Okay, so, this is the last Twilight Zone, and most people will probably never agree with me on this one as being the best episode of the show, but I think it’s mostly that this episode hardly ever gets replayed because it’s an extremely uncomfortable episode.
You might remember that I pointed out in an earlier Twilight Zone review that Rod Serling had a strong set of opinions about fascism. Specifically, he hated it more than you’ve ever hated anything in your life.
He believed that totalitarianism of any kind inevitably led towards the suppression of the inherent rights of a human being, and the 1950s had not done anything to convince him that this belief was wrong. Instead, it had convinced him that any government, at any time, was at the risk of becoming totalitarian, as long as people were not willing to stand up to it. Moreover, he’d realized that, while people usually associated totalitarianism prior to the 16th or 17th Century with religious zealotry, such as the Pharaohs, Popes, or the kings who wielded Divine Right, there was now emerging a totalitarian mindset claiming “utilitarianism” and “science” as its support. It took many faces: Eugenics, corruptions of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, Immigration restrictionists, “the Negro’s Place in Nature,” White Man’s Burden, etc.
Remember, the Nazis, while they definitely had some Christian support and structure at the beginning, also justified many of their actions through a belief in the cold logic of “science.” In retrospect, it wasn’t actual science so much as propaganda posing as logic, but they still used it as support. At the same time, Mengele was mutilating and torturing children in the name of scientific progress and Unit 731 of the Japanese Army did things that humanity should not even have words for in the name of advancing biological warfare. So great was the scientific value of the latter that the US granted them immunity in exchange for the data. Serling might not have been aware of that (it wasn’t confirmed to the public until long after this episode), but he would definitely have been aware of the US granting sanctuary to Nazi Rocket Scientist Wernher von Braun and his associates, who, likewise, claimed that their actions were only in the name of advancing science.
Then, under Eisenhower, the US started to define ourselves strongly as a religious country in opposition to the “Godless Soviets,” but at the same time the McCarthy hearings had provided an obvious element of government persecution within the US itself. Calls for banning of books and films containing “Socialist propaganda” and “Anti-American Sentiment” ran throughout parts of the country. Also, George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949. These factors all seemed to come together in the writing of this episode.
The episode only has two real characters in it. The first is introduced as Romney Wordsworth, a Christian librarian played by Burgess Meredith. The second is the unnamed Chancellor, played by Fritz Weaver. The episode begins in a large room containing a single table and a high podium. I cannot describe the setting better than Serling himself did:
“You walk into this room at your own risk, because it leads to the future, not a future that will be but one that might be. This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one. It has patterned itself after every dictator who has ever planted the ripping imprint of a boot on the pages of history since the beginning of time. It has refinements, technological advances, and a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom. But like every one of the super-states that preceded it, it has one iron rule: logic is an enemy and truth is a menace.”
Romney Wordsworth enters, and is put on “trial” for being obsolete. His profession, librarian, is unnecessary, as the state has banned all books, and unnecessary things are to be terminated. Additionally, he is a Christian, which is a capital crime since the State has proven that God does not exist. He is immediately found guilty by the Chancellor, whom Weaver portrays as being simultaneously an obvious showman and also an unrepentant merciless narcissist. Wordsworth accepts his fate, but asks for two things: 1) That he be allowed to choose the method of his execution in secret, and 2) That his death be televised. The Chancellor acquiesces to the first, on the condition that Wordsworth arrange to die within 48 hours, and proudly agrees to the second, saying that it is the desire of the State to show the weakness and fear on the faces of the State’s opponents as they die. Wordsworth states that he will die at Midnight the next day. During this exchange, both men portray themselves as believing they have the upper hand.
The next day, at 11:16 PM, Wordsworth requests the Chancellor’s presence before he is to die. The Chancellor shows up, telling Wordsworth that he came only to prove that the State is unafraid of anything he would say or do. Wordsworth responds that it must truly be a burden on the State to prove that it isn’t afraid of an unarmed librarian the hour before he is to be executed. The two begin to discuss the nature of the State and the human will, with the Chancellor sure that Wordsworth is only moments from breaking. The Chancellor even points out that the State has learned from the errors of all of the former dictators, understanding that it needs to eliminate literally any undesirables, because any person who is not directly part of the State will begin to plot against the State. They are the true totalitarian government.
