Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Twilight Zone: Time Enough at Last (11/20/59)

As a bookish person, I've always had a great fondness for the Twilight Zone episode, "Time Enough at Last." It could be that part of it is due to an interest in apocalyptic tales, but more to do with being a reader, as well as a person with existential issues. It seemed to be an appropriate time to revisit this cautionary tale.

Mr. Bemis loves reading so much, he allows it to interfere with his ability to properly do his job as a bank teller, as he mistakenly counts out the incorrect amount of cash to a bank patron, all the while prattling on about characters in David Copperfield that the client has no apparent interest in. Is he just an oblivious bibliophile, or is it possible he's suffering from reading addiction?

But who among us wouldn't love to just once throw up the "Next Window Please" sign while at work and kick back with a good book for a bit? Suddenly, Mr. Bemis is earning our deep admiration and respect.

Naturally, his boss, Mr. Carsville, decides to appear like a wraith with a disapproving look over reader Bemis' shoulder. When Bemis asks if he's ever read David Copperfield, he responds, "No, Mr. Bemis, I have not!" as though it's abnormal for people to read classic literature. He demands to see Mr. Bemis in his office and Rod Serling takes the opportunity to let us in on what's to come for our beloved bibliophile, while Bemis stuffs his book in a drawer and scurries after his employer.

Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-clackers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment, Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He'll have a world all to himself, without anyone.
Mr. Carsville is holding Bemis hostage in his office to endure an onslaught of wordiness about what he expects from his employees. He tells Bemis he is "neither an efficient bank teller nor a proficient employee," which seems a pretty accurate description from what little we've seen, but then goes on to say, "You, Mr. Bemis, are a reader," which seems a little off topic, especially when he begins listing all the things Bemis reads. It gives one the impression that Carsville is stalking him, which he reinforces by admitting he sees him going into the vault during his lunch hour to read. It may seem appropriate for him to request that he stop reading during his work hours, but unacceptable that he should suggest he not read on his own time.

Bemis confesses that his domineering wife won't let him read at home and Carsville tells him his wife "is an amazingly bright woman." He mentions the time Bemis got beaned by a woman with an umbrella for reading the campaign button on her lapel a little too closely. He claims he was "only looking to see who she voted for," and it would be difficult to believe anything else.

Back at his castle, Bemis is sitting in a comfy chair reading the newspaper when his wife begins screeching his name. She enters the room and yanks the paper out of his hands. She complains about him repeatedly sneaking off to read the paper instead of informing her that he doesn't want more coffee. In this case, coffee does not equal sex, she apparently wants to sit and chew the fat with him, though it's likely she really wants to throw words at his head.

She tells him, "I won't tolerate a husband of mine sacrificing the art of conversation." He laughs over her saying "a husband of mine," as though she has many, when he really should have been chuckling over "art of conversation." She informs him that they're going to the Phillips' house for cards and she wants him to change his shirt. Like a dutiful hubby, he accedes to her wishes.

When she leaves the room, he rummages under the chair cushion for a book, which he stuffs into his jacket pocket. Apparently, he's going to try and get in a few pages while playing cards at the Phillips' house. Does he intend to excuse himself to the bathroom and hide out with his book? One has to wonder. He throws on his jacket, apparently trying to get away with not changing his shirt, but he is surprised to find her waiting on the other side of the door. She demands to see what he has, and frisks him with a smirk on her face.

She discovers his book of poetry and asks if he'd like to read her some poems.

He is delighted to share some lovely poems with the love of his life, but as he opens the book he discovers all the pages are crosshatched.

He looks up at her, not wanting to believe he's married to a woman with a personality disorder, because he asks who did it.

She says he should thank her for destroying his book of "silly, ridiculous, nonsensical doggerel," and proceeds to grab the book from him and tear out the pages, which seems like overkill.

He asks why she does those things and she claims it's because she's married to a fool. She may be right there. Why would he marry such an unpleasant woman who doesn't share his interests? He carefully gathers up the torn and illegible, cherished pages, and stuffs them back into the book. It might seem an odd thing to do, since it's obvious he can no longer read them.

We next see Mr. Bemis grabbing his sack lunch, a book, and the newspaper, and heading to the vault for his lunch break. He puts down his book and grabs the paper to see the headline, "H-Bomb Capable of Total Destruction." As he decides it's not worthy of his reading attention, and goes to put it down, his book flips open and the glass on his watch shatters right before a loud explosion is heard that tosses Bemis to unconsciousness within the vault.

