his fantastic stories, so maybe I should go the extra mile: Serling may not have been good at script writing. Let’s face it, not all stories stretch to 25 minutes. Imagine telling a 25 minute joke; who would stick around? Think about what a joke is: it’s a small story with a funny punchline. It’s the verbal version of Instagram. Serling has ideas that make good short stories, but when you have to space them out over 25 minutes (including hitting those dramatic beats needed for television), you’re going to get filler from time to time. Unfortunately, I’ve been finding a lot of filler in recent Twilight Zone episodes.
In fact, that’s what most of this episode is: filler. Now, that’s not to say I wasn’t invested. Norma is an incredibly decent and likable person. She takes care of Mrs. Bronson even as the old woman starts to lose it. She shares her very limited supply of drinks with her and is even ready to give from her own glass to the little girl seen leaving at the start of the episode. Even when she gets attacked, she pulls a conveniently placed gun (ah, America…) but never uses it. Mrs. Bronson is a nice woman too who hangs out with her friend even as the world slowly drifts towards the sun, cooking them all. In reality, even the intruder is just desperate for a drink; he’s not actually bad (he doesn’t attack either woman), but the problem with his segment is that this was the point in the episode that really felt like padding. It was forced; tacked on to drag the episode along a little longer until the bitter cold end. (Not to mention, he comes in from the roof – what, was he parasailing around town? I know NY buildings often afford access to one another due to proximity, but those doors usually auto-lock.) Anyway, the point is, Serling just had to keep us invested for about 20 minutes before the zinger ending, and he couldn’t do it. I felt like I was watching padding even earlier on, but it wasn’t until the intruder that it really dawned on me and frankly, that is disappointing.
Speaking of the punchline; it’s telegraphed right from the start. Norma mentions to Mrs. Bronson how she has this crazy notion that she’s going to wake up in a cool bed at night. In fact, she’s not wrong. When she does, and we realize her fever dream was actually masking the flipside to her reality, we learn that they are drifting farther from the sun to freeze in the depths of space in 2-3 weeks. It’s a gut punch and it’s memorable. That part resonated with me a lot because I tend to like the warmth more than the cold; this felt like a horror scenario to me. I guess I’m a bit like a reptile; I like the warmth and have felt the cold so much that stories about it resonate deeply. Look at The Outer Limits episode: Cold Hands, Warm Heart if you want another good example! I suppose neither outcome would support life for long, but I’d expect the atmosphere to be ripped away pretty quickly. I’m no scientist though.
When the episode concluded, my main thought was: human beings are never happy. If it’s winter time, we crank the heat. In the summer, we try to make it colder. Surely we can just enjoy what is, no? Well, at least half the year I could: I don’t mind the heat, I just can’t be in direct sunlight, or we’ve got An Interview with a Vampire all over again! Neither of these outcomes is any good for humanity, but it just goes to show that people are never content. Maybe that’s why they say Californians are so mellow: they have perfect temperature every day. All they have to worry about is devastating fires and an earthquake that can send the entire state into the sea. Hm… come to think of it, I’ll take my temperature controlled environment any day… ML
The view from across the pond:
Tonight on The Misery Zone… two women being slowly baked to death. This isn’t exactly a show that is known for its positive outlook on life, but the third season so far has been almost unremittingly grim, and this is another episode that seems designed to make the viewers feel anxious. In contrast with some of the previous episodes we do actually have plot developments this time, but those plot developments consist of somebody being robbed, losing her mind and dying, all of which takes place in an apocalypse scenario.
It doesn’t help that this is mostly a two-hander and the acting of one of the two robs the episode of some of its credibility. Betty Garde has some difficult material to perform as Mrs Bronson, and unfortunately it proves to be beyond her abilities. It goes wrong very early on, even before Rod Serling’s narration, with Garde completely failing to portray an emotional moment when she struggles to say the word “doomed”, without resorting to something akin to bad amateur dramatics. Her moments of hysteria are similarly problematical and her death scene has to be seen to be believed. That’s simply not fair on the other member of this two-women acting team: Lois Nettleton, who is absolutely stunning as Norma. It’s quite simply one of the greatest acting performances I have seen in any TZ episode, and it seems far more realistic in terms of the way she tries to hang on to her humanity while the world around her bakes.
Despite showing us a desperately horrific situation, Serling does manage some unusual positivity in his examination of human behaviour, which is not generally his thing. Norma is kind-natured throughout, sharing her water with her neighbours, suffering Mrs Bronson’s hysterics with patience and understanding, even when she snatches some precious fruit juice away from her and drops the tin on the floor, and using her little time remaining to paint something that will make her neighbour happy. When somebody breaks into their apartment building and steals their water, he is ashamed and apologetic, and explains how he has lost his wife and newborn baby and is being driven by desperation. There are no villains here, other than the hot, burning sun.
The twist is delivered in two halves, both of which work brilliantly in different ways. After the stressful viewing experience of seeing Norma’s surroundings baking, boiling and melting, and her face drenched in sweat at the end as she lets out a final, desperate scream, we get a moment of incredible contrast and relief. It’s not a million miles away from one of those “it was all a dream” endings that I always find so disappointing, but it’s tied in so cleverly with her medical situation that it actually works quite well and allows us a glorious feeling of relief… and then the doctor says he won’t be returning and we know something is still terribly wrong.
The ending is a bit of a con trick, because it doesn’t actually change the situation for the main characters. The manner of their death is different, but just as inevitable. I almost felt silly for allowing myself to believe for a second or two that Rod Serling could have actually written a happy ending, but I have to hand it to him: it’s damned clever. And I’m pretty sure he made one thing very clear in the minds of viewers: given the choice, we would rather take our chances in extreme cold than extreme heat. Six decades after this episode was first broadcast, we face an uncomfortable truth when we look at those two options. We are sixty years closer to the latter. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Still Valley
After learning and reading about Girls’ Last Tour on the Junkyard, it’s all the more interesting to reflect on a vintage apocalyptic tale led by two female friends. I knew Lois Nettleton from other things including the 1968 sci-fi film The Bamboo Saucer. Though it was the first time I saw Betty Garde and the twist was all the more memorable for how most of Mrs. Bronson in the episode is Norma’s fever. It stirs our imaginations of whether the Intruder (Tom Reese) was ever real, and remembered by Norma somehow in the freezing Earth reality, or entirely part of the dream. As with most classic Twilight Zone episode twists and revelations, this one might work through the sudden shift in perspective. And it certainly has a lot to say today with our increasing issues for global warming. Most recently the Alberta wildfires. The Midnight Sun is a drama fueled by an uncomfortable truth and, quite healthily, TV audiences are more accustomed to that for this era. Thank you both for your reviews.
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This is one of my favorite episodes. It shows how you can do an “end of the world” story without a big-screen budget and be more effective (it came out on the heels of “The Day Earth Caught Fire” which I found to be a largely tedious affair). There is a narrative gap caused by a deleted scene that explains why Norma has a gun, because a police officer had visited her and told her they weren’t going to be on duty any longer and he gave her his gun for protection. But otherwise it’s flawless and it does “play fair” in that there is a subtle hint about the twist early on.
And of course there is the fact that Lois Nettleton gives a terrific performance in addition to looking terrific (she had understudied the part of Maggie in “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” on Broadway so the very fact she has to parade in her slip ends up evoking that role). When I first saw this episode, I assumed she was only in her mid-20s at the time and I was stunned to later learn she was 35. She always tended to look a decade younger than her actual age (a trait shared with Lee Grant in this era). It is IMO one of the best female star turn guest shots of the series.
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