This episode introduces itself with a jaunty birthday tune in suburbia as jovial neighbors gather together around the dining room table to celebrate the birthday of cherished neighborhood physician, Dr. Bill Stockton, who's enjoying a healthy after dinner smoke. The decimated cake and raucous laughter is an indication that many libations have already been poured, as the good doctor is regaled by his neighbor, Jerry, for providing care to several generations of their families. His neighbors good naturedly razz him for the neighborhood disturbance he has caused by his construction of a bomb shelter, but assure him of their deep and abiding love for him, despite the nuisance.
Dr. Bill's son, Paul, interrupts the happy gathering to alert them to an announcement on TV instructing them to tune in to the CONELRAD station on the radio.
The cheerful noise dissipates as they learn that the president has declared a yellow alert after unidentified flying objects were detected on radar flying southeast. The group is silently stunned, so we can only guess they must be assuming that nuclear missiles have been dispatched from the Soviet Union.
The radio announcer instructs them to immediately go to their shelter, if they have one, or to bring supplies to their basement. The neighborhood couples quickly dash out of the house to sequester in their homes as jet engines can be heard buzzing overhead.
Rod Serling appears onscreen to prepare the viewers for an anxiety inducing half hour and sleepless night ahead:
What you're about to watch is a nightmare. It is not meant to be prophetic, it need not happen. It's the fervent and urgent prayer of all men of good will that it never shall happen. But in this place, in this moment, it does happen. This is the Twilight Zone.
The Stockton family is busily preparing for an imminent attack, gathering water and supplies to bring into the shelter. Grace is nervously filling bottles of water at the the sink, and when one slips from her hand and smashes on the ground, Bill tells her to imagine that it's expensive perfume to help her make a feminine connection that would enable her to understand the importance of having stores of water on hand. As the power threatens to go out and the water dwindles from the tap, Grace and Bill grow more irritable and anxious. The family heads down into the shelter and Bill asks Paul to get his toolkit from the garage so he and Grace can discuss hypotheticals.
Grace becomes visibly upset and Bill tries to calm her, assuring her that if it's a bomb it won't land near them. She reminds him that New York is a target that's only 40 miles away and if it is hit, they will get radiation poisoning. Bill says they'll survive in their shelter with food and water to last two weeks, but Grace demonstrates she's not the dumb broad she was made out to be by asking why it's necessary to survive only to emerge into a wasteland amongst their friends' corpses. Bill says they need to survive for 12 year old Paul's sake.
While Bill goes upstairs to collect the rest of the water, Jerry comes over to ask if he and his family can hunker down in Bill's shelter with them, since their modern home is not equipped with a cellar. Bill offers the use of their basement since the shelter is designed for the use of three people and there is not enough air or supplies for more.
He apologizes and says he has to look out for his family, while Jerry responds that he can't stand by and watch his family suffer and die. Bill reminds him of how he warned them to prepare instead of having card parties and barbecues, but they did not heed his warning and now have to face the consequences.
Marty arrives with his wife and kids, and asks Jerry if Bill is in his shelter. Marty says he has to let them in his shelter as Jerry leaves. The power goes out and Marty begs Bill to let his family in, reminding him that he's a doctor and supposed to help people, but Bill tells him to get out.
As Marty's family makes their way out of Bill's house, they come across Jerry and his family at the door as his wife is demanding that he ask Bill again to let them in. Frank's family shows up at the door and Jerry tells them that Bill is not letting any of the 12 of them in to his shelter and that they should go work on one basement together and pool their supplies. Jerry's wife claims it's not fair that he's in a bomb shelter while all their kids have to sit around and wait for bombs to drop. The kids seem nonplussed by this information.
Frank suggests they go break down the door, but Jerry stops him to say they couldn't all fit and they'd be killing everyone for no reason. Marty appeals to Jerry to ask Bill to let one family in and they can draw lots to choose. Frank claims Marty intends for his family to be chosen and then gets really ugly, saying that's how it is with foreigners who come over acting as pushy, grabby semi-Americans. His wife doubles down by saying Marty is at the bottom of the list. Jerry says they won't need a bomb to destroy them if they keep up the fighting and animosity.