He finally comes to and is disoriented as he pushes the vault door open, because his glasses hang askew on his face and all he sees is a blur of chaos. As he raises his glasses, he sees that the building is in shambles. He enters his boss's office and is startled to hear his voice on the recorder saying, "I can only tell you that an adherence to duty, a constant remembrance that a bank, like a political office, is a public trust. These things are of the essence. These things are basic above all things, just the qualities I've mentioned already." He asks his secretary to type up his speech as Bemis sees his corpse under the desk, and the recorder explodes.

Bemis stumbles out of the building and sees the world around him in ruin. Even as a kid I wondered why there weren't more corpses around, but it is the fifth dimension, after all, a middle ground between science and superstition, so it doesn't have to make sense or be realistic. Still, nobody likes to see the world destroyed, so Serling interjects to calm us with his soothing prose as Bemis goes exploring the lifeless world:

Seconds, minutes, hours—they crawl by on hands and knees for Mr. Henry Bemis, who looks for a spark in the ashes of a dead world. A telephone connected to nothingness. A neighborhood bar, a movie, a baseball diamond, a hardware store, the mailbox of what was once his house and is now a rubble. They lie at his feet as battered monuments to what was but is no more.

Poor Bemis screams for his wife, though one has to wonder if it's in hopes of finding her, or in making sure that she's gone. Serling wraps up saying, "Mr. Henry Bemis, on an 8-hour tour of a graveyard." Bemis realizes he's the only one who survived because of the protection of the vault, though he's not sure he wants to be alive. That is the conundrum of surviving nuclear war, though, isn't it?

He digs through a demolished grocery store, claiming he won't starve because he has enough irradiated cans of food to last for years. He has so much food that he tosses a partially eaten cracker away. He lays down on a couch with a cigarette, and rests his glasses on the edge, while stating out loud that the worst part is being alone, and he questions his existence. He falls asleep.

When he awakens, he puts on his glasses. He sees a car nearby and attempts to start it but is frustrated to find he's unable. He starts frantically calling for someone, and then talks himself down, saying it's just solitude and that he's really extremely fortunate. He goes back to freaking out and calling for someone again as he runs and stumbles across a destroyed sporting goods store. He discovers a gun and decries the loneliness and sameness, wishing there were something to do, like rebuild civilization or something. He says he'll surely be forgiven as he places the gun against his temple.

He sees a toppled column labeled, Public Library, and drops the gun as he races up the steps that are littered with the books of Dickens and George Bernard Shaw. He is thrilled to find all the books he'll ever need or want, and stacks them up by each month of the year he plans to read them. I'm thinking he'd better find a place to keep them safe from the elements, but he's not that far into his planning yet.

He picks up a book and holds it to his chest, then puts it down to deliver the essential line:
Oh. And the best thing, the very best thing of all is there's time now. There's all the time I need and all the time I want. Time, time, time. Ahh. There's time enough at last.

He looks down at a book on the ground, and in reaching for it, causes the glasses to fall from his face and shatter on the ground. He blindly searches for them and pops the lenses out, sobbing that it's not fair. Serling returns to close out the episode:

The best-laid plans of mice and men—Henry Bemis—the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis, in The Twilight Zone.

Hey, that sucked! What did Henry Bemis do to deserve that? Is it because he dedicated himself to the selfish pursuit of reading at the expense of social interaction that he's been condemned to suffer a life of loneliness? Is it because he never stood up for himself when his boss and wife berated him for reading and so lacked the gumption to persevere when facing Armageddon?

When I was younger, I had always hoped he'd blindly stumble around until he found an eyewear shop, though even then I knew he'd be more apt to go looking for the gun he'd dropped. He probably could have made do with one of the lens fragments that fell out of his glasses, but Mr. Henry Bemis was all too willing to give up and cry foul rather than try to find a way to survive, which is why he didn't get a happy ending.

This episode was calling out for me to revisit it in the face of the nuclear button size boasts and erroneous missile attack notifications that make Rod Serling turn in his grave. It may provoke some thought about intellectualism, solitude, the meaning of life, and the cruel stupidity of nuclear weapons. It's a reminder to make the most of each day.

For the most part, I am fond of this episode because I could always relate to Henry Bemis in feeling that I never had enough time to do all the reading I wanted to do. Now that I'm at an age where I require glasses to be able to read, I've learned from Bemis to keep several pairs on hand at all times. With the many shelves of unread books and yet to be seen movies adorning my home, it reminds me that I need to make time every day to work my way through the many stories that interest me. I've signed up on Goodreads to help motivate myself to read more by tracking what I read, and hope to be more consistent in posting some of the movies I've been watching this year. Mostly I'll be grateful every day for the simple pleasures of blue skies, green plants and singing birds, and hope that the Mad King will not decide to obliterate everything with the handy dandy nuke button on his desk.

What will you make time enough at last for this year?