The Chancellor gloats at Wordsworth as he leaves, only to find the door locked, and Wordsworth being the only one who knows how to open it. Moreover, Wordsworth reveals that the manner of his execution will be by an extremely powerful bomb that will destroy everything in the room (explaining why his books have been left there). The Chancellor asks for help, but Wordsworth points out that the State would be embarrassed if it had to rescue someone from something so foolish as being locked in a room by a condemned man. Wordsworth suggests that the Chancellor accept his fate, and then proceeds to read various Psalms calmly (23, 59, 14, and 130), while the Chancellor is clearly struggling not to panic at the thought of his death while looking at the camera broadcasting the scene. Finally, with a minute left, the Chancellor breaks and says “Let me out, in the name of God, let me out.” Wordsworth responds “Yes, Chancellor, in the name of God, I will let you out,” and hands him the key. Wordsworth then happily dies in the explosion as the Chancellor escapes. The episode ends with the Chancellor now on trial as being obsolete. As he cries out that he is not obsolete, the masses of the State swarm him. Rod Serling closes the episode with the monologue:
“Any state, entity, or ideology becomes obsolete when it stockpiles the wrong weapons: when it captures territories, but not minds; when it enslaves millions, but convinces nobody. When it is naked, yet puts on armor and calls it faith, while in the Eyes of God it has no faith at all. Any state, any entity, any ideology which fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of Man… that state is obsolete. A case to be filed under “M” for “Mankind.”
The last statement, that any state is obsolete which fails to recognize the worth of Man, resembles the sentiment of Immanuel Kant in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” A State cannot act as if people are a disposable resource to sustain itself, it should only act as if the preservation of the people are the end itself. The State that this episode presents does not have a set leader they form behind, only the State itself, which shows itself as truly being the end goal when the Chancellor is executed at the end.
People have criticized the episode sometimes for being overtly pro-religion, but I actually am going to say that you could replace Wordsworth’s Christian beliefs with almost any moral or ethical belief, whether religious or philosophical. The key is that he has something upon which he can rely to deal with the inevitability of death, whereas the members of the State have nothing, because their existence has no meaning beyond sustaining the State itself. Similarly, the fact that the Chancellor refers consistently to the State’s reliance on science to justify its policies are not meant to be a negative on science, it’s only to say that if one puts science ahead of morality or philosophy, then any cold fact can be used to justify an action. Science does not see an inherent worth in an individual over any other, only abstract equalities, highlighted in the episode with the exchange:
“I’m a Human Being.”
“You’re a librarian, Mr. Wordsworth.”
More than that, when you allow the state to control science, then even the nature of fact is now going to be brought into question, because the state controls what research is being done and how. This episode is stating straightforwardly that putting science ahead of all other forms of knowledge can, and has, led to the same dehumanizing effect as religion did to non-believers, only now it can affect anyone outside of the formula set by the State. It’s easy to rely on science as being an absolute truth that overcomes all others; unlike religion or philosophy, science is based on being able to independently and reliably prove a hypothesis. But, science cannot provide moral guidance, and cannot be used to excuse moral failings. Millions of people were saved by the data provided by Nazi and Japanese data following WWII, but saying that the ends of saving those lives excuses the means of obtaining them, vivisection and torture, is something that humanity cannot allow. People are not a means to an end, and we should not divorce ourselves of empathy to the point that we can treat them as such absent urgent necessity. This is true not only in The Twilight Zone, but in the real world, too.
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The Obsolete Man from Ryan Sebo on Vimeo.
5 thoughts on “18) The Obsolete Man (The Twilight Zone)”
Reblogged this on The Joker On The Sofa and commented:
I’m psyched to see what @JordanPeele does with the new Twilight Zone. Hopefully he gives us an update of this classic.