Jerry and Frank hear jets overhead and begin to head out the front door to see what's going on as another neighbor approaches. Frank claims again that he's going to go force Bill to let them in, and rushes back to the shelter. He tells Bill he can open up and discuss how many of them can come in there or else they will break in. Bill says they are wasting precious time when they could be figuring out a way to survive. They talk about getting a pipe to use as a battering ram from a neighbor, but then decide they don't want any other neighborhoods to be aware of "their" shelter. Jerry claims they are all acting like a mob without any brains.
Frank maintains they should get the pipe from the neighbor and not tell him what it's for, while Marty says he agrees with Jerry. Frank responds that nobody cares what he or his "kind" think, and that the first thing they should do is get rid of him, which he attempts to do by punching Marty in the face and knocking him down.
As air raid sirens go off, Frank and the neighbor rush out to get the battering ram. Grace asks who those people are, and Bill says they are their friends and neighbors of 20 years. He and Paul begin to barricade the door.
Frank and two neighbors come running down the street with a very long pipe while their wives and kids follow them in to Bill's house. They begin to batter the door, eventually breaking it in just as a message comes over CONELRAD announcing that the UFOs have been identified as satellites, that no enemy missiles are approaching, and the state of emergency is called off. The relieved couples embrace.
Frank hesitantly approaches Marty and claims he was scared and didn't mean what he said to him. Jerry says Marty won't hold it against him, just as he believes Bill won't hold their bad behavior against them.
Jerry tells him they'll pay for the damages and Marty suggests they have a block party, which Jerry says will help them get back to normal. Bill says he doesn't know what normal is, and that he's not sure what the damages really are, but thinks one of them may be finding out that his neighbors were willing to claw each other to death just to stay alive. He says that while they were spared a bomb, they may have been destroyed nevertheless.
The stunned, shamefaced neighbors begin to file past the Stockton's demolished dining room and out of the house as Rod Serling provides the voiceover closing to this suburban nightmare:
No moral, no message, no prophetic tract. Just a simple statement of fact. For civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized. Tonight's very small exercise in logic from The Twilight Zone.
BOOM! How's that for a bomb drop? I first saw this episode when there was still a Cold War raging and the threat of nuclear annihilation remained a clear and present danger, and while that environment provides a unique perception of events in this episode, it's not necessary in order to understand the real horror, which is less about nuclear destruction and more about the intense desire for self preservation that inspires the kind of fear that can drive people to acts of stupidity. It is the same fear that has store shelves depleted of toilet paper and other basic necessities.
Rod Serling does not shy away from exposing the intolerant beliefs of some that others are less worthy because of their ethnicity or country of origin. He would be dismayed, though maybe not surprised, to know that those attitudes continue to exist today. Serling has no moral message or judgement to offer, but has us considering what will be revealed about our own true nature when we're stripped down to our core by an intense level of fear, and survival mode kicks in. Would we also claw our friends to death just to survive?
Something to note about the Grasshopper-and-the-Ants-like aspect of the story is Bill's self righteous attitude towards his neighbors. Clearly, there would not have been enough room in the shelter for another family, stressing not only the air reserves, but also whatever latrine facilities were available, so his decision seems just, but his suggestion that they deserve to be obliterated by a bomb because they didn't adequately prepare may have been somewhat insensitive at the time.
Grace has the ultimate point to make in considering whether or not it's worth it to avoid the instant death of the initial blast only to suffer a prolonged and horrible death due to radiation poisoning. It's not surprising that Bill dismisses her notion so eagerly since the whole point to building the shelter disregards that possibility. After seeing how easily a long, thin pipe could break down the door to the shelter, it would have been a moot point anyway.
The Monsters on Maple Street is a companion to this episode in examining how fear can make people act in abhorrent ways, and one I will surely be revisiting soon.
As we make our way through our own contemporary crisis, it is helpful to remember Rod Serling's timeless words. Be civilized, people, and we will get through this.